Stories from Karagwe: WOMEDA

by Amizade Global Service-Learning

This blog entry is part of an ongoing series from Amizade’s semester Service-Learning course in Tanzania. Today’s entry comes from Lane Kurkjian a junior civil engineering major from Carnegie Mellon University.

This story begins with a woman sitting on a long, plain, wooden bench in an ordinary room in Kayanga town. The room was once painted a yellow-tan color but has since been decorated in scuffs, scratches, and dirt. The paint is rubbed off in places, and the ceiling is home to handfuls of wasps, migrating from their main colony to smaller ones nearby. The woman sits with her feet firmly on the concrete floor, her back to a wooden door latched with a silver and gold padlock. She, like many women from across the Karagwe District of North-Western Tanzania, has travelled from her home and family to sit in this room. The room is plain, unremarkable. But it is in this room that women are heard. This room, at WOMEDA, is where she has come to share her story and to get help.
WOMEDA, Women Emancipation and Development Agency, is a non-profit organization dedicated to assisting and supporting women with regards to legal rights and gender equality in the community. The woman of our story sits in the WOMEDA office, facing the social counselor who is tucked in behind her desk. The desk is by far the liveliest object in the room. It is a rich brown wooden desk overflowing with papers, folders, and notebooks, some of which spill onto the floor. The keyboard is pushed to the side, and the computer is covered by stacks and files. By its posture, it is clear that it is the least important of the desk’s occupants. The counselor shifts some of these piles to reveal a phone, keys, a stapler, 3 boxes of staples, and the WOMEDA official stamp with purple ink. Once she is prepared with pen and paper to document the session, the woman on the bench shifts forward, elbows on her knees, and begins her story with a name, age, marital status, number of kids. As she exhales and allows herself to open up to another woman, her story develops and brings to life struggles, hardships, and inequalities as well as beauty, strength, and passion. The burden of these truths overwhelm her and she glances away, towards the single window in the room, covered by pink and orange curtains patterned with flowers and bamboo. She takes another breath to steady herself, but her tears betray her. “Don’t cry. How can they take you seriously if you are cying?” the social worker gently insists before they work their way towards determining the best action plan for this particular client. Maybe she is given a letter to summon her husband into the office or a referral to the tribunal in her ward. Either way, a plan is set in action to change the woman’s circumstance. It might be a long road, but at WOMEDA she has finally been given a voice. With that voice, and through sharing her story, she has been given hope for progress.

At WOMEDA, telling one’s own story is essential to addressing the problem at hand, whether that is a marital, family, land rights, or legal case. The exchange of stories as a means of learning about and understanding our new community is also a recurring theme in my personal growth and in our group of Amizade students. As a temporary member of the WOMEDA community, I am privileged with the opportunity to sit and listen to counseling sessions, meet women from around the district, and hear their stories. I chose to share the story of WOMEDA—an organization that gives thousands of women a voice—with you in hopes of encouraging a ripple effect of awareness that simply begins with a compelling story but has the power to initiate and support progress and change.