Women and men alike face unwanted attention wherever they go. However, the problem of harassment, particularly sexual harassment, has always been more of an issue for women, and ever since puberty it’s been a reality for me. The first time I can remember being really harassed I was 13-years-old and I was walking home from having my hair braided in Harlem, New York. I was about to cross to the street when a man in a shiny yellow car uttered something at me, leaning out of the window of his car. 13-year-old me of course couldn’t hear him, so I stepped closer. He uttered it again, still I couldn’t hear. One more step closer and I was nearly close enough touch the car. “What did you say sir?” I asked.
“You’re gorgeous,” he said looking me up and down, “How old are you?” I leaned back and told him, and that car screeched away so fast all I could see was a shiny yellow blur tearing down 125th street.
Growing up in New York City, I learned how to deal with what was, for me, a daily occurrence. Despite this every day annoyance, it was mostly just that, an annoyance, with the occasional aggravated offense. But in a city where I know the streets, the culture, and the heartbeat, rarely if ever did I feel unsafe when dealing with this attention. Burkina Faso, however, is another animal.
If you have every traveled in a foreign country, you have probably encountered this dilemma: is the stranger that is approaching me now showing genuine kindness or is there some ulterior motive lurking behind that smile? For women, this dilemma has an added dimension, because misjudging a social interaction can turn from bad to ugly quickly and end up compromising our safety. For me, as a Peace Corps Volunteer and a woman, there is yet another layer added because my job here is to integrate and to talk to people within the community. That is why, when I am alone and approached by a man, I find myself facing an even bigger conundrum: What are this man’s intentions in talking to me? To get to know me as a volunteer who is here to help the community? To get to know me as an American and exchange our cultures? To get to know me as a woman to peruse romantically?
The first two are Peace Corps A+’s. Yes! Exchange your culture! Tell him about your work! Talk to him about what he thinks his needs for the community are! The last one, depending on your own intentions and desires, is the perfect opportunity to tell him about your gun toting American fiancée (the jealous type), who will indeed be visiting you any day now here in Solenzo. Where’s the ring, he asks? Well, it’s far too expensive and heavy to wear in everyday life.
Your potential suitor may counter this move with yes, but he’s far away, in America, you need someone here, to which you will respond by touting the benefits of fidelity and telling him about all the long walks on the beach you’ve had with this fiancée and how in love you are and how he will, really, be visiting any day. If this doesn’t work (and it won’t), you start talking about nuns. That shuts them up pretty quickly.
As you can see by my tone, many times Burkinabe men are not forcibly serious when they approach you. One of the best techniques is to make a joke out of their advance and keep everyone laughing, at which point you appear neither rude nor stand-offish. But there are times, though luckily, they are not plentiful, when you are not in the mood, and it is not a joke. When the two men that follow you home on their motorcycles are stopped only by the gates of the nunnery you work at, and when the bored military officers won’t leave you alone or stop telling you how en forme you are. Harassment in the Peace Corps is sort of like shooting at a brick wall. The wall is the mental barricade you’ve built to hold everything together while you are trying to adjust to a new culture, new language, new food, new climate, and new job, and that wall is getting pelted with bullets every time someone harasses you, even if it’s harmless. That wall will hold, for a time, but there may come a time when it will crack and incapacitate you.
This happened to me last month. I was feeling particularly vulnerable, perhaps because of the heat or the impending departure of the girls from the center, and I had a few too many instances of men making me feel uncomfortable. Normally, my reaction is to shrug it off, but for whatever reason I couldn’t this time. I ended up drawing back significantly, spending more time in my house, reaching out to people less, and ignoring everyone that called out to me when I was walking around town. It was a terrible feeling, isolating myself like that. It took me a good 12 to 14 days to patch my wall up and get it ready to hold me together again, and I still grew enflamed at every instance of harassment I even bore witness to. At one point, I saw a group of boys jeering at one of the girls from the Center during a dance performance, and I nearly lost it.
Burkina Faso is home to some of the kindest and most welcoming people in the world. Get off a bush taxi in a new city and introduce yourself to a random family and you will find yourself invited to stay the night. But as a New Yorker, I have been primed not to trust everyone that comes my way, and it has been a struggle for me to find a balance between being smart about who I interact with and accepting genuine kindness when it is offered. For every man that has made me feel uncomfortable in this country, there are 10 more that have made me feel welcome, taken care of me, fed me, taught me, and taken valuable time out of their days to talk to me. But as they say, one bad apple can spoil the batch.
In a place like Burkina Faso, where people are still fighting for basic rights and to put food on the table, many disenfranchised groups do not have the opportunity to focus exclusively on social progress. The status of women in Burkina Faso is, in many ways, far behind that of women in the United States, and women are still considered subservient to men. That is why, when I am walking home and three men drinking dolo summon me to them because they want whatever it is they want, I am expected to stop what I am doing and go to them. But women in Burkina Faso also have an incredible amount of social power that is softer and more organic. My Burkinabe mothers and sisters and aunties are always there to prop me up when I’m feeling under, and the more time I spend with the more I understand how to deal with this unwanted attention.