"No, she didn't?!!!" her friend replied incredulously, shifting the enormous basket of weaves they were buying from hip to the other. It was the last Saturday of the month and I'd made the mistake of choosing the day after pay day to go food shopping. After 20 minutes in the queue, I was nearing the front finally, and was now listening to the young women behind me for entertainment.
"It's sooooo disrespectful, nee?! And worse still... he didn't even pay anything to the family."
"Nothing at all."
"He didn't pay anything?!!!"
"He paid not a thing."
"He gave you nothing?!!"
"My sister says she will not be sold. She says it's like we want to sell her or something."
"But lobola is our culture, it's our tradition, it's not selling a woman."
"I know. But she says she wants it like that, and that's how it was."
"I know [dramatic pause] She is not our family any more."
The issue of lobola - we might call it a dowry, except that here in Namibia the future husband pays it to the bride's family - came up often during the week of training at Childline in Windhoek. It was a heated issue, and Eveline and I had watched wide-eyed as the other participants debated furiously over the moral and cultural rights and traditions associated with lobola, in particular in relation to women. Some said that paying lobola meant that women should work for the man and be subservient - that women's rights were, in fact, imposed by the West and not actually wanted by Namibians. Some replied that lobola was meant as a sign of respect and gratitude towards the bride's family, and that if women gain their rights, then it doesn't mean losing culture too - just swapping some harmful cultural practices for good cultural practices. Eveline and I didn't contribute much to this discussion as we felt the precariousness of our position, but appreciated the insight into the complexities of the country we would be working in.
We had then watched a video from South Africa, about a woman called Mtlakala, who was in an abusive relationship. Eventually, the abuse became so bad that their priest and parents were called in to mediate. The abusive husband said that Mtlakala was cheeky and that since loboloa had been paid, she must do his bidding. The priest, however, said that in his time lobola was meant as a way to bind families together, and not to create an excuse to beat women - and that, in fact, in his culture, a man who beat a woman was a coward. The husband was duly chastised and made to apologise. After the video ended, there was a pause for contemplation. Those in the room said they had been very moved by the story and that, actually, the idea of 'culture' was often misused to excuse bad behaviour towards women - that somehow, the instant someone says 'it's my culture', then you can no longer pose questions - which is a position often abused by those who want to subjugate women. The effect of the video was of relief and a lightening of the atmosphere - culture and women's rights can co-exist side by side, even promote each other.
Having finished the training at Childline, I was very impressed by the issues raised and the quality of the work and the exercises done. I know I can take a lot of this learning back to the UK to contribute to the work we are doing there. And I'm really looking forward to seeing how best to use it over the next year here. I begin work again at the shelter tomorrow and until then, Alex and I are enjoying walking along the street enjoying stunning sunsets and jogging each morning to breath-taking sunrises.