Dignity and Entrepreneurship: My lessons from a Dar es Salaam Kitchen Party

By Acumen on February 04, 2011

Tula and I arrived early to the party

As a Canadian, I had always known December to the month of coldness and white. It is not so in Dar es Salaam.  The streets are as vibrant as ever; the heat embraces you at every turn.  It was on one of these beautiful December days that I was invited to a kitchen party with my dear friend Tula.  The kitchen party, in Tanzanian society, is akin to the North American “bridal shower,” but it is infused with much more cultural meaning and purpose.  The party itself is an elaborate ceremony that lasts several hours, every detail carefully considered, every movement meticulously planned.

Waiting for Patricia...

We arrived with the other guests two hours before the bride-to-be made her entrance.  When she did, I was struck by not only how beautiful she was, but also by the grace and dignity with which she carried herself. Although she was hailed by a shower of camera flashes, her smile never faltered.

The kitchen party, from this point onwards, consisted of formal presentations, pictures, and dancing.  Through it all, Patricia was shown the warmth, love, and support of this body of women.  Many times, she slowly danced over to her mother to greet her.  With each new stage of the party she would go to her, before being released to continue the next part of the ceremony.  Each embrace symbolized what was necessary for the next stage of her journey: the connectedness of women and family, and the independence and strength that this bestows.  The power of this connectedness even overflowed in my direction.  Illustrating this is the fact that, even though the whole ceremony was spoken in Kiswahili, the parts which Tula could not translate did not feel unknown to me.

After nearly two hours of anticipation, the bride arrives!

The passing on of wisdom from the older to younger generations was perhaps the most striking aspect of the party. At one point, Patrica sat down on the stage at a beautiful table while five different women discussed the essential aspects of being a married woman in Tanzanian society.  The first talked about cleanliness and beauty; the second, the art of discipline in a marriage.  The third mentor declared the importance of discipline vis-à-vis work, while the fourth espoused the virtues of being a powerful, praying wife and mother.  Although each of these topics was moving in its own right, it was the fifth that reminded me of why I am in Dar es Salaam, and why I am proud to be part of the Acumen Fund team.  While being a supportive wife was essential, the fifth teacher explained, a woman must take up entrepreneurship in order to never lose her dignity and independence.

Historically, women living in Tanzania relied upon the informal education passed down between women at gatherings such as these.  They understood that, in order to create opportunities for themselves, they needed to engage in entrepreneurship to make their lives better.  Before I came to Dar es Salaam, I had assumed capitalism and entrepreneurship were foreign impositions: systems that were neither accepted nor wanted.  Yet I realised that entrepreneurship was not only accepted among the Tanzanian women, but indeed, was viewed as the vehicle by which a woman can maintain her independene and self-respect.  I realized that although the approach to fighting poverty is multifaceted, it is necessary for each strategy to resonate with cultural values.  That way, we build partnerships, not paternalism, and foster dignity, rather than dependence.

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