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Vavagaa: A Feminist Storytelling Platform Seeking to Disrupt Tired Narratives

“Women telling their own stories is also a means to balance the telling of their life and the history they take part in making.”

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Dar es Salaam. Vavagaa is  a Swahili word that translates into English as  pervade, which the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary translates as “something to spread through and be easy to notice in every part of something.” Its most relevant synonym is permeate.

Armed with years of experience working in Tanzania’s feminist space, these women, which included Demere Kitunga, one of the country’s respected feminist activists and writers, rightly concluded that if efforts to dismantle patriarchy were to succeed, alternative ideas must be created, shared, and articulated everywhere.

Feminists, who want to organise society based on the equality of sexes, consider patriarchy, which promotes the dominance of the male sex, as the biggest obstacle towards the welfare and freedom of women and men who do not meet the patriarchal masculinity standards. Thus, it must be dismantled.

“From the start, we have had the ambition to make it about listening, hearing, understanding, or appreciating, offering an alternative perspective,” Kitunga, who leads a Feminist Storytelling Organization, Readership for Learning and Development, and literacy space, Soma Book Café, opened up recently during an interview with The Chanzo.

“In short, [we targeted] curating conversations where there is open contestation based on different experiences of privilege and vulnerabilities; while posing questions for participants to find common ground and rationale for social gender transformation,” she added.

Based in Mikocheni, Dar es Salaam,  Readership for Learning and Development, popularly known as Soma, organises around literacy issues, and it is under its auspices that Vavagaa implements its mission: dismantling patriarchy and intersecting forms of oppression.

Demere Kitunga, who leads a Feminist Storytelling Organization, Readership for Learning and Development, and literacy space, Soma Book Café, speaks during a Vavagaa reflection dinner on May 26, 2023, in Dar es Salaam. PHOTO | KIRATI JOSEPH.

Leveraging technologies

Sticking to its literary meaning, Vavagaa organises at two different levels: online and offline. Its online organising efforts leverage the available digital technologies to ensure it covers as many people as possible in its programs. For example, it runs a weekly session on the social audio app Clubhouse, attracting participants from diverse backgrounds.

Topics discussed range from child rights, women’s bodily autonomy, and parenting to marriage, spirituality, reproductive health rights, and sexual abuse, to name but a few. The discussions are open to everyone, regardless of sex or worldview.

Even people critical of feminism actively participate in these discussions, which in most cases, tend to be passionate, heavily contested,   open, and occur in a very non-hierarchical fashion. Mary Ndaro, co-creator and co-host of the platform with Demere, told The Chanzo that this was the original idea.

“We made a deliberate decision that our platform will be inclusive, attracting diverse views even those opposed to feminist ideals; we wanted to diversify the conversation beyond ‘preaching to the converted,’” Ndaro, a feminist and gender and development consultant, explained. 

“We want to moderate conversations among women and men and create a safe space for them to engage in uncomfortable subjects often suppressed or regarded as taboo,” she added.

READ MORE: Superwoman: A Patriarchal Safe Landing Concept

This, in turn, according to Ndaro, informs the Vavagaa team’s approaches and tactics in its broader mission of challenging the status quo. 

Mary Ndaro, co-creator and co-host of the Vavagaa platform, speaks during a Vavagaa reflection dinner on May 26, 2023, in Dar es Salaam. PHOTO | KIRATI JOSEPH.

Ndaro further explains that politics informing its moderation is transformative feminism which considers the intersectionality of oppressive systems and transforming language, systems, social structures and forms of organising to achieve equality for all.

Clubhouse was preceded by other digital initiatives such as Zoom, and YouTube talk shows with feminists and non-feminists nationwide. So far, Clubhouse remains Vavagaa’s most popular online platform with the most avenue for contestation.

Grassroots grounding

Considering the digital divide,  organising online discourse is insufficient to ground the conversations and bring grassroots voices and everyday experiences on board. Therefore, the Vavagaa team canvasses the streets and neighbourhoods, allowing it to collect women’s and men’s raw experiences with patriarchy.

Vavagaa Mtaani allows the platform to meet and interact with people in their environment, where they tend to be more open to sharing their experiences.

In an interview with The Chanzo, Kitunga explained that they intentionally decided to ground their conversation in the everyday experiences of people at the community level and to bridge the digital divide.

“[Vavagaa] Mtaani focuses on women’s and men’s raw experiences with patriarchy,” she noted. “Vavagaa Mtaani works with silenced groups and issues such as sex workers, bodily integrity, the intersection between bodily integrity, sexuality, and women with disabilities.”

READ MORE: Political Parties Criticized For Making No Deliberate Efforts to Ensure Gender Inclusion

At the community level, the Vavagaa team targets young women and men to bring to light uncomfortable discussions that impact their everyday lives in economic, social, and political spheres.

During its online and offline organising, Vavagaa mobilises large audiences intending to generate interest and participation among diverse groups of women’s rights activists at national and grassroots levels to become news producers and users.

Following months of work and organising, the Vavagaa team invited its collaborators and co-creators for a reflection dinner, which took place on May 26, 2023, at Soma Book Cafe headquarters in Mikocheni. Several people attended, including representatives from NGOs, the creative industry, intellectuals, development partners,  and the media.

Representatives from NGOs, the creative industry, intellectuals, development partners, and the media during a Vavagaa reflection dinner on May 26, 2023, in Dar es Salaam. PHOTO | KIRATI JOSEPH.

Most of those who attended have been regular participants in Vavagaa’s Clubhouse sessions, with some having been key speakers in debates and discussions organised by the Vavagaa team on the platform.

Amidst chit-chatting and barbequing, participants heard from Vavagaa organisers on the plans before they could share their suggestions on improvement to enhance the platforms’ content, approach, and reach

Problematising violence

Rose Marandu, the Executive Director of the Women Fund Tanzania Trust (WFT-T), a feminist grant-making organisation targeting funding for the women’s movements in the country, highlighted the significance of the work done by Vavagaa, especially through “problematising violence.”

Rose Marandu, the Executive Director of the Women Fund Tanzania Trust (WFT-T), speaks during a Vavagaa reflection dinner on May 26, 2023, in Dar es Salaam. PHOTO | KIRATI JOSEPH.

“Failure to problematise violence leads to failure to understand it and organise against it,” Marandu said of the daily violence men and women face in their communities. “Debates like who owns a woman’s body [that Vavagaa organised] help challenge what is considered normal by interrogating the status quo.”

READ MORE: A Silent Impasse Blocks Tanzania’s Amendment of the Law of Marriage

Other suggestions presented during the occasion included expanding the scope of digital tools used for organising purposes, with some suggesting that other social media tools like Facebook and Instagram be incorporated. Some suggested the use of art as another avenue for organising.

In her closing remarks at the occasion, Kitunga said women telling their own stories is also a means to balance the telling of their life and the history they take part in making, but which has thus far been predominantly told from the perspective of external gazers and mostly men.

“In this platform, we seek to engage as African feminists in telling our personal stories of agency in ways that problematise organising, power dynamics, feminist solidarity, self-care, nurturing, and wellness in our praxis as individual feminists and spaces we occupy, create and share,” she said.

Lukelo Francis is The Chanzo’s journalist from Dar es Salaam. He is available at lukelo@thechanzo.com.

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