The Experience of a Queer Foreign Teacher in East Africa

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Tanya M

A raging liberal who challenges all ideas and destroys boxes and expectations.

I vividly remember treading up a steep hill through mud up to my ankles, smelling the crisp air after the fresh-fallen rain, on my way to run my English club. I was an English Language Improvement Adviser for Peace Corps Ethiopia and I was responsible for making student-centered curriculum in my assigned primary school. In order to reach more teachers and students, I worked at two other schools in my district, running English clubs for students and trainings for teachers. I worked with the administration to change the curriculum to make it suitable for student-centered instruction. However, every day I had to defend my knowledge and credentials. Every day I was reminded how the sex assigned to me at birth was my destiny.

While other volunteers ran girls-only clubs and girl empowerment camps and programs, I rejected that framework altogether and promoted absolute equality in the classroom. I chose my students based on their grades and English levels and maintained an equal enrollment of boys and girls.

When one of my 5th grade girls had not shown up for two weeks in a row, I approached the principal of the school. He contacted the parents on my behalf and informed me that the student could not continue coming because her parents required her to do housework every day immediately after school. Such an answer was all too common for girls missing school, but I refused to accept it. Through the principal and one of the head teachers we were able to negotiate with the parents and allow the girl to come for 50% of the English club sessions. For the days she missed, I gave her extra reading material and exercises she could do at home. Every time she came back she was as enthusiastic to answer questions and motivate her teammates to participate as the first day she entered my classroom.

Even thought I identify as queer and my appearance has both feminine and masculine elements, I was treated, always, as a woman. After school, I was often accompanied by other teachers when walking home. Every time I walked alone I was verbally and sometimes physically harassed by whoever passed me on the street. Sexual slurs would be yelled at me in both the local language and in English. Men would pull me by the waist, grab my butt, and reach out to touch my hair. As a woman, I was not allowed to be out after dark. The one time I was out as the sun was setting, one of the school administrators sent a search party for me and would not stop calling, asking how far I was from the house. At every social gathering one of the first questions I was asked was why I was not married. Being treated as a woman felt like I was only allowed to express half of my identity.

Despite being extremely aware of the completely different experience I was having than the male volunteers, I chose not to include the topic of gender in my classroom. I was not in Ethiopia to point out the gender inequality and to criticize. Such actions would do nothing to change the reality. Instead I focused on promoting a friendly space where all children could showcase their talents and abilities. We did not read stories about women who changed the course of history; instead, I urged students to recall the stories that they held dear to heart, retell them, write them down, and illustrate them. We didn’t speak about what girls had to do at home after school, but both my male and female students outlined their plans for the future and we discussed strategies to reach them.

When Peace Corps asked me how many gender-empowerment programs I ran, I unapologetically put zero because I rejected the notion that women needed to be empowered, because it somehow implied that they need to be more confident, more forward, and more assertive in order to be seen as capable. They have always been capable and forcing them to prove it is complying with the male-dominated framework already in place. No gender equality can be achieved in the world where the concept of power is synonymous with ability. The power struggle will continue between genders until we learn to recognize the value of human beings for who they are instead of how they present themselves or how much influence they exert. The feminist struggle is not just about being seen as equal to men because that forces women into a framework that was created by men. Feminism is about breaking the cycle of patriarchy and appreciating all human traits, independent of their association with either gender.

Before school I would go running and my male students joined me. I told them they were fast. When I was walking home from school and saw girls as young as 6 carrying 5 gallons of water on their backs, I told them they were strong. I knew that each and every one of them had a dream, but it was up to me and other adults to change the world where both boys and girls had an equal opportunity to achieve it.

Through not portraying gender as an issue that needed to be discussed but instead promoting practices that include both genders, I was able to create a model environment of mutual respect in my classroom. I encouraged both shy boys and girls to raise their hands to answer questions. I allowed students to sit where they wanted, but for group work I mixed up the tables to include both boys and girls. For class games, I never put boys against the girls. As the year went on I noticed more students of both genders speak up in class and form gender-inclusive groups on their own. No longer did someone raise their hand to ask if their team could be all boys.

Even though every time every time I went outside I was denied my queer identity and treated as a woman, I wanted my students to experience a different reality, so we created an environment where someone’s assigned sex as birth had no power of holding them back.


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