Patriarchy in My First Language – Mfumo dume

Posted by on Nov 16, 2020
Photo courtsey of Pamela Shao

As a development specialist, I have come across many forms of Patriarchy. In Kiswahili, the word Patriarchy means “mfumo dume ” or male system. In the Southern Highlands of Tanzania where I now live and work, mfumo dume means much more than the ‘rule of men over women’. It is even more than the web of economic, political, social and religious regulations that enforces the domination of women by men. Instead, these two words “mfumo dume” describe a grand web of oppressive forces that serve the function of suggesting that male domination is not only the “way of life” but also “legitimate” in the name of culture, traditions and taboos. As such these words have invoked a deep desire in me to identify the origins of this web that has bound women and girls in these communities throughout history.

In March of this year, the Imago Dei Fund’s The Girl Child & Her Long Walk to Freedom project invited me to participate and provide feedback on an animated explainer video on patriarchy that was being created. As I watched the video for the first time, I began to reflect on the story. Yes, this is a video about patriarchy in general but to me it was a story about mfumo dume! As I continued to watch and review, that deep desire to question this centuries-old web began to burn once again. Why is mfume dume okay? And why does it continue to persist in our contemporary society? Mfume dume is my reality, but must it be the reality of my two daughters and three sons as well? When will the narrative change? When will our girls be able to go out and play in safety, explore, and push their boundaries? When will that be my reality? In the video (please watch if you haven’t yet!), the main character, the Girl Child, meets a Mentor character who validates and encourages her curiosity to question the norms of patriarchy that have been encoded in her culture and also her religion. As I watched the Girl Child questioning the Mentor, it brought me into my own childhood questions which were not encouraged when I was young but have been a driving force in much of my work. 

Just as the Girl Child was questioning the Mentor, I too decided it’s high time that I start questioning things again… And encourage girls in my life (and boys too) to do the same!

Like many other Sub-Saharan  African countries, women in Tanzania are still considered inferior to men. Gender inequality is accepted and protected in the folds of culture and traditions – “the Tanzania” way of life. Everywhere I go, the picture is the same: women vigorously pounding maize in what is comparable to an enormous mortar and pestle; women hawking wares and food with babies tied on their backs; young girls running from school in a hurry to get home to help Mama prepare the meal because it’s their duty to do so. But the narrative doesn’t end there. There is a domino effect to mfumo dume that unravels right in front of my eyes especially when I review health realities that fall hard on girls.

According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Tanzania has the 17th highest adolescent birth/fertility rate (the number of births per 1,000 girls) for girls aged 15-19 in Africa. By 2016, one in four adolescents aged 15-19 had begun childbearing. When a girl becomes pregnant, her life can change radically. Her education ends and her job prospects diminish. She becomes more vulnerable to poverty and social exclusion and her health often suffers. Teenage pregnancy, therefore, results in a cohort of vulnerable young girls with little education and limited economic opportunities to support themselves and contribute to the development of the country. This harms not only individual girls and women, but also their families, communities and countries. 

In addition, in the Southern Highlands, adolescent girls aged 15-19 have an HIV prevalence rate two times higher than boys of the same age. Girls must navigate the heavy burdens of teenage pregnancies, sexual and gender based violence (GBV), social stigma, forced marriage, and many psychological struggles including depression and anxiety. And cultural taboos persist which do not allow young girls to discuss sexual and reproductive health freely with their parents. Good girls are not supposed to talk about sex. These are major factors contributing to an environment where adolescent girls are at significant risk for new HIV infection.

So, what’s mfumo dume got to do with it?

In August, the Girl Child explainer video was launched. Fueled by a desire to ask this question, I showed the video to a group of teenage mothers that I am mentoring at a Psychosocial Support program in Mbeya which targets adolescent girls living with HIV (at the Baylor College of Medicine Children’s Foundation supported by USAID, the Abbot Fund, and the Texas Children Hospital). Their stories are the same: they all dropped out of school at the age of 15-17 due to sexual predation by older men, lack of fees and living in the Mbeya  where, according to the Tanzania Health and Demographic survey (TDHIS), the teenage pregnancy prevalence rate is really high – 34 percent – and contraceptive use is low; peer pressure escalated by poverty. Before long they got pregnant and thus a perfect audience for the explainer video.

Photo courtsey of Pamela Shao

To start with, the girls started laughing. When I asked why, they said the video is a perfect narration of how they were brought up. As I continued to translate, Subilaga interrupted me. She said no one had ever explained the history of her life before. She always thought that was just the “way of life” as this is what she sees all around her. Mfumo dume is so engrained into the lives of these girls that they consider that it’s their fate not to have a good and healthy life where they get to choose and make decisions for themselves. 

I asked Subilaga if she remembers when the world first told her who she should be. She was 12 years old when her maternal uncle, who she was living with at the time, told her that it is forbidden for his son to do any household chores. Those were her duties. His son has only one duty and that is to study. As we continued with our discussions, another girl, Rehema joined in and said she too vividly recalls when grandmother told her what her place was in the world—a girls’ place is in the kitchen and her role is to learn to make a home for her future husband. And if she should have children, then it’s her duty to take care of them. She was only 13 years old. She then asked me what is this word “patriarchy” I am hearing so often in the video? I explained and translated and told her it is Mfumo dume. She then said longingly “if only all of the words in the video were in Kiswahili”.

I asked why do you think the video should be in Kiswahili? She said the story of the Girl Child is not only very similar to hers, but she is seeing her 9-year-old sister living it as well. Her parents, relatives, teachers, even the village elders think this is okay and the way things just are. If no one is able to speak to them, then her sister’s fate will be the same as hers. If only the Girl Child spoke in Kiswahili for her parents to hear… her pastor to hear… her teachers and village leaders to hear.

This simple request spoke not only to the global systemic problem of patriarchy, but also pointed to the essential need for programs in the Global South to be designed in the original language of the communities they serve. English may be one of the official languages in Tanzania, but communities will not “hear” themselves in the Girl child if she doesn’t speak in the national language, Kiswahili and sound like a Tanzanian girl. This gut-wrenching request to break the cycle of oppression vividly highlighted the need for a local narrative that spoke to people’s hearts and minds and touched on the “decolonization” process that many discuss in the context of international development. 

Photo courtesy of Pamela Shao

We learn so much when we really listen. I listened to her. I heard the truth of her reality.

I shared this story with Imago Dei’s Girl Child Project as they sought my input through their outreach efforts. Thanks to their commitment to community-led initiatives, they in turn “heard me” and embraced my vision as we formed a partnership.

The Girl Child now speaks the language of our people and sounds like us in a new Kiswahili video. IDF’s Girl Child Long Walk project and I will now address patriarchy as it’s called in Kiswahili—mfumo dume. Together we will invite young girls, their families, local faith leaders and communities to rethink and rebuild their systems and societies along more equitable principles as they embark on a journey that starts with asking


Photo courtsey of Pamela Shao

“Girl Child, your curiosity has set you on a path that many have walked before you. Because of their work, we know the way forward. But there’s a lot more to do. More truths to discover. Are you ready to take this journey with me?”

Another world is on her way…

Alternate translations may be found here.