Africa doesn’t care about its women

I have the privilege to fight, argue or board a plane when I feel like I've had enough. The vast majority of women on the continent do not have that option.

Seun Babalola in Portugal. Image used with permission of author.

I remember it well. One afternoon, in an immigration office in Freetown, I applied for my Sierra Leone passport. It was difficult because the officials would not believe that my mother was my mother. The birth certificates and family photos were insufficient, my Yoruba name threw them off—my dad was born and raised in Nigeria—and they thought I was a scammer. I was exhausted from an afternoon of arguing, to say the least.

My mother, small, thin and powerful, was fed up. I’m sure, as she cast her threats, she managed to make the four grown men in the room feel like children. But her presence was only making things worse, so I pushed her out of the room and pleaded with the men.

In my (broken) Krio, I asked, “Sir, wetin na problem? Ah nor sabi.”

He looked at me surprised and stated that we didn’t respect him enough. I calmly asked, “What more respect do you need? We are asking you to be logical.”

As if I had flicked a switch, his demeanor spun 180 degrees. He leapt from his desk and towered over me, screaming in my face. “Do you think this is the States? You can’t just get your way. You are a woman. I am the boss. I have you here in this room, do you know what I could do to you?”

I noticed that the other men were also standing, blocking me in a circle. I pushed them aside and darted to the door but they blocked it. I lunged for the door again they pushed me back. When the door was slightly ajar, I noticed people sitting outside so I banged on available desks, screaming, “Let me out!” After a scuffle, I made it out safely.

That interaction was years ago, but it was not the first nor the last time I was judged or threatened because of my gender. My name is Seun Babalola, I was born in New York, and raised by Sierra Leonean and Nigerian parents. I’m a filmmaker. One of my projects, ṢOJU, is a documentary series made to showcase the beauty and diversity of youth culture on the continent. It’s a platform for us to speak to one another, learn from our differences, and inspire dialogues that explore identity.

After traveling to eight African countries as a one-woman crew, I have met amazing people, people who have opened up their world to me. I’ve navigated these African cities on my own, and while it was mostly positive, the negative experiences are hard to ignore. My experience with the immigration office is a tame example of what our women face on a daily basis. I have the privilege to fight, argue, or board a plane when I feel like I’ve had enough. The vast majority of women on the continent do not have that option.

I have a connection to Sierra Leone. It’s where my mother was born, it’s the culture that raised me and it’s one of the countries where I first filmed ṢOJU. While rich in culture and natural resources, it has had its battles with colonialism, civil war, and disease. Its beaches can rival any Greek island, and its mountains and terrain take your breath away. Morning rush hour in Freetown is a strange one. No one is in too much of a hurry but everyone is doing something, with enough time in between to gist and say hello. As the sun sets, the city is cast in orange and the bustle of the day fades to a hum of keke motors and Afrobeats from homes scattered around town.

Image via ṢOJU Facebook with permission from author.

My sister, Massah KaiKai, has lived in Sierra Leone for the past four years. She moved to Freetown in order to provide opportunities for local women in the textile industry, launching projects like a successful collaboration with American Apparel. The t-shirt line, made of traditional Sierra Leone tie-dye, sold out. Fifty percent of the proceeds went to the women who created the designs.

In 2018, Massah was recommended for appointment as Executive Chair of the Small and Medium Enterprise Development Agency (SMEDA) under current President Julius Maada Bio. Before she could start the position this September, she disappeared. Massah has been missing since August 7, 2018.

The search for my sister has placed me face-to-face with misogyny. When speaking to local police, many began their questioning with, “How is she successful?” “Was she dating married men?”

After another day of being dismissed by the local police department, our mother told me, “I am not respected and my concerns are not addressed because I am not a man.” The police neglected to pursue leads (to avoid taking orders from a woman) and mocked her when she demanded due process. The officers jokingly posed the question, “What’s so special about your child?”

The disappearance gained the attention of First Lady, Fatima Bio, who informed the President and Vice-President Mohamed Juldeh Jalloh via telephone. A decision was made to “take action.” That was on October 19, 2018. Since then, all correspondence has fallen silent. Massah is still missing.

When it comes to our continent, we lack variety in how Africa is presented in the media. It’s either one-note or a negative perspective. In a rush to provide an alternative, it’s easy to leave Africa’s reality on the sidelines. The reality is, we have beauty and we have struggle. This reality takes time to explain and includes a nuanced understanding of history and culture. We have to take the time to understand, and be honest about what we learn. In the media and in our everyday lives, representation is important, but truth and balance are crucial.

I would be remiss as an African woman and a filmmaker with a voice to not share these experiences. It is not only in Sierra Leone, and it is not only me, my mother, or Massah who are affected. From the Market March in Nigeria, to gender inequality in Kenya, there is ample evidence continent-wide that this a societal problem. Ignoring it points to a lack of respect and empathy. It needs a lack of fear to consistently call it out, and an abundance of perseverance to fix it.

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