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20 Questions with Tanzania's Sandra Mushi

Occupation: Interior Architect, Poet and Writer

Nationality: Tanzanian

1. Why Did You Pick The Career Path That You Did?

I did not actually choose my career. It chose me. My career path was chosen so to speak based on what I love and what I am passionate about. I did not have a specific career destination then. All I knew was that I was and always will be drawn deeply into the world of arts. And my parents played a huge role in nurturing and cultivating my love for the arts. My dad travelled across the globe quite a lot because of his job and he always came back with stories. Such a brilliant story teller my dad has always been, such that his stories drew me right in. He was never an arts and culture connoisseur, but he knew enough about it to appreciate it. And while my dad was busy globe-trotting and coming back with amazing stories, my mom was doing her degree. I was quite a handful, so she says, and to keep me off her hair while she studied she had to keep me busy. So she would get papers and coloured pencils. I would finish the papers instantly, so she opted for empty cereal boxes. And on weekends when all was not as busy, my dad who has always appreciated arts and culture would take my kid brother and I to museums, galleries and theaters. Or he would drive us around as we admired buildings while he would tell us stories behind the architecture with some percentage of the story being exaggerated. With this, I fell in love with the world of creativity and the arts and then the authenticity of the art form sucked me in right in. So designing, writing and soon painting just landed on my lap really. Arts, creativity make me feel alive like nothing else I have ever done. It really has become a calling rather than a choice. Creating something – whether a painting, a space layout or a story, is such an exhilarating feeling. With each new project, I give birth. I have no other option. I didn’t choose this, it chose me.

2. What should every woman try at least once in her life?

Take yourself on a date or travel alone … meet you, get to know you, listen to you, reflect on you, spend time with you, just enjoy being with you and have fun.

3. What is on your bookshelf?

In my lounge I have mostly African literature, from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to Zukiswa Wanner, NoViolet Bulawayo to Kopano Matlwa, Aminatta Forna to Ekow Eshun, A. Igoni Barrett to Niq Mhlongo, Wole Soyinka to Ken Saro-Wiwa, Moses  Isegawa to Ben Okri, M. G Vassanji to Chinua Achebe, Benjamin Zephaniah to Uwem Akpan, Beverly Naidoo to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Khaled Hosseini to Brian Chikwava, Mariatu Kamara to Irene Sabatinu, Nadine Gordimer to Helen Oyeyemi, Siphiwe Mahala to Eric Miyeni, Redi Tlhabi to Petina Gappah, Doreen Baingana to Ellen Banda-Aaku, Elieshi Lema to yours truly Sandra Aikaruwa Mushi and more. While in my studio I have swatches, samples, catalogues, old interior design magazines and architecture as well as interior architecture reference books. And in my bedroom, I have religious books, from bibles to devotionals.

4. What items in your closet do you wear the most?

My sandals … my beaded Maasai sandals, my Ghanaian sandals and my Kenyan leather sandals. And my chunky silver jewellery. These you will never see me without. They have become me. I love home grown so much that whenever I can I always wear our own. We have such beautiful things and they are so rich in character and soul.

5. What is one thing people would be surprised to know about you?

I really DO ONLY wear black. No other colours, whatsoever. I have been wearing ONLY black since 1996-97.

6. What is one thing you wish you knew when you were younger?

I wish I had been able to recognize when people or situations weren’t good for me and get out right away.

7. What is your beauty secret?

I don’t think I have any. To start with I am too forgetful to do facials, so I just wash my face with Himalaya products and use Bobbi Brown beauty products. If there is more, I owe it to God’s beauty tips – I try to speak words of kindness, I try to look for the good in others, I try to let go of stress, doubt and anger, I try to listen and be guided by His Word. It is not as easy but I try. And I smile. A lot.

8. What’s the biggest personal change you’ve ever made?

I can be quite selfish. I love my space so much that I sometimes shut out people. I love myself so much that a weekend in which I have no plans, no responsibilities, and nowhere at all to be, ranks as one of the best weekends I’ll ever have. I love my space so much that sometimes friends will try to make plans with me and I will have no reason to decline except for the fact that I just want to be alone that day. I love myself so much that a good book can keep my attention far longer than any party or pub could. Re-examining myself, acknowledging that this could be a selfish trait and asking God to help me and later actually letting people in my space I think has been the biggest thing in terms of change that I have ever had to do. Letting go of my space and sharing it is a huge deal to me.

9. What motivates you to improve yourself?

I am driven by passion. Passion motivates me.

10. What are some struggles you faced in your life that came about because of your gender?

I think I should be seeing a lot but there are some things that I have chosen to wear blinders on. Or when I see them, I would write about it, breathe out and let go. Having said this I think the biggest would be the mentality of many that women just

do not deserve! A woman can not own a house or a car without someone out there thinking that you have an in-kind godfather somewhere. A woman can not win a tender fairly without someone out there expecting more than a handshake from you. A woman somehow seems to always be expecting something from somehow, so thinks the world. Sadly, even some women think this of other women, I have seen these subtly, but most of the times when it happens I tend to refuse to make it about me. And … it is even more challenging if you are a black woman.

11. Who and what are some of your influences

This well sound like a cliché but I am my own influence.

12. Do you wish you could have done things differently if given the chance? Please explain

Absolutely not. My gaffes, if I should call them that, are what have got me standing here today. Everything that I have done, even out of ignorance have given me the experiences I needed. I have learnt through my experiences and have grown through them and through them I now know and appreciate my worth.

13. What and who inspires you?

Tastes, sounds, colours, textures, sights. This is why I love travelling into Africa so much. The minute you land at the airport all your senses explode into a fiery love affair. And everywhere you go, everything you see tells a story without necessarily voicing it.

14. What do you count as your greatest achievement?

Doing me and being me has been my greatest achievement. Being too busy working on my own grass to notice if the next doors is greener. I have totally refused to conform, but instead I went with my heart’s desires. It is not as easy not to go with the flow in this world where we are always constricted by rules of what we are allowed to do and expectations of what we should be.

15. How have you overcome these struggles and/or insecurities?

It was never really an issue of struggle or insecurity but rather a need to be an individual. After all, I am wonderfully, fearfully and uniquely made.

16. In your experience, what do you think are some of the prevalent issues women face in everyday life?

While women face a lot of challenges, I will talk about the main challenge that most of us are too embarrassed to talk about – and this is abuse. Physical, mental, emotional. Be it at home or in the work-place. It is all there and in rampant. In the perfect world the husband leads, the wife submits, and the children obey. But in the imperfect world, the world of many women, the husband would lead with abusive words while drunk and throwing punches; the wife will submit by staying and taking in the punches while she goes out to look for food to feed her children; and the children obey by learning that it is what it is. Every woman SHOULD have a man. Every man SHOULD protect and provide for his woman and family. But that protection and provision should not come with a license to abuse. Likewise, women should not endure the abuse simply because she is being provided for and protected. I think it is because the “a woman can not do without a man” mantra has been drummed in the heads of women for so long that we do not know otherwise. Every woman should have a man, but that man should not be there to complete a woman but to complement her. The woman should not want that man because he will offer a roof and food on the table; and on some cases a car and a shopping trip to Paris; or because he is removing the shame; the woman should want to be with that man because they balance each other. I am very passionate about equality.

My message for a long time will be about men and women needing each other – equally and therefore the call for women empowerment. In many African societies, women are generally victims of a patriarchal society and do not have any chance to manage with their own existence. They are oppressed in many ways through how they are educated, their marital life, their sexual life, and even through language, that is reasoning. For example, when you talk to the elders they will tell you in detail of the meaning behind the bride price. but this is so often abused. In many instances, the bride price becomes the chains with which a woman is tied by her husband. Now, whether I poise these stories as awareness and instigation, my message remains the same. With RHYTHM OF MY RHYME, my message was women and men alike to stand up for equality. And this was received rather well. While with STAINS ON MY KHANGA, The key message is for the (wo)man to look into the (wo)man in the mirror and realize that she does have a choice. That this choice might be hard to attain but is the possibilities are out there and they are achievable; and also that change starts within. Women have come a long way in the struggle for equal rights in what was then a man’s world. It has been a long struggle that has seen women venture into jobs that were previously considered to be for men – and the change is notable.

17. What do you think needs to be done to address these issues?

For many women what matters is the survival; as long as I am fed, dressed, housed, I can go on living on hope. Afterall the same happened to my mother and her mother before that, so why should I be special and expect any different – this unfortunately is the thought of many women in such situations. A local magazine had asked me almost the same question so I will say what I told them; I strongly believe that if the girl child was empowered and educated, our communities would be less challenged. If the girl child was equally educated, she would have been inspired to have the desire for change and also have the understanding that change is possible, be able to make own decision and thereafter implement them. Educate a woman, and you will educate a village, as the saying goes.

It is interesting to note that when a school girl child is impregnated, she gets expelled from school and her future thereafter bleak, while the perpetrator is left and does not get persecuted. That same girl child can be lawfully married off but will not be allowed by law to vote because she is of a young age. Let us now assume that this girl child does not get married, but instead the family shuns her. Meaning the young girl is left alone to fend for herself, uneducated and unemployed. She tries to get help from baby daddy, but following up on child support, sadly is almost impossible and the customary law, which many societies follow, hardly supports the girl child. And in today’s day and age that women are still being limited on inheritance on the basis of their gender. The survival of women in a large extent is still left at the mercy of men, such amplifying violation of women’s rights, inequality, discrimination, oppression, exploitation, abandonment and even the drive of the spread of HIV/AIDS. The girl child and the boy child should be given equal opportunities. Equality and democracy should be ensured for all men and women and boys and girls - all.

18. What would you tell another young woman who wants to go down the same path that you have chosen?

I would tell her, “do you, be you.” That is what I did. I followed my passion. I would actually tell her not to follow my path but to follow hers as we all have our paths. We all have our purposes. We have all been put here on earth for different reasons. Always try to listen to the feelings in your heart instead of the concerns in your mind. It is essential to remember that the constricted rules of what we are allowed to do and expectations of what we should be have been put upon you by other people and are not necessarily the things you want for yourself. Knowing what you want is the first step towards getting what you want and following your path. Through self-reflection and with the natural progression of time your path will become clear and you can then begin your journey towards it. A lot of times we copy what the next person is doing because it appears glamorous and we end forgetting about us.

19. What do you do to give back to your community?

Interesting you should ask me this. It is only yesterday when a Muslim brother was educating about tithing in the Muslim society. Zakat, as it is called is based on income and the value of all of one's possessions. Apparently the right way of doing it is to give that percentage to one person and that one person should be someone within your circles, be it your security guard, gardener, driver, maid and even the garbage collector. He told me that when you bless that one person, he will then be able to use that money to start something of his own and hopefully get out of poverty. And as he prospers he then blesses another, and this other blesses another and the community can eradicate some poverty. Anyway, with me it varies. It depends with how the Spirit of God moves me, but it can be a basket of food to an individual or baskets for an orphanage, money for an individual or books for a children’s ward, an advice to that single unemployed mother or a nudge to that widowed single father, assist in organizing a bazaar at church or help build a school, or simply just a smile at a depressed looking passerby. Having touched on that a little, I strongly believe though that these duties are essentially personal and individual. But it is such a wonderful feeling being blessed with that opportunity to just tweak someone’s life a little. And while at it, I pray one day I would be able to do something more for the girl-child, simply because the girl-child is me and the girl-child is someone that is very personal to me.

20. If you could tell young women one thing or two, what would it be?

There are three poems that have been published in my anthology STAINS ON MY KHANGA that I am thinking of. One is entitled Reflections, while the other is entitled She Walks and the last one is There Is Hope. I would share with them the messages in the three. Reflections is about perceiving beyond that reflection on the mirror that shows you swaying hips, full lips and bright sighs. She Walks is about standing tall, with pride, walking with your head held up high having overcome, having pushed through the soils and risen from the ashes. While There Is Hope is just simply about that – hope. With a tear stained face, air punched body, dog tired bones as long as there is life, there is hope too. There is hope. So girl, walk. Stand up tall and walk. Walk towards that reflection that is more than your hips and your lips.