About Chicha Dancing, Empty Streets and Women Equality

This is the continuation of the previous blog post that introduced you to Vicky, a tall and elegant American woman in her mid-thirties, a UN official on a project evaluation mission to Peru - the time is the early 1990s. 


She goes to a chicha dancing place in Puerto Maldonado, in the Amazon, accompanied by Ben Khedara, the project manager. He is a middle-aged widower of Arab origin, as his name suggests. ( to read the previous post click here). 


Here then is what happens to Khedara and Vicky as they sit down in front of two pisco drinks:  

They made an unlikely couple, thought Vicky, in a chicha dancing place lost in the jungle, far away from the tourist circuits. She knew she was the kind of woman you’d never expect to see sitting next to a mature, almost elderly man, with thick glasses and a balding head. Her Parisian chic was a stark contrast to his no-nonsense, middle-class attire of plain cotton shirt and jeans. She was uncomfortably aware that she looked like the kind of wealthy women who dressed for a chic safari in Kenya or a South Seas vacation – all of a sudden, she wished she hadn’t changed out of her working clothes, plain jeans and a cotton shirt.
She could see they were gradually drawing attention and creating a sensation with the clients of the chicha place. She knew they were such an ill-assorted couple that it wouldn't be long before one of the brash young men would ask her to dance.  One got up, and with a bouncing step and rolling shoulders, he approached her. He stared at her a long time and slowly gave her a self-assured, winning smile that promised nothing but trouble. She turned to Khadari and quickly asked him to invite her to dance before that dangerous looking macho did.
They moved on to the center of the room, Khadari leading her in a rollicking jig, and looking shamelessly happy about it. Then he unexpectedly pushed his face close to hers, and she caught the gold flash of a capped tooth and the whiff of garlic on his breath. She closed her eyes and stepped back, hitting someone behind her.
Out! She needed to get out right away. "Let’s leave, now!" she whispered in Khadari’s hairy ear.He complied instantly, much to Vicky’s relief.  He paid the two piscos and lemonade that they hadn't finished, and, taking her arm, he steered her out into the night. It was still very hot, in spite of the late hour - not a whiff of breeze, just heavy, damp clinging air, like moist cotton on the face. "Thanks," she said, "I could tell gringas aren't supposed to remain sitting in that kind of place."
They walked in silence back to the hotel through the dark, empty streets. Vicky was reassured by Khedara’s presence next to her; at moments like this, she realized that being a woman was a distinct disadvantage. You couldn’t go to a dancing place, you couldn’t walk alone in the streets of an unknown town all by yourself. Too dangerous. An insect hit her cheek, another brushed her lips. Was it a mosquito? She couldn’t tell. They were walking through swarms of undefinable insects hanging immobile in the air, like thick clouds. She was afraid of swallowing one and was careful to breathe through her nose. They had to be mosquitoes; she felt them stinging her naked ankles, in spite of the brisk pace of their walk. She increased her speed, hit a pebble and stumbled.
"Let me hold your arm," said Khadara gallantly, "the streets are treacherous, no asphalt, no sidewalk."
Much to Vicky's distaste, he firmly grabbed her elbow and steered her forward at a maddeningly slow and cautious pace. When they finally reached the hotel, he talked of having a nightcap. She tried to think of a good reason to refuse, but couldn't think of any.

This scene takes place in the 1990's - and in fact, it is inspired by events that I lived through in that period and wrote about when I returned home from my travels. 


What is interesting (to me at least) is the observation that a woman who is doing a man's job as Vicky does still suffers from limitations in what she can actually do. Going to a local dance place somewhere in a developing country, walking alone at night in the streets of an unknown town are things she cannot safely do.

Source of image here
And yet, the UN system is probably one of the most equitable and advanced in the world in the way it treats women staff: there is, by definition, no discrimination against women. Salary scales and perks like health insurance are exactly the same for men and women, there's no gender distinction, no "glass ceiling". Yet, there are certain places, certain activities that cannot be open to women.

For example, I was a project evaluation officer for 20 years, but there are countries where I was never sent to evaluate projects, like Yemen or Nigeria - a decision my Evaluation Service Chief took for my own protection - and also because, on a cultural level, women cannot "function" as effectively as men. No doubt, in the two countries I mention, a woman who comes to inspect a project and has to weigh the efficiency and effectiveness of the project's staff (men included) will find it difficult to do her job...

Culture is not yet globalized and probably never will be.



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