On hot Sundays in Dar es Salaam, city dwellers find refuge from the heat at the public beaches. Children bath in the shallow water, youngsters pose for photos in the breeze, and men practice boxing.
In the shade by some tall coral rocks, Sekela Mwaipaja sets up her small art studio. Paintings of women decorate the coral wall; one woman carries firewood on her head, another sets sail in a dhow, a third woman poses in the sunset.
“I paint women who are changing their lives,” 26-year-old Sekela says, “I want to show that there are no perfect women; we can both sail and carry wood on our heads.”
The young painter is defying gender norms through art. While her unorthodox motives position women outside traditional gender roles, her very act of painting is breaking boundaries too.
In Tanzania, painting is a male-dominated profession. Successful modern painters such as Edward Saidi Tingatinga and George Lilanga became pioneers of a colorful and playful artistic style in the 1960s and 1970s. And painters at art markets and workshops carry forward this Tanzanian style today.
But women played a less significant role in developing the modern Tanzanian art scene, and it is still rare to witness a woman artist at markets or workshops.
Perhaps this explains the reaction to Sekela’s paintings at the beach. People passing by often stop to inspect her paintings: “Have you painted these?” they ask, barely suppressing their surprise.
“To do this is my way of saying: I can do anything as a woman,” Sekela says, “I wish there was a world where we were free from gender roles.”
Sekela grew up with two younger brothers, and she liked to do all the things they did: she would climb trees, throw rocks, play football, and dress like a boy. She took turns with her brothers to do the house chores.
However, she soon discovered that reality outside their home was different. In primary school, girls and boys were not playing together, and Sekela couldn’t play the fun games she used to with her brothers. At home, things changed too. Her mother would begin to treat her differently, calling her in early, explaining that “you are a lady now.” Sekela didn’t understand why different rules applied to her and her two brothers.
In boarding school, Sekela was quickly singled out as troublesome by the teachers. She was part of a group of seven girls who called themselves G7 and she refused to support her teacher’s favorite candidate in the school election.
“The headmaster was bothered that I stood up for myself – but I will not apologize for standing up for myself,” she says.
So Sekela continued to stand up for herself and speak up against discrimination. She changed schools and later she went on to pursue a bachelor’s degree in arts and education at University of Dar es Salaam.
After finishing her degree, she interned at an organization that produces media content on women’s rights and empowerment.