Eric Ramirez-Ferrero ’85 and Ayesha Mawji ’95 challenge gender roles in Africa
To public health activist Eric Ramirez-Ferrero ’85, Tanzania is a battleground in the fight against AIDS. To Ayesha Mawji ’95, it's home. The unlikey story of how these two met is almost as amazing as the collaboration that followed—the CHAMPION Project—a five-year public health initiative that challenges the centuries-old gender roles of a society starved for change.
"It's kind of a sleepy, dusty African city,” Eric Ramirez-Ferrero ’85 says of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, his home for the past six years. “But it’s right on the coast, so anytime you feel down, all you do is get on the road that drives along the ocean and you’re happy with the world again.”
Immersed in a country where education and quality health care are luxuries that few men (and fewer women) know, where domestic violence is considered normal and monogamy is not, where AIDS is a leading cause of death and maternal mortality is common, that pristine view off the eastern coast of Africa is something Ramirez-Ferrero holds dear.
But it’s the other view—the view from outside looking in—that brought him there.
“In a place like Tanzania, there are many opportunities for positive change,” says Ramirez-Ferrero, who’s been fighting the spread of HIV and AIDS in the country since 2003. “There are just so many issues, like health, infrastructure, and education, which are essential for the development of the country. Without a critical mass of skilled professionals who are capable of doing the technical work that needs to be done, there’s still a huge need for people from the outside—people who are educated.”
And Ramirez-Fererro is certainly that.
After studying anthropology and biology at Bennington—“It was my medical anthropology course with Joanna Kirkpatrick that got me thinking about international health,” he says—he earned a PhD in anthropology from Stanford, and went on to get his master’s degree in public heath from Johns Hopkins years later. In 2003, he was granted a Population Fellowship from the University of Michigan to assist the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) with reproductive health issues in Tanzania. He’s been there ever since.
“I think my sense of home is starting to migrate,” he laughs. “Right now, it’s probably hovering somewhere over the Atlantic.”
A few years ago, relaying his journey to a friend in Tanzania, Ramirez-Fererro didn’t get far before the friend, a native Tanzanian named Nassir, interrupted him.
“Did you just say Bennington?” Nassir asked, astonished. “My sister went to Bennington.”
He even knew where it was on a map.
A third generation Indian-Tanzanian, Ayesha Mawji ’95, Nassir’s sister, “grew up against an enchanting African backdrop as part of the cosmopolitan Indian Diaspora,” she says.
Her father’s success as a businessman in Dar es Salaam afforded her and her five siblings (one of them her twin) the opportunity to attend foreign boarding schools in France, the United Kingdom, India, and in Ayesha’s case, at the Westover School in Connecticut.
Inspired by her late brother Kassim, an established fashion designer in Milan, it was at Westover where Mawji first discovered her passion for photography.
And it was to Bennington that she brought it.
“Bennington was the main college that I looked at in my search,” Mawji recalls. “When I got in, I took an intermediate photo class as a freshman. Even though it took me the whole term to find my footing, once I did, I didn’t look back. My purpose at Bennington was established—and four years later deeply fulfilled.” Mawji continued to find fulfillment in photography after Bennington, fashioning a successful freelance career in the advertising world in Tanzania. But, she says, “Just as I had developed to the point where I was able to carve out my own identity and style, marriage came and (two) children came and analog photography turned to digital.”
For seven years, Mawji left the camera untouched.
During that time, in 2005, Ayesha’s brother Nassir called. He had a friend she had to meet. A Bennington guy.
“I was dying to meet her,” Ramirez-Ferrero says.
Nassir arranged a dinner. Ayesha brought one of her best friends from home —but the conversation remained focused on Bennington.
“Not only did we both go to Bennington, but we both had the same advisor—Joanna Kirkpatrick,” Ramirez-Ferrero says. “What are the chances?”
Ramirez-Ferrero and Mawji quickly became close. Together they co-founded a support group for the “externally displaced,” as well as a book club “where we read Kiran Desai ’93’s Inheritance of Loss—the only book we all liked,” Ramirez-Ferrero says.
In her own life, Mawji returned to photography—making the difficult transition from film to digital—and opened her own design company called Moyo (Swahili for “heart”), where she sells contemporary home décor, clothing, and art, supporting the work of local Tanzanian artisans.
Meanwhile, Ramirez-Ferrero was selected by EngenderHealth-Tanzania, a nonprofit funded by USAID, to direct their new CHAMPION Project (Channeling Men’s Positive Involvement in the National HIV/ AIDS Response). The five-year initiative aims to promote gender equality and to increase men’s involvement in family health, and, in doing so, hopes to lower the rates of HIV and AIDS, maternal mortality, gender-based violence, and unintended pregnancy. Backed by a $16 million grant, the CHAMPION Project is the largest and most comprehensive male involvement initiative in the world. EngenderHealth celebrated the program’s official launch last February.
“When it comes to the public or political sphere in Tanzania, men have always been the decision makers,” Ramirez-Ferrero says. “But when it comes to the health of the family, men have been surprisingly absent. CHAMPION aims to move men from being obstacles to family health to being facilitators by promoting a national dialogue about men’s roles, promoting shared decision-making in couples, and reducing high-risk sexual behavior.”
Ramirez-Ferrero and Mawji sought out male role models in Tanzania, interviewing and photographing them. Their pictures and stories have since been turned into a calendar and distributed nationally to promote gender equality and reproductive health.
Prior to the launch, Ramirez-Fererro hosted focus groups in different communities around the country, finding that “men who take a positive role in the health of their families and communities were thought not to exist,” he says.
It was in these same communities that Ramirez-Fererro set out to prove that notion wrong.
“We conducted district assessments and spoke with community leaders. We asked them: ‘Which man in your community stands out because of his efforts to promote the health of his family or community?’ And in doing so, a pattern emerged. In each place, the names of two or three individuals were cited over and over again.”
Ramirez-Fererro found men like Thomas Mponda, who is working to stop domestic violence and restoring peace to troubled households in his community. And Msenda Hamisi, one of the few men in his village who has chosen to have only one wife.
“The benefits of my choice have been many,” Hamisi says. “I have protected my own health and the health of my wife—and I have witnessed all of my daughters get married.”
To show that men like Mponda and Hamisi do exist in Tanzania, Ramirez-Ferrero conceived the idea of a photo exhibition featuring 12 model men and their stories, to then be turned into a calendar and introduced to a national audience.
“We thought it was very important to visually demonstrate that these men do in fact exist, in order to promote healthy ideals of manhood,” he said.
That’s where Ayesha came in.
“I had been a fan of Ayesha’s work for a while, so when the idea for the CHAMPION photo exhibition emerged, I knew that Ayesha was the only one I wanted to work with.”
Mawji traveled to meet the men in their communities, documenting their stories through photographs and interviews. She then created and designed the exhibition, which was unveiled before nearly 200 guests at the Mövenpick Hotel in Dar es Salaam at the CHAMPION Project’s launch.
Each invitation to Mawji’s exhibition included a puzzle piece, which attendees brought with them to reveal a picture of one of the “champions” she had photographed. Also included was a message.
Be part of the solution.
“This work was very important to me, especially as a woman,” she says. “I feel privileged to be able to promote the ideals of equality between men and women—particularly in the context of African culture.”