Naomi Tutu gives voice to voiceless

Posted March 30, 2007
Christina Carter
South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s daughter, Naomi Tutu, was keynote speaker for the University’s third annual Engendering Diversity and Community conference last week. Her keynote address March 22 was titled “Women’s Stories Women’s Voices.” She also gave a speech titled, “By Our Fruits We are Known: Religion and Activism” on March 21, during which she spoke of human rights and the promotion of the human spirit.

Naomi Tutu, keynote speaker for the University’s third annual “Engendering Diversity and Community” conference, addressed “Women's Stories, Women's Voices” March 22 before a packed house in La Fetra Auditorium.

“I felt empowered by her last speech,” University President Steve Morgan said as he introduced the speaker.

Tutu noted that the title for the keynote address was “pulled out of a hat of my life experiences.”

“Often women’s stories are not told in women’s voices,” Tutu said. “That really came home to me working in sub-Saharan Africa.”

Tutu noticed while working with an organization that many women married to migrant farmers, who received remittance from their husbands, were not interested in investing just $50 into the organization.

Tutu knew there was more to these women and why they weren’t investing that money. She was interested in researching these migrant worker families.

“I went out to a rural community where 90 percent of the men were migrant workers most of the year,” Tutu said. “I would ask these women, ‘What do you do?’”

These women replied, “I do nothing.”

Tutu was so shocked that she decided she would find out what this ‘nothing’ is that they claimed they were doing.

“I’ll follow a woman every week,” Tutu said.

Tutu watched these women wake up at 4 a.m., walk to get water, walk to the forest to get firewood; make sure the children are bathed in a hot bath, and make sure these children ‘walked out of these houses with their uniform spotless.’”

“These children whose mothers were heating up a black iron, they would be going to the field or going to the community,” said Tutu.

These cities were so bad that public transportation consisted of two or three minivans. Naturally, the women of these communities walked everywhere.

They would walk into town, buy cabbage, bags of candy and crates of beer and then bring them home where they would resell these goods in smaller packages.

“I was struck by this idea that these women are doing nothing,” Tutu said.
All of these women were waiting for remittances from their husbands but only four or five men sent remittances regularly.

“A vast majority didn’t send money at all,” Tutu said.

Some men brought back money when they came home at the end of the year.

Others brought back second- third- or fourth-hand cars at the end of the year.

These cars were considered the “December special” because they “came in December and lasted through December.”

This was just one example how women’s’ voices are not heard.

Tutu spoke about her experience on a panel discussing welfare reform.
“How often did you see a woman on welfare discuss how we can change the system,” Tutu said. “Or asked to be part of a discussion on welfare?”

Tutu realized that no one on the panel actually experienced welfare, but that there were women who were on welfare that didn’t get the chance to speak up on how they thought the system should be reformed.

“Policy makers, social workers, the people that were serving these women on welfare no one had been impacted,” Tutu said. “We were telling their story.”

Although Tutu is a single mother, she felt she could not tell the story of these women who were on welfare.

I was a single mother, I’m still a single mother, who had a car and [would go to work and know my children were safe,” Tutu said. “At the end of the day I was exhausted. I wasn’t thinking about reading something that would open my mind to other things in the world. And I was a privileged single mother.”

Tutu wondered who these women the panel was discussing were.
“I was exhausted at the end of the day,” Tutu said. “Where are [these women] going to get the energy to go to school.”

Since these women were not invited to the panel, they could not tell their story, so the panel was able to create reasons these women could better themselves.

“We need to make sure that we allow people to tell us their own stories,” Tutu said. “The most empowering thing is to say ‘I want to hear your story from you.’”

Tutu feels that most important organization that Africa has is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, created to investigate crimes and chaired by Tutu’s father, Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Desmond was impressed that the women who spoke at to the commission told stories of their families, their husbands, their children, but not themselves.

Tutu decided that there should be a women-only commission.
It was in the women-only commission that women began to open up and tell their stories.

“Women did not feel safe, did not feel that they could tell their own stories,” Tutu said. “There is still the idea that women that have been raped still raises questions about the women itself and not on the crime.”

“We have come to accept that women and their stories and their voices are not as important as men.”

Tutu is upset that women are still considered a minority.

“If what we say we are is a people who are interested in community then we have to be a people who wants to hear all the stories,” Tutu said.

“Who wants to know how Naomi experienced being black and a woman.

Tutu believes that both race and gender are important issues that women shouldn’t be divided over.

“Until we hear and listen to all the voices, we will never truly be a community,” Tutu said. “We will never truly be free, none of us.

She also feels that as a member of the black community that this community shouldn’t try to limit any one else’s voice.

“There are amazing voices, there are amazing stories that we have yet to hear,” Tutu said. “The loss of those voices and stories diminish us all.”

Tutu believes that men and women, whether African or American, need to listen to each other.

“I want to tell my story, I want to hear yours,” Tutu said.

Debbie Roberts, a long time friend, gave an introduction to Tutu.

Roberts spoke about attending college with Tutu during a time when Africa was experiencing some of its most horrific conditions.

“When Naomi arrived on campus I knew almost nothing about day to day lives [of African women],” Roberts said. “It is at a breath of personal experience we are so honored.

Roberts stated that Tutu understands sexuality and gender are crucial.
“Tutu is absolutely the right woman to be addressing our keynote this morning,” Roberts said.

People applauded and some stood up to give applause.

There were a few microphone problems in the beginning, but Tutu’s jokes about her life and experiences kept the audiences laughing throughout her speech.

“The thing is that I’m a middle child so my voice is naturally loud,” Tutu said.

Alexandra Lozano can be reached at

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