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Before you read this, I must apologise in advance if this piece of work is not as coherent or structured as other pieces I have written. I am writing this from an emotional place.
It has been a tough week for South African women. It has brought all our tiny fears to the fore. The ones we hold close to our chest and tell no one about because it seems like paranoia.
I’ve been told that I am “too paranoid” a lot. I’d go as far as to say ad nauseam. I have been told that my anxiety gets the better of me and that I need to just “Be cool”. Well, I’m sorry I can’t. The mental checklist I use for my safety is there for a reason, and guess what! I’ve just been proven right.
Am I constantly afraid? Yes, I am. But I’m no longer afraid to say that.
I have fears about someone breaking into my house and raping me all the time. I feel like I will not hear them coming and I will be all alone. I fear my family will find me and I won’t have a voice anymore. I have fears about leaving my house and getting hijacked. I am afraid that someone may follow me when I walk anywhere alone. I try to cross the street casually if I see a stranger (a man) or two (men), while being calm enough to not make them feel like I am targeting them. I am torn when I do this, because what if they sense that I’m afraid and then get angry at me and hurt me. Just yesterday, I was walking into a car park and saw two males walking towards me. I upped my pace to get to my car quicker.
When I drive to places alone, I never park too far from the entrance, I never park where the lighting isn’t great, and I always wait to see if there are other women in my vicinity before I walk to an entrance.
I hate going to public bathrooms because it always feels like a walk down an alleyway with strange people milling around. Even if my boyfriend, father, or brother are waiting outside. I especially hate it if I’m shopping at a mall alone.
I watch my surroundings, but I can never be sure. I feel constant low-lying anxiety.
I hate that being vigilant is my DUTY as a woman.
I feel like I’ve accomplished something when I have safely packed away my groceries in my car, and have gotten into my vehicle again. I often breathe a sigh of relief at this point in the journey. The anxiety begins the moment I start up my car again. While driving, I don’t just look out for suspicious-looking people, I also try to look for suspicious-looking cars and their following distance from me. I may be jamming to my favourite song in the car on my drive back to wherever, but I’m always a little on edge until I’m back home, all locked up with the alarm on.
But even then, it’s not like it goes away. The cycle just begins again.
I don’t feel safe EVER.
No woman does.
The pain of the last few days has really cut me deeply and brought up old wounds. Wounds about past relationships and being silenced; being bulldozed by partners or colleagues; feeling unsafe in the company of men; and being taken advantage of sexually, emotionally, physically, and mentally. The worst part is that when I thought back to these encounters, I realised that I knew these men.
It got me thinking about the concept of “knowing”.
It is common knowledge that most women are sexually assaulted or raped by someone they know. We have this preconceived notion that “to know” is to have a close emotional and intellectual connection with a partner, a family member, or a friend.
No, I must disagree: that is to “know well”. “To know” is to simply “be aware”, in its simplest definition.
For example, if you walked into Woolworths daily to buy lunch, or stopped at the same garage to fill petrol, or used the same post office for all your deliveries, could we not argue that we have come to “know” those places? Perhaps we could even say we “know” the people who work there. Perhaps we have a casual conversation with the workers. Perhaps we become familiar. Perhaps we become friendly.
I feel like it’s safe to say that “knowing” has quite a broad spectrum of understanding.
Now imagine that you walked into your usual post office, only to be told, by a face that was somewhat familiar, to come back later to check for your parcel. Would you trust that person? Because maybe you “know” them?
I’m not presuming any of this happened with Uyinene Mrwetyana, but my speculation is that she may have known him. It is more than speculation and almost fact that her murderer and rapist targeted her. I personally feel like he saw her on more than one occasion and wanted to have sex with her. I am entirely sure he murdered before because no one says “This child was a problem, it took forever for her to die”.
As a woman, I can’t imagine that I would trust a random man who I had never met before. It is a possibility, though. I mean, I have listened to people in bureaucratic positions say, “The system is down, come back tomorrow”. But something tells me that she knew him. That she was naïve and believed he was going to make a plan for her parcel. That he was extra friendly and she was made to feel safe.
What is not speculation AT ALL is that a woman trusted a man, and it led to her death.
The moment she let her guard down and trusted; the moment she did not abide by the mental checklist; the moment fear did not rule her decisions… she was brutally violated and murdered.
So why should we trust them? We have proof that fear works better.
Is this not true of all women? Do we not trust men and then we die a little inside? They let us down. They break us down. They kill us. And they take no responsibility for our pain. Pain that they caused. They don’t care about us. We are objects. We are a walking vagina for their cultural entitlement.
The moment men realise that most of their kind walk around with this mentality and start stepping up for us will be the moment things begin to change.
Stop judging us.
Stop mocking us.
Stop using us.
Stop raping us.
Stop killing us.
Just because we trust you.
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This saree clings to my brown skin and I’m starting to get frustrated as I march through the front door of my grandparent’s 57-year-old house in Merebank. In these clothes, I am reminded that I am not from this land, even though it is all I identify with. It confuses me. Today my upbringing reminded me that I am a brown skinned, South Indian descendant with a story that started long before I was born. And this saree is constricting these facts around my body like a python every second longer that it sticks to me.
As I peel away the metres of fabric, wrapped and pleated and pinned, I reflect on the day we’ve had. The Durban humidity has been thick and suffocating, draining the frame and tiring the mind, almost as much as the farewell we have just bid. My mind is a mess. I need to focus on something to help me rearrange my clarity.
I focus on untying my underskirt. It’s been digging into my skin all day. As I pick at the knot, expertly double tied by my mother and tucked in to the left of the black cotton underskirt, I watch as the patterned doily indentation on my skin reveals itself. I hear my mother’s words: “Tie your saree tight. Your pavada must be tight.”
I’ve let go of my length of silk now and I regain focus as much as I regain room to breathe.
“We’ve lost another father,” I start to admit to myself as I begin to gather and fold the 6 metres of material. I stop and ground myself, and force myself to acknowledge what is hurting me. It was watching one of my grandmothers lose her person, and not know what her next step would be. It was seeing my aunt as a child who didn’t want to say goodbye to her father. It was witnessing my younger cousins as composed adults.
It was being slapped in the face with the reality that the roles we are so used to playing forever change in death. And that culturally, I have a duty that I want to action, but that I don’t know nearly enough. How do I identify with my culture four generations later?
I flash back to staring at a kuthuvilakku at the front of the hall during the funeral, adorned with the sunshine of a string of marigolds and lit at the edges with cotton wicks soaked in oil. These vilakkus are a standard in my culture, always draped in the yellow and orange flowers every Indian household is accustomed to. In that moment, I remember thinking about how our lives as Indian people are decorated.
We’re a culture of elaborate ceremonies. Awe reverent rite, in life and death. We speak and walk in numbers while we announce anecdotes and cry in happiness and sadness.
In death, Western culture could be forgiven for perceiving us rude when we lean into the deceased in earnest; how could they know that us whispering our sweet goodbyes are the most mannered farewell we could ever offer our lost loved ones? We hope they take it away with them.
I know in losing my paternal grandfather, all I hope for most days is that he heard me then, and still hears me now.
“There is beauty in all of this, and we as a culture are so lucky we get the privilege to mourn so beautifully,” I think as I unpin the last hook and eye off my silk, embroidered saree blouse. This acknowledgement still doesn’t stop the lone tear that rolls down my cheek. My saree is now a neatly folded rectangle able to be packed away and forgotten about, but my mind has unpacked more than I can now contain.
My suffocation is suddenly replaced with fullness as I realise that the ceremonies we occasion are like tying this saree.
Long and decorated; meticulous and planned with particularity; uncomfortable but feminine; traditional with room for modernity; culturally ours. And when we untie it, we pull it off with ferocity while retaining its dignity. Still decorated, but distressed. Still meticulous, but worn. Still uncomfortable, but settled. Still feminine. Still traditional. Still ours.
I’m bare now; free from the fabric that clung to my curves. Calm. Just me and my brownness. “I will have to do this again,” I sigh in realisation.
For now, I indulge in silence. I take the privilege of reflection and focus it on this moment as I stare in a mirror. I am brown and full of my culture. My thick brown hair grazes my shoulders, framing my brown face. My brown skin glistens, dewy from the humidity and the tears shed today. My brown eyes glassy, sunken from thoughts of tomorrow’s goodbyes, ceremonies, sarees and marigolds.
Image copyright belongs to Daniel Wamba
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