The frightening ‘normalcy’ of domestic violence

One of the funniest stories my mother ever shared with me was a story about violence.

Actually there were two – one is just less funny owing to the horror I still feel when I imagine how it could have all turned out.

My mother’s side of the family had some colorful characters, chiefly my maternal uncle papeNever (the father of Never) and my maternal aunt mmeDubekile (the mother of Dubekile) who were both ex-combatants and had a penchant for regarding physical violence as the best conflict resolution strategy.

The first story my mother told me was of an incident that occurred when I was three days old.

My mother said that when I was three days old I was nearly killed by my uncle papeNever (her big brother) who had drunkenly and wildly swung an axe on the bed I had been laid on.

My uncle papeNever had burst into the hut my mother was resting in wielding an axe in hot pursuit of his wife, my aunt mmeNever (the mother of Never) over an unspecified dispute.

But generally, papeNever didn’t let not having a good reason get in the way of giving his wife a good beating – especially when he had imbibed.
On that day, my mother had arrived from Beitbridge hospital with three-day old me – her first and newborn baby – exhausted from the rigors of labor, fatigued from the journey by bus from Beitbridge town which was concluded by an arduous trip in a donkey-drawn scotch cart that had to negotiate its way over and around bumps, ravines and crevices to get to her parents’ homestead in the hinterlands of Tshapfutshe.

And on that same day, my aunt mmeNever had been tasked with preparing a hut for my mum and she had taken to the task with much gusto seeing as she and my mum were very close – sweeping away the cobwebs on the thatched roof, applying a new layer of cow dung to polish the mud floor and making herringbone, chevron and checkered patterns as decoration.

She had attacked the mud walls with a stone to smoothen the inner wall surface and also used rich red, grey and white soils to paint the outer walls of the mud hut which she decorated with precise drawings of flowers on one side and shapes inspired from a deck of cards like the diamond, the heart and the ace of spades on the other.

I know all this because my mother had described it – she approved very much of cleanliness and was highly particular about the details of maintaining a presentable hut.

My aunt mmeNever had apparently done a sterling job on that day.

Everyone was excited about me, perhaps they were more excited about Virginia (my mum) the spoilt last born in the family, becoming a mother.

My uncle papeNever had missed my mother’s arrival as he had gone drinking – presumably.

Which is why when he had chased after his wife, all the way from his own homestead, yelling while she screamed – both of them failing to enjoy the beautiful orange hues of a setting sun in the horizon – my uncle had not known that mmeNever’s intended destination was the hut at the far end of my grandparent’s compound where my mother was resting.

He had chased after her, following blindly with the singular intent of catching up with her and teaching her some manners.

My aunt mmeNever had rushed into the hut and immediately dived under the bed which rested on bricks to elevate it (it made sweeping much easier) without offering any explanation to my mother who had been sleeping and oblivious to all the commotion.

Before my mother could gather her wits, my uncle papeNever, who had been about to catch up with his wife had also burst into the hut seconds later swinging his axe wildly – more for show than with any intent to actually strike his wife.

He was like that my uncle papeNever – always seeking attention by abusing his wife whom he knew everyone adored then waiting to be restrained and pleaded with and begged to ‘please calm down and stop doing this’.

On that day however, my uncle papeNever had not known several things.

He had not known that my mother was back from the hospital, he had not known that I was on the bed and that the bed had been changed from its usual position during mmeNever’s frantic spring cleaning so when he swung wildly, he tripped over one of the suitcases on the floor and his axe arced and impaled a shawl I had been wrapped in on the side of the bed where I had been laid.

My mother had moved me earlier to breastfeed me and had fallen asleep and had not laid me back on that shawl.

My mother told me that she had screamed. Screamed at her big brother.

Screamed for my grandparents to come and see, see papeNever try and kill her baby.

And my mother’s screaming mingled with mmeNever’s own screams for help whilst I obligingly joined this chorus with my own cries.

My uncle papeNever had not seen me yet and upon realizing who was in the hut he had tried to reach out and hold me, to quiet me down and meet his new niece but my mother would have none of it, screaming that he must get out.

It was my aunt mmeDubekile, my mother’s big sister, who had dragged my uncle papeNever out of the hut and then proceeded to viciously pummel him with fists, kicks and all manner of ex-combatant fighting moves until my grandmother had cried out to say she would not have it… she would not have anyone try to kill her son before her very eyes.

I was a newborn when this happened but my mother told me of it with such vividness that sometimes it feels like I remember the violence through her narration and experience of it.

The other story my mother told me, I cannot get into it in this post. Maybe next time.

I was reminded of this story some days ago when I read of a man that killed his 10 day old baby whilst trying to assault his wife.

It frightens me that the more such stories appear in the media, the less outrage and action they provoke.

I think that no matter how much we witness these incidents or read about them – we must never regard them as normal or as an unchanging and unchangeable aspect of life as we know it.

Perhaps we tend to think of domestic violence in terms of what ‘other’ people are doing and never in terms of our own actions, attitudes and choices.

It frightens me that violence against women, against children, against men should become a normative way of life as reflected in our media.

And I am frightened by our collective nonchalance because in many ways, I think the biggest challenge in fighting gender based and domestic violence is the perception that violence is not only normal but inevitable in our nation’s homes.

p.s: apparently my father hadn’t even had a chance to see me when this incident occurred as he was away on business in Bulawayo… so you can imagine how much ‘drama’ (I am understating it) it would have caused if any harm had befallen me

Affirmative action is overrated and here’s why…

One of the issues that has been frequently thrown at my face whenever the issue of gender equality arises is the question of affirmative action and the preferential treatment given to girls and women which disadvantages their male counterparts.

To me affirmative action has the same limitations that every other instrument being used to elevate the status of women has – and it is that these things only help women who want to be helped and who bother to take advantage of the opportunities availed to them or claim the rights provided for them.

Affirmative action does not help the girl whose end goal is not a career, a life outside the home or even a remote desire to contribute to the society in any other way save through child-bearing.

With affirmative action, we do not attempt to take the proverbial horse to the water troughs but we make the herculean effort of bringing the trough to the horse and still fail to make it drink.

To me, empowering girls does not begin in the classrooms but it begins in the homes.

Our upbringing has a huge bearing on who we aspire to become and on what we believe we can achieve.

...the world I come from

It is my contention that the manner in which we raise our daughters subconsciously reflects our aspirations for them, what we hope for them, what we expect of them and what we envision their future will become.

Raising a child is always premised on futuristic assumptions, the idea is to transfer knowledge and information that we believe will help this child in the future, which we think will be relevant, crucial and indispensable to them in adulthood.

The manner in which people raise their daughters tells a lot about what they believe that child’s eventual place in the world will be and what role they are preparing that child to assume later in life.

I believe that African mothers, have fallen into the unfortunate habit of raising daughters through the use of crippling and dis-empowering stereotypical dogmas that do more harm than good.

Of the things my mother taught me, in terms of skills transfer – there is little that I have made use of or will ever make use of in the life I have chosen to carve out for myself.

The values she taught me through those skills remain cherished but some of the practical aspects of her tutelage are rendered obsolete and inapplicable in the world I have come to occupy, in the woman I have chosen to become and in the aspirations I live in pursuit of.

A few examples are in order.

My mother was one of the hardest working women I knew and everyone else attested to this – the woman was a manual labourer par excellence who commanded the respect of our neighbours in Siyoka village for relentless work in the fields, at home and everywhere.

She made me look bad (lol).

When I was young, I hated manual labour and I loved reading. It is not that I could not do the work – I simply hated it!

But my mother (may her beloved soul rest in peace) was a slave driver of great renown and all the other relatives found some pretext to send their daughters over to our homestead to ensure that they were inducted into my mother’s school of excruciating, hard and sweaty labour.

...images from long ago

But all this is an unkind digression, back to the examples of how incongruous my mother’s life skill training turned out to be.

My mother taught me how to paint the mud hut walls, insisted that I wake up at the cock’s crow to sweep the yard (as if it could not wait until a decent hour); raised hell if I used the wrong soil to smoothen the hut ledges or if I failed to keep my fingers stiff enough so that the patterns and lines didn’t look crooked and smudged whenever I polished the mud floors with cow dung.

My mother insisted on crushing the maize grains using a mortar and pestle (ingigo) until there were small granules that it seemed pointless to even go to the grinding mill and convert it into mealie meal because by the time she was satisfied the job was half done.

She ignored the blisters that formed on the palms of my hand, was not impressed by the unbearable agony I felt at having to lift anything above my head because my arms would protest after hours of grinding.

She had no sympathy to spare when we had to walk distances to get firewood or when I complained of a stiff neck and aching limbs – she was hell bent on ensuring that I would not be an embarrassment to her “wherever I went” (a euphemistic way of referring to a future married life).

Though she never said it, I always knew at the back of my mind that all this frenzied drilling in manual chores was to ensure that I did not humiliate the family and specifically my mother “wherever I went”.

I said earlier that the way we raise children is indicative of what our aspirations for them are, of what we expect them to become.

Sometimes in order to determine what we think children, especially girls, need to be taught we must have an idea of what we believe they will become and prepare them accordingly by transferring skills we think will benefit them in adulthood.

...the fate that could have been mine

Using this as a premise, I could then possibly conclude that from the way my mother raised and trained me she anticipated that:

1 – I would obviously become someone’s wife (hence the emphasis on washing, cooking, cleaning, sweeping and all other domestic chores)

2 – Not only would I be someone’s wife; I would be a rural one at that (where else would I use skills such as grinding corn, gathering firewood, fetching water from the well, painting mud huts and using cow dung to polish the mud floors?)

3 – I would become a field owner eking out a living from subsistence farming (why else would I have had to endure the back breaking torture of a 5am to 7pm non-stop hoeing and weeding session at the fields whilst enduring the unforgiving Beitbridge heat?)

Well, my mother was right about one thing – I did become a wife and she was wrong about everything else.

I don’t farm for a living – I write. I don’t live in rural areas and hardly find time to enjoy living in the city because I work hard at what I do, from morning until night – not hoeing but blogging.

I don’t wake up to the sound of cock crowing but I do wake up to the shrill, piercing sounds of an alarm not to fetch water from the well but to read and study in my endless quest for knowledge.

I don’t go miles in search of firewood but I have travelled miles in pursuit of self-discovery – to better appreciate where I come from by exploring the unknown.

I don’t grind corn any more but I relentlessly pit my ideas against the equally fierce ideas of others – finding a way to learn something knew by embracing the diversity that allows great minds to differ.

The conclusion of the matter dear reader is that I am not what I am because of affirmative action but I am what I am because of my upbringing, largely because of the influence of the men that raised me.

Affirmative action didn’t make me get good grades – that was just the result of my self-confidence which I derived from the support and encouragement I got from my fathers who insisted that my brain was just as good as anyone else’s.

Affirmative action can be used to level the playing field in terms of providing equal opportunities for men and women but it will not keep women in jobs if they’d rather be home; it won’t keep young women in lecture theaters if they’d rather be in maternity theaters.

Affirmative action won’t keep young girls in classrooms if those girls have been raised to believe that their place is an a home – so instead of seeking an education, they’ll opt to seek potential husbands.

Affirmative action won’t convince young women that they can afford a higher standard of life by simply exerting themselves when they’ve been raised to believe that all that’s expected of them is to find men to take care of them.

Affirmative action is like holding a cup of water to a person’s mouth, persuading them that the water tastes nice, convincing them to take a sip and even getting them to fill their mouths with the water but not being able to make them swallow it because you can’t make them believe that they are thirsty when they don’t happen to think they are.

Men shouldn’t feel threatened by affirmative action, boys shouldn’t feel done down because the truth is – as long as women continue to raise their daughters with no expectation except that they become mothers and wives – they won’t have much of an advantage anyway.

They’ll just believe what they’ve been told since childhood, they’ll just internalize the stereotypes handed down to them by their mothers and ultimately they’ll benefit nothing from any system that fails to change their mindsets about who they are and what they can become.

Sometimes, all a girl needs is to be raised by her father because her father isn’t trying to train her to become anyone’s wife or mother – he is just interested in seeing her become the best she can be.

Because if you raise them right and raise them well – no girl would even need affirmative action to give her a ‘leg up’.

Let’s not overrate affirmative action whilst underrating socialization and upbringing.

a legacy of platitudes

A few weeks ago I had the misfortune of witnessing a woman being viciously assaulted by a man; she had a three-month-old baby on her back and while she struggled to keep it from sliding off her back her assailant mercilessly rained blows on her.

He was apprehended by a policeman who happened to be nearby and the woman, whom I later discovered was a vendor, had to breastfeed the child to stop its piercing and heartrending cries.

The man had beaten her  up because apparently he had told her it was time for her to pack up her wares and go home to prepare him a meal but she had remained there to sell her goods paying no heed to his demand.

What I found disturbing was that there were people there who did nothing to intervene, those who did try were interested only in grabbing the baby off her back so that the woman could be further assaulted with greater convenience.

I have no idea how the matter was later resolved, I only know that it is only in Africa were such a disgusting public display of barbarism would be tolerated and even condoned.

So recently when a young twenty-one year old mother appeared at my doorstep, bruised, battered and swollen after being attacked by her husband in the streets, in broad daylight, with no one coming to her aid; I was reminded again of why we became feminists.

I would love to rant and rave against the male sex, to blame it on the men and to say they are oppressing us but I blame every woman who had no legacy to pass on to their daughter except a legacy of platitudes.

Every woman who told her daughter that if her marriage failed it made her less of a woman because that impossible ideal is what has kept many women trapped in loveless marriages.

Every woman who shut the door against her abused daughter sending her back to her marital hell armed with nothing but a platitude that said ‘it’s part of marriage.’

Every mother who makes her daughter believe that she can’t be a whole human being if she isn’t a ‘Mrs Somebody’ forcing her to suffer in silence just to live up to that expectation.

So this woman stood at my door, tears in her eyes and told me a tale that is all too familiar, a pattern of abuse that has become like the theme song that accompanies the lives of many women (married or in relationships).

‘He beat me up for asking where he had slept. He kicked me because his shirt had lost a button. He choked me because I found him fondling someone else in our bed. He slapped me because he says I am his whore, that I belong to him and he owns me. He dragged me outside because he says he doesn’t want me anymore. He punched me because he says I disrespect him.’

And the litany goes on and on but what really angered me was that she had gone to her family, her aunts, consulted her relatives, sisters and other elderly women and neighbors desperately hoping she would find somebody who could advise her on what to do.

They told her that she should be patient, that marriage was like that – they all fed her a heap of platitudes.

In different words they all told her that what she was going through was ‘normal’ that her pain was nothing unique and that enduring that abuse would make her a better woman. They told her to celebrate her pain and to embrace her suffering for these are the credentials of a ‘real’ African woman.

‘Yikho ukubamgumfazi’.

This is the plight of many women whose pain is trivialized and buried under meaningless statements, that reinforce the stereotypical belief that women in Africa are the appendages of their men, properties of their husbands and have no autonomy whatsoever.

We were raised to understand that a man endures pain as an undeserved punishment; but a woman accepts it as a natural heritage; so we became feminists in order to reject the ‘natural heritage’ of pain.

African women are possibly the only exploited group in history to have been idealized into powerlessness; to have been taught to take pleasure in being hurt, tormented and degraded.

So many women have been unwittingly buried alive under platitudes afraid of going against the grain, of defying the status quo and standing up for their rights because they have deeply engrained the fallacious belief that they have no rights.

But that young woman has rights, she has human rights, if nothing else, because she is first and foremost human before she is female.

So where are those who would defend her? No where. They are all hiding behind the flimsy wall of platitudes forgetting what Robin Morgan once noted that, ‘women are not inherently passive or peaceful.  We’re not inherently anything but human.’

Perhaps one day she will (like others before her) snap and retaliate in violence but I hope that when the day comes and I have daughter and she turns to me in her hour of need, I may be able to offer her more than mere platitudes.

Men, their rights, and nothing more; women, their rights, and nothing less. – Susan B. Anthony