Wana Udobang is a journalist, poet and filmmaker from Nigeria. She has worked with the BBC Radio4, BBC world service, 92.3 Inspiration FM and Resonance FM. Her work has appeared on Aljazeera,Guardian UK, Guardian Nigeria, Index on Censorship, Brittle Paper, and the Huffington Post. In 2016 she was long listed for the One World Media award in the Women’s rights in Africa award category, for her story on the Mirabel rape crisis centre for Aljazeera. She is a recipient of the International Reporting Project(IRP) fellowship, the Gabriel Garcia Marquez cultural journalism fellowship and the Religious News Foundation grant.
She is an alumni of the Farafina Creative Writers Workshop. As a performance poet she has graced the stages of numerous festivals across the African continent and her spoken word album ‘Dirty Laundry’ was released in 2013. Her poems have been featured at the British Library’s Word, Symbol and Song exhibition.
Wana is producer and director of the documentaries Sensitive Skin a documentary film about the skin condition Psoriasis and Nylon a short documentary on memory, trauma and loss. She is creator of the poetry series Words and Inspirations and the interview series Culture Diaries. She wrote and directed the web series Room313 and the short film Shrink. She plays Visha in the award winning Burkinabe film Frontiéres.
She graduated from the University for The Creative Arts with a first class degree in Journalism. She is creative director of WanaWana productions and hosts the television show Airtel Touching Lives.
This conversation took place in the cold, sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and the bustling city of Lagos, Nigeria by Skype.
Gaamangwe: I have never thought about the powerful act of screaming. Yes, we do it as human beings, as this physical, instinctual and primal response to harm/violence but I have never thought about the power of this act beyond that. So I had a shift reading your work, because you say to all of us; keep screaming, keep being a warrior and keep refusing to be silenced. What does the act of screaming mean to you?
Wana: The act of screaming is my own form of defiance. It’s an act that is not necessarily a physical one. It’s about the way that you scream through the words, through the way that you live your life, the way that you defy things and navigate things. It’s the way that you don’t succumb to the oppression. That is screaming. It is important because you are saying “you will not silence me”. I think there is a lot of value and power in that. I am screaming on a personal note, through the choices I make, the work I am creating, and what I say. I feel in some way my life is dedicated to screaming about things people are silenced on.
Gaamangwe: What are the things that are important for you to scream about?
Wana: I am navigating through the issues and the things that occupy me. I am screaming about about this culture of violence both domestic and sexual. Whether it’s in the workplace or in schools; where students are trying to get through school avoiding the lecturer who is trying to sleep with them or who is failing them because they refuse to sleep with him. I am screaming about the complexities in seeking justice. For me essentially, it’s about people coming to that realization of gender violence and its normalization. We have started to see and think of it as a way of life.
Something that is also big for me is the culture of shame. It adds so much complexity to how it is that we deal with things and how it is that we are silenced. I think that the shaming silences you much more than the act itself. Everyone is preoccupied by this image of perfection; that by speaking up, you are not only shaming yourself, you are apparently shaming your family, your friends and everyone around you.
Gaamangwe: I have come to this realization that sometimes I don’t even realize that my daily experiences are filled with so much violence because it’s being normalized. So how do we navigate this world that has normalized a lot of our experiences, especially as a women?
Wana: I think some shift is happening, but I think it’s happening around women. We are sharing our stories a lot more, and the more we share with each other, the more others can say that happened to me too. Even with the many debates happening around, we are hearing things that can be painful and unexpected but it’s really good because we are refusing to be silenced and shamed. These conversations are important. So it’s important to keep talking.
My issue with these sorts of progressive conversations is that they are not happening on the ground. So the guy who is in the office harassing people gets away with it because there are no policies in place that can help people resolve things that are happening to them at work or in school. So progressive policies should exists in a way that everyone can access.
Gaamangwe: How do we also move these progressive dialogues that we are having on social media platforms to my aunt who is living in my home village? Because its important that as people ‘on the know’ we create inclusive dialogues for people who don’t have access, and also so that we actually create shifts on a structural level?
Wana: I think that’s where the work needs to be done. How do we move from typing in our keypads to getting involved with local communities and authorities? How do we use and amend existing policies so they can serve us best? We can have conversations on twitter and write all these articles but in your office is there any exact harassment policy? What are you doing with the fact that people are getting dismissed because they are pregnant? There are so many layers to it. But I think we need to get to that point where people come together and say; here are the things we need and deserve, how can we include this in the policy of the company?
The point is in your own working space, where do you have influence? What are those physical spaces that you can penetrate? Have you gone to those union meetings and said; Let’s talk about this. How are you participating when you are in spaces where young girl and women are being harassed?
Sometimes we enjoy the intellectualizing of things that we easily forget that there are so many people whose privileges are different and who exist in a different spaces. That’s where the conversation about intersectionality comes in. The dialogues are very important and everything has its space but if we want to see more structural changes we need to be more physically proactive.
Gaamangwe: For me this has translated to—if I want to be proactive about women issues first of all, I have to start with the men in my life. I am coming to this space with understanding that they might not truly get the daily landscapes that women exists in, and so rather than bring those expectations and theories I share my own personal experiences. And I see a shift. Small but a shift nonetheless.
Wana: Yes, you have to humanize the experiences. Because as much as we want to theories and intellectualize things, on the primitive level and on our everyday normalized experiences, a lot of misogynists actually don’t know that they are being this way. There are so many people who have oppressed and perpetrated all sorts of violence on other people and they are not aware they are doing it. Because it’s normalized behavior. This is all they know; if a girl comes to your house, it means she is offering. Dual consent is a difficult concept for them to understand. They will say; we were chilling, you were giving me the signs, you can’t withdraw now. Because that’s all people know. We need to understand normalization because when you normalize a culture there are a lot of layers to break.
Gaamangwe: There is also the scenario that if you invite a man that you like into your house because you want to be with him but not actually engage beyond that with him, there is this external pressure that sometimes leads to you engaging with them in that way. Because there is the aspect of culture that says if you like someone, you can’t say no. It’s so complex and frustrating.
Wana: And when something happens to you, you deal with double shame because you think you put yourself in that position. You don’t tell anyone. You are coming to terms with what has just happened to you. You are trying to tell yourself this didn’t really happen because I know this person. I think those are some of the things we encounter and we are trying to navigate.
You hear people say things like women are stubborn and their husbands have to discipline them. And you hear them say ‘yes to be honest I was very stubborn, I have a sharp mouth’ as though they deserved the slap. The unfortunate part is that systematic oppression recycles itself by making women also custodians of that culture.
That’s why I tell people that oppression is not a one-sided system because what it does is that it also makes women become perpetrators of violence towards other women. When you try to tell your story, you get “you asked for it”. The oppressed becomes the oppressor.
Gaamangwe: I witnessed this when I went to a Bridal Shower once. I was listening to women giving advises on how to be the perfect wife. And what was flying around was these very oppressive, restrictive and shaming narratives, and the scary thing was how these narratives were taken as the end and be all, because these are what women are told from generation to generations.
Wana: This is where the idea of self-awareness comes, because with it we are able to question what we’ve been taught, the things we believe in, and the narratives that tell us how to be. So we have to push this idea of self-awareness because a lot of people don’t do it. Not because they don’t want to but because they don’t know how. It’s shocking how you hear the same things at bridal showers; it’s the woman’s responsibility to keep a home, a woman must be very prayerful. Like why do you exonerate the other party? Are they not responsible for this union too? I don’t know if that’s going to change anytime soon.
Gaamangwe: One of the things that is often said at bridal showers is “don’t go out telling people about the problems in your home. Keep it within yourself”. Which is a form of shaming and silencing. Its tell us when all is great, and when it’s not, we don’t want to hear that.
When we think about anything that has to do with violence there is always the fact that society is not interested in participating, and this is how we are not able to place systems that help people who go through different kinds of violence because we tell them we don’t want to hear it. How do we change this?
Wana: I think it’s about recognizing that everyone has the capacity to access and influence their field or circle in someway. If yours is the ability to share your story and being honest about your journey or how you got through a certain thing, then start there. As long as you are within a structural space, you exist within a society, so whatever it is within your framework and access, do it. I honestly don’t have the answers but for me it’s important that everyone knows and understands that they have a responsibility to say something, to do something and change something. I really believe that change doesn’t have to be this massive thing; it’s just everyone working within their own spaces.
We don’t all have to be politicians or be in spaces of power to change things. We have to be realistic about the different frameworks that people exist in. The way that you have a conversation about this is not the way a market woman will have a conversation about this. So the point is to at least find a baseline to say; what is wrong with this? And what can we do to ensure that it doesn’t keep happening?
I feel like there has been a certain levels of progress whether it’s conversations or people reporting about things and hearing stories. Recently Mirabel Centre released a report that in the spaces of two years in Lagos they had cases over 2000 sexual assault reports come to them and only twenty have been convicted. And there is a lot of this. We have a culture where people are tired of the system because the legal system takes a long time for stuff to get done, and so you have people who are exhausted because they are trying to heal and trying to seek justice at the same time. So the question is how do we move to making things effective and fast so that people don’t have to go through agonizing pain.
Gaamangwe: This is so devastating. Our systems are not equipped to deal with traumatic experiences, and this lack of effectiveness is so harmful to trauma survivors. Our fear of attending to trauma is actually scary. But the sad thing is that trauma has a way of endlessly repeating itself over and over again, until it’s attended to or resolved in some way.
Wana: But I wonder, what is it about us that makes us fear attending to trauma? And just generally going into the depth of things. We rather just laugh about things you know. Do you think it’s too real and we are not ready to confront?
Gaamangwe: I don’t know if it’s instinct but we don’t like discomfort. But I think it’s much deeper than that. I think it goes into the very basis of the human experience. Generally we don’t like the unknown. This is why we strive so much with creating systems and forcing people to live in these systems because we do not want to explore the alternatives.
If we go to the spiritual level of what humanity is; we are battling with the very truth that first of all we are not entirely and consciously in control of what happens in our daily experiences. There is another force beyond our current, physical selves that is in control. Two, we battle with the fact that we are mortal and at some point we are going to die and we don’t actually know what’s going to happen when that happens. So we create all these systems to make us feel comfortable, to make us feel like we are in control, and we are significant. And we try by all means to avoid the things that make us uncomfortable.
Wana: I agree. People are not ready to be disrupted. They don’t want their lives disrupted because it will be questioning everything they have ever known. Coming from a space where life, who you are and how you should be is already prescribed and you have found a comfortable zone, anything other than that is going to disrupt. And human all around are not ready for disruption.
Gaamangwe: I think also the idea of right and wrong. As in what is a right experience and what is a wrong experience is actually the foundation of all issues. All wars are based on; this is the right religion, this is the right gender, this is the right career. Our way is the right way. We battle with wanting to define things and experiences. Most times we don’t realize right and wrong is mostly a culmination of decisions made by generations and generations of people who thought that’s what works and what doesn’t work. Everything is an idea. We move between generations through ideas.
Wana: That’s exactly what socialization is and has done. We even talked about how parents end up passing their trauma to their children in so many interesting and nuanced ways. So they project their fears and their own past experiences, then deposit it onto their children without realizing.
Gaamangwe: Albert Einstein was once asked what do you think is the most important question that any human being can ask themselves. And he said that; “Do I live in a safe universe?”. Your answer to this question will determine how much you think about forces in the world. Are you powerful or not? Are you in control or not? Is everything out to get you or not? Answer this and create your reality.
Wana: Energy is a real thing, so whether it’s with people or what you read it comes with the spaces you enter. You allow yourself to absorb those things and they will have an impact on you. If you are consuming a diet everyday of negativity and danger, and thoughts that everyone is out to get you, this is all that will consume you. Even when you are saying your prayers this is all that is going to consume your prayer pattern. You are going to keep fighting demons in your prayers.
Gaamangwe: Yes. I now wonder why do you think, both on a philosophical, spiritual and social level, Africa is in the state that she is in?
Wana: I honestly don’t know. I think that we have a very complex history. There is complexity in the way that we have been formed as nations and divided up. Most of us were colonized by one country to another, which also meant that there is a lot about ourselves that we discarded. It’s like you had an identity and you are given another one. So there are a lot of layers of things that happened to us a continent, and they are a lot of borders that has been created and in many ways we are still trying to find ourselves within and outside those experiences.
We had to deal with a lot in our history; colonization and slavery. And then we are supposed to deal with this fabricated amnesia that is expected of us. Then forget everything that happen and be this new person. We now have a generation that is asking questions about who we were, what it means to be us, within this new framework of a colonized person. It’s like decolonization within colonization. We are trying to find ourselves outside of this person we were given. So it’s a lot to deal with.
Gaamangwe: It’s so complex and complicated. How do we get to the other side?
Wana: I think it’s important to be honest about where we are. I think we are all in a process, especially in our generation, of unpacking a lot about ourselves. Whether it’s what we have been physically, emotionally, intellectually or culturally prescribed. We are all in a process of moving from negotiation to interrogation. I think it’s great that we can start being honest about it without being authoritarian because we are all trying to figure something out. I’m glad we have conversations about this stuff, and we don’t have to agree but we don’t have to be violent either. Let’s focus on figuring it out.
Gaamangwe: I am so excited to be in this time because people are now speaking up and interrogating everything. I do think we are making great strides. Bringing it back to the incredible work that you do in your various projects, how are you making strides?
Wana: I define my job roles as Journalist, Poet and Filmmaker. And for me, It’s being able to reflect real stories as honestly as I can. I am drawn to social realism. My web show Room 313 was a way of putting a camera in front of our people and allowing them talk about the experiences they go through albeit through fiction. People have a lot of things to talk about; gender violence, suicide, depression and mental health issues.
I have an episode where a guy’s wife commits suicide and I express how he reacts. For me there is a cultural nuance to that because we are in a country that says depression and suicide are white people problems. It’s not a real, Black African problem. So how does someone coming from that space deal with the fact that the person they loved could not tell them what was going on with them? Especially when they thought they were doing everything required from them. You know this masculine thing men should do. So you’ve got this guy saying; I did my best, I was a good husband, I provided and he’s talking about these very physical things that we attach to masculinity. But we know that depression is much deeper.
I have another character that is dying and struggling to tell people that they are sinking. Another character who was raped and whose husband was forced to watch. And later he divorces her because he cannot deal with it. So it’s really about questioning a lot of our experiences. So I am hoping that everything I do is in a subtle way able to ask people questions. I want people to see themselves in the work. I want to be able to humanise people’s experiences. That when you hear a poem you hear your experience, when you see a story your see your story.
I did a documentary about my friend who has a skin condition called Psoriasis and the feedback that we got was from people dealing with different physical ailments. People could connect. They too felt discriminated because others looked at them like they are dirty, ugly and sub human. It didn’t have to be the exact same situation or story but it was a specific experience that can also be universal. So this is what I aim for. Because, I think that we are so much alike than we think we are unlike. So my hope is that this is what my work will do. I don’t know if I am achieving that completely and I will continue trying to articulate that.
Gaamangwe: I love how you gauge all these different aspects that come into play in anyone’s experience or narratives. That nothing actually exists in an isolated space. You understand trauma and the fact that wholeness is so much more than what’s currently happening. Thank you for joining me in this space.