Tag Archives: Women Issues

Women Who Live On The Margin of Society.: A Dialogue With Tshepo Jamillah Moyo

Tshepo Moyo (1)

Sometimes “The Joy” but always a Poet, Writer and Super Hero; Born 1994, Tshepo Jamillah Moyo (TJ) is an unapologetic black Pan African Inter-sectional Feminist performance artist. Her work centers on the exploration of black African womanhood.

At 18 years, she received her first publication in an online anthology with the University of Nebraska via their Prairie Schooner platform. Her poem “Battleship” was published alongside some of Botswana’s literary legends – namely TJ Dema, Barolong Seboni, Lesego Nchunga and Andreatta Chuma. This was only the beginning and she has since been published in Emergence; An artistic Journal of Women and Gender Non-Conforming People, and  Walking The Tight Rope: Poetry and Prose by LGBTQ Writers from Africa. She was profiled in WAVE WOMEN’s 50 Formidable Women coffee table book along with 49 other Batswana women including such household names as Sheila Tlou, Athalia Molokomme, Mmamasire-Mwamba, Linah Moholho, and Immelda Molokomme. Tshepo is currently working on her first book, a collection of poetry.

In her dedication to literature, Tshepo has experience as a journalist having written for The Tswana Times and multiple online platforms including The Afrolutionist. In 2016, The Echo Newspaper hosted her column 1thirdofawoman which follows her blog of the same title’s theme of engaging socio-economic political dialogue.

Miss Moyo is a regular theatre performer and has appeared in numerous productions aimed mostly at bringing awareness to the issues she holds dear. She spent majority of her teen years volunteering and contributing to life changing causes such as Peace is love, a yearly play to raise funds for organisations working against Gender Based Violence. In her spare time TJ offers mentorship and guidance to young women under her work with The African Women Leadership Academy. However, she also sits on the board of a national NGO Higher Heights for Girls in Botswana which she spearheaded forming at the age of 20. In her work with Higher Heights for Girls Tshepo works towards training adolescents in Sexual Reproductive Health Rights and Responsibilities and Gender Based Violence. She has had the opportunity to use this work with in-school adolescents to inform the 2036 Botswana Vision as she was called on to give her expertise in 2016. Miss Moyo is not only an avid activist, reader, facilitator and present member of society but also a colourful nourished writer and performance artist.

This conversation took place in the charming sweetspot of Fego Cafe in Gaborone, Botswana by person.

 
Gaamangwe:  Recently, a young woman was sexually harassed and assaulted by a group of men and women at the Bus Rank, here in Botswana. Supposedly, this assault was based on the belief that her dress was too short and inappropriate. On June 3rd, human rights and gender activists, and fellow women marched in the RIGHT TO WEAR WHAT I WANT walk, which aimed to highlight that no one has the right to violate another human being based on what they are wearing. Now post the march, an image of you, taken by Mathiam  Basha-Agha is circulating in the internet. There is an uproar of people who feel that what you wore (Black T-shirt, Unbuttoned shorts pants with a visible Victoria Secret underwear, and fishnet stockings) was inappropriate. Furthermore, there is a huge backlash towards the statement that you wrote in your body; Hoe is Life. How has this experience been like for you?

TJ:  The decision to go to the march was a very simple one for me. After the assault happened, I knew that I wanted to go march. It was my public duty to go. Before the march, I intentionally choose and planned my outfit. The intention was to shock. It was to disturb the idea that I needed somebody’s permission to wear what I was wearing. People are asking if my parents knew, if my father knew, but my parents don’t own my body, so it doesn’t matter if they did or didn’t know.

I am not shocked over this backlash. As Batswana, we have a very unhealthy culture with social media. We are very hurtful on social media. Nobody actually thinks about what they are saying and what the impact of what they are saying will have on other people.

I am tired because people think that, that photo happened to me or that day happened to me. The conversation should not really be about me or my body. It shouldn’t be about “Hoe is Life”. I understand why it is, I understand why it needs to happen but the truth of the matter is I feel everyone is deflecting from the issue that really matter.

Right now, everybody feels entitled to my body; they think they can give me their opinions about how I should dress it, what  I write on it and what message I should give,  because they think I owe them dignity, I owe their children dignity. It just goes to show you that we are a sick society and there is so much work that has to be done.

As I walked into the Bus Rank and all those people were so angry at us, even when I left the march, I knew the march was not enough. I knew that there is so much education, learning and unlearning, and work that needs to be done.  I have been doing activism work around issues like this for the longest time. So it should be clear that the march was not the beginning of my work around educating people around this. It’s definitely not the end.

Gaamangwe: I think that your image and the dialogue it has created is so powerful because we really discovered how people actually think. People still don’t understand that everyone has the right to choose what they wear, and no one has the right to persecute, violate, attack or harm them in anyway, under no circumstance or space. A lot of the narrative was about how that was not what a girl child is supposed to wear in public. The concept of dignity which claims that a woman is supposed to be a certain way in certain spaces.

TJ: Yes, and the woman who is not that way then deserves disrespect and violence, and doesn’t deserve the dignity of life.

During the march, I was very upset because there was a woman who was speaking over the mike who kept saying “Assault and rape are done by people who are not educated”, but we all know that is not the case. People who are educated and smart enough to understand the concept of autonomy, which is really a simple concept, also do assault and rape.  Assault and rape is not an uneducated woman or man’s problem. It’s something that cuts across race, gender and class. It’s everybody’s problem.

That is why we need intersectional feminism. Intersectional Feminism thinks about every single woman, and all the intersections of her life  where those oppressions comes  from. There are women who we believe because they are poor deserve to be raped. Some people say “this woman is someone’s sister, someone’s daughter” but what if I don’t have a family? What if I am an orphan? Then I deserve to be abused and raped because I don’t belong to anybody? The idea that there are certain people who deserve dignity and there are people who don’t, is exactly why I wrote “Hoe is Life” in my body. Because there are women who are considered hoes, and they are rejected from society, and treated as if they don’t deserve the right and dignity of life.

A lot of these discussions tend to be based on ideas that we claim are our cultures and ways of life as a society. But clearly we have a lot of learning and unlearning to do if we fail to understand the importance of autonomy, rights and dignity that every human being is entitled to. The question now is; as this is clearly not a degree or university issue, what kind of education do we need to implement here, and what kind of education are we talking about?

Gaamangwe. This is a very important question because people who are supposedly educated also seem to not get the very basic concept of human right and dignity of life for all humans. There are so many aspects at play here. We are dealing with interconnected systems of oppressions, and so we have to understand that we need to ensure accessibility to holistic education to all the various oppressive systems, their toxicity and how we maintain them as a society. What is clear is that more women seem to understand the toxicity of patriarchy while men really struggle to actually understand it.

TJ: Yes, that’s also another thing. But how are we expecting men to step out of their privilege?  This is the same way that we have some politician who are refusing to let go of their seats, because of the power they have. Patriarchy puts men in a position of power. And we can’t exactly expect them to easily say “Whoa! I think this might be too much power”. They like and enjoy it. They benefit from it. But I do have hope that there are men out there who realize that life is ten times easier for them than it is for any woman, because once you begin to see your privileges the less you step into the spaces of others.

Gaamangwe:  Yes. But a lot of men don’t actually understand the daily war zones women navigate on a daily basis.  How terrifying and uncomfortable it is for a woman to walk in the streets in broad daylight. Men fail to understand the daily undertones of potential violence layered in every single encounter with a male body.

TJ: And then you have the good men who say; I defend women, I don’t abuse and violate women.  I don’t treat women like that. But you don’t call out your brothers, male friends and fathers that treat women like that.

Gaamangwe: But can we also assess this idea of good men. Because I think a lot of men actually think that there are these wholesome all around good men. Just because a man has not done something violent towards the women in their lives, it doesn’t mean that they are not some women from all the people they have interacted with in their lifetime, who have not felt unsafe, violated and harassed in some way by the same man.

TJ: Whenever I say men are trash, the first question that I get is; is your dad trash? And I am like; not to me! My dad is amazing. My day has been showing up for me for the past 22 years. He is literally the most embarrassed man right now, and he could have gone on the internet and said I don’t know that girl, and he hasn’t done that. My dad has been affirming me and making sure that he plays a huge role in the feminist that I am today. But I will tell you something, I am sure there is some woman out there in the world who will say “Your dad once did something that really made me feel unsafe”.

And that’s the problem of respectability politics. You cannot pick which women you are going to be nice to, based on who they are related to, how much money they make and what they wear. It’s not going to cut it. Consistency or nothing. All women or no women.

I am sure there are men who are saying TJ did the right thing. I received a phone call from a rapper who told me he is so happy and proud of me, and that this is such an important conversation that I am making with the world. My first thought when he called was; what rubbish is he going to say? After he said that to me, the second thing that came to my mind was; why isn’t he saying this on a public platform? Because he can’t afford for his rapper friends and male friends to know that he supports what I am doing, and their behaviour is wrong. Because then he will then have to admit that him and his friends and the way they treat women is wrong. Men have this thing I call the Boy’s Club, which is the most toxic and disgusting thing ever. Basically, even when men are not friends, they will defend each other. You will be in the club with a man, and you will say to a man, you can’t ask me out because I have a man, and that man will respect the idea of you having a boyfriend, more than the idea of you saying no, I am not interested. He respects a man that he’s never ever met in his life more than he respects you the woman he likes.

Gaamangwe: True. There are so many dialogues on social media right now, particularly on your image and the statement “Hoe is Life”.  Clearly people don’t actually understand what it means, what it represents and what it stands for. Although, that is still not a reason to attack you.  What does this statement mean to you, and why was it important for you to write it in your body?

TJ: So first of all, let’s starts here and make this clear; Hoe is Life. This statement actually started as a hashtag on twitter (as all good things start on twitter). The idea behind this is about sexual liberation for women. When you claim your sexuality, and people calling your hoe for it, that is fine because that is your body and you are allowed to do with it whatever and however you please. But of course it’s advisable to always be safe.

Hoe is Life is important because when women claim themselves, even when you are not claiming your sexuality as a woman, but you are assertive, you own yourself, your body and your choices, you will be called names like a hoe or bitch, and most of the times these words are created to exclude women from womanhood.

The good women, don’t get called hoes. The women who don’t conform, the bad women, get called hoes. Those were the women that I was walking for. The women who live in the margin of womanhood. The women whobecause you have decided that you are going to take your brother to court for refusing to give a piece of the landare excluded in the family. Because you are approached by a man who is ridiculously rich and you told him, his money doesn’t matter you are now a bad woman. Because you are approached by a man and his money did matter (because they can’t make their minds up, about which one is bad and which is good; it’s you must get a rich husband so he can take care of you but if there is a man taking care of you, then you are a bad woman. Huh?).

The women who are lesbians, the women who are trans women, (because when we are asked, where were the trans women in the movement we say  we didn’t invite them because we didn’t want them to derail and talk about those things), the sex workers (women who live in the margins of darkness and have to spend their lives running because of criminalization of their jobs, and who can’t afford to come out and march because they can’t afford to because that’s time that could be making them money). Those are the women I was marching for. The women who nobody finds socially acceptable. The women nobody wants to identify with. Nobody wants to be friends with and wants to be known to support.

Because those are the women who are called hoes and bitches. They are constantly excluded from our society and I was simply saying these women matter. I will never be okay with the reality that I have access to certain rights and another woman doesn’t have access to the same rights. For example, in Botswana everyone has access to basic free health care, but a lot of the times, there are women who when they go to the hospital they don’t get that access. Trans women don’t get access to that. There is a little girl in Maitengwe who really doesn’t want to wear a skirt to school, and she keeps being forced to wear it. That was the girl I was walking for. The one who say; I am not allowed but I still exist.

Gaamangwe: And who often most of the time society is comfortable with not bearing witness to their violation.

TJ: Yes, for example the woman who was walking in the Bus Rank, people say she was drunk, so deserved it. Aren’t men sometimes drunk at the bus rank? Do they get abused and violated when that happens? Some people say she was insulting others. But when a child is insulting others, don’t we take them to kgotla? When did it become our culture to address people when they are misbehaving, ourselves?

Even our religious systems don’t support assaulting people. It’s not written anyway in any of the religious texts that you can assault people if they are not wearing what you deem right. Even if a woman is naked, you don’t assault her. In case of wrong doing, you hold a trial. I don’t understand how people can just decide that there are the court/ judge/police office/executioner and the person’s lawyer.  It is so uncivilized. Our culture has systems in place, most of which don’t work but to say violence is our culture? Is a blatant lie.

Gaamangwe: Actually it doesn’t matter what state she was in; whether she was drunk, whether she was insulting others, or whether she was mentally unstable. It doesn’t matter. No one had the right to violate her.

One other upsetting aspect of the assault at the Bus rank is that there were some women who sat through the abuse, and even participated in the abuse. And in your case, some women were at the forefront of attacking your photo.

TJ: Even at the march, there were women marching besides me, who were attacking me. They thought and felt like I was being inappropriate and I was derailing their movement. These women are gatekeepers of patriarchy, also known as Patriarchy Princesses.

But here is the thing: it’s all women or there is no movement.  Don’t ever in your life think you are safe for as long as another woman is not safe. Don’t make that mistake.

Women who attack other women are the same women who will go out with their male friends, watch them get other women drunk and take them home, knowing very well that’s rape, and still think it will never happen to them because their male friends care about them.

The Gender Ministry published a study, and it showed that 67% of women in Botswana have been sexually assaulted and admit to having experienced gender based violence. Almost half of those women say that they have experienced gender based violence at the hands of someone they knew. Meaning the men in their circle. The men some women are defending are the same people who are abusing women, as a matter of fact abusing them.

We also have the Pick me women. The “I am better than the other woman.” Women who think that society works like this, and it must work like this, and that they are safe because they fit in and work according to the rules. But the reality is that good women who keep by the rules and do everything right are still raped and assaulted by men. As long as you are a woman, you are not safe.

I understand the Pick me as people who want to be part of the Boy’s Club. But you are not. You will be with a man who you have known your whole life and you will walk up to him and say that man harassed me, and he will go to that man who harassed you and say “Ao my man, why did you touch her?” and he will say “Ao hardy my man”, and that will be the end of the conversation. Because of the Boy’s Club. Men will always pick men over women.

Gaamangwe: I do think that these women sometime choose a single view at that particular point in time, and neglect the other view at that same point. I refuse to believe that they are women who confidently feel safe when they have long dresses on. Every single woman who exists as a woman has felt unsafe at one point in their life. Every woman feels unsafe everyday of their life, regardless of whether they are well-mannered, have social appropriate clothing and live by the rules.

I asked a male relative; if you were put in a city and you were told some of the men here might rape you, would you leave your house? Of course, he said he wouldn’t leave the house at all. Yet that is our reality every single day.

TJ: The other day I was at the cinema with my mom, and I was texting on my phone, and these two little boys (they must have been fourteen) walked up to me. I was concentrating on my phone that I didn’t notice them until they were in front of me. My first instinct was to hide my phone in my chest, and these kids were so hurt because they were like we are not thieves. And I was like; I am so sorry boys, it has nothing to do with you. But it does have something to do with them. It is nothing individual but the collective meaning of the image of a man, which they are part of. Seeing and interacting with a man means possible danger. Even at fourteen years old, when I see two of them, I really don’t feel safe. I don’t know if I can actually manage to fight two boys.  Our reality, walking on the streets, is you are always assessing your environment, looking for things you can use to hit a man should he come out of the blue and attack you.

Gaamangwe:  Another dangerous belief is that men are naturally unable to control themselves. That you as a woman, you must do everything that you can, to make sure that men are not tempted to violate you.

This narrative says; “a woman must wear clothing that fully cover their body parts, so that a man doesn’t get excited, as we know men are easily excited, and can consequently fail to control themselves and will be forced to attack you. It is your responsibility  to ensure that you are not raped!”.

TJ: It’s confusing because we say men are trash and they get upset, yet here they clearly don’t believing in themselves. Who really cannot control their sexuality? If you want a burger and it is not yours, do you ever just eat the burger. No, you control your hunger. But, you can’t control your libido? Come on, just grow up. Men don’t even believe in themselves. They don’t believe in themselves and they want us to believe in them? No. Men need to believe in themselves, they need to hold themselves accountable, otherwise they will forever be trash.

Gaamangwe: So what  is the way forward?

TJ: Educating, changing the world’s view and behavioral change, is going to take a very, very long time.  When I first started my activism I started with blogging.  I wrote this blog-post about abuse and I remember a young woman inboxed me and told me that, that blog-post had been the reason that she got out of her abusive relationship. I shared that conversation with a friend of mine and I remember him saying; this is so important because this girl is going to have this conversation with five other girls, who are going to have it with five other girls and so on, and maybe out of all those girls at least three of the five will get out of their abusive relationships. Maybe they will start holding the men in their lives accountable because half of the time nobody holds men accountable. Mothers coddle a lot of the men, and the rest of society is left to deal with them.

So we need to start holding each other accountable. When you see your friend commenting on Facebook and being out of line, don’t just stand there. It’s your responsibility to comment because it affects you as the end of the day.

But it is not my responsibility to educate everyone. I am doing my fair to educate the people in my life that are around me and the people I have access to. There are also spaces that I go into that are not in my direct personal life. I have always been a supporter of the statement that the personal is political. So if you politically agree with me, you need to hold the people in your lives accountable. If your father is sitting there in the car and he is saying “whoa, this girl is such a problem”, you need to say “but that’s my friend”. I support her, I agree with her because of this and this.

You need to challenge patriarchy every day in your life. So that everybody in society can start growing, our cultures can evolve and we can move forward and beyond what is currently happening in our personal and collective spheres. The thing is once society starts shifting its mind-sets around one thing, then you make everybody else evolve, you make our activists jobs easy. We don’t get much resistance. So if we can start in our homes, schools, offices, churches and any other spaces we all access, then it will make a huge difference. There is a lot of work to be done, but we can do some much together.

My title has always been Poet, Writer and Superhero, which is very ironic because everyone is calling me a hero right now, but I have always identified as a Superhero because I think the work that I do as an activist saves lives.

Gaamangwe: Thank you TJ for your powerful work, and for joining me in this space.

Gaamangwe Joy Mogami is a writer, filmmaker and founder of Africa in Dialogue. She is the curator of Brunel International African Poetry Prize Interviews With Africa in Dialogue.

 

The Disappearances of Women: A Dialogue With Titilope Sonuga

Titilope-Sonuga-Portrait-Kosol-Onwudinjor-Photo

Titilope Sonuga is an award-winning poet, writer & performer based in Lagos, Nigeria. She renders, both in verse and in performance, a remarkable elegance of craft, a quality of rootedness and an unflinching womanhood that makes her one of Nigeria’s leading performance poets. She has graced stages across the country and internationally, and in May 2015, she was the first poet to appear at a Nigerian presidential inauguration. She has authored two collections of poetry, and her third This Is How We Disappear is forthcoming. Her spoken word album Mother Tongue is available on iTunes.

This conversation took place in the cold, sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and a quiet sanctuary in the bustling heart of Lagos  by Skype.

Gaamangwe: Titilope, your work is rooted in womanhood, in celebrating  and appraising the woman experience in its entirety. I want to start here;  on your womanhood and why it’s important for you to celebrate, explore and interrogate  it?

Titilope: I didn’t start out knowing that this was how my work would evolve. I wasn’t that deliberate. The rigorous process of stepping into my womanhood, how jarring that was, how it shook the foundation of what I thought I knew, created an urgency for me to go back inside. I wanted to understand, to heal, to be whole and naturally that began to reflect in the work.

I celebrate women to push back against the narratives that say we should do otherwise. I celebrate women not to hold us up as these long suffering beings with an endless capacity for suffering, but to hold us up as completely human. There’s this expectation particularly in this country for women to carry so much and get so little credit for all of that carrying until we buckle beneath that weight, we lose ourselves, we disappear.

This is an idea that is at the center of this new collection that I am working on, disappearance in response to trauma or loss, as an act of survival, but also shape shifting as a form of rebellion. The collection began with a handful of poems about the disappearance of the Chibok girls, but grew to become an exploration of the physical and psychological disappearance of women, in Nigeria in particular.

I wanted to look at what it says about our humanity when over 200 girls disappear and no one goes looking. I wanted to explore the second and third disappearances these girls must have experienced as a means to survive. I was interested in how women respond to being pressed in on every side by culture, tradition or religion and the new shapes we take.

I am also particularly interested in this idea of our magic, how we disappear ourselves from the boxes we have been put in, just in time, before the saw comes down. I imagine these tricks as something passed down through generations of women. I wanted to rejoice in the power of being able to leave our old selves behind and reappear as something with sharper teeth and stronger claws.

I talk about our trauma, heartache and grief as a way to sweep the secrets out from under the carpet. I want us to look at where it hurts so that we can start to do the work of reclaiming what we have lost, so that we can ease the suffering that comes from that kind of loss.

My work is rooted in black womanhood and the complexity of what that means, the many different forms that our womanhood takes, because I love us. Because there is something truly divine about a woman stepping fully into herself. I honestly think black women are the closest thing to God.

Gaamangwe: The reality of how women, especially black women disappear on a daily basis is so heartbreaking. Everyday we have to claw ourselves from all these different spaces and borders that we disappear into. How do you try to not disappear?

Titilope: I write to create a pathway back to my truest self. I find myself in the poetry. It always feels like a kind of digging, like I am trying to uncover a part of myself that has been buried. In a sense, every poem feels like I am continuing on this digging from the last. In performances now, I find myself going from one poem into the next and into the next, because I started to see a rhythm in this digging and I knew that I needed the collective momentum of the poems to dig myself out.

There are so many things thrust upon us as black women, as Nigerian women, as African women, that we don’t even know that we are disappearing beneath it until we are already neck deep in it, until we are already gone.

Writing brings me back out of the earth and back into myself. It allows me to remember what I know for sure. Some poems feel like a reminder, some poems feel like salt on a really bad wound, some feel like talking to a friend. So, poetry is the way I unpack, the way I uncover myself again and again.

Gaamangwe: I resonate with that. What are the narratives that are trying to make you disappear?  

Titilope: Every single day there’s a news story about a woman or girl abducted, assaulted, and murdered. For every one of those stories there are hundreds more that we hear nothing about. We are simultaneously negotiating these physical disappearances, these acts of violence against our bodies and carrying the mental burden of knowing that we have to save ourselves.

It is heartbreaking that the people in power to protect us require us to be perfect victims, to explain what we were doing or what we were wearing. We have to constantly explain why we deserve to live. The devastation of having to explain your worth can erode all the courage you can muster to get up everyday.

Nigeria is very slow on the uptake that women are complete and with agency. That marriage and childbirth are not the upper limits of accomplishment. That each conversation about gender equity doesn’t have to boil down to who is in the kitchen pounding yam.

There is also so much shame and pressure on women who choose to live their lives on their own terms. The imaginary goal post is always moving, there’s always something we should be doing, and it is typically in service of holding up men as mini-gods and keeping their egos intact.

It is extremely refreshing to be in the company of women who are vocal, who are pissed off, quite frankly, and who are not afraid to use their voices and their platforms every day. It is also refreshing to meet men who recognize that this imbalance exists and are ready to do the work to move in a different direction, in the very least start to change things within their own circles of influence.

It is a lot of intellectual and emotional heavy lifting, and it gets exhausting. It is very easy to find yourself starting to quiet down slowly for the sake of peace. If you are exposed to something long enough, all of the things you think you know about yourself come into question. Each day becomes a fight to protect your truth.

Gaamangwe: It is so overwhelming to look at all the things that women negotiate on a daily basis. We negotiate the realities of our disappearances and how they are often this is invalidated by the men in our lives and our communities. Our burden does not end with our traumas, we are often driven to educate men in our lives, on how we are traumatized, how they traumatize us and  how the patriarchal community traumatizes us.

When we speak about the presence and influence of males in women reality, I think about your poem  “Speaking Into The Void”. Listening to it,  I got the sense that you’ve been influenced by your father.  How have the males in your life influenced your womanhood and your becoming into yourself?

Titilope: I do agree about keeping your circle accountable and creating spaces for that sort of honest dialogue. There is a lot of room for growth in that kind of space. I also think it is particularly unfair for the entire burden to educate and carry along to fall on women. We have enough work to do. In the same way that we are organizing, calling each other to order and keeping each other accountable, men should also be doing the same in their own spaces.

The people who I choose to keep in my life are doing the work on their own but also with me. I can’t be around men who are misogynistic or men who don’t view me as a whole person. My parents raised four girls and raised us to believe we could literally do anything. I feel super privileged to have grown up that way, with parents who braced me up and made me feel powerful.

That particular poem is centered on my relationship with my father, but both my parents have been huge influences in my life. My father was really strict when we were growing up, he has softened with old age and grandchildren. Academic excellence was such a big deal to him. It puts you under pressure as a child, to please, to use your achievements as a way to draw out the affection you so desire.

My sisters are pharmacists and accountants and I became an engineer, so imagine how challenging it was to say to my parents, to my father in particular, “Hey, this life that I have been living is a lie and I’m unhappy and I want to try something else and I want to try something that comes without structure or stability but it’s the thing that I really want to do”.

I think they were fearful but they had also seen me grow and they knew it was in me. My parents introduced us to literature, art and music. I remember my dad taking us to go watch classical concerts when we were just little girls and we didn’t really understand what was happening. This was in Nigeria, at a time when it was pretty expensive to do that.  We would sit there and try to listen until we fell asleep. He insisted on exposing us to as many different experiences as possible. My mother gave me my first notebook to write about my days while she was away on trips, my first true introduction to storytelling. The seeds had been planted.

I think all parents struggle when their children become themselves and have opinions and full ideas about the kind of lives they want to live, but my parents pushed past their fears and encouraged me anyway. That has been such a blessing to me.

When I talk about women and the way they disappear, I think about my mother a lot because she gave up so much of herself so that we could have the life that we had. I think she is now finally in a place where she is trying to reclaim herself, even in her 60s. There’s something really soft and beautiful about seeing her journey, as a woman myself now, and watching her come to terms with her truth. She is not just this superhuman woman who would do anything for her children, but she is also this person who is doing the complicated work of inching towards the most whole version of herself.

Gaamangwe: I appreciate this wholesome, broad way of looking at how  both the light and the dark has influenced and served your journey. We can always salvage ourselves. But of course, they are some journeys that are far too deep, traumatising and collective.

You wrote and performed an incredible poem “Hide and Seek” which was about the traumas that some societies in your country went through. I was moved by the idea that we need to name thingswe need to name people, we need to name our traumasand we cannot hide all these things from ourselves.

We need to start looking at these things as if they are our own because someone else’s pain is ours, we are all interconnected. How was the whole process of writing this poem?

Titilope: I love this Adrienne Rich quote — “There must be those among whom we can sit down and weep and still be counted as warriors” and often times I sit and think about that quote in relation to myself, in moments when I think I am not a warrior and I don’t know how to fight in that way but I have this language, I have this art and I have this poetry and maybe that is me sitting and weeping and still being counted as a warrior.

It was particularly important for me to say something because at the time when I wrote those poems, there are 3 different poems actually that make up “Hide and Seeks” they are performed back to back as one poem, which is what I talked about earlier and finding the glue in my work and realizing that most of my work doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it exist in relationship with something.

I wrote that poem or those poems because I didn’t know what else to do and I felt compelled to do something. It was almost as though I was sitting in a burning house and everybody else was just sitting and watching television and I was trying to scream and trying to tell them that we are in danger and we need to do something. The poems came obviously after the kidnapping of the Chibok girls, it also talk about the Buni Yadi boys, a group of young boys that were killed at their school. It also talks about the bombings that were happening at the time Boko Haram was at its most vicious. I was talking about all those things at the same time.

I started to think about how we were sort of treating the disappearance of these girls as though it was something casual, a game of hide and seek that we were playing, that we would find them eventually because it was just a game we were playing. It horrified me to think these young girls were out there thinking that the adults in their lives and their country would come through for them. Surely they wouldn’t be forgotten, somebody would find them eventually. I imagined them as the days went on, the slow heartbreaking realization that nobody was coming to save them. How terrifying, to accept that you have been abandoned.

When you give the girls their names, when you think about them as people with dreams and desires, it is more difficult to ignore that these are people’s daughters and somebody came and just took them away.

It’s been 3 years (April 14 2014) since they were taken. They are trickling back bit-by-bit. Some of them are mothers now, some have reportedly been sold off or martyred. We do not know for sure. What we do know is, these girls will never be the same again.

Who are they now, what resources exist within an already broken system to support them. If you hold that in context of how women are treated in this country and the stigma of what they have experienced, what are we bringing these girls back to? How do we ensure that they are not traumatized?

Hide and Seek was written in a time when I felt like we had touched a new rock bottom. Before that I wrote a poem called Icarus about our endless capacity to suffer and smile, how we experience the most horrific things and just keep on going.

It is almost as if the level of suffering that we are used to, the daily hustle for the next meal, a place to sleep, those things are so urgent that mourning and reflection feels like a luxury.

If we can recover from a place falling from the sky and killing hundreds of people, if we can recover from a group of boys being burnt alive for stealing, almost 300 girls being abducted for 3 years, it tells you the state of things.

Gaamangwe: It’s so disturbing how as a continent/world we have all these different ideas/lists/exercises that we implement on how to make money, how to survive a burning building, how to speak to elders etc, and nothing about how to heal the self, how to address one’s trauma. We have a dozens hospitals, clinic and churches but one or two mental hospitals, psychiatric wards. It’s almost as if we say that trauma and griefs don’t exists, and actually don’t matter.

Post traumatic stress disorder is such a crippling disorder that requires intensive and vigorous address. It is really painful and horrible that women disappear not only emotionally but physically too. And very, few people care. Can you imagine how long will it take for the Chibok girls to heal and truly become integrated into their whole selves? A really, really long time. 

But Titilope, how can we not value human life like this? What do you think is the core problem? Why do human insist on having a gender, a race or a religion that is superior? If we look at all wars and all traumatizing experiences, there is always someone trying to be superior, better or more in control than other people. It is all about power. Violence seems to be about power..

Titilope: Power is such a seductive and intoxicating thing. Just look at the way that our countries are governed and how a leader can get into power and decide he needs to be in there for the rest of his life.

A lot of conversations that we have around the dynamics of power is governed by fear. The oppressor is always wondering what the oppressed will do with power once they have it. What happens when we take our heels off their necks, are they going to strike back? This is always the case when there’s an imbalance, whether you are talking about race or gender or class.

There are different kinds of poverty that we experience as a people. There is the not being able to physically sustain yourself and then there is a mental poverty of not knowing who we are, who we have been and who we could be. It is that kind of mental starvation that makes you want to steal more money than your children’s children could ever need, that makes you only think about yourself. It robs you of compassion, of kindness.

I often use driving in Lagos as a microcosm of our larger society. This city is one of the most insane places to drive because everybody is driving for themselves. It is aggressive, it is selfish, it is about “I need to take as much room on this lane as I can and I don’t care if I push you in a ditch or a trailer or your car somersaults, I don’t care. I have to get ahead of you”. That is the way Lagosian drive and often I am in the car thinking; if I am not willing to wait 30 seconds to allow someone in front of me, to wait 1 minute to allow this traffic to get through, to wait 5 minutes to ensure we all get where we are going, If I can’t do that, how can I be the sort of person who gets into a position of power and not abuse that?

How do we change that? How do we become kinder and more compassionate to each other. How do we learn to value each other in a way that is grounded in true and genuine love, regardless of gender or social class, or religion or sexuality?

We are easily the most religious people in the world, there is church on every corner in this city, yet we don’t practice those beliefs in our day-to-day lives. Why is that?

The only thing I know for sure is to keep writing and to keep creating something that holds itself as a mirror that says; look at us, look at what we become and maybe that will create enough momentum for us to start to change.

On the days that poetry feels inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, I remind myself of that one person who sends me a message and says; “thank you so much for writing that, I decided to get out of bed today, it made me feel less alone.” That’s good enough for me.

I’m doing a 3 part performance series in Lagos on June 25, July 16 and July 30, titled Open and it really is about this idea of trying to keep your heart soft, through it all, trying to stay grateful and peaceful. In turbulent times, art is the only thing I know for sure. It is the one way I know how to contribute, how to put a little bit of light back into the world. I want to keep doing that for as long as I live.

Gaamangwe: This has been inspiring, Titilope. Thank you for joining me in this powerful dialogue.

Gaamangwe Joy Mogami is a writer, filmmaker and founder of Africa in Dialogue. She is the curator of Brunel International African Poetry Prize Interviews With Africa in Dialogue.

 

Women Who Scream: A Dialogue With Wana Udobang

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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.