Tuesday, July 22, 2014

On Facing my Creative Self, Cushioned by Love


Mid December I got the news that I had been accepted for the 2014 Hedgebrook Writers’ Residency. I was over-the-moon ecstatic. For a mother of 4 energetic daughters and a wife, this was a precious gift and as the months rolled on I lived for those two precious weeks in July. After a 6 hour flight from Detroit on July 3, a shuttle ride from Seattle, and a ferry ride onto Whidbey Island, I was met in the town of Freeland by warm hearted Julie, who drove me to Hedgebrook farm. More warm and open hearts welcomed me.  I met Laurel, a writer from the Philippines sitting contentedly on a swing with her computer enjoying the outdoors. I later learned that this was her favorite spot. I was given a tour of the property, through the farm house which housed a library in a cozy family room, a kitchen and the revered farm house table.

We walked through the garden crunching on snap peas and inhaling the scent of a variety of colorful blooms. I picked raspberries off a bush and ate them, savoring the tart freshness. I took in deep cleansing breaths and exhaled the stress that had built up over months of work without pause to reflect and process.

Then we walked to Meadow House, the place that was to be my home for the next 2 weeks. I was awed by the hand crafted wood interior, the fireplace, the windows that allowed the entire place to be flooded with light and a breath taking view from my writing desk.

Finally left alone to unpack, I stared at the set of keys in my hand. I had here the keys to not just a room of my own but an entire house of my own for two weeks. I paged through the journals and discovered that Gloria Steinem, Ruth Ozeki and many other amazing women had stayed in Meadow House. Suddenly it hit me: That I stand on the shoulders of giants, great women whose work and support had gotten me to this place at this time. I thought of Nancy Nordhoff, who envisioned Hedgebrook and made the dream a reality, building beautiful cabins and a garden to feed women’s bodies and fuel their creativity. It struck me as remarkable that Nancy is herself not a writer, but she realized the importance of having more women’s voices in literature and the arts. She also realized the challenges women faced as writers, given all the responsibilities in many of their lives. Hedgebrook was the response to an urgent call and Nancy made it happen through her generosity.
I thought of my mentors, my mother and my daughters whose unwavering support and belief that I was a writer challenged me to keep giving voice to those issues and stories that I was most passionate about. I knew then that it was time to start respecting my work and honoring the calling that everyone else seemed to take more seriously than myself. In the elegant words of a special Beloved, it was time to “stop fucking around and to write the fucking Novel!” The belief in my ability expressed by the women in my life had brought me to Hedgebrook. Hedgebrook would complete what had been started.

Scared as I was to begin this journey, I knew I had to. I had a novel outline that I had sat with for over a year. The story was, in so many ways already written in my spirit and the time had come for me to strip away the layers that hindered the commitment of the story to paper. Every day, cushioned in this space of non-intrusive nurturing, the layers began to come off. The undressing was gentle and loving and I felt safe in this feminine space to face my completely naked creative self. I stopped resisting the impulse to stare for hours at Mount Rainer, or to take a walk down a trail leading to some place that I did not know. I trusted completely this sacred place, envisioned, created, and imbued with feminine energy. I trusted my creative self to show up if I opened up. I listened to birdsong and watched bunnies play outside my cabin. I listened to the crackling fire in the woodstove and to the monotonous humming of the fridge. I read and envisioned and cried and slept. Finally I was able to listen to and hear my inner voice. On the third day I sat at my computer and put down the story that had been writing itself inside me for a long time.

 Supported by amazing fellow writers with whom I shared an evening meal and some of the most precious conversations I have ever had, my novel progressed. The love that went into preparing our meals by some beautiful women sustained me during the tougher parts of the writing process. Unexpected but beautiful stories emerged from inside the story and a radical love story quietly but insistently inserted itself and asserted itself as the fulcrum of the novel. I had no idea where it came from but what I did know was that Hedgebrook was like a womb that nourishes, nurtures, protects and sustains women writers so that they in turn could give birth to the stories that the world needed to hear. This was for me the alchemy of Hedgebrook’s radical hospitality.

The final piece to my “coming of age” as a creative being was the journey I took with the guidance of Elizabeth Frediani: Healing through energy alignment. I learnt that my creativity was fed through nurturing myself the same way I cared for and nurtured others. I gained a deeper understanding of life events, past and present and how they affected the energy balance within me and therefore affected my creativity. Elizabeth is also one of the phenomenal women who cooks for writers at Hedgebrook.

I have left Hedgebrook, this magical place, conceived and built with Love, and sustained for 25 years through Love. But I carry Hedgebrook with me wherever I go in the world. The life changing experience as well as the calm and clarity that come with the gift of solitude I have taken with me. I carry the spirit of radical hospitality and the deepened belief in intentional communities of Love and safe feminine spaces as a way to nurture and bring forth leaders, artists, writers, painters, and the potential for so much more. I leave with the first draft of a novel.

My hope is that I have left something of myself at Hedgebrook also: joy, laughter, dance, ideas, love and sisterhood, to be ploughed back into this fecund space, so that other women may be nourished nurtured and loved as I have been.

I am in deepest love and gratitude!


Sunday, May 25, 2014

On Privilege- Based Prejudices: The Abuse of Domestic Workers in Southern Africa.


In January as we were sensitizing communities about justice issues in marginalized groups around the world, One Billion Rising coordinator for Swaziland Colani Hlatjwako led a group of domestic workers onto the streets to protest the abuse they experienced at the hands of their employers. You can read about the day of action here. I posted a short video clip of the women dancing and singing a song on Face Book. The words to the song is as follows: Uthin'thule kanjani um'ehlup'umedem! Abafazi laba kabazake basibone!
In English: How do you expect me to keep silent when medem is abusing me? We are the women they have never seen.”


A conversation in inbox ensued between me and a former classmate of mine, a Black African woman. Basically she was saying that it was all very well for us to call these women to protest but that nothing was ever going to change an old and entrenched system where maids and gardeners had a certain social standing and they had to know their place. It was clear as we went back and forth that my friend realized the privilege she had but she was not ready to be part of the solution to some of the awful injustices that domestic workers face daily in their jobs. What was surprising to me was the admission that she was aware that her maid (and most maids in South Africa) had to be up at 4am to get public transport in order to be at work in time to prepare breakfast for the medems and their families, so that they could leave to be on time for work. These maids often left their own children to fend for themselves or in the care of a neighbor or relative while they rushed off to take care of the "medem and baas' children.

A couple of weeks ago another former classmate and Face Book Friend posted the following as her status:

 I want to KILL my maid!!!!!
Give her leeks & sweet potatoes to my soup for tonyt.... Then show her 2 bunches of rhubarb...NOT next to the veges & say please chop this for me......
OMG..... We now have leek, sweet potatoe & rhubarb soup!!!!!! & now I need to go out & buy rhubarb for my pie tomorrow!!!! Maybe it's time for a new maid just that I’ve had Gertrude for 15yrs now....but this is not her 1st huge stuff up. She seldom listens to what I ask for these days...just can't bear the thought of havin someone new to train....worrying if they steal etc”.

My first reaction to this was a visceral anger and I started to write a response to the post. I deleted about 5 responses and decided to let it go. I thought of unfriending her but I didn’t. However I went through an entire week of reflection about what it was I found so offensive about this post.

I realize that the overwhelming feeling I had was not anger but disappointment. I felt disappointed that this person I called friend, who had reached out to me after so many years still embodied those very traumatizing Rhodesian attitudes that had prevented many of us, black and white students from forming any authentic relationships. It reminded me of how we would all hang out at school but that did not extend outside of school hours. What I recall from this time was that it was a given, an unspoken fact that most black Africans and whites did not seek each other out on weekends or outside of school hours. This post reminded me of how at school I could never bring myself to call the workers by their first names “Rosina” or “Kanesio” the way white students did with such ease. My tongue would cleave stubbornly to the roof of my mouth at the mere thought of calling a grown man who was old enough to be my father by his first name. I also remember how I would cringe every time one of the white students spoke with impudence and disrespect to any of the workers and I would get angry because the workers would never stand up for themselves.

This status update was a jarring reality check because I realize that despite the warmth and the invitations to visit her and her family when I am back home in Bulawayo, my friend and I are worlds apart. To herself and others like her, she feels justified in her anger and she sees the fact that her maid chopped up the rhubarb with the soup vegetables as a “major stuff up”, possibly punishable by dismissal from the job after 15 years of loyal service. It does not occur to her that her instructions to the maid were not clear: "Then show her 2 bunches of rhubarb...NOT next to the veges & say please chop this for me."

It does not occur to her that her maid honestly thought rhubarb was also to go into the soup because well, rhubarb looks like the spinach we black Africans eat with sadza. Allow me to show you images so you can understand better.




I myself could easily have made this mistake were it not for the fact that my sojourn in Germany exposed me to the delights of rhubarb pie and how to make it. Educated as I am if I had been in Zimbabwe I may not have known what rhubarb was or what it was used for. So to expect a maid to understand such an unclear instruction as the one above and then to view this error as a major catastrophe demonstrates what privilege does. Privilege blinds us and insulates us from the lived experiences of others. It prevents empathy and compassion because according to the status, my friend was ready to fire Gertrude, if not for the fact that training a new maid was a nuisance and of course added to this was the possibility of employing a thief. Stereotypes and preconceived (ill- conceived) notions of the “other” are at the root of privilege- based prejudices.
I had decided to leave the whole matter alone until last week another friend posted this image on her wall.

The caption to the image was: ...We love housekeepers who are so devoted to caring for fur-kids

Another image was also circulating and the caption on this one read: When the owners of this dog asked their housekeeper to take him for a walk, they weren't expecting this.

These images sparked total outrage amongst Black South Africans and a few white South Africans. The Majority of White people however ooed and ahhed over the pictures and others insisted that these pictures were ‘innocent” and that Blacks generally needed to get over apartheid. In fact one woman who went to school with my activist friend who had posted the picture wrote: “When we were in school you had such potential. But I can see that you are still hung up on Blacks being downtrodden by apartheid. I am disappointed”  Clearly my friend was supposed to feel guilty for having taken offense at such an "innocent picture" and white privilege had the other woman believing that my friend must have somehow sought her approval (how could she not seek the approval of her white classmate?! Is that not what all educated Black were striving for?!) and therefore she would punish her by withdrawing it. 

Given the history of Black oppression by Whites in Southern Africa images of a black maid with a dog on her back are extremely disturbing, to say the least. To the argument that “Well she is happy, look she is smiling so she was not forced to do this”: There is a huge power differential between the majority of Blacks and Whites and an added layer of complexity is the maid/ master relationship. The idea that a black woman who may be leaving her own kids in the township to go to work would willingly strap a DOG on her back is highly improbable to me. Black people’s relationship to their dogs is vastly different from that of white people and their dogs. Most times dogs stay outside the house not inside. They do not get special treatment and they are fed left overs NOT special dog food from the pet store. Middle class Blacks who can afford special dog food and medical insurance for their pets are not in the majority of black dog owners, but even they would be affronted by these image which are so symbolic about all that is wrong with the racial and power dynamics in South Africa.

 There is a total disconnect and disregard by many whites to the sensibilities of Black people. In fact Black people’s lived experience and their pain are so far removed from those of whites that it doesn’t occur to them to stop and reflect for a moment how these images are degrading and dehumanizing. It is these whites who believe that the current condition of the majority of Blacks in southern Africa is entirely of their own making. Perhaps it does occur to them but they simply do not care because if they did care statements like “black people need to get over apartheid” would not escape their lips.

If they cared they would understand that apartheid ended on the books, it was made illegal but it still exists entrenched in the systemic/ structural economic/ paradigm that still has the wealth, land and all sectors of the economy in the hands of the minority whites while majority blacks continue to live in squalor. If they cared they would be active participants in the redistribution of resources and holding government accountable instead of lamenting the good old days and continuing to treat their helpers with contempt and disregard. If they cared they would face the fact that the rampant crime and violence are symptoms of the poverty, rage and frustration fueled by years of oppression and disenfranchisement and that the only way to ameliorate it is to address the root causes. Building more and more gated communities to keep “them out” is only a temporary solution to an ever swelling ocean of discontent. When the tsunami of black rage rises in waves out of Alexandra, Dipsloot, Khayelitsha and the barren rural areas on which blacks were resettled while whites took fertile land, those high walls will not stem the tide. If they cared they would realize that stereotypes and preconceived (ill- conceived) notions of the “other” are at the root of privilege- based prejudices.

To be able to have someone who cleans up and takes care of one's home is a privilege that many people in the developing world can afford. The issue is not about having house help. On the contrary these helpers are the ones who make it possible for people who can afford them to go to work and to do what they have to do. It is also good that there is employment for people who may otherwise have no other means of earning a living. What is vital, is to realize and to respectfully acknowledge their humanity and to pay them a decent living wage that takes into account the challenges they face in order to get to work. Many Black Africans also mistreat their house help and they are part of an oppressive system that once upon a time oppressed them also. We cannot forget so quickly and allow our newly acquired or earned privilege to perpetrate injustice on our domestic workers. We know better and many of our new lives are just a few degrees removed from our domestic workers' lived experiences and we can relate.Many of us have relatives who themselves are domestic workers and in the same way we would not abuse our kith and kin, we should not abuse domestic workers.  

If our privilege blinds us to the lived realities of others around us and we neglect to acknowledge that we have much because others have less, then we have only ourselves to blame when the manifestation of our neglect and blindness is visited upon us.


The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a new political party in South Africa. The  above image is of parliamentarians being sworn in and their attire is symbolic of who these leaders represent. The fact that members of this fledgling party won seats in parliament is indicative of the appeal that their manifesto has for the young, domestic workers, mine workers, farm laborers and the disenfranchised. This image is powerful and requires no explanation. It is however, enough to say that those we marginalize will be brought front and center and they will no longer be in the shadows. The forgotten ones whose contributions we trivialize and take for granted will become prominent and our abuse of them will be accounted for.


Sunday, February 2, 2014

Open Letter to my Sister- I Believe You

Dear sister
I want to thank you for your emails and your inbox messages. It has taken me a while to respond to you, and that is because to be quite honest I did not know how to. I have not had the words with which to tell you what is in my heart, and even as I write these words, I am not altogether sure that they are the right words. After all what do I say to you who was raped, beaten and brutalized by someone you trusted and loved? What words do I use to console you? What words exist that can console someone after they have experienced such a night mare? All I can do is to use the words that I have available to me to try to express what is in my heart.

I am not even sure that you shared your story with me in order that I say or do anything at all. Perhaps you just wanted to give your story a voice, and for that voice to have a witness, someone who hears it. I do not know why you chose to tell me your story, and I do not think that it matters why. It is simply enough that you did.

I want to thank you for trusting me enough with yourself, your pain and your vulnerability to be able to confide in me. I am humbled and honored that you saw it fit to take me into your sacred space and to allow me to be there with you. I believe you, even if no one else does.

I believe that you were raped, I believe that you still have nightmares and that you no longer go out on your own. I believe you that you can no longer make love without images of that horrific night intruding into what is supposed to be an intimate moment with someone you have chosen to share bliss with. I believe you when you say that in every relationship you have had, there is an undesirable and aggressive third party, a darkness that shows up and has ruined all your attempts to have healthy relationships. I believe you when you say you cannot let a man touch you any more, that you freeze up.

 I believe you when you say you now have murderous thoughts when you think about men. I believe you when you say you look at your child and you see a shadow of him and that your child is a daily reminder of how he was conceived: through violence and from unwanted seed. I believe you when you say that you told him to stop, that you thought that your NO was enough, until it was too late and he had forced his way into you, a most violent act of disrespect. I believe you when you say that you had never thought that he might rape you and so you were not prepared to fight him off. I believe you when you say you went to see him but with no intention of having sex and that it hurts when people ask you what you were going to his house for. I believe you when you say he laughed at you when you started crying and mocked you, saying that you were no virgin anyway, that he had slept with you countless times before this, that you were being overly dramatic.

 I believe you when you say he laughed even harder when you told him you would report him to the police, that he said the police don’t waste time on stupid “cry wolf” stories, that the police have better issues to deal with than some woman who says that her husband rapes her. After all how can a man rape his own wife? Is he not entitled to her body as and when he wants use of it? Did he not carry wine to your people and pay your bride price? I believe you when you say no one in your family would even listen to you, that they tell you he is a good husband who doesn’t cheat on you and who provides for his family; that they tell you how you have to perform your wifely duties which includes sex with him whether you want to or not. I believe you when you say that your aunties have told you that you don’t have to want it, that men are wired different from us and that they need sex more. I believe you when you say even when you cry afterwards and curl up into a fetal position he tells you to shut up so he can sleep. I believe you when you say he slaps you if you try to resist his advances and that he looks at you disgustedly after he has raped you.

 I believe you when you say that your older white husband, a pastor for a mega church who is involved in prison ministry, demands that you call him master as he rapes you and that when he pinches and bites you and you scream he whispers “ shush gal, you will wake the missus up.” I believe you when you say that he stops giving you money or buying food in the house when you refuse to play his slave girl in the bedroom and when you refuse for him to rape you. I believe you when you say that you have no family here and that they are all back in Jamaica and that you were in love with him when you married him.

 I believe you when you say that the man who raped you has sworn to kill everyone in your family if you expose him, and that he is now your serial rapist, coming after you whenever your parents are not at home. I believe you when you say that he throws money at you and tells you to get rid of it each time you tell him you are pregnant, and that three times you have had an abortion. I believe you when you say he has threatened to kill you if he ever sees or hears of another man around you, or if you even think about telling his wife and his daughter who is your class mate, thereby destroying his family.

I believe you when you say that after failing several classes and about to be rusticated you finally gave in to sex with college Professor X, then Y, then Z and that you contracted gonorrhea from one of them. I believe you when you say you went for treatment and took an HIV test that came back positive. I believe you when you say you are tormented daily because Professors X, Y and Z are sleeping with other students, spreading HIV but you are too scared to say anything. I believe you when you say you are scared the professors will make your life hell, and that everyone will call you a liar and a cheap whore. You still have one more year to go and if you disclose your HIV status you will be sent packing from school.

I believe you when you say that he was a pastor and he told you that you were depressed because you had an evil spirit in you. I believe you when you say that you had sex with him but only because he said the Holy Spirit had shown him your demon and that this was the only way to cast it out.

My sister, myself, I BELIEVE YOU!

I know you blame yourself for much of what has happened to you. But I want to tell you that IT WAS NOT YOUR FAULT. I want to tell you that no matter what you were wearing, how you spoke, where you went, what you thought or believed, the brute who raped you is the one who is at fault. There is nothing wrong with you and everything twisted with the man who raped you. He violated your trust, abused his privileged position of authority and he co-opted you into his own darkness and brokenness by invading your sacredness.

I want to assure you that what you have done, opening up to me is a huge act of courage and a big step towards your freedom and healing. Perhaps on some level your spirit knows this, which may be why after 15 years you chose to share your story with me. By Shattering the Silence that enshrouded the story of your rape, you have taken a step out of the darkness that your rapist left behind after he violated you. By ripping that veil of secrecy that has kept you prisoner to the rapist you have unshackled yourself and have started the journey towards taking yourself and your body back. Perpetrators lurk and thrive in the shadows of silence and like the cowards that they are they are they will have you believe that if you speak up they will hurt you more. Many know that keeping you silent keeps you vulnerable and forever a victim. Many also know that silence means they will never be held to account. What I do know is that the act of breaking that cultural code of silence is less about the rapist and more about you, getting your power back and getting rid of the shame, the guilt and self loathing that should not be your burden but should be the burden of him who committed the crime. My deepest wish is that society and culture will evolve to the point where women are not blamed for a crime they did not commit unto themselves. I long for a day when a woman violated can walk into a police station, file a complaint and that her safety is secured so that the rapist does not retaliate. I long for a time when women who are violated can scream for help and get it, can tell family and friends and be met with sympathy, a warm embrace and tools to take the next steps  towards justice. I long for the day when the courts and those charged with enforcing the laws will give due access to women who have been raped and beaten, and mandate sentences commensurate with the heinous crime of rape. 

You have broken the silence by confiding in me, and perhaps this is all the justice you need: telling your story and having someone believe you and acknowledge your pain. Maybe you want to take it further and tell your story to someone or people who can help you get the resources you need to begin to heal or to bring the perpetrator to book. Maybe justice to you is an apology from the perpetrator. Whatever it is, breaking the silence is the first step towards justice. It is one way you can give yourself a measure of justice. My prayer for you and for all of us is that we realize that we are not alone in our pain, and that in solidarity with one another we can create safe spaces for all of us to break the silence and share our stories. This will empower us to fight together for the changes in society and  in the justice system that we so desperately need. Right now, justice to me looks like authentic solidarity and shattering the silence around rape and violence.
One Billion Rising for Justice/Red Tent Cape Town

Thank you for your time and for allowing me to share with you in the same way you shared with me. I bow deeply




Saturday, January 4, 2014

Mister Basketmouth, Rape is NOT a Joke!


Dear Mr. Basketmouth. I write in peace, because war does not solve anything. Moreover I am desperate to communicate in a way that will get you to understand the gravity of what you did by sharing a horrible joke, whose punchline is rape. Of African girls. Not a white girl which is stated very clearly at the beginning of your joke. By the way please do not accuse me of turning this into a racial matter. No, Actually you did that. Here is your joke sir:

White girls:

 1st date: Coffee

 2nd date: Kiss

 3rd date: sex

African girls:

 1st date: Fast food

 2nd date: Hug

 3rd date: Chinese restaurant

 4th date: kiss

 5th date: Attempted sex but failed

 6th date: Shopping

 7th date: Cinema, new phone, more shopping

 8th date: Attempted sex but failed

 9th date: RAPE!!

 Oh and I took a screen shot of it in case you cannot believe that you would ever do such a thing. Here it is.

Mr. Basketmouth I am hoping that by the time I am done talking with you and the 5000+ people who liked and commented on your “joke”, you will have learned something about rape and why rape is a sick, vile and criminal act and why making light of this scourge that has everyone of us who has a vagina living with fear, is cruel and hateful. 

We are not safe Mr. Basketmouth because men take our bodies and they rip us apart without a thought to the life- long trauma that we suffer as a result of such a violation. Mr. Basket mouth have you ever had anyone violate you by doing as they pleased with your body? Have you ever had someone grab you, throw you on the ground slapping you and telling you to shut up, then proceed to tear your legs apart and force his penis into your anus? Have you? I think not because let me tell you Mr. Basketmouth, because if it were so, you could never make rape an issue for comedy. I know comedians like to poke fun at all things and the irreverence is often what draws laughs. However Rape is not funny and if it elicits laughter, which it did in some of your fans,then this is a sign of depravity and a warning to all women that we are not safe among men, even the ones who purport to love us.

Would your joke be funny if your mother your sister, your aunt, your daughter had been raped? If you daughter or your sister had come home with blood running down her legs because some brute had seen her, not as a human being with feelings and a physical body that hurts and bleeds, but as a vessel for his lust, his rage, his disrespect and his misogyny?

 Would your joke be funny to you if you came home to find your 6 month old daughter barely alive because 5 men had broken into your home and decided that a baby’s tiny vagina was big enough to contain their five penises one after the other, muffling her cries with her burp cloth until she passed out?

Would your joke be funny if your favorite uncle gave himself permission to pin down your 12 year old daughter as she gave him water to drink? How would you laugh when you came home and found her doubled over in pain with a haunted look in her eyes?

Perhaps you would guffaw at the news that your daughter committed suicide because she had been raped and could not deal with it. She had no one to tell because her father, comedian Basket mouth thought rape was a big JOKE? That he would laugh at her, and tell her she deserved it for having worn such a short skirt or having gone to dinner and allowed him to spend money on her? Mr. Basketmouth your 5,000 fans who loved your joke were making comments like: after all that she deserves to be raped. The few people who tried to be the voices of reason were insulted and heckled off your page, leaving an aggregation of the sickness that our men are. Yes those men who like your status are the sickness we have to contend with as African women. Those 5,000 odd fans of yours are part of the problem because their endorsement of your hideous attempt at humor is a signal that there is a fundamental hatred for African women by African men and that raping African women is fair game.

The fact that you think that you posted a funny joke means that you are also part of a huge problem that we face in this world, a problem that affects more than half the population. It also means that these statistics mean nothing to you and therefore African women and women in general mean very little to you.

Mr. Basket mouth one in 3 women will be raped or beaten in her lifetime. That is One billion people whose bodies will be violated. These are United Nations statistic. However judging on the response to your joke, and based on my own experience in the work of trying to end violence against women and girls, the number is more like one in two women. This means sir that your post today was in all likelihood seen by many women who have been raped. Let this sink in for a minute: Women who have been raped and saw your joke have probably been hurt all over again, because your joke makes a mockery of untold suffering that only she who has been raped will ever understand. Do you get why this joke is such a disgusting show of insensitivity and a blatant display of disrespect for women’s and therefore human dignity? The additional insult to injury are your 5,000 plus groupies who bigged you up for disrespecting African women. It is frightening to realize that these would be the type of men who would be bystanders watching a girl being raped, and still perceive themselves as being "good'. Good men who tell rape jokes, laugh at rape jokes and say nothing when women are disrespected are also perpetrators!

In my line of work we spend so much time teaching girls how to protect themselves from being raped. From an early age girls are taught to view themselves from the negatives,  that are heaped on them because men rape. It is girls' fault that men are depraved. We teach them not to walk alone after dark, not to be alone with boys, to wear “decent clothes”. Yet after all this, many are still raped. Why is that Mr. Basketmouth? BECAUSE BOYS AND MEN ARE NOT BEING TAUGHT THAT RAPE IS NOT A JOKE! We place the burden of being safe on girls but GIRLS DO NOT RAPE THEMSELVES AND YOUR JOKE LEGITIMIZES AND REINFORCES THE NOTION THAT RAPING A GIRL IS OK!!! Rape is NOT TRIVIAL!

Mr. Basketmouth I am tired of this work. I am tired because people like you make my work really difficult. While I and thousands of other activists are working tirelessly to educate men that under no circumstances is raping a woman ok, you are undoing our work 5,000 men at a time!!!! Haba!!! I am tired of waking up every single day to stories of women gang raped and mutilated in South Africa and India and in the U.S. military and in the Congo and you making a joke about this is really very demoralizing and it makes me very angry.

I hope that this letter will make you reflect for a moment and I hope that you also realize that your position of privilege and influence can be used for real positive social change in Nigeria and beyond. What would be great is if you are man enough to apologize to the women you have insulted and hurt by your crass joke. I also hope that you will consider undoing the damage you have caused those who so believed you were a decent guy. I was a fan of yours until about 2 hours ago when I saw your post. Now I only feel a heavy sadness, disappointment and a deeper desire to fight for Justice. Right now Justice to me looks like you Basketmouth issuing a sincere apology and becoming an anti-rape activist.

Once an avid fan
Barbara Mhangami

Barbara Mhangami!



Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Assault of Rosie Motene by Bissau Gaobakwe

Image from allvoices.com 

Saturday November 30 we woke up to horrible news of the assault of One Billion Rising coordinator for Johannesburg, Rosie Motene in Bostwana by one Bissau Gaobakwe. Rosie was in Botswana to support fellow activist and artist BerryHeart at the launch of her Book and to assist in bringing awareness of the One Billion Rising for Justice Campaign which will be coordinated by BerryHeart. According to Rosie herself and media sources in Botswana, she was at a function organised by Absolut Vodka.

 “We were chilling at the pool deck! Then all of a sudden this guy comes shouting at David, as I turned around he punched me right in my face! I instantly felt my nose pop!

The people around me told him to apologize he refused! We then went downstairs, told security and management they refused to help as they know who this man is and do not want to get involved. They refused to call the police.” You can read Rosie’s full account of the incident here.

Image from mmegionline
The guy who punched Rosie is Bissau Gaobakwe, the son of a prominent business man, Ophaketse Gaobakwe, a man who has a checkered history with law enforcement and the courts.

In 2001, Gaobakwe was also involved in a highly publicized case where a South African musician Tokollo Tshabalala was facing two counts of culpable homicide. The story can be found here.

In September 2004, Bissau Gaobakwe was released from prison after serving less than six months for attempted murder. The story can be found here.

Gaobakwe was due to appear before court November 28, 2013 on a traffic related offence. Gaobakwe is alleged to have driven his motor vehicle while unfit to do so due to intoxication. He did not show up in court and the case has been postponed to July 22 where the court is expected to set trial dates. You can read the full report here.

What is clear from the media reports above is that Bissau Gaobakwe is a man accustomed to breaking the law with impunity. To be convicted for attempted murder and then set free after 6 months is shocking. However it seems that the justice system and the police in Botswana are to be found wanting in how they have handled the cases that Gaobakwe has been involved in.

Rosie Motene was assaulted and the police did not show up at the scene of the crime to interview witnesses (of which there were plenty) and to take a statement from the victim. In fact according to her account, the police only showed up to take her statement after the South African high commission got involved in the case, and this only after Rosie Motene herself put out a cry for help on twitter and Face Book.

This begs the following questions: What happens to women of less public prominence who are assaulted, raped and murdered by men with money and power? What becomes of women who have no access to twitter or Face Book through which to put out a call for help in the face of danger?

Rosie’s story illustrates very clearly manner in which injustice is perpetrated by a flawed police force and that those with money and power can buy the silence and therefore the complicity of a corrupt and flawed justice system. Her story also illustrates the power of money to silence the media who have failed to name the perpetrator of a violent crime. There are several online sources that report on what happened to Rosie, but they all fail to name the perpetrator of the crime despite eye witness accounts about who beat Rosie. A law enforcement and justice system that provides cover for the crimes of the wealthy and the powerful is unfair and supports the usurping of the basic human rights of the common citizen as well as the rights of vulnerable groups in the society. There should be no impunity or anonymity for perpetrators of crime regardless of socio economic status, class, education, gender, race, class or sexual orientation. One Billion Rising for Justice seeks to bring to the fore ground the issue of impunity, among other issues.

There have been many tweets and Face Book posts in which people have commented on this case. However it is unfortunate that many people choose to focus on Rosie’s beliefs and personal life, rather than to address the real issue at hand: A violent crime was committed against Rosie and laws in Botswana were broken. The perpetrator at large is Bissau Gaobakwe. These are the basic facts of the case and the rule of law should be administered with impartiality. This is why we rise.

Rosie Motene is a passionate activist working to end violence against women and children and she was in Botswana partly to advance this work. The One billion Rising for Justice activists in the Southern African region and across the world stand with her and call for Justice for her and for all the women who have been unfairly treated by a system that was put in place to protect the rights and liberties of all citizens. The irony is that this assault has taken place during 16 Days of Activism to stop gender-based violence.


Thursday, November 21, 2013

The State of female Justice: Transformational Leadership and the Women who are paving the Way


On November 7 V- Day and the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies at Columbia School of Law brought together an amazing group of women to rethink the state of justice for women in America. You can watch the whole event here.

The panelists were impressive women each of them employing their skills, talents, experience and creativity in the struggle for Justice in a particular area. You can learn more about each panelist and their work by clicking on their name. There was Catherine Albisa,   Kimberle Crenshaw, Eve Ensler, Monique Harden, Donna Hylton, Saru Jayaraman and Sylvia McAdam, and the host was Laura Flanders of GRITtv.

The discussion opened with a powerful statement from Kimberle Crenshaw, who suggested that perhaps the way to rethink justice and what justice ought to look like is to expand our perspectives by looking at and challenging the failures in executing the law and failures in coalition building. She posited that looking at the intersection where power converges, and how it converges could possibly be the way through a ‘blackhole- a vacuum- so to speak, into which we could leap forward to a new way of thinking and being.

Each of the panelists was asked by the Laura Flanders to give an example of an injustice through a story that made an impact on them.

Saru Jayaraman, an activist is the Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United) and shared the fact that the restaurant industry is the second largest sector of the United States economy but that it was one of the lowest paying industries where employees relied on tips for their livelihood. The minimum wage for restaurant workers is set at $2.13 per hour, an amount that was frozen in 1996 when The then leaders of the National Restaurant Association (a trade Lobby) made a deal with congress that they could raise the minimum wage as long as the minimum wage for restaurant workers remained frozen forever because they made money through tips. Seventy (70%) percent of restaurant workers are women and these women were 3 times more likely to be poor than other workers in America and relied on food stamps at twice the rate of the rest of the US workforce. This dependence on tips from customers often placed women in the restaurant industry at greater risk for sexual harassment and sometimes sexual assault. This according to Saru, is a grave injustice.
Image from: Popular Resistance

Monique Harden is an attorney who co-directs Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, a nonprofit law firm headquartered in New Orleans. She recounted a couple of heart breaking stories but the main point and focus of her injustice stories was the fact that environmental racism was perpetrated through the use of federal laws that supported profit making at the expense of people of color and indigenous communities. She described the presence of chemical facilities along sections of the Mississippi River that ran through historically black communities making communities sick through air and water pollution. She also described the racism that many poor black people experienced during Hurricane Katrina, from law enforcement and rescue personnel.
Image from whudat.com 

An injustice that actually made me feel physically sick was described by Donna Hylton, where in the prisons across the United States, inmates are locked into their prison cells during disasters such as Hurricane Katrina or September 11 and that the staff on duty simply leave. Essentially 2.3 million people in American prisons are left to die in the event that a huge disaster occurs. There are no evacuation measures. They are locked up and left alone. This is a shameful injustice where the fundamental rights of human beings do not seem to exist at all. The idea of punitive versus restorative justice came up also and the fact that there were not enough opportunities for an individual who had committed a crime to transform themselves and move beyond their crime and start afresh.

Sylvia MacAdam, a leader of the largest indigenous women- led social movement in the world (Idle No More) told the terrible story of the colonization of Canada and the fact that treaties that were created between the Canadian government and First Nation peoples were being threatened as bills were moving through Parliament to terminate those agreements such as the provision for the protection of water.  She also shared the horrific sexual violence against First Nation women through prostitution, human trafficking and murders which were directly connected to the extraction industries in Alberta Canada. The degradation of the land due to extraction industries is eliminating resources and wild life that are critical to the cultural spiritual and medicinal rituals of indigenous peoples; a genocide as Sylvia described it. These are gross injustices that Idle No More is mobilizing against.

Catherine Albisa is a constitutional and human rights lawyer, who is also the co founder of the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI). NESRI works to build legitimacy for human rights in general, and economic and social rights in particular, in the United States. Catherine  pointed out the fact that the stories being told by the other panelists highlighted the failure of human rights. However she stated that it was more than just institutional failures but also our failure to uphold and to fight for human rights in relationship to one another. She gave an example of how in 2009, farm workers drew up a list of basic demand such as no sexual harassment, fare wages and they went on strike and did not pick tomatoes, a move which affected all the major industries that relied on tomatoes and tomato based products their demands were met. The huge impact this action had on a family is incredible. Catherine told a story of a mother and father who could finally walk their son to school after ensuring that he had eaten a decent breakfast because they no longer reported for work at 4 in the morning. Catherine’s point is that it does not occur to many people that the basic rights such as the right to walk your child to school, the right to just be a good parent is denied many poor parents in this country and that these same poor people are blamed for the poor outcomes in  their children.

Kim Crenshaw, director of the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies, followed on with a discussion about the punitive nature of neoliberalism and how this ideology has led to a systematic retraction of resources that help poor communities. She described how the system created through this ideology makes it impossible for poor families to have positive outcomes. Resources are removed and this leads to social ills for which the community is blamed and penalized. She talked about how the "school to prison pipeline" dialogue that centers around how suspension from school affects the outcomes for Black boys but the discourse hardly ever looks at how black girls are affected by school suspensions as though they do not exist.
Image from qCity Metro
 Kim talked about a social disaster and about how the failure of anti-racism to be anti-patriarchal often means that Black female headed households are seen as problematic simply because they are led by women. The fact that governments consistently talk about the middle class as being economically vulnerable often means that poor people (majority are black women) somehow are not seen as targets for government assistance as though they do not need or deserve help. Neoliberal policies lead to punitive measures, which are compounded by silence. Kim explained that feminism that does not address racism and racism that does not address the issues concerning women leads to a convergence of silences. Silence is complicity.

Eve Ensler, founder and artistic director at V-Day, addressed the issue of punitive versus restorative justice and illustrated using the response from feminists in India to the death sentence pronounced on the men who gang raped a medical student in December 2012. They stated that killing the rapists would not solve the huge problem of rape but that focus had to be on the root causes of these horrible rapes that are plaguing India and the world. Eve explained how creating more punitive measures would results in more punitive systems and lead to more disassociation and disconnection from each other as groups in society. She emphasized that it was important to look at how we got to this point and to recognize that a patriarchal, imperial, colonial, neoliberal capitalist system is how we got here and that this is the basis for most of the systematic forms of violence against women.

What I loved about this panel discussion is the fact that it started off with story telling and as the stories were told, the interconnections between and among the stories became clearer and clearer. I was moved by the passion that each panelist brought along with her story and that in the end, all the stories elicited passion and compassion because of the recognition that our individual stories are braided into one Single story of struggle against injustice.

I also loved the fact that the discussion resulted in a couple of concrete steps we could all take collectively ,to target a major root cause of the injustices that fed Violence against women: Mega corporations that control prisons, restaurants and the interpretation and creation of laws that favor profit over human health safety and dignity. This could be done by investigating which corporations they were then on February 14, 2014, the day the entire world will rise for justice, we could Out them in a big way and expose their nefarious activities to citizens with a call to boycott until there were some changes. I have already started compiling a list!

The idea of coalitions being formed around the issues or campaigns was one that was eloquently challenged by Catherine Albisa, who described coming together around a shared vision about the kinds of societies and world we would ultimately like to see. She called it a coming together and organizing around principles is a way that is transformational, not transactional which is what many groups currently do, if they come together at all. This resonated deeply with me because this is my deepest hunger, to see transformation, a change in our very mindset and how we live life in relation to each other, in the distribution of resources based on need not greed and in relation to the environment. Eve stated beautifully that Justice is restoring the primacy of connection. Justice is connecting the stories that are interwoven in the patriarchal, racist, sexist neoliberal capitalist framework. Ultimately justice is the restoration of human dignity. Justice is a woman.

My hope is that this discussion and many of the state of female justice panels that will be convened across the world will really go to the heart of the issue and the root causes of violence against women by systematically teasing out the real villains are who benefit from the status quo and who turn a blind eye to the injustices that lead to the violation of women and girls.

My biggest hope is that we begin to see through the divide- and- conquer tactics that have been used to keep us from critical dialogue that removes the barriers that keep us separate and disparate. It is a fact that when we unite we can accomplish the impossible! I am chanting for authentic solidarity and the shattering of the invisible barriers so that we become an intentional community of care and generosity, one step at a time! What these phenomenal women have done is to simply pave the way and the rest is up to us as individuals to take up the call to be more open to the other, to be compassionate and to desire for the other that which we desire for ourselves. These women have shown what Justice can look like and the principles in which transformational leadership is grounded. Ubunthu: I am well IF you are well also.