‘Voting against my father’ – Tearing the fabric of violence.

Two days ago, the MDC-T youth held a demonstration in Harare to demand that ZEC put in place electoral reforms ahead of next year’s elections. The demonstration, as I read, began peacefully, but as usual the police violently cracked down on protesters. Those unfortunate enough to be in bank queues nearby were hit by the canon spray as well, while they experienced another violence of not being able to access the very money they have earned.

I remember thinking of how common this all is – police brutality in the face of a fight for basic rights and freedoms and answers that citizens deserve. Our country has been smothered by a fabric of violence that permeates every aspect of our lives, and it is in our best interests to tear that fabric and start building the country we all really want. This piece is deeply personal, and speaks to my encounters with this state violence and how it’s shaped my view of politics. It’s been particularly difficult to write because of my proximity to perpetrators of this violence. I want nothing more than a fresh start for this country and for our people, and I believe it’s possible. But we have to take a hard look at the ways this fabric of violence was woven and how we’re continuing that violence, if we’re ever going to tear it.

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2005 was the last time I listened intently and uncritically to my father’s take on politics. I  had just begun the teenage phase where I was perpetually annoyed with my parents. But what I felt that day was deeper than mild annoyance, and I knew that. His convictions had stopped moving me; if anything, they began to cause confusion and discomfort, which eventually, years later, turned to something close to disappointment. He’s dead now, and I’m older; and thankfully I ask more questions than I did back then.

2005 was the year of Murambatsvina, the government’s operation to demolish informal housing and business structures in urban areas across the country. It had a profound impact on my relationship with politics and my understanding of state violence, even at that age. Zimbabwe was going through a painful economic slump which was only to worsen over the years, reaching the tipping point in 2008. The currency was weak and jobs were scarce. The informal economy served as a source of much-needed income for urban residents who couldn’t access the formal sector or who simply couldn’t survive on salaries paid in a currency that was worth less and less every day. It was also the first time I had ever even considered my father to be a perpetrator of violence.

That’s important. A perpetrator of violence.

It wouldn’t be the last time, and it began a complex period of both loving him dearly and making wonderful memories, but gradually despising what he represented politically.

Operation Murambatsvina was swift and brutal; carried out in the height of the winter cold, rendering hundreds of thousands homeless and desperate. You see, my father was pictured in one of our newspapers in a white dust-coat, holding a broom and sweeping away the remains of people’s make-shift structures. “We’re cleaning up the city,” he said, after I asked if this didn’t seem harsh to him. “I mean, we’ve issued warning after warning…we’ve been clear about this from the start.” He tried to make some comparison with an example I might understand, but by now I had stopped hearing him. I remember staring at the picture of him sweeping away the livelihoods of the people him and his colleagues implied were “filth”.

I try not to think of my father very often anymore. But when I do, it’s with a feeling of both deep fondness and deep disappointment. Some days the latter outweighs the former. To me, he symbolised a party that rose on the backs of passionate black people’s painful sacrifices, steadfast resolve and a leadership that could see the Zimbabwe that many couldn’t even dream of. But there was an underlying violence in their actions that I saw and understood to an extent, but couldn’t fully articulate, and that I desperately want us to rid ourselves of now.

Tearing the fabric

I grew up thinking the state had everyone’s best interests at heart. More often than not I’d hear the words “sovereignty”, “freedom”, and “independence”, as did everyone else really. Except I listened to them twice – both from the mouthpieces of the party and one specific mouthpiece, my dad. I was taught to associate Zanu-PF with freedom and black empowerment, but more importantly as the only source of political and economic freedom and empowerment. It was this portrayal of a single ‘saviour’ – the ‘pasi nemhandu-ness’ that labelled anything outside of the ruling party as enemy and ‘other’ – that threaded together the fabric of violence we’ve wrapped ourselves in.

For years we’ve been taught to see difference in political opinion as being an inherent threat or something to be shunned and destroyed immediately and without question. It’s infused in the slogans we chant at rallies, the Facebook comments on political party pages, the high school history books, the newspapers and news sites, the arguments during dinner and the WhatsApp groups we rant to. The violence is everywhere. It’s in the way MDC supporters feel entitled to our votes, and the way Zanu supporters are willing to do anything to win. It’s the reason why, when independent candidates or new parties come about, we’re quick to tear them down. We’ve done things the same way, over and over. We’ve covered ourselves completely with the fabric, tearing it occasionally, but never enough.

This is where we are. But it doesn’t have to be where we stay.

2016 was the first time I felt my heart awaken with the possibility of taking back what our leaders had stripped from us. It was a long, hard stare at the fabric and how long and thick it had become. It was an attempt to tear the fabric of violence and sew a different kind of fabric – one woven together with democracy and tolerance and the ability to oppose one another without feeling threatened and insecure. We’ve already started weaving a new fabric. We may have to undo a few knots or close a few gaps, but we should never stop trying. Our efforts are in every refusal to accept poor governance, every protest, every counter argument on vote-splitting, and every demand to have our dignity recognised by our leaders. It’s in every bit of encouragement we give to those who speak truth to power and fight for our rights, that the fabric starts to tear.

2017 was the first time my grief didn’t fully consume me. And it was the first time I felt a deep sense of longing for a better country, and that I actually thought a better country was within our reach. And I realised that even more than I loved my father, I love myself. I love myself and my country enough to help work towards a future I can be proud of, and enough to be part of tearing the fabric of violence alongside everyone who’s fighting for a new country too.

2017 – The year my heart started beating again.

“Grieve. So you can be free to feel something else.” – Nayyirah Waheed

About a year and a half ago, my heart stopped beating and I couldn’t breathe. Death. Death to the life of a young black woman whose heart had packed up and sunk deep into the grave where he lay. Beneath the dirt, covered with cement, and topped off with flowers from his enemies. Gone. I remember the cry I let out when people started to walk away and go home. I remember struggling to breathe because in that moment, I died with him.

This was 2015. When the gamatoxes ran wild and the G40s had yet to really get going, and the bond notes were yet to be set free. When the vendors were told to leave again and the President was going to rule from the grave and the drought had started to claim lives of the ‘resilient’ people ruled by painful mediocrity. My heart lay still, buried under 6 feet of red earth, waiting. Occasionally it would stir up, but only to feel pain. It’s 2017. Last year, the-year-that-we-will-never-speak-of, is gone with what we thought may be winds of change. And this year is the year I took my heart back from the grave where he lies, and the year it starts to beat again.

Grief is that horrible feeling that never really goes away. It consumes you and dictates how you think about yourself, the deceased, the people you love and the world you want to change for the better. Grief strips away the pretences you held up for so long, the inhibitions you should have never had, and it jolted me out of my slumber and comfort of a good, stable life. Grief takes away, but it strange ways, it also gives. This piece is for myself, but it’s also for anyone who has lost a loved one and doesn’t know what it means to love/live without them. The beauty of new years is they give the impression of a new start. They give the kind of hope that is fleeting, but hopefully makes an impression long enough to last you half the year before you need another pep talk.

There’s so much grief has taught me, but I’ll share the 5 most lessons I’ve learned that I want to (need to) take with me into 2017.

  1. You’re stronger than you know – There will be days you can barely get your eyes to open fully and start your day. I know these days well. You will think ‘I can’t do this anymore’, and shut the world out and feel annoyed at every text of encouragement, because don’t they know you can’t do it? Cry, kick, scream, stay silent, pray, run – do whatever you need to do to make sure you wake your heart up again. If the most that you can do is take a shower and go back to bed, it’s alright. Give yourself days when you don’t have to be the you that everyone relies on, needs and turns to. You will surprise yourself when you wake up the next morning, and you’re breathing again. Give yourself time, you’re stronger than you know.
  2. You can’t ‘do life’ alone – To this day, all I want most of the time is to be alone. People can be irritating as fuck when all you want to do is wallow in your misery and loss. But people can also be kind and loving. Allow people to love you and to want to be there for you. Tell them when you need some alone time, but don’t hide from them forever. They mean well, I promise. No one is an island, and no one is expecting you to suddenly ‘be okay’. You know who your people are so keep them as close as you can.
  3. Value your peace – For months I felt like all I was doing was calming the storm inside of me. It was loud and angry and violent. I had no peace, and the storm was destroying me. When you find a slither of peace, be it in a novel, with a friend, on a morning walk, while you pray in your garden – GUARD IT. Guard that slither of peace with your life because you and I know how seldom it comes around. Guard it and never let anyone take it away from you, no matter how important they are in your life. Be kind to yourself and value the peace that keeps you sane.
  4. Everything you need is within you – This is a great time to introspect and understand yourself better. It’s a time I realised who I really was, what I really thought, and what I really wanted and didn’t want. Everything you need to heal and succeed at life after this pseudo death is in you. It’s in your passions, your frustrations, your dreams, your actions, thoughts and gifts. Don’t doubt yourself.
  5. Don’t give up on yourself – This is something I still need to work on. Trust that you have what it takes to make it through this year. You’re all you have, and at this point you need to take a step outside the grief circle and believe in yourself. And if you can’t muster up all that faith, call a friend who affirms, loves and is always there for you. Don’t give up – we’ll make it through.

My heart is beating again this year, and I’d like to keep it that way. I’m hopeful and excited about the year because I know what it’s like to lose hope completely, and I never want to go back there again. I hope that in whatever way, this piece brings you peace and you can take away a few things that will help you calm your storm.

“Grieve, so you can be free to feel something else.”

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Christmas Day, 2016. The day I decided to get my heart beating again. Also the day I danced heartily for the first time in months.

For African women whose silence hasn’t protected them.

Before the weight of adulthood came crushing down on me, I was one of the best 9 year-olds at maflau (dodge ball) in my cousin’s street. (This isn’t up for discussion. It’s a fact.) I was fast and I could catch well, much to the delight of my teammates. I took our games very seriously – we would play for hours on end, only breaking if we heard our names being called from inside the gate. The December holiday sun wouldn’t bother us; we’d tease each other, scrape our knees, form alliances and make bets, then scurry into our gates after being threatened with a beating if we didn’t get bathed before dinner time.

There was one particular day I channeled the confidence of a mediocre white man and strutted into the street. I knew I was ready to win that day. We played a long, hard game of maflau and as usual, I was the last one standing. I dodged the last few throws and caught the ball made of plastic bags and old rags, meaning all my teammates who had been knocked out, got to come back in. This upset one of the little boys for some reason, who suddenly said he wanted to go home. I immediately called him a sore loser and we got into a verbal altercation. “Alright fine! Let’s see how you’ll play then.” He said as he grabbed his ball (he made it, so it was his) from my hands and walked home. “Ona zvawaita Vimbai!” [You see what you’ve done now?] was the response I got from my teammates, most of them male. I couldn’t believe it. In my attempt to stand up for myself and them, I had alienated myself, and I should have simply kept quiet so we could at least have kept the games going. So we could ‘keep the peace’. Everyone walked away mumbling and throwing their hands, and my heart sank.

 

“Your silence will not save you.” – Audre Lorde

The first time I heard that quote, I squinted a little in the way you squint at a lecturer so they assume you’re thinking very deeply about what they said. In reality, it went in one ear and slipped out the other. I must have nodded as well, this being before I learned how to question my questions and wake up my ‘woke’. Once I got to thinking though, I remembered that hot day in December when my speaking ruined the day for all my friends. Silence is golden, my lily white primary school teacher would say when the black girls got too rowdy. Back then, I truly believed her. Back then, I chose silence because society had chosen it for me first, and I had lost a few friends temporarily because I had spoken up.

Silencing on social media

My Twitter Timeline is an interesting place to be. I learn and unlearn on it, and I encounter both wonderful, critical thinkers and horrid individuals, stuck in their horrid ways. Being feminist on Twitter often feels like you have a bull’s-eye pinned on your back, dodging misogynist bullets everywhere. Misogyny isn’t the same as sexism – inside of the soul of a misogynist is a cesspool of murky water bubbling over with a real hatred for women. Misogynists delight in the power of patriarchy in its ability to crush women’s self-esteem, dreams, opportunities and voices. They revel in discrediting any kind of attempt women make at empowering themselves, and then it manifests largely through seemingly harmless sexist tweets. The patriarchy tower stands tall on social media, and the misogynists renovate and repaint it daily a bright red, drawing even more attention to themselves. Misogynoir however, combines the misogynist’s hatred for women and black people, to make black women the target – bearers of the burden of race and gender discrimination.

Silencing is a common tactic – it’s been around for centuries, plaguing various vulnerable groups of people in the world, amplifying the voices of oppressors everywhere. I speak about social media because as a young adult, it is the one space that offers a multitude of opportunities to network, learn and be entertained, but also serves as a space of violence. As a young black African feminist, living in my feminist truth offline can be just as taxing as it is online. There are two things I have struggled and sometimes continue to struggle with online, that have resulted in my choosing silence from time to time: ‘Likeability’, and the violence of ‘teaching’ feminism online.

A big part of patriarchy is its ability to ascribe particular gender identities and traits to women and men. Black women in particular are often portrayed as unnecessarily angry, bitter, and in need of a man to ‘tame’ them or domesticate them. Black women feminists are seen as troublemakers that hate men, seek to divide men and women in the fight against racism/oppression, and are therefore undesirable as romantic partners for men. (Note how all of this is steeped in heterosexual language as well). I and many women I know, were raised to be ‘likeable’. We were expected to be friendly always, even in situations where we were subject to violence. That time your creepy uncle demanded a hug and kiss and you were expected to oblige them and smile, cringing inwardly at the feel of their hand a little too close to your bum? Yeah. This spilled over into my teens and young adult years, until I realised that being ‘likeable’ often means being silent in the face of my own erasure. It meant fiercely denying that you were angry, bitter or headstrong in any way, lest you be undesirable to men. It meant shrinking myself to a size palatable for male tastes. It meant dying a little on the inside.

The second issue is something I still struggle with. From time to time another egg-avi individual will tweet “What is Feminism anyway? Is it not meant to oppress men?” or something equally as nauseating. And then the debate begins, the misogynists stretch their fingers and fire away, chipping away at some of the work black feminists have done to teach feminism online for years now. They are rarely ever robust, nuanced discussions – they are a chance for those who refuse to unlearn patriarchal ways of thinking to crawl out of their holes and gain a few retweets. I love speaking about what feminism can do, what it stands for and how it’s helped me. What I hate doing is having never-ending ‘debates’ about my humanity and inherent equality as a woman. It is violent to expect women to constantly ‘teach’ feminism to people who refuse to see beyond the myths created around it, and it sometimes pushes me into silence. But my silence hasn’t saved me.

The beauty of the feminist cohort that forms your posse on Twitter is unmatched. It’s a group of women who are tired of the oppression from white supremacy, black male misogyny and societies drenched in patriarchal norms. Speaking/tweeting about black African feminisms and their meaning for my life is what’s saved me. Speaking out against the daily exclusions and the erasure that black women face both off and online has made me more aware of the things in this world that need to change. I worry less about my likeability because that likeability has never guaranteed my safety, and I’m not interested in promoting things that endanger me and other black women. Silence is golden, they’ve told me. Well, me speaking is damn near priceless in my life.