This was not the first time that I saw her walking next to the main road, but that day she had a small child with her. The midday heat was beating down on them and they were not wearing hats. In the African summer that is a sure way to catch sunstroke. Instinctively I pulled onto the shoulder of the road and got out of the car. Even from a distance, I could see the apprehension on her flushed face. She stopped dead in her tracks and grabbed the child by the hand. I tried to put on my best smile, hoping that it would put her mind to ease. I waved at them and signaled for them to come closer. They did not move.
‘Can I give you a lift then you don’t have to walk all the way in this heat,’ I called out to her. The child tugged at her hand. ‘I am going to Rosslyn. I can drop you off there.’ Silence from her side; just a suspicious glare. I kept up the smile and waited for her to respond. Nothing. ‘Well then, all of the best to you,’ I greeted them and got back into the car. I started the engine and looked back in the rear-view mirror to see them running towards the car. I waited for them.
That is how I met Ella and her youngest daughter. That was the day that my life took an interesting turn into a new direction.
Ella’s story opened up a world to me that I previously only by second hand report, had heard of. Ella was homeless, jobless and hopeless; a woman with a heart of gold that came to the end of her wits. She was fighting for survival and could not see the light at the end of the tunnel.
As she shared her story with me, I realised that I had skills, resources and know-how that I could utilise to help her reach the end of that long, dark tunnel. I could help her and her children move from barely surviving to flourishing and thriving. I identified with her plight and wanted to collaborate with her to change the course of her life.
So started my friendship with this single mother and an interesting journey for years to come. I threw in my weight behind her. Her struggle became ours. Together we sought new options and solutions for her specific set of circumstances.
However, it did not just stay with Ella. Ella was part of a community and a world unknown and unfamiliar to me. As I moved into my relationship with Ella and her family, I stepped into the murky world of hopelessness and despair; of domestic violence and child abuse where substance abuse and financial lack were ever present. I ventured into a male dominated environment where those in control would make use of any means to keep and remain in control. The smell of fear permeated every corner and crevice of this dark world. Happiness and joy were in short supply; anger, hatred and violence rife. The struggle for power, dominance and control had a stranglehold on generations of families in this community. This was a dog eat dog world where only the fittest and strongest survived. Those who suffered the most were the children, the elderly and the weak, who turned out to be mostly women caught up in generational patterns of domestic violence that left them powerless and without hope or resilience.
I had hope.
I had personal power.
I had resilience and I was going to use it to help a community break the curse of the past and move into a hopeful future.
I had a dream for a community I did not belong too nor had an affiliation with. I thought myself the ideal candidate for the role as I could stand objectively towards the social and welfare problems of the group and give impartial input. It was not to be. The community only saw me as an outsider; a nosy intruder who disrupted the status quo and brought alien concepts into their midst.
I remained hopeful as I spoke out against substance abuse and domestic violence, yet it was not long before the first cracks in my dream appeared.
I was making headway in the neighborhood by gaining the trust of a handful of people, when one disgruntled member dealt me a lethal blow. The f-word was used in the same breath as my name.
I was labelled.
I was branded.
I was excommunicated.
The tag did not remain in this community but spilled over into my professional life as well as my spiritual community. It followed me wherever I went or was involved.
I had never advocated women’s rights on the grounds of political, social and economic equality to men, which by definition would make me a feminist. I had no right to bear this description. I did not earn nor deserve the epithet. I did however, dare step into the lion’s den and call him a pussycat. In a male dominated community, I took the courage to become the voice of those who did not have the fortitude to speak up for themselves. I did speak up about the horrors of abuse within the home in all of its shapes and sizes. I did speak up about rape in the marriage bed. I did speak up about the violation of the rights of the weak and the vulnerable.
I was loud.
I was insistent.
I was persistent.
I was accused of having an issue with men and authority, of being a lesbian. I was named and I was shamed. Still I persisted.
I was verbally and physically attacked, yet I stood firm. My intentions questioned and my character slandered, but I persevered. My reputation ruined and my name slandered, I continued.
Weak people, blame shifters and those unwilling to take responsibility for their part in a problem make use of labeling. Labeling casts shadow and doubt on the person and character of the other party and thereby distracting from the real, glaring, debilitating problem that can cripple a whole community and even nations.
Labeling points fingers but does not seek solutions. Labeling seeks to dis-empower instead of empowering and healing.
I was labelled by those enfeebled by another f-word: fear.
I neither shunned nor accepted the label. At first, I tried to explain my intentions, but quickly gave up on that. From thereon I did not seek to justify or explain my involvement in the community, I just continued to do what I do and be who I am. Accusations persisted; misunderstanding prevailed.
On the other side of the scale, my professional opinion was called upon about community development and specifically from a feminist perspective. In these cases, I also did not explain myself but used the opportunity to bring in a fresh perspective on changing social structures and gender roles.
I did not measure my success by being accepted by and integrated into the community; nor by currying favor with those in control. I measured it by the small, individual breakthroughs. By being able to provide shelter for an abused woman or child for the night. By taking a battered and bleeding body to the emergency room after being beaten up by a drunken parent or partner, spending hours in a waiting room clinging to the last remaining threads of dignity. Celebrating two years of sobriety with a prostitute. Procuring sponsorship, sports gear or school supplies for children showing promise. Providing moral support during court proceedings. Crying with bereaved family members at funerals. Being an open ear and an understanding heart. Bringing comfort and reprieve even if only for a while.
Small moments that will live forever in my heart.
If that is what it means to be a feminist, then I gladly take up the label and I will wear it proudly. If so, please use the f-word on me.