May 21, 2015
I’m writing this piece because I think that what I have to say will help people think differently or more effectively or strategically about the xenophobic attacks happening in South Africa and the acts of violence, abuse and terrorism taking place in different parts of this beautiful continent, Africa, that I call home. At the very least, I hope that I’ll convince you that you should.
So, “What does xenophobia, terrorism or violence have to do with biomedical HIV prevention?” one may ask. Everything! Over the last several years, I’ve had the privilege of working with hundreds of young women and girls. Sub-Saharan Africa has the biggest burden of HIV/AIDS, and women are disproportionally affected. As such, they are in desperate need of HIV prevention options tailored to meet their unique needs. In addition to this, women and girls need options for empowerment; they need to be in school; they need protection and security; and they need employment among other things. Xenophobia, racism, terrorism and violence make it so much harder to reach these women [and men], for them to access existing strategies, and to conduct important research that would bring these options to the shelves.
Growing up I was always socially aware of my surroundings both my maternal and paternal families were involved in the struggle for freedom in South Africa. I believe that my being an activist is because of this very reason. I grew up knowing that when something was wrong, I had to stand up and do something about it. However my reasons for writing this are more personal than political. My maternal granny being the matriarch in my family lived UBUNTU [a Nguni Bantu term that refers to human kindness or to the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity]. She would cook a big pot of pap everyday – more than our big family would need [pap is a staple food of the Bantu inhabitants of Southern Africa, made of porridge made from ground maize].
“If someone walked in and were hungry, we would at least be able to offer them pap,” she always said. My granny had rich tales about life. She told us about discrimination and its effects. It was the coolest thing to sit at her feet and hear her tell tales of how her family is everywhere in the diaspora. One tale stands out todate. She told us about her niece who went to Malawi and never came back. I vividly remember the pain in her eyes when she told us this story. “I long to see Emily one more time before I join my ancestors,” is exactly as she put it.
As luck would have it, one day we received a visit from another aunt, Martina, who came to tell my granny she heard some details of where aunt Emily was. She was still in Malawi and aunt Martina volunteered to go and fetch her. My granny gave aunt Martina all her savings so she could go fetch her niece and finally bring her home. When aunt Martina arrived there, aunt Emily was so sick she could not travel back with her. Aunt Martina also not allowed take aunt Emily with her since she was married and even though her husband had passed away she “belonged” to her Malawian in-laws. That is what the elders told my aunt Martina. Aunt Martina stayed a while looking after aunt Emily and her two young kids Isa and Hassim. However a few weeks after my aunt’s return to South Africa aunt Emily died in Malawi and left her young kids orphaned. Words cannot express how much this hurt my granny. The pain was indescribable! Everyday at 5am, granny would pray that Isa and Hassim were safe. Years passed and one day someone who knew our family well walked through our gate with a young boy – very tall , with sharp features. My granny jumped up and hugged this 16 year old without anyone saying a word about who this boy was. The man who brought the boy explained to us that it was Hassim and that he came into his work place asking about my granny and our family based on the stories his mom told them as kids. My granny was the happiest I’ve seen her all my life.
Hassim stayed with us – a natural transition for us because growing up, we were always more than twelve grandchildren. His presence therefore made no difference or was not an extra burden. But the joy of Hassim’s company was shortlived. One day he woke up and told granny that he was going back to Malawi to fetch his sister Isa. Once again my granny emptied her purse and gave Hassim every single cent she had. Although we hoped that it would be easier for Hassim to return now that he knew the way back home, a few years passed but Hassim never returned. During this time, my granny passed away.
And then one day, my mom received a call, “Granny we are in Johannesburg,” said the voice on the other end of the line. It was Hassim. “The gentleman we travelled with from Beit Bridge did not want to drive through the route I knew in Louis Trichardt so we ended up in Johannesburg,” Hassim explained. My mom saved the number he called from thinking that she would call back as soon as we as a family had a plan on how to find out where in Johannesburg they were. When my mom called back she got that familiar dreaded response, “The subscriber you have called is not available at the moment”. Despite numerous attempts over several weeks, the result was always the same. Everyone at home with a phone saved that number and took turns trying it hoping that one of us would finally get through with no avail. And that is how we lost Hassim and Isa in this big bad Johannesburg.
That is partly why the fight for a better Africa is so personal to me. I do not mention in my writing the words hate, religion, culture, politics, exile, or the new trendy hashtags. Here is why. My aunt left home for Malawi because she hated the political situation in her country of birth She never returned. She was refused the opportunity to return home because of religion and culture. What is happening in Africa currently should appeal to our personal. I do not know what your personal is but I am aware that I could have easily lost a family member in the Kenyan Wastegate Mall killings or one of the girls in the Chibok kidnappings could easily have been my niece or a student at Garrisa could have been related to me; and the young men and women with features so clearly the same as mine being chased around and burnt in the streets of South Africa could easily be my own Hassim or Isa.
Africa who taught you to hate You? I just don’t get it!
We must bring these issues home – for they are home! Everyone of us in their small but incremental way. This is why I and a group of friends have opened up, not a Facebook page or started a hashtag, but our homes and our hearts just like how my ganny taught me. My home is open to anyone who knows someone who is in trouble and needs help during the spate of disgusting attacks on Africans by Africans. I know that my granny’s legacy is not that of fear of the challenges and troubles before me, but that of love and compassion. And that legacy lives in me, in my friends and in many others who are taking small but steady and bold steps towards making their communities, their country and Mother Africa a better place for us and for future generations!