Author: Clenia Gigi

Silent society: Why is abuse under-reported?

Uruguayan United Nations peacekeepers look through binoculars at M23 rebel positions on the outskirts of Goma, in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, on November 18, 2012. (Pic: AFP)
Uruguayan United Nations peacekeepers look through binoculars at M23 rebel positions on the outskirts of Goma, in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, on November 18, 2012. (Pic: AFP)

Yet another report of sexual abuse by United Nations peacekeepers has come to the fore, revealing that 480 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse had been made between 2008 and 2013, of which one-third involved minors.

This is not ‘new’ news. UN peacekeepers have a long history of sexually abusing, exploiting and harassing women and children in places they have been appointed to serve, safeguard and stabilise.

Questions begin to arise. What do we do when those tasked with stabilising, destabilise further and those commissioned to protect victims, victimise them further? Where can these victims express their grievances?

This shameful practice by UN mediators has been (re)occurring for years, yet it goes under-reported. Where is the government that should be defending their exploited citizens? Where is our outrage as members of civil society? Where are the voices of the victims themselves?
Why do we not know them? Many stories go untold, cries go unheard and pain goes unfelt.

There are no answers and even worse, there are no questions. Just silence.

In the words of Dr Martin Luther King Jnr: “In the end we remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends”.

Sometimes I think we live in silent societies.

Silence as children are being trafficked and sold into prostitution amongst other things. Silence as rape victims are encouraged to be quiet and are told that they “tempted” their predators. In many cases, victims contract HIV/AIDS and other STDs and STIs and see an end to their dreams, hopes and very lives. Countless shallow arguments such as “she wasn’t dressed appropriately” and other utter nonsense are used to justify and encourage this rape culture. And let’s not forget teenage pregnancy, prostitution and other repercussions of these atrocities.

Silence as some cultures and communities find no fault in child marriage and force hundreds of girls into this living hell. Can you ponder the scars they carry? The pain goes deeper than the evidence seen on their bodies from the physical violence and abuse that accompany these situations.

There is a trauma that comes from objectification, a disturbance birthed when human beings are subjugated to inhumane conditions.

Authorities display no accountability for their actions and refuse to answer our questions. No questions asked, no answers given, no dialogue, no conversation. Speaking is a privilege our kind of democracy does not endorse.  More silence.

Yet there are those who have escaped the prisons of fear and those who still hope and dream of being heard, but they have their spirits crushed by the blatant and brutal reality of having no platform. Still, there is silence.

Despite quietude, I hear rowdy noises of protests and hashtags supporting human rights and dignity and the people behind them, labelled (or sometimes label themselves) as “activists” – yet away from computers, crowds, lights and cameras there is no action. Only silence because in reality, many don’t understand the dynamics of the causes they advocate both on social media and in real life. And sometimes despite their verbosity and polished politics they don’t take too long to show us their ignorance. Who benefits from all these fake revolutions?

Activity at times creates the illusion of mobility.

Silence that is not merely limited to the absence of speech but silence that is the absence of true action and consideration. Lack of consideration as our privileges make us less aware of the plight of others. And to those of us who are aware and not only represent but embody a common struggle, we are bullied, threatened and manipulated into silence.

Conditions may not always permit us to act out the changes we want to make outwardly but that should not discourage us from acting inwardly. Every time we try to understand a situation we act, when we question we act, when we empathise we act, when we pray we act, when we have conversations we act! And this action should never be perceived as worthless in the grand scheme of things. Before anything is manifested on the outside, it has to be established on the inside. The love, understanding, compassion, courage and most importantly hope that we silently build in our hearts is never silence!

I want to hear the voices of the oppressed and I want you to hear them too, even if they are not on the news or radio, even if they are not hashtags, even if they are not on the internet, even if your peers don’t discuss it. Even if the only place we can hear, see and feel their pain is inside ourselves.

Refuse to bask in the oblivion of silence. Refuse to be silenced.

On African unity

A man holds a placard as he and others attend a silent vigil against xenophobia, held at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg on April 21 2015. (Pic: AFP)
A man holds a placard as he and others attend a silent vigil against xenophobia, held at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg on April 21 2015. (Pic: AFP)

Much has been said already about the xenophobic attacks in South Africa and I fear falling into repetitiveness by merely echoing the sentiments others have already expressed. However, it is an issue close to my heart and I couldn’t completely exempt myself from this conversation.

I and fellow Africans stood united under the banner of “Je suis kwerekwere” and this highly influenced my philosophy of African unity. But instead of discussing South African discrimination, permit me to say a few words on the politics of African togetherness.

There is little co-operation between Africans and a lack of encouragement towards discovering ourselves and exploring, accepting and celebrating our diversity. I see Africans from various countries insisting on cultural individuality and lack of familiarity, sometimes with people from neighboring countries, reducing them to mere “foreigners”.

Due to South African influences, I have a certain agility in associating and communicating with southerners from Swaziland, Lesotho, Botswana and Namibia.

I can switch quickly from greetings in Oshiwambo to Sotho to Zulu. We can talk about pap and vleis and connect through food, music, customs, parlance, and many other components of culture that bring us together yet when I say we are one, denial is common. I am not from South Africa, Swaziland, Lesotho, Namibia or Botswana but I have learned the things these peoples have in common and I can co-exist with them through my understanding of who they are as a people.

In my circle I also have West Africans, and they too deny their proximity. Classic examples are Nigerians and Ghanaians. They too speak of extreme differences yet my knowledge of one catapulted me into the world of the other with swiftness.

I am not denying individuality or stating by any means that African culture is uniform or perpetuating the myth that Africa is a country. What I am saying is that Africans have many similarities they refuse to accept. And although our distinctiveness varies from region to region there is something about being African that connects us all.

I blissfully switch from “jambo” to “mbote” depending on who I am addressing, and my articulacy and ‘chameleon’ personality always leads to this one question: “Clênia, where are you from?”

I have learned a couple of things with this frequent question. One is how we expect each other to not know each other’s culture and how much we have pledged to our countries but have not pledged to our identity. I say this because if we really knew and understood roots, we would be able to identify fruits. Our diversity is expressed through various forms but if we know origins we can understand that fufu, funje and pap are essentially the same concept translated in different ways. This realisation will aid us towards engaging with each other and stop seeing ourselves as mere “others” because we are under different flags.

Xenophobia is not only a South African concern, it’s a general African problem because we all have prejudices against each other, are ignorant of each other’s struggles and existence, and threatened by one another more than we would like to admit.

Time and time again I see impenetrable nationalistic cliques that are derided by people from certain countries – yet these same people cry out “South Africa why?!”…The hypocrisy!

Don’t use the hatred and confusion others have as a scapegoat to justify the just-as-filthy sentiments you harbour.

The xenophobic attacks that occurred in South Africa last month are beyond shameful and it’s painful to see the loss of respect for human lives. I applaud the media and the citizens of the internet for keeping us informed. However, the dexterity and rapidity with which we personally spread calamity leads me to believe that tragedy is sadly met with normalcy. The appalling images of dead bodies were shared far and wide on the internet. I saw it with the Garissa attack and now I see it with xenophobic violence. Our inability to cringe over such shocking depictions of fellow human beings reveals a sad truth.

The protagonists behind these killings have no respect for life, and in our act of “keeping others aware” by spreading graphic depictions of atrocities, we are showing that we have no respect for death. That is just as deplorable because if we do not respect these deaths we are unfit to defend and fight for these lives. So excuse your “We are one” speech when you are quick to broadcast a picture of someone being burned alive.

The anti-xenophobia marches and attitude that manifested are a fine example of African resistance, something we often believe is non-existent when we consider pacified African citizens and governments. This time, we also saw a rare example of solidarity, a harmony that seems to be imaginary; mere ideology and theory.

Let’s face it, we are scattered! As nations we all have experiences unique to us – apartheid, ethnic cleansing etc. – that affect and influence our philosophies and policies, but for the sake of our future let’s begin to recognise and seek similarities. Familiarity will lead to some empathy; in this empathy we will find tolerance and tolerance will help us walk together in unity.

My sincere condolences to people who have lost loved ones and my support to the people living the struggle stories that are in obscurity.

Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. God bless Africa.

Clenia Gigi is a a student, avid reader, poet, spoken-word artist, Pan-Africanist, feminist and eternally a child at the face of education.