Broken pieces of my womanhood: Reflection on women’s month and HIV

 On 9 August 1956 one of the most historic events in the struggle for freedom and women’s rights in South Africa, took place right here in Pretoria. It was on this day that more than 20 000 women of different races marched to the Union Buildings to deliver petitions to the then-Prime Minister, JG Strijdom, against the carrying of passes by women.

  Women's Day.

This month has been filled with inspiring events, messages and vibrant portrayals of the amazing work that women have done in transforming the country. This month is not only meant to remind of women’s courageous actions but as young women, this month is meant to ignite the same passion and capacity to dream for a better society that the women of 1956 possessed. We are motivated to be relentless in our pursuit for our own freedoms. Personally, this month has been a deeply reflective one, as I have experienced a great disconnect between how I am meant to exist in my body as a “born-free” South African and the reality of living and moving within certain spaces.

I wrote a blog post after an uncomfortable and hurtful experience of sexual harassment on my way to the bus station. The title of the piece was “No Sanctuary for Black Girls”, in it I wrote…

In our townships we paddle in puddles of tears, blood and screams of black women and the only comfort our mothers offer is “young girl, know your place” because you were unfortunate enough to be born female. My place? Huh? Is my place on a hard cement floor with a knife held against my shivering body? Or taxi ranks that stink of urine with men who collude to rape me? Where is my place? Perhaps a cold morgue where my body seizes to feel anything”.

This month I have been reflecting on the freedoms we truly have as women in South Africa, especially those living in townships because in epidemiological terms, we are classified as a “vulnerable population”. Women between the ages of 15-24 are a high risk group for HIV infections in South Africa. I am represented in this group, I am a “born-free”, although this sets me apart from the women who took to the streets in 1956 to defy an oppressive government, the experience of poverty and crime have equally heightened my risk of violence and even death.

Black Girl

All these problematic realities have been highlighted by the presence of a disease, HIV/AIDS has been the festering wound that manifests from the problematic perceptions and socio-cultural dynamics that determine the fate of our bodies as women. The same problematic social realities that render our bodies sites of gender and culture wars. Our bodies become status symbols for men who want to showcase the extent of their masculinity, our bodies become the shooting ranges of foul words that reduce them to parts. Our bodies as queer women become sites for men to assert heteronormative, patriarchal and distorted histories of Africaness. As if to suggest that the confines of my thighs hold the promise of restoring his broken manhood while our womanhood reduced to nothing.

HIV has been the nagging and uncomfortable reminder that our feminism has failed, we have left our sisters behind. Violent masculinities, capitalism, sexism have on countless occasions struck the rock and broken it. The celebrated success stories make no mention of how we fail to challenge the circumstances that result in more women being affected and infected with HIV.

For me, the disease has been the harshest reminder that much of my body, freedom and experience of womanhood is a like a fragile glass. The silences around sex, cultural norms that teach men to use sex as a weapon against my body all compound my risk as a woman living in township spaces. An experience of sexual harassment during women’s month has certainly shaken me, it has forced me to re-evaluate our position as women and come to the realization that the battle goes beyond economic freedom and equality in a legal sense, the battle is for ownership. How do we live freely in our bodies as women? How do we own our bodies?

by: Ath’enkosi Sopitshi

Picture credits:


A meditation on objects and naming – Part Two

Just a few days ago, my seven year old son wrote a word on a sheet of paper, pointed at it emphatically and said;”this is how I feel. Right now.” The word was ‘ANGRY’. We did not discuss it, intellectualize, seek its meaning or origin. We simply. Sat. Looking at the word, In time, his breathing calmed. The tears dissipated. He went on his way.


On reflection of that moment and my good or and bad parenting of him at that moment in his life, I recalled my dad in conversation with my nephew, almost around the same age as my son was. My nephew had been told, that just like me, he cried at the saddest movies. My dad, contrary to certain voices which encouraged him in the usual lie;”boys don’t cry”…was explaining to my nephew, his grandson, that boys, men should cry. He said, that in his long life as missionary, then priest of the Methodist Church , the most wounded men, who became Wounders in the worst possible ways, were men who were not permitted to cry. Men, after a lifetime of shutting off their most vulnerable feelings became immune to Life. And died inside.

With that wisdom in my head, I have been reviewing the latest HTMO adolescent workshop and recall viscerally, the immense pain of peeling away masks. And how in 2015, in a country which celebrates ‘freedom of expression’, that freedom has been emptied of any substantive humaneness. Where the wounded is shunned, cast out, becomes victim and perpetrator through some divine act of perceived complicity…Me, observing teenagers who have been witness, at often intimate levels to dying and death, struggle to find words, a word, to describe how they Feel.

In the engagement with the object, the participants mirror the curators hand through writing a brief description of the object, its provenance, materiality, its relationship to them…and the feelings which they evoke. Tracing very gently – the relationship between materiality (sense of; smell, touch, sound, close observation and sound) and feelings.

My co-facilitator and co-founder of the museum, Ngaire Blankenberg, spoke after the workshop of the “lighting up of faces”, as these brief descriptions (or what we would call object biographies) were read back to participants. A release of words, mirrored, catalysed by an object. Often the feelings were contradictory; sad/happy or loved/unlovable – a sophisticated tattoo between needle and skin – that of being human and living within the complex world of – Feelings.

And I wonder at a world where masking is common place, a requirement, how much is lost of our ability to live within complexity and contradiction and in the flat lining of our feeling world, we become inured, intolerant and immunised against the grey.

Naming. Externalising. Calling out a feeling. Sitting in it. With it. Being Mirrored. Witnessed. And a picking up and walking away.

A meditation on objects and naming – Part One

I only adopted a brother just before turning 19 years of age. So, the world of boys growing up, becoming men was, is, quite foreign to me. (Aside, from the rather awkward forays into romance at much too young and confusing an age). The Universe, in its wisdom (or humour) thought it witty to gift me with a boy child to raise. And O! I find myself consciously and unconsciously having to unweave perceptions, misinterpretations as a Mother, Feminist, Career Woman – FeministMotherCareerWoman every single day. Our children are our teachers. Simple.

And so, it was with great awe that I observed the majority adolescent male participants at our latest HTMO workshop plunge, yes, plunge into their interior worlds without fear or suspicion.

They chose to speak of loss on three levels. Loss of a loved one to HIV/AIDS, loss of self as they masked themselves from a hostile society and environment and loss of someone through traveling away from them or vice versa (relocation/dislocation[1]).

It is the second kind of loss which I wish to ponder upon here – the loss of self. The boys spoke of “wearing masks” and how they felt that they were continuously living masked lives, playing the “tough boy” on the outside, pretending all is well when struggling with adherence to their ARV treatment, talking BIG about love, sex and relationships when they fear rejection should they disclose their status. They spoke of hiding their meds, not taking the life-giving tablets with them for nights out jaunts with pals who are, to their knowledge, HIV negative.

And how not to wear the masks would mean a shattering of dreams with ridicule and laughter, the blunt stones inflected at them or worse – a further brutalisation of their bodies with physical violence.

In the installation phase of the HTMO process, the group of boys chose to re-create the masks behind which they would place the objects which signified their “loss”…

And the masks signified the “Voices” in their heads and those of people around them…

The second kind of “plunging” which I witnessed was that of adolescent boys speaking of feelings. Using the sensory power of object, one of the participants spoke of his great sadness at the loss of his mother. Whilst holding the scarf he had brought along from home, he spoke of the memory of smell and touch it evoked in him.

MAA scarf

These are but two of the very evocative engagements I was allowed to witness just recently and in my contemplation of the process and the shifts I began to see in the articulation of grief and loss and of Becoming, just how powerful the insertion of an object is as a vehicle for storying loss. And have begun to contemplate whether this vehicle in part is the naming of something which by virtue of its unspeakability or un-languaged nature (grief/loss/sorrow/death/dying) allows for the careful rendering of emotions through description, symbol and in some ways the symbol which language is, in its untidy, imperfect and clumsy ways pins down or calls out so much more than the actual words.

This act of naming, in its untidiness, imperfection and clumsiness had me thinking of the ways in which ancestral names or lineage is called into presence through song, profound praise poetry. It also makes me think of how in all my witnessing of these (none of which has been vaguely untidy or imperfect or clumsy but powerful in speaking un-languaged spaces), be it a griot in West Africa, an imbongi in South Africa or the tales of the seafarers of the East coast of Africa have evoked images, sensual understanding beyond the word. The tracing of the object through description a careful re-construction and rendering, (as we say in the visual arts) of the past into presence.

MAA Blog

And I return to the masks (they continue to haunt), to contemplate the fear which is so apparent in the text chosen beneath the masks. The multiple masks born out of and nourished by a fear that its temporary nature will become real or permanent and that, that which is required in the hardening of one’s Soul becomes a permanent fixture to one’s condition. Especially at a time when there are so many messages written in the landscape of poverty which echoes it. And I wonder, wander how it is we can begin to assert into these safe spaces which allows for a ‘naming’,  the ancient art of naming and singing and drumming into being one’s place within society that speaks to belonging, continuity of place and identity.

 [1] This. Is a loss that needs much much further careful decades worth of exploration

By Diedre Prins-Solani