by. Deirdre Prins-Solani
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.
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.
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: nowandthan.tumblr.com
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
 This. Is a loss that needs much much further careful decades worth of exploration
By Diedre Prins-Solani
Mo Barry | Vancouver, Canada | 20th July 2015
With more than 7000 participants including researchers, politicians, the media, civil society, pharmaceutical companies, the UN system, and representatives of key affected populations from across the globe. The 8th International AIDS Conference on HIV Pathogenesis, Prevention, and Treatment (IAS2015) currently taking in Vancouver, Canada has been heralded as the ‘’new dawn for HIV Prevention and Treatment’’ by the conference co-chairs, Chris Beyer and Julio Montaner.
As the host city of the 1996 International AIDS Conference which was famously known as ‘the dawn of HIV treatment’ almost two decades ago. Vancouver is once again giving the world a renewed sense of hope and optimism in the global AIDS response. And like two decades ago, the IAS2015 conference is facilitating the unveiling and sharing of ground-breaking innovations, tools and technologies for HIV care and prevention, ‘setting the ground for the new UNAIDS ”90.90.90 targets.”’ as noted by Rachel Baggaley from the World Health Organization.
With a primary focus on identifying effective, evidence-based and human rights friendly strategies for HIV Programs and services globally. This conference seeks to set-out a roadmap for scaling-up HIV treatment and prevention for all including key affected populations and children. This quest has been has been clearly outlined and endorsed by people across the globe in the Vancouver Consensus – a resounding global call for action to end AIDS.
In his conference opening address, IAS2015 conference co-chair, Chris Beyer said ‘…let this be the conference where the of when to start treatment stops being a scientific question and starts being a question of finance and political will.’’
This historic conference is also taking place at a time when the UNAIDS just achieved its ’15 by 15’’ treatment targets nine months earlier than expected – a critical milestone in the global AIDS response and human rights.
And if judging from the conference mood, the numerous researching findings to be unveiled this week, conference program, and diversity of participants, this conference could potentially be the dawn of a new era in HIV treatment and prevention globally.
There are moments when all we can do, allow ourselves, is to lightly brush our eyes across a headline or image. And yet, like too much salt in food or the residues of a bad dream on waking we find to our alarm, that the aftertaste overwhelms the tongue left thirsty and the images have in fact burnt themselves onto our inner eye and laid waste our strongest defences.
This was my reaction when I glimpsed a headline screaming about sterilization of HIV positive women as “part of a strategy” in South Africa (africaisacountry.org). The anger which ripped through my being found no solace. I became ill. A friend introduced me to the word, ‘visceral’ as a way of explaining this reaction. Visceral – deep feelings lodged in the body. And I thought about the very many ways in which bodies, particularly women’s bodies become the site for holding grief – whilst concomitantly pursuing life. I recall the story of a Mother holding, almost nonchalantly, an image of her child who had died just weeks before she was told that she was pregnant again. This time, she was forewarned. The news of her latter pregnancy came together with an HIV test which indicated that she was positive.And that all of the years of illness and weakness and eventual death of her much loved toddler was due to the fact that he was positive.
The story of her grief was very finely interwoven with the joy of the new life which waited. And there is something profoundly powerful in the silence with which she adorned the photo frame she made for the last image taken of her son, an image which had been hidden away for a long, long time. Accompanied by the complex weave of storytelling, the object which she chose, this photograph, became laden with words beyond words and with each piece of cloth carefully selected, each bead chosen and meticulously applied – the frame and the photograph became intricately linked with her present1.
I return to this word, ‘visceral’ again and again as I wonder at the releasing of words-beyond-words through simple acts of adornment, caressing an object, bringing something of significance into the light and how the act of creating becomes sometimes a seamless movement of the pain held within the body through hands through object escaping into air.
1 The fabrication housing and adornment of the object is one of the steps of the ‘healing through memory and objects’ process designed by the Museum of AIDS in Africa
In order to protect the identity of the participant, the image is not attached
by Deirdre Prins-Solani, Program Lead Healing Through Memory and Objects (HTMO) program of the MAA, cultural heritage expert
Objects clutter, gather dust motes behind glass cases, are carefully tied up in plastic bags and deposited in a Kist, under mattresses or, they are neatly confined in boxes catalogued in universal archive categories and on occasion, as so poignantly lyrically worded in a play by Sylvia Vollenhoven, ‘cold case’2 – shaken loose and disturbed, stirred by questions unanswered. And, I have seen how holding an object of significance (a photograph, a bottle of cough medicine, an empty can of antiretrovirals, a box of Lion matches) – caressing its form and materiality in absolute silence releases stories beyond their words. And I realise, again, just how much Silence is absent from our worlds3 . The noise in our heads; worrying about putting food on the table, fear of illness, the anaesthising din of the television, deep rhythms on perpetual repeat, cars squealing, sirens wailing, electricity poles hissing, incessant handclapping and invocations. And yet, without hesitation, I have observed participants immerse themselves into yogic breathing exercises, bringing stillness from a depth they have run away from, masked or let rest fallow.
And as the HTMO process progresses, silences lengthen between the sharing of stories as the need for platitudes and immediate inoculation become unnecessary. Silences are so complex and nuanced – perhaps more so than words found in any language.The Silence of a mother as she gathers a cloak of broken glass memories around herself. The Silence of a father, shoulders heaving as he raggedly breaths out his fury and shackled desire to protect, at the man who raped his teenage daughter. The Silence of the teenager as he stumbles over the loss of a mother and the absence of a father and all the gaping holes of his story in between. And with the rhythmic breathing, rustling air through their bodies the release of air releases story. The object held, fingered transports the storyteller into another time and place, settling themselves into the kind of silence which permits the rush, the surge, the gentle meander of contradictory feelings surfaced in ways not allowable before. Objects. Kindle to a flame. Rustling of Unanswered questions.
1 Referred to as HTMO in the blog
2 Cold Case speaks the story of Dulcie September, South African activist and ANC emissary in France killed in 1988 in Paris by unknown assassins
3 Reminded by a friend that there are silences which are powerfully crushing Photographs: Deirdre Prins-Solani
by Deirdre Prins-Solani, Program Lead Healing Through Memory and Objects (HTMO) program of the MAA, cultural heritage expert
It has been weeks now since I first attempted to write this piece. Weeks of starting and stopping, words weaving in and out – here now, poised at the tip of my pen and then – gone. Their aftertaste causing self – doubt, me, wondering whether I had actually held the thought in word weaves or whether it was me in one of my dream states. At some stage, I convinced myself that I had caught it – candy floss on a stick, piecing some of these thoughts into being and that was after having heard these words from songstress/poetess/healer Malika Ndlovu;
“Still, she’s no fool when it comes to the real thing; she has loved with abandon,
Has had her fair share of betrayal, been broken in battle, sacrificed and lost so much..”
for what I wanted to, want to, long to write about is the grief of the mother whose daughter chose to live her life seeking – seeking joy, seeking adventure, seeking self beyond the confines of the rolling green hills and plunging valleys of her birthplace, the mother whose son chose to live his life seeking – seeking the self he saw in his dreams, mirrored in the shared bucket of water drawn from the informal settlement well, the mother whose son got klapped because he chose to stand with grace and poise in her heels, chose revolutionary love, labeled a “moffie”, brutalised by the army general and disowned. The mother who lives to mother another child after one has been lost.
And thinking about how one would write about this grief entangled with pride at their daughter’s courage, their son’s tenacity colliding with layers and layers of religious moralities and dogma, intersecting with her anger at the profound loss. The loss of dreaming, the loss of a means to live a better life, the loss of ______ – words to speak a mother’s layer upon layer of sadness into a world where judgement reverberates/echoes back into her narrative of how her daughter, her son sought wholeness and self – fulfillment and for whom the toxic blend of chemicals came far too late. The loss of a child for a mother for whom the diagnosis came too late.
And I try to remember each and every story told me during our ‘healing through memory and objects’ process, attempting to recall the nuances the details in descriptions of those who remain behind of those they have lost…and somehow, all I can recall is Silence.
In spite of the body wrenching tears in the washroom after a mother has shared her story.
Even as a photograph is lovingly, longingly caressed.
As a tissue box is carefully reconstructed, decorated and embellished with beads and shweshwe cloth.
As a frame is made from discarded card, buoyant fabric and rainbow color beads.
And it is the word gift from a friend that echoes in the space between words;
“remember what it is that you had” Virginia Woolf
 Afrikaans for smacked, often against the head
In 2012 I conducted a study as part of my honours degree looking at how black women in townships use traditional systems and medicine to cope during pregnancy and how these mechanism intersect with western medicine.
The reason I chose to do this was to illustrate how mental distress is often made invisible in black township communities and finding out what exists for young women who themselves need to be nurtured. What I found supported most of my assumptions but I never accounted for everything I would find.
One of the women I interviewed, we’ll call her Nolutho told me she was HIV positive and she began to talk to me about how she negotiated her traditional role as a Xhosa wife and how this affected how she dealt with what was going on in her body as a pregnant HIV positive woman.
What was familiar about her experiences, for me at least was the was the fact that she found out she was HIV positive when she went for her antenatal check-up like most women in South Africa. She then endured insults and blame from her husband for making them sick but they chose to fight the disease together for the sake of their children.
She have birth to a baby boy who at the time of my interview she was bathing and the little one kept on trying to grab my pens and papers as his mother told me her story. Her deep sighs and tears made this more than an interview for me, it opened my eyes up to a reality that most women struggle through but never talk about.
She came from a traditional rural Xhosa family and when they found out she was pregnant her mother in law kept insisted she consume herbs to protect herself during her pregnancy. She declined to do so and this created tensions in the home because she could not come out to say she was taking ART in fear of stigma and labelling.
Although my heart felt heavy and her pain was apparent to me I understood her mother in law’s frustration because I also come from a family where traditional medicine and rituals are highly valued and my refusal to partake in them has alienated me from my loved ones to some extent.
The pressure to fulfil your role as a wife and daughter is complex in my culture and living with HIV complicates it even more. I saw this with my aunt who was HIV positive and fell pregnant knowing her status because as a new makoti (bride) she felt the pressure to have a son because this gave her value and she would be accepted. But like my participant, she could not come out to her in-laws about her condition because of the stigma that exists in rural areas.
Oftentimes the narrative around living with HIV is always focused on the physical experience of the disease, how your body reacts what not to do but this narrative rarely tackles the interpersonal experiences that shape the lives and choices of women who are HIV positive. It never speaks to the dreams deferred or hopes abandoned.
What may be seen as special rites of passage and rituals can potentially compromise one’s health but at the same time, not engaging in these means a large part your self is denied and silenced. Some women often have to negotiate risking their health to be good daughters or refuse and be labelled people who have abandoned their culture and ancestors.
The silence around the disease that still exists makes this worse for some women and it is still poorly addressed. When I interviewed Nolutho* she asked a nurse about the herbs her mother gave her but she was ridiculed for asking and was told to stick to what was prescribed at the clinic. It’s as if being infected erased her link to her culture and social positioning.
In my dissertation, these are some of the contentions I tried to illustrate but I think these are ideas that need to be considered for those designing HIV treatment programmes and campaigns. I believe, the essence of who you once were is not lost to the disease but how do we treat the illness respecting people’s cultures, roles and personhood?
By Ath’enkosi Sopitshi
On grief and anger
It ripples, it shudders, it smacks high tide waves against wet sand or maybe it’s that impenetrable oil like viscose material, short but frightening silence which falls when even the dogs cease to bark and the last reveller has stumbled home from the corner shebeen on Makhuba Street Khayelitsha…these are just some of the images which flit through my mind as I try to describe for myself, the various ways in which anger attempts to verbalise, find a route, a space through grief and loss.
I started writing this piece before the massacre in Garissa Kenya, before commemorations of the genocide in Rwanda began, before one year of remembering, honouring the lives of the missing girls of Chibok Nigeria and before the wave of renewed brutality against foreign nationals living in South Africa.
I found an un-feeling, numbness creeping over me as I attempted to write about another inadmissible – the right to feel, admit, acknowledge anger when grieving and experiencing loss. I chose to set this piece of writing aside, to travel to foreign parts and wait a while before returning to it and in a way, that path felt, feels the right one.
Waiting in anger. Permitting oneself the un-feeling which comes from feeling too many feelings and simply to Be. It reminds me so much of the spring tides, a time when we see so little on the surface of the sea and yet, beneath the surface immense turbulence in a continuous rolling rhythm and movement which dredges, shifts sands, birthing life giving forms even as it changes the shape of the unseen and destroys in its wake.
And my thoughts turned to how we somehow, in our desire and search for ‘happiness’ and ‘closure’ sprint away from that which is its opposite, rush towards what we call ‘healing’ and refuse to open ourselves to the vastness and complexity of living within contradiction. To accept and embrace that one loss triggers memories of another, that the pain experienced through living lives that are not valued, perceived to be less than, the daily loss of self so deeply embedded in injustice and prejudice compounds and fractures grief. And that anger is sometimes necessary just to get through a day, a time, igniting the simple act of getting up and out of bed, going to work and maybe, walking a protest march.
I am reminded of the Elder in one of the HTMO workshops who needed to return to her Life Cycle drawing again and again as she traced all of the incidents which layered the feelings of anger at the recent loss of her granddaughter and her daughter to AIDS. The ignorance and incompetence of doctors with respect to her granddaughter, the lack of provision of ARVs for her daughter through state ineptitude, the loneliness in her grief when society and the church could find no place for her anger. And the inability of one of her peers to simply listen, quietly provide her the space to articulate this anger, hurrying to appease and silence her.
And this time, I turn to the words of Sisonke Msimang, awesome intellectual, activist, writer in an almost, but not quite not, unrelated post about the reverberations of difference, change and disharmony and its place in society in South Africa.
“We have lived with choreographed unity for long enough to know that we now prefer acrimonious and robust disharmony. We see reconciliation as part of a narrative that was constructed on the basis of anxieties that are no longer relevant: Democracy has taught us that raised voices don’t have to lead to war. This may not feel good, or even comfortable. And it does not offer the peace many black South Africans imagined 20 years ago. Nonetheless our impatience for justice is a new kind of hope; a sign that green shoots may yet emerge from the ruins of the rainbow nation.”
And in her words I seek and find the wisdom to know that anger has its place. Difference, disharmony born of a seeking for something – justice, answers, resolution or even, closure is required for new growth. That raised voices in anger ‘don’t have to lead to war’. That truthfulness is the undercurrent which precludes walking a path of healing.
 A place I called home for a period in my life
Deirdre Prins-Solani is the Project Manager of Healing through Memory and Objects- a pilot project of the Museum of AIDS in Africa to help people overcome their grief over the loss of a loved one, through personal and collective story-telling and ‘object therapy’