I refresh the browser. A new email with the title ‘Complaint’ appears. The name of the sender is not familiar to me, so I am curious and hurriedly open it to read.
It is a simple email explaining to me that because of a holiday period in the Netherlands, the official complaint to the funder that I have lodged has not yet been dealt with. The email further explains that I will be contacted within seven days, within the coming week.
The sender apologises for the inconvenience.
I respond that I have received the email. I think of adding a sentence to wish the sender a happy holiday period, whatever the holiday is to celebrate or commemorate. But I remind myself that he is responding in his formal capacity, to hold himself to account for the 14-day period for response (that I had previously been informed about when I officially submitted my complaint) that has lapsed.
It sounds an unfortunate word. Especially for a black African woman writing to a white western funder to decry the way that I have been treated and have written about in a blog post that records events around why a feminist organisation I had founded has since closed down. As a result of writing, a few people write back to me recounting similar versions of abuse by this funder.
What word would sound less jarring than complaint? Less like I am a caricature of women who look like me; who are accused of being too emotional or controversial when we raise our voices, instead of suffering silently and resiliently through our traumas?
Should it sound less jarring? Is it part of why complaint is so significant that it sounds so grating and discomforting? For what other word could stand in for a 3182-word letter that references emails and incidents in as intricate detail as I have provided, reliving a traumatising experience of hostility and racism?
When I initially began to recount my ordeal via Twitter, somebody inboxed me to caution me that, “bitterness isn’t the right way to fight or redeem your project!”
Is this a synonym for complaint?
According to the thesaurus, to be bitter is to be acrimonious, caustic, hateful, resentful. But it is also to be fierce and intense. If one should use the word ‘bitter’ to describe my actions, then I would hope that they would think of me as powerful and intense; speaking up to right an injustice in the hopes of personal closure and the chance to move on.
But I know that it is more likely that bitterness is used as a silencing and disempowering word- especially for women and many marginalised groups. In much the same way that complaining is.
As Sara Ahmed writes in a blog post titled ‘Why complain?’,
“I have been learning how complaint means committing yourself, your time, your energy, your being, to a course of action that often leads you away from the work you want to do even if you complain in order to do the work you want to do (as many do). A formal complaint can lead you into the shadowy corners of an institution, meeting rooms, corridors; buildings you did not have any reason to enter before become where you go; what you know.”
A complaint means a process of waiting for a response to a complaint. It means toying with best and worst case scenarios in your mind as you wait to hear how your complaint has been understood and dealt with.
In my complaint, I write,
“In the end, all these power plays amount to a very racist and colonial mindset, which is ironically what I believe Funder X is working to fight. If however, your project coordinators come to Africa expecting us to give up our visions and dreams to fit into a very dated idea of what the black African woman is, or should be, then there is no changing of the narrative around this continent that is being done. In fact, it is disempowering and a reinforcement of whiteness as unquestionable and all-knowing of the needs, desires and aspirations of black women who are not, and have never been, a homogeneous group.”
It takes me a whole evening to write out this complaint. But more than anything, it takes me back down a corridor of darkness I have fought – over many years – to overcome.
It takes me back to complaints only ever previously voiced behind closed doors, or with friends; complaints that have existed in privacy and silence because I thought to complain directly and publicly was to only exacerbate the hurt I was feeling.
Will anything change because you complained, reliving your trauma so eloquently and in such precise detail? Will the landscape of power relationships between funders and the funded change? Will this specific funder develop new policies that will ensure that such complaint is never again encountered?
I don’t know. And I quite honestly don’t position the significance of my complaint against a seismic shift in the operations of this funding organisation, or any other that might use its power to cow grantees into some sort of servile relationship.
But it builds on the work of many others who have similarly stood up and spoken up about similar power imbalances.
I take from the many responses I have received in which many have shared how my words have resonated with their lived experiences; or how they have emboldened them to speak up for themselves too.
“One day, I will also tell my story,” someone writes back to me.
The speaking up, the writing, the retelling, the sharing; this has to be done only when one is ready. Because complaint is often lonely; because to speak up against those with power has always been lonely and terrifying.
In the same way that I have Tweeted and blogged about this experience, I wrote every single word of my formal response to the funding organisation entirely for myself. For posterity. For a wrong that has gone on for too long. For my pain.
And whatever one wants to call it – complaint, bitterness, whingeing, shaking the tables – I did it in my own time.
And more importantly, for myself.
Fungai Machirori is a Zimbabwean writer, editor and researcher.