I was 10 when I learned that Jeanine( not her real name) had died. She was my favorite neighbor. Jeanine was sweet, and everyone called her Auntie. Jeanine was married for 15 years and didn’t have any children. She had married her high school lover. They looked happy in public. It was years after her death, when I had grown enough to understand, that I learned she had been miserable, And may be if she had left her husband, she would be alive.
Her husband used to beat her and more than twice he nearly killed her, and yet she stayed. She stayed because in the Burundian culture with niko zubakwa (that’s how marriages are)narratives, you don’t just leave when it gets tough, you fight for your marriage.. So, Jeanine stayed until he finally killed her.
I was 16 when I learned that Betty ( not her real name) was hospitalized in a psychiatric hospital. Betty had been breaking the silence on how her uncle raped her from the age of 6 until she reached 22. Yes, Betty wasn’t at her best with her mental health. She was fighting depression and constant anxiety tied to the shame and the pain she carried for years. After a whole year in hospital, isolated by the family refusing to believe what her uncle had done to her, Betty committed suicide. and maybe she found peace at last
I remember looking at Betty’s body during her funeral and feeling every bone of my womanhood break. I believed her, I loved her and she never deserved that pain.
It was a good Saturday morning, I had spent days working in Mahama Camp. It was my third day of recording stories from Burundian women refugees and survival stories. It was there that I met Martha (not her real name). She was in her late 50’s. She was still grieving her daughter and she just couldn’t stop even years after. During the 2015 political crisis, the police took her daughter and the next day she found the body on the street. Her daughter had been violently raped and horribly beaten. I stopped my recordings and left to unpack everything I had heard. It had been a week of hearing amazing stories of survival, of pain but also of trying again and waking up the next day until I met Martha’s mom. A woman who was tired of being strong and had no interest in surviving. She was broken and she needed a space to be allowed to break entirely. And yet that space was nonexistent because everyone expected her to be resilient.
I have been thinking a lot about what it takes to survive in a system where you aren’t meant to survive anyway. I have been thinking about what it takes to escape domestic violence. How it must feel to be raped by the people who were supposed to care for you, and to continue to exist even with the depression and anxiety.
I have been thinking about what it takes to bury your daughters killed at the hands of men and still choosing to exist. What does it take to survive that abusive husband? What does it take to survive the fathers who rape their daughters? What does it take to survive the police who rape women? What does it take to survive every microaggression and violence thrown at women? Has anyone found a surviving kit yet? Can you escape being beaten by the man you love, who promised to take care of you?
How do you escape when you were raised in an environment where girls are told that if he doesn’t beat you, he doesn’t love you?
How do you know you shouldn’t trust your own father because he is a predator? How do you survive that? How do you say no to that uncle loved by everyone in the family when you have been raised to not have any agency on your body?
How do we honestly survive the impossible? The question is actually “ are we surviving?” Am I surviving if more than 200 women were burned in El Salvador for abortion? Are we surviving if Uyinene was killed in broad daylight?
The saddest part of patriarchy is how our individual survival of day by day is rooted in many factors. And very often we forget we can be and are next, sooner than we think, and in ways we can never imagine. As much as I would love individual level celebration that every day patriarchy tries to kill us but fails, that would be a fallacy because according to Africa Check statistics, every 4 hours, a woman is murdered.
Every day, there is a woman who is taken from us and all of us taken with her in many ways. Every day, we are reminded that women are dying and surviving less. And that doesn’t make us less of women.
Our womanhood shouldn’t at any cost be based on us being superbeings when it comes to surviving all types of violence done to us.
Today more than ever, let us remember that there are women who didn’t survive , women who aren’t surviving and women who won’t survive, And they aren’t less of women. Today, let’s remember that our womanhood isn’t rooted in how careful and vigilant we have to be to see the next day. Our womanhood shouldn’t be a playground of magic tricks on how we rise from ashes every time patriarchal oppression finished us. Our womanhood is ours to fight for as we can, knowing that even when we don’t survive, we aren’t less of women.