Black and Raising Daughters in a Brutal Men’s World
When his daughter was born seven years ago poet and journalist TSHIRELETSO MOTLOGELWA recalls he had strange feelings. Rather than the elation and even sudden shot of macho energy he felt at the birth of his son this time he felt different. A sense of dread and even vulnerability engulfed him to a point of wishing he could procure a double barrel gun. After nearly a decade he has discovered why, and it reveals the very heart of patriarchy and the threat it holds above women, especially, black women
It is March 2013. There in my throat a lump is bulging with a sudden aggression. We are now above the Australian metropolis Sydney and the captain lets the metallic bird slow down to an almost complete stop. It is a moment before we plunge. In the meantime the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin assails my being. We are at the very last few minutes of a 12 hour haul from OR Tambo International Airport, and now the entire jet goes dead quiet as if pondering the onerous task of plunging down to the paraphernalia of a cityscape below. Anytime soon we will become weightless as we make for the sunset-red drenched city. The lump gets thicker. I am landing on Australia’s biggest city on my way to Brisbane, my wife’s home town, to see my new born daughter Azania for the first, a week after her birth. When she was born, I had been in Botswana, awaiting my VISA which had been delayed. You see, with the Australians you have to work hard for your visa if you are like me. And now in a matter of three hours I would hold in my arms one of the most precious people in my life. It should have been a moment of celebration even in that plane, but a bleakness insisted on accompanying me that whole week preceding the flight since I had arrived. A sense of dread that at the time I could not decipher.
The week before I had called my friends, writers Joel Konopo and Oteng Chilume, and had told them it would have been great to procure a gun. A statement we took with the usual laughter amidst that macho camaraderie. When I confessed to being father to a daughter, Lawrence Seretse gave a more direct answer, “Get it comrade”, he then took a sip of his drink.
Now I am about to see my new-born woman and both dread and fear start to express themselves, more fear now. I promise I was fine until Aretha Franklin’s terrified whine pierced my ears, as she now took a chokehold of the bridge of the Paul Simon-written hymn Bridge Over Troubled Water. The first minute she just almost cajoles the song, and lets it simmer, led by the keyboard, drums and that menacing organ turned it into an emotional hit job on my masculine calmness. Her voice in conjunction with the city below with the Opera House as it emerged from the blood-red waters around it, the weightlessness was forcing the lump up my throat by now. I am not going to cry! No, you are! No I won’t. You are. I am not, monna. Am I?
Like Brenda Fassie, Aretha provides a perfect outlet for the bleakness and beauty that is black womanhood, the terror, torture and bliss all rolled into one. I am saying that now but it is in retrospect.
I was fighting that lump. I had fought such lumps before like when we buried my cousin and I was not going to lose to it. Like every African man raised in the rigours of proper African masculinity, I fought the lump. Swallowing it. But the lump was not moving. It was like a stubborn rat, gaining size and strategic movement now between throat and eyes. The lump, whenever it moved an inch up the throat, maybe from the oesophagus towards the actual mouth, placed pressure on the eyes. The eyes threatened to bulge and the dam walls were going to burst. I tried to swallow that thing.
Sitting on economy class strapped to the chair, I had to ask the lady next to me to make way, so I rushed to the toilet. Meanwhile ‘Retha was wailing in my ears, all the way to the toilet. I yanked the door, shut it, shut the lid, sat on it and let the lump express itself. I sat there my head in my hands, tears all over the floor. I should have been celebrating. I should have made the air-crew announce to my fellow passengers that I was the proud father of a daughter. We would have toasted our economy class champagnes and maybe sang a chorus. But here I was landing an hour away from her and a moment of celebration had turned into sorrow. Why was Retha doing this to my moment of welcoming my daughter?
A week earlier I had sat down with a sharp minded friend of mine attempting to decipher his own predicament – when his daughter was born, he had confessed that he had the same sneaky feeling to buy a gun too. A double barrel one he said. So over mokwetjepe and phaleche we were attempting to understand this phenomenon.
Why was he so terrified? And why was I so emotional? After cleaning the toilet I staggered my way back to my chair. We recently celebrated her birthday and I still had not found my way around the conundrum engulfing me. It only hit me these past few weeks as lockdown forces us into introspection that only prisoners get to experience. Then it hit me, I was sad because of what bringing a woman into this world meant for her and in turn for me too. It is a capitalist world made for men, especially men of a fairer tone.
For the first time I was facing the full spectre of a black woman’s existence and experience with all its related pitfalls, from racism to patriarchy to poverty. It is the temporary vulnerability a black male feels on behalf of his black daughter, says my feminist friend Tjipo Loeto. That terror encounters me in the form of deep sadness that masquerades as a macho sense of physical presence – a gun, preferably one with a double barrel. Therein lies the crux of the matter.
Malcom X once asserted that a negro could not claim American citizenship. Not to the full extent of what that lofty concept and its applications in real life entailed. In a way the firebrand civil rights man was making a point that blackness follows you. You encounter it not just in the streets of New York, where Eric Garner met it in the form of a 15 second chokehold by a police officer of State Island Police Department on July 2014, or if you are a South African black, in the form of a Nobel Leaurate FW De Klerk letter dismissing the labelling of Apartheid as a crime against humanity. The outrage, as exemplified by TV Presenter Tabane’s 8 minute rant against the entire episode and what it signified. The re-awakening of the pains of blackness in South Africa.
I myself encounter it in airports where random searches often point to me from a long queue. You never know how ‘random’ those searches are until you pass western capital airports often, it’s a random custom randomised to pick the black man. We may be black but at least we are men, and that can be consolation, because this capitalist western-led world, is a “man’s”, as the King of Soul James Brown would put it.
But if blackness is a burden what if it is laced with yet another layer of permanent misfortune – female-hood? Women live a miserable life overall except in the most progressive of countries. But even where they live slightly better than others, they are never away from the truth, this world was made for men, white men. All this has started to make sense.
Just a month ago this was brought to sharp relief here in Australia. Hannah Baxter, a Brisbane woman, died in hospital after her husband Rowan Baxter put her and their children in a car, and doused the vehicle with petrol and set them on fire. The three kids died, she survived. Only for a few days after.
On July 2018 in Block 3 Gaborone, a young man took his girlfriend, Elizabeth Bonolo Kerekang, killed her and severed her head off. Her distraught family had to bury the body without the head with police officers unable to locate it in time for the funeral. A young man was later arraigned for the murder. In Botswana nearly 100 women are killed every year, by their partners or purported partners. It has come to a point where a news story of a so-called passion killing raises public interest except maybe in the details of the gore found at the scene. Writer Ngozi Chukura says even the use of the word passion killing is apologism. As if the perpetrator is possessed by some outer spirit to commit murder. In a way the reporters, help manage the narrative, and indeed defend toxic masculinity and rape culture by normalising it.
Globally up to 70 per cent of murder cases against women are accounted for by partner perpetrated killings. So there is my problem, for a minute I am a black woman, at least on behalf of my 2 week old daughter and the pain is unbearable. My father has a theory, he says we men are cowards; women are made of solid material. I agree with him, I have watched my wife go through labour once and I have been traumatised ever since. But if women are strong, you have to imagine how strong black women have to be just to exist in this world. And therein lies my fear too, that this little girl here, would need to possess that Herculean strength just to remain alive, and I am sad for her because no human being has to go through that just to be.
Tjipo says my tears were based on something even more sinister, “You know that you men are dogs”, she says bluntly. I agree. My fear is the fear of men. In a way my sadness is from the fact that she faces the prospect of meeting men, men not unlike me. This got me thinking. In a way my resorting to violence expresses the same violence that younger men seek to solve a problem. In a way I am another man who, feels in possession of yet another woman, and indeed is prepared to exert violence to express that possession of her. Its one side of the passion killing dynamic.
One winter morning at Mmegi newspaper, a decade ago, we hung around the newsroom to chitchat with the reporters just after our planning meeting. Planning meetings made for sobering experiences as we went through all leads from various reporters, and the gory underbelly of our society reveals itself in the tales of rape and murder of women, billions siphoned off by the elite almost exclusively male. So often, perhaps to debrief, we would chat over tea to cool off after the trauma of planning meetings. As we were chatting my then Editor revealed that his biggest worry was that he is raising his daughter the best way he can, but it just may be that he is raising her for a brute to one evening just slap her over a trivial matter. He says that gave him dread.
So the fear for our daughters is not from extreme love per se, but rather from the realisation that it is a brutal world we men have created for women, especially the African women we are bringing into this world. And by bringing them into this world, we are handing them over to the brutes that we men are. But Loeto says something more profound, she says my fear is also self obsessed in that I seemed to only care about women because I have one myself. “It need not take a man having a daughter to appreciate that women are human beings. Women are people in their own right, you don’t need a daughter to know that and in fact to be concerned about the position of women” she argues. I agree with her, in fact the very creation of Mary in the religion of Christianity points to this bias, only she is celebrated.
She is the only major female character in the entire Bible. And her claim to fame, is her having mothered Jesus, a man who is at the heart of the entire religion. Loeto says that’s problematic, it means ultimately by having such care for the women we bring to this world, we are further expressing patriarchy, rather than that somehow gain insight into it. And it is that very ownership of my daughter that expresses itself in my ownership of other women in my life. There is a short distance between that and so-called passion killings. It is often called toxic masculinity; the idea that I own everything and everyone around, women children and cattle (as Batswana men were indoctrinated growing up).
A few weeks ago on my daughter’s birthday I took a minute to listen to my favourite album, soul star Mpho Sebina’s Neo. She has a song called Tjuele, which borrows heavily from a Setswana folk tale of the same title. The story is about a young girl who wouldn’t listen to her parents’ advice and ended up paying the ultimate price of being abducted by giants. It features the flawed man of Botswana music, the irrepressible ATI. There are two versions of that song; one is recorded in Mpho Sebina’s debut album. Sebina did a music video of the track and quite wisely left ATI out of it, and in there enacts a mother cuddling her young daughter. There they are, these two Batswana women, just holding each other, one the mother and the other a daughter. There is vulnerability from the mother’s caring grasp, but there is determination too.
But ATI, perhaps the closest to a 2Pac character that Botswana ever got, released another version of the same song in his seminal release Envelope which I discovered later. ATI lets Sebina cajole that motherly sensibility and maternal dread out of the song. And for the moment you think ATI will leave it at that. But just when you thought the song is done, ATI adds, a gruffy almost adlib at the end, where completely confessional he takes the position of a man in regret as if he were a criminal about to hang for his sins.
He adlibs over it, almost guttural in his delivery and ends with the line, “Ke ne ke sa reetse batsadi / living life faster than the speed of sound”. There is something very poignant about that moment in the song, in a way ATI, perhaps inadvertently, confirms the basis of the dread underpinning the song. That it is us men like him, and myself, who have created this world into which women have to live. And often die. That is what my tears were about.