Every year, when we commemorate the sixteen days of activism against gender-based violence (GBV), it pains me to hear people trivialising the issue. For me it’s more than just about “domestic issues”. This year I decided to share my story, mainly because I want people to understand the effects of GBV, on families and communities, even for generations to come. Allow me to share my mother’s story.
My mother was obsessed with our education. She always used to say, no matter what you do, my child, make sure you get an education. She always used to say use the opportunity you have to go to school and never waste it, because there are so many people who are unable to go to school. It was much later that I understood her obsession. She was an enterprising woman who sold vegetables at our local market, and was involved in agriculture in addition to making money through making and selling “doilies”. At that time “doilies”- sofa and table covers made through crocheting-were very popular in South Africa and were sold by many Zimbabwean women in exchange for money, groceries and kitchen ware. Subsequently she made as much as my father made as a Credit Controller for an international company, sometimes more. She did all this, although she was a school dropout, a fact which haunted her all her life.
According to my mother her parents had always had a tumultuous relationship, with a fight every now and then. Sometimes it was verbal, ending with either of them packing their bags and leaving the matrimonial home. Sometimes it got physical. Whatever the issues they had it just seemed like they brought out the worst in each other. One day her parents had an epic fight. It got so violent that my mother, then aged 12, took her siblings and ran to seek shelter at their neighbour`s house for the night. Back in the day, people did not intervene in cases of domestic violence- preferring to let private matters play out so no one got out of their house to check what was going on. Besides, my grandparents’ fights had long ceased to be talk of the town, everyone knew it and so it had become something they were used to. The following morning my mother discovered her mother unresponsive, covered in a pool of her own blood. My grandfather had fled the scene.
A few days later my grandfather was found and arrested. Meanwhile my grandmother was admitted to hospital, and for six weeks she fought for her life – spending six weeks in a coma. My grandfather was charged with attempted murder; with a possibility of the charge being upgraded to murder should my grandmother pass away. Though my grandmother spent a total of six months in hospital, and had to have huge amounts of physiotherapy, she never fully recovered. She became like a person who suffered a stroke. She spoke with slurred speech, lost some of her memory, lost use of her right hand and until the time she died, she could never walk straight again. Instead she had to use a cane and walk hunched up, as her back was broken. One of my most painful memories was to visit my grandmother and painstakingly identify ourselves to her by mentioning my mother`s name or where we lived for her to be able to remember us.
My grandfather was eventually charged with aggravated assault, and spent ten years in jail. With her father in prison and her mother a virtual invalid, my mother dropped out of school to take care of her mum and her four siblings. My mother took on odd jobs and became a house worker to help her siblings through school and to put food on the table. Eventually she was to meet my father and got married at 19. Luckily she got married to a man who loved her and was not in any way violent or abusive. They were married for 26 years until my mother passed away due to complications of undiagnosed diabetes.
Depending on whose perspective you take, my mother`s situation was caused by the effects of several years of failure of two adults to resolve their issues without violence, a moment of anger and lack of self-control. Whichever way, GBV had a profound effect on my grandmother, my mother and her siblings. My mother possibly had the better outcome amongst her siblings. Though her life was hard, she ended up in a happy marriage with a modest household income and a good small business. Her full potential can never be known though, had she continued with her education. Her siblings were not so lucky.
My aunt, Enia, also dropped out of school and ran away from the poverty at home to venture into sex work. She is now living with HIV and though she has now stopped sex work, the scars and missing teeth are a testimony of the rough life she has lived, which includes beatings from clients. She went on to have three children, including a daughter who also went into sex work at an early age. The other two children left home and she does not know where they are. Her daughter eventually succumbed to AIDS and died a few years ago. She too left two children whose father`s were never known.
My other aunt, Maud, got married at 15, as did the youngest sibling in the family, my aunt, Chioniso, who was married in her first year of high school. Both of them live in the rural areas with their families, surviving mostly on subsistence agriculture. Both my uncles had troubled relationships with women in their lives. My uncle Elijah was divorced and remarried countless times, with most women leaving him because of his violent ways. He did not have much education and also dropped out in high school. He became a bus conductor and died in a freak accident, where he fell off the top of a bus while loading luggage on the roof. Since his death I am in touch with only one of the several children from different mothers that he left. That cousin of mine only knows one other brother and one other sister.
My other uncle blamed my grandmother for the situation at home and blamed my grandmother for refusing to withdraw the case against my grandfather. He became rebellious, and often reduced his mother to tears, calling her all sorts of names. He believed the assault on my grandmother was due to the fact that my grandfather had caught her cheating, causing him to beat her viciously in a fit of anger. Eventually he too passed away at a young age. Years of drug and alcohol abuse and reckless living took their toll on him. We only found out later that he had sold his parents house when the new owners came to claim it as theirs, with title deeds in hand, after my uncle passed away.
When my grandfather got out of prison, he went back to his wife where they lived together for a few years before he died. However by the time he died, only my mother and their youngest brother would speak to him. This caused such a huge rift that the siblings refused to see eye to eye on the matter. Due to the discord between the siblings I never got to meet many of my cousins. I count this, among many other things, as something that was stolen from me that night my grandfather beat my grandmother.
On that night, my grandmother suffered broken bones, but the lives of the children became irreversibly broken. Not only that, but our lives as grandchildren also became broken. I think of my cousins, those whose whereabouts are unknown, those who died, never having experienced the joy of a full family gathering, and those like me who will always wonder at what could have been. It pains me deeply, that is why I am sharing this story so others can learn and see a different perspective. Wounds and broken bodies can heal, but a broken life is unfixable.
Article written by Anna Miti, a broadcast journalist and blogger based in Zimbabwe. Through her radio programs she raises awareness of gender issues and reproductive health rights. In addition she is an activist advocating for HIV/AIDS prevention for young women. Read her blog at www.annamitisblog.org
Main image taken from www.chronicle.co.zw