Confronting diversity in our families and society
We need to hear more stories of survivorship, to open doors
NKOSIKHULULE NYEMBEZI Isigidimi samaXhosa Nyembezi is a researcher, policy analyst and human rights activist.
African News Agency
I HAVE never seen anything as close to my own experience of being a survivor of trauma and family feuds until the last few days of April. It all started on April 23 with the death in Ndabakazi village Butterworth of Aunt Nophumzile due to a heart attack. While preparing for her funeral, on April 27, a car accident near the Gwadana junction in Dutywa claimed the lives of four family members: Uncle Manase and cousin Saba Nyembezi, Mbongi and Sicelo Madikane. The family were traumatised. In our everyday lives, trauma narratives are conveyed primarily by family members in isolated spaces and seen by the audiences as a motif. The tension (and tragedy) of the experience creates sympathy and compassion; it formalises emotion. When audiences see or hear about traumatic events and the people's reactions, they justify their watching by saying they want to understand the ugliness of human atrocity and misfortunes. And when the traumatised speak or write about their experiences, often in literature and on social media, the audiences see it as melodramatic, overemotional, and too impossible to be true. Family members, especially women and children, are often the keepers of secrets and familial shame. Culturally, that is what the women in my family did when I was younger; they hid things, blurred truths and even lied to protect men and their bad behaviour. The women in my family bore the sacrifice of not speaking out about their holistic, complex stories. In many ways, I saw writing this piece as a service to myself and potentially my family – though they were anything but encouraging, even though they trusted me as a custodian of our family heritage. When I told my brothers and sisters about how I was dealing with this trauma, an uncomfortable silence came between us; days later, one told me to take care when writing about my family, if I ever did. Then, I felt he was too concerned with societal expectations, but he was right. There is always a moral conundrum when writing about familial secrets because sometimes I do not always know the whole truth. As I relate to these issues, I think about countless other people who have been dealing with the trauma of sudden multiple deaths and how the experience forces each person to messily try to navigate memory retrieval and see themselves in others as they pull at the limitations of their own failing minds to understand the causes and meaning of traumatic events. Time is not linear, and neither is memory. I have determined that writing about this experience is an act of time travel: I am jumping into the future to cheer myself on, to keep myself going. I recognise that a transformative interpretive nuance contributes to knowledge when history and the narrative of lived experiences highlight the silenced and marginalised voices of the oppressed and marginalised in our families and communities. That is why I see everything we do not fully understand with science and religion, like the nuance of trauma and the relationship with our ancestors, as challenging us to understand our belonging better. The gaps must be filled by those who have experienced them: we are the experts. William Wellington Gqoba (1888) and Samuel Edward Krune Mqhayi (1914) engaged with belonging in South Africa. Their thinking helpfully defuses the tension inaugurated by coloniality in an intergenerational engagement about amaqaba (those who smear red clay and clad their bodies in blankets) and amagqobhoka (those who converted to Christianity and assimilated Western values). The social realities which we witness today continue the engagement. We can also trace back from 1884 in the letter pages of newspaper, where beneficiaries of the colonial missionary education system expressed their views on cultural and religious practices such as ukuthwalela ubutyebi, ukuvumisa emagqirheni, and other related practices increasingly differentiating between amaqaba and amagqobhoka. Struggle veteran and former teacher Ellen Kuzwayo writes eloquently in her book, Call Me Woman, about more than 100 educated individuals with prominent voices in the debate, including women lawyers and medical doctors who have qualified since 1940. Listed family members include my lawyers, such as Ms KN Nyembezi, Ms DM Finca, Ms LG Baqwa, and Ms GN Mapasa, and medical doctors such as Dr OBZ Bikitsha, Dr VWN Matebese, and Dr JSSN Makiwana. They all left a legacy contributing to our empowered ways of dealing with trauma as diverse blood relatives. Their legacy helps us today to understand the present-day differentiation, which continues to provide explanations of why many children born with HIV are struggling to cope with the clinical symptoms of taking anti-retroviral medication on their psychological and psychiatric wellness. Instead, they are attending initiation schools for traditional healers. They appear to be a lost generation, distinguishable from other genuine traditional healers in the family. So are those in their households who waste the little money they have on useless rituals to appease the dead. In his book Etshatile Engatshatanga, Satyo writes about cunning men who go along with the law against polygamy officially, yet the same men practice polygamy clandestinely and unofficially. He says it is evident that black men want to serve two masters behind the scenes: western civil marriage and traditional rites. For that reason, confronting areas of diversity in our families and society in times of trauma, particularly during death and funerals, enrages most people. Post-coronavirus adulthood challenges seem to ask: Can multiple truths be true simultaneously? And if so, how do we resolve that to arrive at a conclusion that keeps harmony between blood relatives? It is a generous act to both amaqaba and amagqobhoka of today and to use their gifts and intellect to tell healing stories. Making this kind of work is an elevated form of abreaction; it is to feel, show, question, and, eventually, heal. And to do so permits others to talk openly about what plagues them. We need to hear more stories about survivorship from survivors. I am hopeful more and more people will continue to speak, open doors, and utter what they could not before. As a society, we must create spaces to ensure that.