Things Die When You Name Them – A Short Story. (Part 1)

“We do a much greater disservice to girls because we raise them to cater to the fragile egos of men. We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller… The language of marriage is often one of ownership, rather than one of partnership… Some people ask: ‘Why the word feminist? Why not just say you are a believer in human rights, or something like that?’ Because that would be dishonest. Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general – but to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender – ”[1]

Aphiwe pauses in her reading, her eyes hovering over the familiar word. Feminist. There it is again, the word that features in every one of Wami’s passionate soliloquies about the hardships of life and the one-word explanation that Lungelo gives for never wanting to wear an engagement ring. Aphiwe smiles and looks up from her spot at the dining room table, eager to show her sisters that she too is clever enough to read articles with words like “feminist” in them. Her family is assembled in the usual Sunday evening formation. Her father is in his armchair, glasses on, reading the newspaper he doesn’t get to read during the day because the store manager can never actually engage with anything in the store. Her mother is huddled up under a blanket pretending to watch TV, the warm fuzziness from the radiator heater lulling her into periodic, unplanned naps. Lungelo, her eldest sister, lies on the couch furthest from the table, hair drenched in coconut oil. She’s tapping away incessantly at her phone, a dent forming between her eyebrows as she concentrates on the very serious matters in the Twitterverse. Wami, the middle one, has curled up into a tiny ball at the foot of the same couch, looking for all the world like a one-woman corporation – Macbook on her lap, pen between her teeth, Ta-Nehisi Coates novel in one hand and a “Down With The Patriarchy” mug in the other, earphones plugged in and an open journal on the beanbag chair in front of her. Aphiwe would usually be sitting on the floor next to them, but Professor Allen had given her class this very long Adichie assignment and a very short period of time to finish it, so she had to force herself to sit at the table and be serious, for once.

Her sisters were the reason she took this class her very first semester at the local university – “Africa and Womanism: A History”. Being the daughters of lower-middle-class-to-working-class parents who had always been of a mindset that was incongruous with their circumstances, they had to develop a particular kind of strength if they were going to survive in a world that placed them at the absolute bottom of the pecking order. They were the kind of women you imagined when you heard the phrase “angry, black woman” – whether you think that’s a good or a bad thing. They looked and dressed nothing alike, had different passions and disagreed with each other 85% of the time, as sisters do. Neither could be typecast as the stereotypical militant black feminist/womanist/afropolitan based on their outward appearance alone but they were of the same liver, as their people like to say, in that, at the core, they believed in the same things. They were the type to call out the pastor in church for reading the Adam-and-Eve version of creation and omitting the other one. They were the reason Aphiwe even knew that there WAS another version hiding in plain sight in the holy book, skipped over by the masses and masses of men that were intimidated by the idea that a woman could actually have permission to consider herself equal to them. Or at least that’s what they told her, when she was eight.

When their parents had three girls, they knew that they would have to work harder to see them thrive, especially in a country that still favoured their silent cooperation. She was born into the kind of family that didn’t really care what your interests were, but took it personally when you were less than brilliant at whatever it is that you chose. So when Lungelo became a clinical psychologist instead of a general surgeon and when Wami decided to pursue a Master’s in Africana Studies instead of an MBA, their parents didn’t bat an eyelid. Their mother went about Googling everything there was to know about Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung and reading all the Chinua Achebe books she could find, and their father had only one, simple piece of advice – “you better be number 1, or nitangibona kahle”. So, in taking this class, Aphiwe wasn’t exactly sure what she wanted to do with her life yet – only that she wanted to be black girl excellence, like her sisters.

[1] “We Should All Be Feminists” – transcript from a TED Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

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