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How South Africa's War on Women Impacted Me: 'This self-identified 'feminist' was a rapist.'

A South African woman shares her story of her sexual assault and its aftermath.

South Africa's gender-based violence, especially rape and femicide, is a national crisis. The past week has seen women marching to bring about a solution. The following is one South African woman's account of how sexual assault has impacted her life.


The rage was always hard for me to acknowledge. I'd always prided myself on my deep-seated preference for talking, remaining calm and seeing both sides. But now my stomach was permanently a writhing mess of snakes. I couldn't eat. I flinched at every sound. My future had lost its meaning. And there was the rage. The rage exploded out of me in queues that took too long, or dirty dishes in the sink. I hated the person I was becoming, but I couldn't seem to be anything else because behind every corner he seemed to be waiting, living his life, while there I was, belly full of snakes, unable to even attend classes or do my work.

That made it harder, that we went to the same university. I felt like everyone knew the dark twisted snake that tied me to him. I felt unclean, soiled. I felt like every time people looked at me they saw his face, knew what he'd done to me. It was harder because I'd taken so long to admit to myself what it was he had done. I'd told myself it couldn't be that, we'd been dating, you can't do that to someone you love right? We'd been dating so I had to let him do anything he wanted right? That was how relationships worked, wasn't it? Wasn't it?

I'd lost a whole year. The year I couldn't remember, the memory of him on me had receded into my mind and I was just left with this sinking sense of everything feeling wrong. I felt wrong. But I couldn't figure out why. I was doing things that I couldn't explain, sleeping around, dating people I didn't really care for, running away from people I did. But I was still working, I was getting good marks, so everything must have been fine. This didn't happen to girls like me. Girls like me, we studied, we did what was expected, and we didn't complain. Girls like me didn't get raped.

But the snakes were still in my gut. And I hated him. I couldn't explain why. I just hoped he got pushed off the next pavement into oncoming traffic. That was how most people felt about their exes surely?

But there was something wrong. Those close to me knew it too, but I couldn't put words to it.

And then one day, just over a year later, the words came. All the memories I repressed flooded my psyche like stun grenades as I listened to a classmate tell her story to a room of strangers and heard my life in her words. Flash after flash I was a year younger and everything was very much not okay and he didn't care that he was hurting me, he didn't care my face had gone blank and that something in my eyes had died.

The following year, after my memories came back, was a mess. The effect of the trauma meant I lost the ability to care about my schoolwork beyond doing the bare minimum. I was constantly in tears. The rage was filling me with hatred. I hated every person I saw who gave him the time of day. Surely, they knew about the monster he was? Wasn't his crime etched on his face or written in his DNA? How could they smile at him, how could they trust him, how could they not know?

The beast of rape is a shadowy one. It's at the edge of your vision, lurking inside anyone, until it becomes shockingly real and nothing is the same again. They didn't want know because he didn't want them to know.

"They didn't know because it didn't make sense that this self-identified 'feminist', who attended every protest, every vigil, was a rapist."

He hid himself in the right politics and the right networks so it made it impossible to imagine for people. They didn't know because they didn't want to know either. We don't want to know the things that make life uncomfortable. It's far easier to ignore the rape joke than "make a fuss". It's easier to get along with people and not mention the forgotten fact that they were a bit dodgy with that girl at the braai but that nothing happened—surely.

Rape makes us afraid. Those who aren't survivors dread joining the other side and we hate that we even have to be here in the first place. After the man who raped me was publicly outed on social media, everyone rushed to agree that they'd alwaysknown something about him made them uneasy, that he was sexually inappropriate, that he seemed to make women uncomfortable. Yes, it gave me a deep-seated vindication seeing him lynched online. Yes, I felt wonderfully gratified receiving the messages of "I believe you". Yes, I loved seeing him lose a job he liked because of the chaos. But nothing changed the times no one had said anything and I almost fell apart and lost two years of my life to depression and PTSD. Nothing gave me back the relationships I lost, the academic year I barely scraped through.

"Nothing prevented it for the others."

There are four of us they say. Four people who were sexually harassed and/or assaulted by him. That's probably only the tip of the iceberg. I think I was the first. If I'd spoken up would the rest have been safe? That's a guilt I don't deserve to carry but I do anyway. In all reality, I probably could not have protected them, because if it wasn't him, it could have been any one of all the others everyone smiled at and played nice with, no matter what women said to the contrary. This included my university management who told me my story was a "he-said, she-said" because I'd cried in the shower instead of photographing the finger marks on my neck. This included authority figure after authority figure who found my story too uncomfortable, and of course they believed me, it was just that they couldn't do anything, and encouraged me not to go to the police because there just wasn't enough evidence without DNA.

My story, while my own, is far from unique. They ask us why we don't come forward. They have no idea the pain behind the decision or the doors closed in a survivor's face because her story doesn't fit the script the court will accept. They ask us why we don't speak out so things can change, but they don't know the rage you feel when you do and everyone smiles apologetically but greets him the next day with a hug. They ask us why we don't feel safe and we stare uncomprehendingly. Not one of us was ever safe, and if it hasn't happened to you yet, count your lucky stars because it could be any of us, by any of them.

But we will stand here, surviving, despite it all. But the snakes still writhe in our bellies and our rapists still walk the streets, drive next to you on the way to work, or work in the local Post Office.

BRUJA

The darkness in a woman is such

That, stripped of our sight, we must feel

Our way through it – we crawl,

We enter her circles of Hell until

We sympathize with her sorrow,

Until we learn from her rage.

- Segovia Amil

Music
Photo courtesy of Vinyl Me, Please.

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In recent years, the fuzzed-out and psychedelic Zamrock sound has been turning heads with vinyl reissues from some of its pioneering bands, the latest of which comes in the repressing of the Vinyl Me, Please anthology The Story of Zamrock, originally released in 2020.

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Tim Lyre Wants You to Worry Less

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Tim Lyre is part and parcel of Nigeria’s alternative music scene.

Nigeria’s alte renaissance began circa 2016, unearthing a fresh crop of music and artists which saw the previously underground movement bubble and burst into nationwide attention. The movement birthed fresh stars and sounds who introduced a new perspective of music to the pop-centric country. The likes of Odunsi “The Engine”, Nonso Amadi, Lady Donli, Prettyboy D-O, Fasina, Santi, Tomi Thomas, and many more all championed the alte movement. Singer Tim Lyre is a core member of that cohort.

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Photo Credit: Victoire Douniama

This Photographer is Capturing the Femininity of Congo’s La Sape Movement

Once a male-centric domain, women in Congo are disturbing the gender boundaries of La Sape, and photojournalist Victoire Douniama wants them recognized.

Even though the African fashion industry is finally getting the recognition it deserves, many under-the-surface subcultures that foster community and creativity expression still exist. One of those subcultures thrive in the Republic of Congo, where Congolese dandy culture, called La Sape (La Societe des Ambianceurs et Personnes Elegantes), finds provenance.

Its history dates back to the early 1920s and 1930s during the period of the French colonial era. Notably, it was a form of protest against French colonialism. La Sape or Sapologie is a movement of unique complexity. It is more than just a catwalk of sapeurs who dress ostentatiously in colorful suits but represents the socioeconomic and political knot that ties the population.

Messani Grace in blue tux

Messani Grace, in a tuxedo. She says: "My husband is a sapeur as well and he is part of the main reason I feel confident to do this because he supports me alot and teaches me all I need to know about fashion."

Photo Credit: Victoire Douniama

Since its inception, La Sape has had a masculine presence. Although women showed interest in La Sape, it was strictly reserved for men. Congolese women were expected to wear African print dresses and be housekeepers. Despite the challenges and backlash, a group of Congolese women kept challenging the status quo, fighting for their style of expression. Today, hundreds of women have joined the movement, dressing in suits, tuxedos, and bow ties.

Victoire Douniama wearing white

As a photojournalist, Victoire Douniama centers her project on female sapeurs because there was a gap in representation by other photographers.

Photo Credit: Victoire Douniama

Documenting these women is Congolese photojournalist Victoire Douniama. Raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, Douniama has always been inclined towards art from a young age. She was inspired by her older sister’s sketchbook. “I was so fascinated by her art and her drawing talent," Douniama told OkayAfrica. "So visual arts has always been a passion of mine." Douniama's gift for drawing was evident by fifth grade and ,during her adolescent years, she developed a passion for photography.

As she settled back in the Republic of Congo, she was struck by the lack of representation of the nation in the media which mostly depicted negative aspects of the country. For Douniama, centering her craft in her native country is important, as it not only represents her roots but also it's an opportunity to use her passion to showcase the rich natural resources and cultures of the Congo. The neighboring country, Democratic Republic of the Congo, has also been a stage for Douniama to practice her work alongside various NGOs.

\u200bTsiba Mary Jane wears blue suit

Tsiba Mary Jane works as a thrift cloth vendor at the market of Mikalou in Brazzaville. He says: “I use my hair as a form of identity, as you can tell my hair is colored green, yellow, and red. Which represents the Congolese flag."

Photo Credit: Victoire Douniama

Her tenacity is certainly unmatched as she navigates her craft in a country faced with various economic challenges, especially since the pandemic. Being an independent photographer under such hurdles can be discouraging for some, but her portfolio speaks for itself. When asked about her secret to success, she said: “You have to develop your own style and clients will hire if it corresponds to their brand."

Of the various projects under Douniama's belt is her photo journal, Les Saupeuse du Congo. For Douniama, La Sape is more than just a fashion statement. She recognizes the political elements of the visuals. The emergence of female sapeurs is revolutionary and, without a doubt, impressive.

“It originated as a political protest during the colonial era and a movement that called for change in Congo Brazzaville and the DRC," Douniama said. “It challenges the conservative role of women in Congo and it normalizes freedom of expression, which is vital for Congolese people to become more open-minded."

Kourissa and her son Okili Dojido

A portrait of Kourissa and her son Okili Dojido at a funeral outside a home at “La tchiemé.”

Photo Credit: Victoire Douniama

As a photojournalist, Douniama centers her project on female sapeurs because there was a gap in representation by other photographers. “I wanted to give the ladies a space to share their experiences and what exactly inspired them to join this movement, and how people within their societal circle responded to this," she said. "Because at some point, this conservative movement was only reserved for men."

This photo project has given her a look into the dynamic of La Saupeuse and their self-fashioning practices. The exuberant sapeuse is in her mid '30s to early '50s. She’s a wife, mother, and can be found in various walks of life as a market vendor, police officer, thrift clothes vendor, or government official. She carves her hair into an undercut or taper fade, with touches of different dye, borrowing masculine-considered accouterments and accessories like smoking pipes, hats, and umbrellas.

In colorful suave suits, these women are overturning gender norms, which require them to dress in traditional “lady-like” attire known as Liputta — a bold move for a conservative country as Congo. For this reason, regardless of how liberal much of society has become, some women are scorned, discriminated against, or even receive backlash.

So, can Les Saupeuse translate into a social upgrade for the lives of Congolese women? As the world continues to interrogate patriarchal standards, it’s a movement that is still forging its identity within the culture. “Many people did not think women can do all of this," Douniama said. "That is why they mostly wanted women to be reserved and submissive."

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