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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 always known 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

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Photo courtesy of Sam Soko.

Interview: Sam Soko is the Kenyan Director Behind Sundance Hit, 'Softie'

We meet filmmaker Sam Soko who has made a stirring documentary about the Kenyan protest leader Boniface Mwangi

Filmmaker Sam Soko didn't intend on making a documentary about Kenyan photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi.

The original idea he had was to make a manual of sorts, a short video guide, on how to protest, the do's and don't's. Soko, himself an activist artist who cut his teeth convincing friends to let him create political music videos for their apolitical songs, knew Mwangi's experience on the streets both photographing protests and staging them meant he had a lot to share with others.

But then came the blood. A thousand litres of it, to be precise. And the pigs. Dozens of them, with words like MPigs written on them. Like the graphic photos Mwangi had become known for taking—it was a sight you couldn't look away from. It was a protest Mwangi organized, in 2013, to decry corrupt members of the Kenyan parliament who had decided to increase their salaries, 2 months after taking office. And at his side, through the thick red liquid of it all, was Mwangi's wife, Njeri, ready to be arrested with him.

"Once I was witness to his relationship, I started seeing him as a family man," Soko tells OkayAfrica. "Because he's planning a protest and all, but when you look at the footage, you start seeing the kids and you start seeing Njeri. That's when it started hitting me, in the sense, that she was with him in such a crazy space."

Soko formed a creative and activist hub, called PAWA 254, with Mwangi, as they became part of the groundswell demanding democratic reforms in a country still left scarred from the division sewed between Kikuyu and Luo people by British colonizers. "We had a new Constitution at the time, and there was this hope that we finally could picket without being tear-gassed or being beaten, Like, our civil liberties could be held up." Instead, the government strengthened its police force into a notorious organization condemned by human rights activists. "That's very salient in the film," says Soko. "If you see how the police dress, for instance, at the beginning, it's very different; they become more militant towards the end."

Soko's debut feature-length documentary, Softie, which became the first Kenyan film to ever premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, earlier this year, is at once a love story between Mwangi and his wife and their three children, but also between Mwangi and his beloved Kenya, under president Uhuru Kenyatta. Central to the film is the tussle between how these different loves bump up against each other: what comes first — love of country or love of family?

We spoke to the Nairobi-based director about making the film, which opens in virtual cinemas, starting this Friday, September 18th.

Boniface Mwangi with his wife Photo courtesy of Sam Soko


OA: Early on in the film, we learn how steadfast Boniface Mwangi is — he talks about being willing to die for the ideals he believes in, which made me think of Nelson Mandela and his Rivonia Treason Trial speech. Boniface is someone in the present day who still shares this belief?

When we were working on the edit, and kind of crafting and thinking about what the story was going to be, something that we found that was really, really interesting is, with a lot of the stories, like the story of Nelson Mandela, you'd never see the other side. That's something we see later, up ahead, as a retrospective. We'd hear about Martin Luther King and then we'd read about Coretta Scott in, I think, 1990, like, 'Oh, this his was her struggle.' That sort of thing. But for me, Boniface and Njeri represented a present day reality struggle that showcases what Mandela was going through, what Martin Luther was going through. That was kind of like unravelling the curtain; when you see Martin Luther marching, Coretta's at home, trying to help their kids do their homework. And this is the reality.

OA: And the film poses that question of love for your country versus love for your family, and which one should come first?

Exactly. They see it in different ways. Boniface sees it that if you improve the country, you improve the lives of those who you love. Njeri's like, you have to have your family's back first. And that means everything else comes second. And she's right; she's not wrong. And he's not wrong.

OA: The film really is privy to some really private moments in Mwangi's life — how did you gain his trust?

When we started filming the short video, he was really involved with the protests, and we started doing the protests with him. So we were—quote, unquote—in the trenches with him in the protests, and somehow that's how he kind of welcomed us to his home. When you've been with someone in the streets, and you're tear-gassed together more than once, you already have a common bond. But then I started developing a relationship with him that was beyond the streets. Just checking up on him and asking, what's going on, what's taking place? That sort of thing. I think it took a while. And I think even from Njeri, we kind of developed a kind of camaraderie that was separate from my relationship with Boniface, because I would actually be like, 'Hey, he said that, how does that make you feel?' And not necessarily on camera. But over time, he kind of accepted us to be there with a camera. At some point, I kind of felt like they were talking to me, and not necessarily the camera; like, the camera is kind of this thing that's there, but not there. That kind of trust, again, was built on a respect that I have for them and their values and what they're doing. I think that's something they saw. It made them trust me with their story and trust me with their family.

You're the director of the film, but you're also producer, writer and cinematographer. Did Boniface's own style as a photojournalist influence you in any way?

The film has more than one cinematographer, and a lot of my cinematography is within the intimate moments, because that's when they would only engage with someone they trust. But him being a photographer actually, to a point, made the work a bit hard because he's constantly looking at how you're doing it. He's in your face about the angle. He's like, 'Hey, why are you standing there, you should be there.' But in some places he did help 'cause he's been filming in the streets and filming protests for a very long time. So when you're there filming, he'll easily tell you, 'Dude, don't stand there. They're about to start tear-gassing. Go to the other side.' And it's weird, when you're on the other side and you're filming, and all of a sudden you see tear gas, you wonder, 'How the hell did he know?' You do that 234 times and you start knowing yourself, 'Oh, this is how,' and he was really helpful in that sense.

I can imagine that filming during the protests must have been one of the big challenges of making this film but what else did you struggle with? There were death threats for Mwangi, did that happen to you as well?

It's so funny, when you're filming and when you're in the protests, it's adrenaline talking. So you're not really thinking about whether you're going to be okay. This one time, I got arrested because the cop said I was a spy for the protesters. [We had everything] from cameras breaking to sound equipment messing up, but when it became a more political story, with death threats, it became scary even for editing the film. Because you don't know who's watching you. This one time, I was with him in the car, filming, and we were being followed. So we kind of had to be very careful who we are telling about the story. It was a very deep secret that we were making this film and there are people who are watching it now asking, 'How could you keep this from us from all these years?' Because we had to do that. Especially when the family was in the US. We had to do that for the sake of safety for him, Boniface, for his family but also the film team. I remember doing the pitches with different names. But then we were also lucky that we had our co-producing partner in Canada, Eye Steel Film, so they were able to house the edit there. I went to Canada to edit and that kind of also gives you a kind of freedom to think and work and create. That was the reality, and now I think we have PTSD from the film. I can't film another protest. I'm sorry. I'm out. Like, it tapped me out.

There are similarities to the Black Lives Matter protests here in the US, against police brutality and violence but the slogan takes on a different resonance in places like Kenya, where the police force is particularly heavy-handed. How do you see these protests as being similar but also different?

There are two things that you learn with the film. One, our voices can never be silenced. They will try, but I think humanity is like a pressure cooker. The more you boil us, the more you put that heat, the more explosive we become. And through people like Boniface's life, you see that there are human beings who exist, who do extraordinary things.

The other thing is the idea of activism doesn't necessarily just speak to the person who's on the street. It doesn't necessarily speak to the person who's holding the placard. An activist is someone like Njeri and her life, and her family. And Khadija [Mohamed, Mwangi's campaign manager]. She's such a strong and powerful activist in her own right. She was Boniface's campaign manager for free. The work they did was so powerful. And you have these other people in the background who are doing such incredible things. The sum total of what they've done is [to] instigate… We have an election next year, but I am so sure that we are going to have so many candidates who are going to be like, 'We want you to donate to our campaign. We have these values and beliefs; this is what we want to do.' That is how we need to go about change or add on to the conversations of change.

The same thing that's happening with the Black Lives Matters movement. Yes, there are people going to the street and we should keep going to the street. But we need to push people to engage in policy and make sure these policy changes are made.

We need to stand for what we believe in, as filmmakers in spaces where we feel oppression exists. Like the rules that have come out with the Academy Awards, these are rules that should be celebrated because they add on to that conversation of diversity and representation. All these things—that sum total—is what makes the difference. It's going beyond the streets and going beyond our Tweets, going beyond our Facebook messages, making films and sharing films. We just need to keep pumping up the volume, keeping the heat up, keep pushing. It's gonna take a while, but we'll get there.


Photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi during a protest in Nairobi, Kenya Photo courtesy of Sam Soko


That's where you as a filmmaker come in—this film was the first Kenyan film to get into Sundance, where it won a special editing prize.

There's another film I'm producing and, and, yes, I had my film at Sundance, that's great. But there's this other filmmaker who's making another film, and it's so cool, and this is the thing—we need to keep bouncing off this energy and this light and this vibe, and just keep pushing and making sure that the wheels keep turning. That's what we're all about.

How do you renew your strength, as a filmmaker but also as a Kenyan and as an African?

Being a Kenyan is hard. I think being an African is hard. Like, it's hard. There's a line I heard Boniface say once: 'I love my country, but I am afraid of my government.' But the way in which, personally, I find energy is when I meet new filmmakers, or you know, people who are like starting out and they want to make films that sound totally crazy. And they believe that they can do it. And I'm like, 'yes, yes, keep going!' We are planning to do a premiere. We have not confirmed the date yet but we're thinking it's around going to be early October in Kenya, because Kenyans haven't watched it. The government gave us an adult rating.

This is the same government that banned Wanuri Kahiu's Rafiki because of its homosexual theme…

Exactly, that's what we're getting but the lemonade that we've made out of all this is, 'Guess what? This is cinema!' We're going to take it to a cinema. People are going to come to watch it in a cinema or watch it at home or watch it in the best way possible. And the people who've watched it have appreciated it as a film and a story, and their story. They've seen a reflection of themselves. That gives me so much joy because the Kenyans who've watched it, when they give you feedback, they say, this is truth; this is our truth. And they don't see just an activist. They see a couple struggling with love. They see our history in the last 10 years. And they're like, 'What the hell, we lived this?' and they see the things that are unresolved — and many things are unresolved. Seeing that reaction gives me so much strength and hope. But it's hard. It's very hard. Because, you know, you have to wake up and see the policeman getting a bribe. And you're like, 'Homie??'


"SOFTIE" Movie Poster



Watch the trailer for Softie here.

Softie | Official Trailer | A film by Sam Soko www.youtube.com

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