“Unshouted Courage” in South Africa: The Young Women of the University of the Western Cape

“Unshouted Courage” in South Africa:
The Young Women of the University of the Western Cape

by Evelyn L. Parker, PhD

From the moment I step from an Uber onto the main quad of the University of the Western Cape (UWC) my spirit ignites with joy of a place where the euphony of Afrikaans, isiZulu, isiXhosa, and other languages float through the air. The Ancestors call to me through the drumbeats and even occasional rap lyrics as I make my way from the quad to the Faculty of Arts building. Students from all regions of the Continent create the rhythmic sounds of language as they move through the corridors and down the sidewalks. I am especially amazed at the finger-snapping of young women affirming the hair styles and dress of other female colleagues. My own physicality is affirmed when I see curly, kinky, and straight hair displayed in more colors than a rainbow as well as all shapes and sizes of hips unapologically swinging from side-to-side. While students of all nationalities, ethnicities, sexual identities, and social classes give me an affirming nod if we make eye contact, I am especially intrigued by the young women of UWC who respectfully greet me, a grey-headed female professor who looks foreign on most days. Some of these young women, specifically those in the Religion and Theology Department, have endeared me with accounts of their joys and pains of negotiating UWC campus life as cisgendered or transgendered young woman. Their stories weave a beautiful tapestry of characteristics that include sassiness, savviness, tenacity, courage, resistance, and persistence. I have focused on courage in this blog. By courage I echo Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon’s idea of courage that is “unshouted,” which is to be steadfast and fortitudinous against oppressive and unjust forces/powers on behalf of one’s community. The “unshouted courage” of UWC young women takes center stage for my reflections.

The young women of UWC courageously rose up to purge the campus of all rapists which included a male residence assistant who demanded sex for housing/dorm rooms from first year young women. This incident happened during the night, just hours before a campus memorial service for Jesse Hess, a first-year theology and religion student who was brutally raped and murdered. Jesse’s 85-year-old grandfather was found dead tied up in the bathroom and 19-year-old Jesse was found dead on a bed on August 30th. The rapist killed them both before fleeing their apartment in the Cape Town northern suburb of Parow. Jesse was one of five rape/murder victims of women and girls in Cape Town during the last week of the August 2019 Women’s Month.

The young women of UWC Kovacs residence held the male residence assistant hostage after several young women courageously broke their silence and identified their assailant. The young women sought justice for his egregious crime until the local police were notified and entered the residence hall spraying rubber bullets on the young women until they freed the young man. The UWC women sought after other male students who were identified as rapists. Their act of justice included use of multiple social media platforms as well as identifying and delivering assailants to UWC authorities.

The next day, September 4th, the UWC main auditorium was packed beyond capacity with students, faculty and staff adorning black attire and standing in the aisles and corridors of the auditorium. Those who could not get in the auditorium filled the quad and listened to the memorial serve on jumbo speakers. The anger and frustration were palpable. Young women in the UWC Choir passionately and beautifully sang songs of justice that were familiar to the audience that blended their voices with those in the choir. The student government president, a UWC young woman, spoke powerful words of accountability to school, state, and government authorities to end Gender Based Violence (GBV) on the UWC campus and in South Africa. Her courage to speak on behalf of the student body was audibly affirmed with finger-snapping and “Justice of Jesse” chanting.

The courage of a UWC young woman is no doubt an aspect of the legacy of women committed to dismantling Apartheid in South Africa as well as seeking gender equity on the campus. The UWC Women and Gender Studies (WGS) Department emerged out of gender and anti apartheid activism in the late 1980s. Professors Rhoda Kadalie and Gertrude Fester gave courageous leadership in establishing the Gender Equity Unit that evolved into the WGS Department through their efforts to raise the conscious of the Rector and other UWC campus faculty and administrators about the injustices that UWC women experienced. Professor Kadalie, a Social Anthropologist, expanded her activism beyond UWC through her regular articles in Cape Town newspapers. As an activist, Professor Fester was a member of the African National Congress (ANC) and was charged with treason by the Apartheid government. She was sentenced to two years in prison and spent five months in solitary confinement where she composed the one-woman play Apartheid’s Closet: The Spirit Cannot be Caged in her head because she was denied a pencil and paper. Professors Kadalie and Fester’s legacy lives on. Today the UWC Women and Gender Studies Department and the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice are promoting courageous research, writing, publishing, and teaching about many aspects of justice for women and girls.

What does “unshouted courage” look like when it is embodied in an 18, 19, or 22-year-old UWC cis-gendered or transgendered female student? With this question I extend an invitation to meet young women and girls in Cape Town, South Africa during the 2020 Biennial Consultation of the Daughters of the African Atlantic Fund.

Dr. Evelyn Parker is Susanna Wesley Centennial Professor of Practical Theology at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. Dr. Parker was named a 2019-2020 U.S. Fulbright Scholar based at the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice and the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa, to work on a project titled “Role of Religious Leaders in Preventing and Intervening in Teen Dating Violence in South Africa.” Dr. Parker is a founding director of The Daughters of the African Atlantic Fund and Chair of the 2020 Consultation to be hosted in South Africa on August 8-14, 2020.

The Daughters of the African Atlantic Remembers Makota Valdina Pinto

Makota Valdina Oliveira Pinto (1943-2019) was a ritual elder in the Afro-Brazilian religion, Candomblé. She was also an educator, a community organizer and an internationally recognized environmental justice and human rights activist. Makota Valdina was a founding member of the St. Bartholomew Environmental Education Center — where she directed a project to link Afro-Brazilian ritual and medicinal plant knowledge with environmental preservation and grassroots citizenship education. Before she transitioned, she was the Makota Ngunzu of the Nzo Oniboyá Candomble community in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. Makota Valdina participated in the fourth biennial Consultation of African and African Diasporan Women in Religion and Theology (Salvador da Bahia, Brazil).

Local Brazilian news of her transition was covered by Correio 24 Horas.

2018 Consultation Reflections: Real Community

Real Community

by Kathlene Corley

M.Div. Student, Shaw University, Raleigh, North Carolina

I decided to attend The Daughters of the African Atlantic’s consultation only knowing that a trusted mentor said I would enjoy it. Reading over the proposed workshops and forums energized me, setting a high expectation that would miss the mark. What I found during the consultation was a place that felt like home. The feeling of familiarity, similar to a grandmother’s loving hug, set the atmosphere, created a clear difference between The Daughters of the African Atlantic’s consultation and any other conference or consultation I have attended. Each workshop, event, forum, and meal was community focused. None failed.

Content quality could be discussed for days; however, there was one item, in particular, that will be the focus of this post as it will likely stick with me for the rest of my life. A time was set aside for Community Building and Engagement in small group break-outs. Each group included an interpreter, women native to Brazil, and women from other areas of the diaspora, intentionally creating opportunities for exchange that may not take place otherwise. Each person openly shared the first time they met a Black person from another country, a Black woman from another country, and their experiences with privilege and a lack thereof as a Black woman. Listening to the sisters speak, I heard similar emotions attributed to differing encounters and experiences. Some of them caused us to laugh while others weighed heavier on the group. Though their words greatly shaped my take-aways, I will not attempt to tell any of their stories here. However, I will attempt to share something I verbalized for the first time during that group.

My first thoughts of being less than equal had nothing to do with the beautiful brown that adorns my body. As a young woman in a poor urban area most of the people around me were Black. The injustices I experienced, as understood by a child, were attributed to my gender, not my Blackness. It was easy to see that my younger brother was given more praise, trust, and respect than I was. My mother was treated differently than my step-father and uncle. Men were applauded for being present, even though the women themselves were never absent. My baby brother’s future was bright because the world was at his feet, and, on the other hand, I may do well if someone decided to date the girl with glasses who stuttered when she spoke. Value (or lack of value) was placed on five-year-old me based on the chances that I may be valuable to a man one day.

Life and changes in our familial income showed me that it was not only being female that changed how I was perceived and addressed. A Black girl could not be as smart as the White girl and was only in the top class because they needed a Black girl, according to my classmates. During school I fought to prove I belonged. That was a waste of time. It was painfully clear that everyone in the room was expected to be better, brighter, and more worthy than me because I was Black and female. During those formative years, many of my Black friends stated they wanted to be White or have hair like White girls, and it baffled me. I understood how much harder and more painful it was for us, but I was proud to be the one who was overlooked and still smarter than anyone realized. There was joy in my personal celebration of what is to be a Black Girl.

Graduating from college, entering, and continuing in my career opened opportunities that would have otherwise been closed for me. As my career was beginning, I associated privilege with a change in economic status. For the majority of my life I saw no benefit in being a Black woman living my reality. To be clear I am not stating that there are no benefits or that I would want to be anyone other than a Black woman, but being a Black woman is hard. We are abused and not heard; we are the engine that is not cared for; and a Black woman is the one who is discarded when the ship comes in. The tenacity of Black women kept me proud to be who I am.

While contemplating how to answer the small group question about experiences of privilege, I realized the first time I felt there was a privilege in being a Black woman. It occurred during the 2017 women’s conference at Shaw University. The theme was “Lives of Black and Brown Girls Matter.” Latinx women were describing the horrific experiences of children being taken from hospitals and deported to other countries. Women who look like me and love their children with the same fierceness with which I love mine were living a nightmare removed from my reality. I sat there embarrassed because I had no idea this was happening. I felt powerless because my voice did not carry the weight to create the change needed to stop it. The only difference between them and me is that there was less chance that this horror would happen to me (although thousands of Black mothers and fathers have seen their children wrongfully taken into the foster care system) because I am a Black woman born in the United States. That was the first time I recognizably felt there was a privilege in being a Black woman in this country.

Realizing that truth hurt. My mind continued to process it for weeks after returning home. I began this blog comparing the atmosphere of the consultation to the safely and solace one may find resting in their grandmother’s arms. That atmosphere provided the space where I was able to be completely raw in my experience as a Black woman and to learn from openness of others. My journal notes from the consultation continue to inspire me. So, if I may add to my answer from the small group session, this is it: It is a privilege as a Black woman to be in spaces like the one created by The Daughters of the African Atlantic. It is a space where individuals are challenged holistically and cared for throughout the process. And rigorous, critical analysis is never lost in the process. It was a privilege to be among Black women from around the world and to know that I am home by listening to what cannot be heard with human ears and embracing what I did not know I possessed.



2018 Consultation Reflections: Brazil Is Like the United States, Except…

Brazil Is Like the United States, Except…

by Shoshana A. Brown, LMSW

This summer I took on the exciting and edgy experience of traveling to Brazil with The Daughters of the African Atlantic Fund to attend their African and African Diasporan Women in Religion and Theology consultation. As a Black mixed-race Jewish femme, I certainly had my reservations of what the experience would be, particularly as I was attending alone and without any particularly special invitation. As a Tzovah in the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute, I have been on a journey to discover the language that best describes my practice of Judaism that incorporates indigenous Senegalese spiritual practices. I looked forward to allowing this consultation to help me refine and root deeply in the language I was writing about. I also sought to learn about Brazil and Brazilian culture and history.

Learning from some amazing Brazilian Womxn scholars and Candomblé practitioners was exactly what I hoped. Brazil is much like the United States. Brazil has a similar history of slavery, though much larger and longer. This means that there are many Black folks in Brazil and the nature of the way people identify their race is also more nuanced. The rates of violence against women is similarly high, and yet the homicides of Black women (quoted as 51 percent of all attempted homicides) are not considered gender violence. This along with research showing that Black womxn in Brazil have higher rates of risky abortion (which is illegal there) demonstrates the lack of value placed on the bodies of Black womxn in Brazil. The same can be said for the United States as we witness the devastating murders from Eleanor Bumpers (1984) to Crystalline Barnes (2018) and notably #SandraBland in the surge of the #sayhername movement. It was evident throughout the panels, side conversations, and personal anecdotes that Black womxn in Brazil share similar experiences to Black womxn in the United States.

While there are lots of similarities between the institutionalization of racism and sexism in Brazil and the United States, there is one difference that stood out – indigenous practice. The practice of Candomblé in Brazil was shared through a number of panels as well as an immersion experience in a Candomblé house. We learned about the vulnerability of Candomblé right now resulting from escalating violence on Candomblé houses mostly by people who are Christians, Protestant or Catholic. Religious intolerance continues to be a major topic of debate in Brazil.

Here in the United States, earth-based spiritual practices are flourishing as more activists find some of the policies and traditions of the Black church oppressive towards queer folks or inconsistent with their personal politics. You can find Black Lives Matter founder Patrisse Cullors discussing these tensions in the On Being podcast. While many folks feel pushed out of the church, they are finding roots and home in earth-based and embodied practices such as burning sage, crystal magic, meditation, and yoga. These practices are on the rise and are thriving. Many churches have begun to incorporate these spiritual aspects as a result.

So, while Brazil is very similar to the United States, the spiritual landscapes of the two countries are on an opposite trajectory. This consultation was affirming for my research, and I certainly obtained what I intended to. While I always expect to experience Christian hegemony as a Black Jew, I had hoped that at a consultation of African and African Diasporan Women there would be a bit more embodied practice and integration of spirituality actually infused throughout the experience. We must always remember that the absence of spirituality and religion does not actually create equality; rather it reinforces the dominant narrative – here it was Christianity.