Lessons from Africa

It’s been months since I’ve left the red African soil (thanks for ruining half my wardrobe, by the way) and I’m still not over it. Every single time someone asks me about my trip, or I see a feature on TV, or when I hear the President Lungu talk – God, do I detest him – I go right back to those five weeks.

It wasn’t just my first time travelling to Africa, it was my first time travelling alone. And when your tickets are messed up, your vaccinations are a tad bit delayed, your visa situation is tricky, you are jittery. But God bless Kenya Airlines and their crew, because they were the best I’ve encountered. A lady schooled a guy all up in my personal space (reminder – my shoulders are not your head rest) and this other guy from the crew and I had a legit conversation at the very back of the plane at about 5:30 am in the morning. Because why the hell not?

And that was my first impression of Africa, before I even landed in Africa. Warm, friendly, genuine, brave, strong. So many adjectives in my mind, I got down to collect my bags. Guess what? They lost my bags. The airline freaking lost my bags. Losing my cool and almost crying, I went to a kind man named Martin. Martin, I will never forget you for helping a shaking, scared me in getting her bags back. Also to the old man who gave me his email ID while aggressively flirting, there’s one finger I have designated for you.

And so it happened. I saw how Nairobi’s traffic is slow but nobody bothers honking. People overtake, and the others let them. There is some rush to get places, but then again, most drivers are chill. They just wait for cars to move and reach whenever they do. The security about the airport in Kenya bothered me – I kid you not, we don’t have that kind of security even in our vulnerable, conflict zones. To think that terror is the one battle we all fight, it makes you wonder how ridiculous it is to spread hate on lines of race and religion. And that applies to every aspect – to the girl who pulled her skirt a little while walking down the road, to the school kids who were crammed in a long bus ride, to the beggar on the street. We all have the exact same battles, and yet we choose to deny it.

With these thoughts in my head, I landed in Zambia. No customs, basic immigration formality, and I was out. Rebeccah, who is one of my favourite people on the planet right now, was waiting for me. And she hugged me, she hugged me tight. Finally, I knew there was someone I told rely on in this foreign land. I knew a person, and her smile was genuine. She cared, and it made me feel safe for the first time in two days.

In just a few hours of reaching my new home, Sunbird, I realised how wrong I was to assume it would be just one person I could rely on. My fellow Mzungus payed for me because I had no forex, and the staff was quick to show me around and make me feel at home. I could rely on our house moms to get me blankets and warm water at 2 am when I had a malaria scare, and I could depend on people who worked around to get a bug off my freaking mosquito net. I could rely on the children who escorted me to my placement when I was lost. I could depend on a nice taxi driver who spotted me, sobbing on the street, and took me home and offered comforting words. I could trust the Shoprite security guard to stand with me while I waited for a taxi.

But most of all, I began to trust myself. I had more faith in my instincts and intuition more than ever. And for the first time in my life, I stroke conversation with complete strangers in a village, and had some locally brewed beer – hated it, but no regrets. I jumped off a bridge between Zambia and Zimbabwe, and totally accepted that I could perhaps die of a cheetah attack or an infection as the aftermath. I am glad neither of it happened, but I when that cheetah had grabbed me, I had come to terms with death and a possible feature on TV. It did teach me, however, to respect the wild and to never, ever, undermine the strength of an animal. However seemingly docile that little cheetah cub was, her jaw was inches away from my neck and claws inside my skin.

On my second day there, Kennedy – Rebeccah’s husband and the most patient person I know – told us about Africa time. Everything happened on a relative time. The clock there is just for the sake of us Mzungus, he said, but everything in Africa happens when it happens. And so it did. The school didn’t follow a timetable, the taxi drivers were almost never on time, the immigration office didn’t really care about deadlines. And it irritated me, but for a short while. Because then, I got swept into the concept of time being relative. I began prioritising having breakfast and high fiving random kids over reach the school on time. I began to learn to be and just let be – except when it came to food, I needed my food to be on time. But the point was that even though I take pride in being punctual, this new philosophy made sense in a strange manner. To live life in the moment and not as slaves of two wands on a round glass with numbers on it. It made perfect sense, and I began to embrace it. I was happy.

This one part, I cannot generalise, but I do vouch it to be true for Livingstone. People are so much more liberal than one would assume. The teachers in my school and I had a talk and they were all about safe sex before marriage, they had no shame in talking about HIV prevention. Hell, if I had been drinking and kissing on the streets in Mumbai, I would’ve been arrested. Not there, not in Livingstone. Bar hoping with my hunter’s gold in my hand was the weekend routine, and I appreciated the freedom.

However, it wasn’t all fun and games that I learned things through. For a country with so many people being politically aware, they could do nothing to stop Lungu from being re-elected. That doesn’t speak for the failure of democracy only in Zambia, but across the world. It might be more subtle in our countries, but if we look closely, democratic spaces are fast shrinking. What is left is an illusion, a false sense of control, which people in Zambia never felt they had.

Although I felt safe for most of my trips to and from town, there were also times when my hand would be grabbed, I would be pulled by my waist. I have never experienced such violent street harassment, and what made it worse was that there were no measures to protect women. Granted that locals claimed it happened way more with Mzungu women than Zambian women (apparently we’re exotic), the fact that someone can grab, grope and try to force a kiss on me is scary beyond measure when I know the law and the social construct is not by my side.

It’s easy to forget the privilege that we have, that our forefathers fought for, the causes youth comes on the street when your rights aren’t violated. The truth is, most humans face aggression in multiple ways, but we refuse to acknowledge them. Perhaps because we’re normalised, perhaps because we’re blinded. Going to other cultures, other countries forces you to revisit your entire life and principles, and you become so much aware of the situation we are in, as humans. That some people do have some privilege, and others face hardships based on their sex, their gender, their race, their religion, their beliefs. Witnessing violations as a foreigner in a completely different context than we’re normalised to makes it more glaringly obvious.

Africa reminds me of the human roots – both angelic and demonic. It’s such a diverse continent, and I haven’t seen much of it. I would be stupid and ignorant to generalise things, I know. There’s much to see and learn from this continent, the continent I plan to move to (honestly, I would if I could). But man, is it exquisite, that place. They are so rich, in resources, in reason, in wisdom, in hope, in energy. There is so much to learn, so much to understand. An entire lifetime isn’t enough to even begin and appreciate the continent, but that wouldn’t be stopping me.

On that note, I would be happy if someone is willing to fund my next trip – ideally to Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, Tanzania, Malawi and Kenya. Thank you.

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No

‘No’ isn’t a mere word…it’s an entire sentence on its own. It doesn’t require any enquiry, justification, explanation or interpretation.

These boys must realise, ‘No’ means ‘No’, regardless of whether the girl is an acquaintance, a friend, your girlfriend, a sex worker or even your wife. ‘No’ means ‘No’. And when someone says so, you STOP.

-Amitabh Bachchan in Pink

And here I am again. This time, with a quote by a legend in the film industry. Hoping, praying, that maybe someone so prominent might manage to bring about a small change. That after decades of movies revolving around a guy harassing a girl he “loves” – and ending up marrying her instead of ending up in jail – it might be time for change.

After months and months of debate over consent and sexual harassment, I’ve had enough. I’ve seen enough people claiming that by drinking, the girl was basically asking for sex. I’m done with people calling Brock Turner innocent. I cannot deal with the kind of brutal victimisation that goes around. Be it to the rape survivor at Stanford, or be it my friends and I. Because we shouldn’t be wearing sleeveless or skirts, we shouldn’t be out late at night, we shouldn’t laugh out loud or talk to men. Then, consent is assumed. You are a promiscuous bitch, and that’s what you want. That’s what you deserve.

Because you know what? I am tired. I am tired of going drinking and having men turn aggressive, so much so that I have to leave. I am tired of getting spammed with texts asking for, no wait, demanding for my love and my body. I am tired of being stared at when I walk to college. I am tired of having to use my hair as a shield from your gazes, you pervert, dressed as a businessman or a student. I am tired of having to take extra precautions so the food delivery guy doesn’t enter my house, that he tirelessly insists upon.

Realise that a no is a no. And to add to this phenomenal dialogue, here is a tip. Don’t assume consent, simple as that. Don’t assume you have the right to stare, make gestures, click my photos or touch me. And when I very clearly, explicitly say “No”, fucking stop.

Two breasts and a vagina

I know what I am to you – a piece of meat, with two breasts and a vagina. Small, but you can make do with it, since all I am to use is an object of pleasure. My worth comes from what gratifies you. Half of the society expects me to do what the other half bans me from doing.

Did you ever wonder who I am beyond my two breasts and my vagina? Beyond my lips that you crave to kiss, beyond my waist that you don’t let go of, beyond my legs that you stroke? What makes me who I am, what I am? What defines me or makes me average?What do I think of at 3 am, and who do I wish to become?

Only if you knew about me a little more. That I study what I do because inside I’m only a curious little child. The stars make me feel at home. Bikes scare me, only because I once had an accident and there was a little scratch but I thought I would die in that moment. I hate having to choose seats on a plane. I love travelling, and I want to travel to parts of the world that aren’t part of google search. I am very scared on centipedes, I call them Satan’s little spawns. I believe in human rights, and I try my best to fight for them. I once tried to write a book. I appreciate small gifts. I wish I read as much as I once did, but I’m trying my hardest. I still don’t know how to make a winged eyeliner. I hate tea, I’m fine with coffee, but chocolate shakes are my favourites. I want to go skydiving. I have heard a bomb explode and was trapped in a building until my mom could come get me. Candles make me happy. Fairy lights make me happier. I’ve had my trust broken, but perhaps I still trust easily. There are days I do nothing. I feel fat. I miss Africa. A girl with cognitive impairment changed my entire life. I still have Hannah Montana songs on my phone. I wish I could sing. Fireworks are the prettiest but I haven’t bought one for almost 10 years because I feel obliged to not pollute. I want a dog. I think capital punishment is unacceptable. I hate when people don’t drive well. I injured my spine. I want to decorate my cute little apartment one day. My sense of smell is the worst. Sunsets make me feel fuzzy and warm. I don’t really like Nutella. I haven’t had an authentic taco in my entire life. I am an atheist. I have toys from my childhood that I cherish. I would like to believe I’ve changed a lot over the years.

But how would you know? All you do is stare at my cleavage, try to get into my pants. How would you know, if you don’t want to know? When everything you want from me is just my body, the one you think you are entitled to. And so, all you want to know is my bra size and my fantasies in bed. Suddenly, my passionate talking doesn’t matter, because I have a drink in my hand, and you have sex on your mind.

That’s what I am to you – two breasts and a vagina.

Midnight thoughts

It’s past midnight and I can’t sleep.

I can’t sleep because I feel personally guilty about everything happening in the world, and I am well aware that this is the highway to self-destruction. It doesn’t stop me, no. Maybe it would be easier to just not be.

I feel terribly guilty about all the kids who don’t get to go to school because their city or country is under attack, only so we get to keep our pride intact and oil prices low. Because it is in the end from the money I give to the government that they buy the bullets from. I am directly funding multiple genocides, just by buying chocolates.

I feel awful because women around the world face assaults and abuse and terror inside the four walls of their home, the place that should be a safe haven for them. There is so much I could do about it – call the cops when I see a man raising his voice against a woman, make sure that drunken girl gets home safe, enquire if the bruises on the hand of my friend are a result of violence. But I choose to stay silent, and it eats me up.

I feel disgusted that love is a crime in my country and around the world. That a primal need is considered to be an unnatural act to be jailed for. Because social constructs of gender now override people’s right to just be, and so many are forced to hide their identities for the fear of being imprisoned or worse, be stigmatised and boycotted from society. And what do I do for their rights? Nothing. I just sit on my privileged ass and tweet hashtags about it.

I feel ashamed looking at the environment. I live in a city where the pollution levels often give me headaches, the lack of trees is proportionate to the lack to clear skies or stars. The summer kills people, and the rains kill people, and the winters kill people. And yet I choose to run the air conditioner and use a power hungry computer to print assignments.

And it’s such a pity, because when I finally do sleep, none of it will matter to be anymore. As someone else falls victim to the sins that I contribute to, I will dream of my next vacation. I will wake up in the morning and find myself unperturbed by the consequences of my action, or lack thereof. I will feel no guilt, I will have no thought for the victims I could have, should have helped.

It terrifies me.

My wish for you

You told me that you don’t think you’ll ever love someone.

I wish I could change that. I wish you knew how it was to love, to love someone until it seems like it would be physically impossible to love her more, and then love her a tad bit more. I really hope you find someone who makes you want to get up every day and makes you stop in your tracks every single time you think of her.

Maybe then you’ll understand what it is like to love. When her favourite colour is the one you adorn your canvas with, when her voice is the one you hear all the time and you think you might just go crazy. When she has on the outfit you love, and you can’t resist looking at her until everything fades away. The way she scrunches her nose at kittens or sneezes when she wakes up, you will adore all of that and more.

You will find that love is gentle and fierce. That she might seem so fragile when she tells you about that childhood bully but so brave when she helps you confront your fears. And some nights you might have it rough, some days you might argue and refuse to talk like the stubborn individuals that you are. But at the end, you both will meet again at an amusement park and scream your problems out and go home with three tubs of ice cream.

That someone who might make getting old and wrinkly seems not that bad of a deal, considering you’ll have her by your side. She will make you watch the horror movies that she likes, and maybe you both will equally suck at a sport. And perhaps you’ll pick up each other’s gross habits, and not really mind it, because now you know it’s something so special only between you two.

And maybe it’ll last forever. And maybe it’ll break. Maybe you will have your heart crushed over, and it will feel like colliding suns and collapsing moons. You will be miserable and cook her favourite meal, hoping she comes home and grins like nothing ever went wrong. Maybe you’ll spend countless nights at bars and wander about the lonely roads, taking risks because nothing matters anymore. Or you might just lock yourself up and cry, cry until you drown in yourself.

All of this, just my tender wish. That you love again. That you live again.

Then you’ll know how I feel about you.

Moving on

It was about this time, last year, that I broke up with my first love. Two years and more of a relationship, of talking almost every single day, until one of us fell asleep. That was what we had, and it was gone, instantly. Looking back, maybe it was inevitable.

Both him and I know the reasons for the breakup, and both of us have slightly different versions. Today, I’m not here to prove myself right. Because what happened, happened. What was said and done, is exactly that, in the past. We both broke down and cried, drowned our sorrows in alcohol and woke up in utter misery. We both wondered what would come next, how we would survive it.

He was my person. He was the person I told about my dreams and my lectures, how a teacher was completely unfair and how the taxi driver was such a humble human being. He told me about football, and I barely ever understood anything. But I saw the passion, and I enjoyed hearing him get excited about a match. Before going to sleep, I wished his team won. And sometimes we would text in the middle of the night or early in the morning about how the clouds were so fluffy. That was my life, and it was suddenly gone.

It hurt, God it hurt. I cried myself to sleep for weeks and almost diagnosed myself with clinical depression (note to self: only because you study psychology and know the DSM criteria doesn’t mean you get to label anyone, even yourself, with a disorder.) I didn’t think I would ever be just as happy again, or even look at someone the way I looked at him. I didn’t think there would be a person I cared about as much as I cared about him, or talk to the way I talked to him. I didn’t think I could be myself without him.

Some words were exchanged over the months. Some good, some brutal. Most of all, though, they got me closer to closure every single time. Because every single time a call went bad, ended up in yelling and accusations, I knew it was better for the both of us to go our separate ways. And so I booked my flight all the way to Zambia, just a country below his, using up the money I wanted to spend to see him. Because I wanted to get away and experience life for myself, for once, be free.

It might have been the best thing I ever did. Because I flew over his country, and I gazed down from my flight. I was the closest to him, but I didn’t end up crying. I did want to see him, in some corner of my heart, I was hoping we get to keep atleast one promise. But the thing is, It only bothered me for two days and then I let go.

And I met this guy, this amazing guy who was nothing like him. He wasn’t into football but he was into mainstream music. He had tattoos and barely ate. But he was also the kind who would wrap his arms around my waist when a drunkard made me uncomfortable while trying to flirt his way into my pants. He would make sure a car doesn’t hit me as I tried to navigate the roads of Livingstone. He was the kind of guy who would kiss me on the street and drop me home, and wait until I was safely inside the gate. He would splash water all over me and try to startle me, and fail every single time. I met him. I may have fallen in love. I don’t even know.

But now, one year from my first breakup, I know I can make it through. I would never want to live alone, but I can. I know I am strong enough to face my biggest demons all by myself. I also know it’s okay to be a little scared. It’s okay to ask for help from friends, and even family if need be. It’s okay to lose sight and have a bad week, wanting to spend all my days in bed. Because I know, I can always get back up.

Pizza and Principles

On Friday, I decided to treat a few of my friends with pizza in exchange for cake and a possible gift. And so, after college, we all trotted to Domino’s pizza.

As soon as we got there, I noticed a kid, no more than seven in age, piercing through the glass and looking at us. As soon as I met his gaze, he signalled he was hungry. With him were other younger kids as well that I assumed were his siblings. They didn’t look very healthy or well looked after – their clothes were torn, hair unkempt, body unclean.

One of my principles is to never give kids money, because more often than not, it never is used for them. Another principle of mine is to never ignore anyone who is geunienly in need. So, I decided to get them pizza. It was a spectacularly slow day at Domino’s since they were running low on staff  but they did get the kids their pizza as we cut the cake. Calling them inside, and giving them a table to settle down at, I gave them the pizza and ketchup. One cheeky little kid turned around, barely able to hold the hot pizza, and mumbled “aunty, thumbs up”

Apart from being a little embarrassed to have been called aunty, I knew they wanted a fizzy drink. Why not, I thought, and got them their coke. And so, they had their pizza at the cost of burning their tongues and ended up spilling coke in efforts to distribute it equally. They wouldn’t let me touch it, and I had to respect that.

While they ate, I asked the staff at Domino’s where the kids lived. One guy told me that their lived on the streets. They weren’t orphans, no, their parents were rag pickers and couldn’t afford a house. And so, like millions of people, they lived beneath buildings to shelter themselves from the rains. We were wondering if we could get help for them, get them into a orphanage or contact a NGO. But knowing the beareucracy that goes into getting kids into the child welfare system in India, we knew it was next to impossible to help them out in a substantial way. The glimmer of hope in me was the fact that the girl borrowed a plastic bag from me to store her and her brothers’ school uniforms.

They left, and we got back to what we were doing, i.e. creating a ruckus with our loud, obnoxious talks. Not long after though, entered two more kids who wanted pizza as well. Sitting them down, I ordered another pizza for the three and six something-year-olds. I assumed it would go the same way as before, but not really. The younger one was cute as a button, sure, but man was he notorious. He asked for money, and the elder one ended up having to shut him up. Eventually, they were both on the floor of Domino’s punching and choking each other. We had to physically separate them and threaten to not give pizza to have them wait patiently and not hit each other.

We had ordered our pizzas before theirs and had finished eating. However, we waited for them to give the kids their pizza. When the two kids were waiting outside, someone had tried to shush them away from standing on the pavements because apparently only the rich have the right to use public property. We didn’t want the people in Domino’s treat the kids unjustly, and had to make sure they’d get their food.

Didn’t quite work like we’d planned. The kids insisted they take the pizza out and eat it, and no matter how much we tried to reason with them, they wouldn’t listen. Finally, giving in, we let them carr it out and watched as they took tiny steps into a shady little alley. A part of me wanted to make sure the kids got their food and someone didn’t cruelly snatch it away, but that wasn’t possible for me to do.

And so, I left with a heavy heart. These were kids who lived in immense poverty and endured the worst situations. And even though all of them had gone through simislar conditions, their behaviour had stark differences. While some were kind and patient, the others were violent and unruly. However, how could I blame the three year old? All that he said and did, he must have learned from what he saw around him. It was heartbreaking to realise that while people like my friends and I were sheltered and protected all our lives, these kids are exposed to aggression and cruelty since birth.

But again, when he grows up, isn’t it going to be his responsibility to keep his behaviour in check? Not everything can be let go of by blaming social and economic factors, not everything can be ignored. Truth of the matter is, eventually, everyone has to be accountable for their behaviour. Those of raised in a certain way find it easy, but it must be so much more difficult to learn and acquire right behaviours when you have been witnessing the contrary for all your life.

And what about the fact that kids shouldn’t have to ask for food in front of strangers anyway? They shouldn’t have to be looking into restaurants, hoping someone tosses them leftovers. They shouldn’t have to be living on the streets. They shouldn’t be subject to atrocities from the general public.

How do we possibly deal with the situation? While some people like us can easily afford to buy ten people over priced pizzas, most can’t get their hands on enough nutrition. While some of us have colour coordianted rooms, most don’t have a roof over their head. While some of us have closets overflowing with the most ridiculous items, most don’t have one set of good clothes.

How do we ever bridge the gap?