Women’s Empowerment, African Style

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A Portrait of Visolela “Rosa” Namises, Namibia. The story of an impressive woman…

When one looks at women in Africa, a contradiction becomes apparent: On the one hand women may seem predominant and confident, solid as a rock in the face of poverty, disease and rural exodus. Even international investors and helpers understand by now: in Africa, nothing aimed at sustainable development will work without women. Women are the backbone of economies, especially in rural areas. On the other hand, their participation in politics is disconcertingly low. Considerably more alarming is the level of violence against women. With impunity and in large numbers, women are beaten, raped, and violated. Nonetheless, when such maltreated women speak about their lives in discussion groups, frequently they will specify, as their greatest suffering, that their husband has left. Matter-of-factly, a large part of African societies consist of men who have run away and abandoned the mothers and children.

Their shoulders not only carry the burden of making ends meet for them and their children with the occasional odd job, but also carry the pressure of loneliness and depression. Why then – you might think – are they not relieved to be rid of their abusive spouses

Visolela Namises, 55, from Namibia explains: “Because they are living behind a wall of silence, especially a muteness about their own bodies, their sexuality. Because, from early childhood on they have been brainwashed and indoctrinated to be a good wife and to obey the man.”

The strongest impact of this indoctrination occurs during the initiation into womanhood, which would vary between ethnic groups: “It is wrong to only denounce genital mutilation. Many tribes have other painful rituals. In the tribe of my mother, cuts are inflicted at the shoulders and along the sides, supposedly stimulating the male libido. All the while, for seven days, mature women tell them the same old story. How they are much less worth than men and that their highest duty is to obey and be of service to men.

To talk about their own sexuality, simply to perceive it at all and to make their own decisions; that is a taboo. At the end of the week, there is a dance, and the men – not just the young ones – are told that they can choose any of them. The traditional initiation into womanhood is a preparation for a life of submission.”

How differently a women’s life can take its course, when, while as a girl they do not have to suffer violence and ideology, but rather enjoy a loving and open transition into womanhood. Visolela has experienced this herself. She currently enables young women and girls to have this experience, by offering alternative initiation rituals: at present operating in different locations, but in the near future in the women’s house that she is building in Windhuek.

It is to become a refuge for maltreated women, a school for female knowledge, and a place for the initiation of young girls without violence and contempt. “Come on in, take off your shoes, take a seat. This is a house of love, here you’re safe.” These words she wants to be able to say to more and more women and girls.

Visolela “Rosa” Namises , Namibia : I love the world!

Visolela Namises’ most eye-catching feature is her hairdo: Black and grey dreadlocks curl down to her hip. A style quite provocative in Namibia and other African societies, where in public life one would rather appear spick and span. That Visolela has not combed nor cut her hair for over 11 years is not a fashion, but a political statement of resistance. As much as the solitary clip she wears in one ear.

In 2003, president and “founding father of the Republic of Namibia”, Sam Nujoma, had announced that troops would be sent through all towns and villages to arrest all those wearing dreadlocks or single earrings. These were alleged to be outrageously ‘un-African’ signs of homosexuality, and therefore deserved to be punished.

Visolela, a member of parliament at the time, immediately responded: “Then you may start right here with me.” She made a vow to grow dreadlocks until this threat would no longer be an issue. The case received much attention, and the president had to understand that he could not abolish homosexuality through penalties.

All her life it has been that way: “Whenever minorities, women or dissenters are threatened, I get up and I must say something. Anything. Even if I feel powerless, but even just addressing it already helps. Remaining silent in the face of violence and injustice, that’s the worst. ”

This ethos encompasses her whole life. It has led her into trouble, into the fight for independence, into prison, into exile, into Parliament. It also gave her a nickname: The Rosa Luxemburg of Namibia. Despite her admiration for the Polish revolutionary, it is the name given to her at birth which remains important to her.

For Visolela means: ‘I love the world’. She received it from the man who later taught her that violence and contempt do not ultimately have to determine the relationship of men and women, that being a woman does not equate pain and submission. This man was her father.

55 years ago a young father-to-be places his wife on the back of a bicycle and makes his way to the only hospital in Windhuek. They never arrive. Under a tree by the riverside, Visolela´s mother asks her husband to stop and, without further ado, gives birth to their first daughter right there. Overwhelmed, her father takes the tiny bundle into his arms, embraces it tightly and shouts his joy out into the river: “Visolela” !

That her parents would split up later is not peculiar in African societies. That Visolela remains with her father is much more uncommon. Highly unusual is the way he brings her up: “He’d prepare breakfast for me, he washed my clothes, took me to school and put me to sleep at night. I was as lovingly cared for as any child could be in a snug environment, but just by my father. I took this for granted – and for all my life I have not taken anything else from men to be normal than understanding and empathy.”

When Visolela gets her first period the father even organizes a celebration. That was her initiation into womanhood, fully without pain or humiliation. During this period, she is blissfully unaware that her sisters, female friends and contemporaries were going through quite different rituals of initiation. Violence and the oppression of women were not part of the world of the growing Visolela. That had to lead to conflict in a country that as “Fifth Colony of South Africa”, back then, adhered to the laws of apartheid ​​as strictly as the occupiers did.

As a black cleaning lady who asks white staff to carry back their used cups to the kitchen themselves, she is rebuked – you just do not make such suggestions to white people.

As a nurse who cannot keep her mouth shut when the white doctors treat their black patients with contempt, she gets into more serious trouble.

When she and a white doctor fall in love and, young and cocky, they walk about hand in hand through the streets of Windhuek, the limits are finally exceeded. He is transferred and she is sacked – to take on the new profession of becoming a freedom fighter. For her it has become clear: a system in which love cannot be lived has to be abolished. So she starts to organize resistance against apartheid and occupation, meets like-minded people, and becomes a member of the Swapo: the Namibian independence movement.

“Every night we studied communism, socialism and anarchism. After the Swapo had been banned, we are invited to barbecues: while out the front door guests barbecued, inside we met for conspiratorial gatherings. Visolela is present while concepts for an independent, equal and just Namibia emerge. But not for long: She is betrayed, caught and imprisoned without trial for 14 months. Subsequently forced into exile, she wanders about, living, learning and working in Europe and the USA. Only when independence is declared in 1990 does she return, full of enthusiasm to help in building up an independent Namibia. She suffers a rude awakening.

“In jail I had become painfully aware of the situation of women in our country. Every day, women are beaten, raped, killed -. and worse, believe me. Now all this was to change in the new Namibia. I so vividly remember the evening that my world collapsed around me when my sister told me about the crimes of the Swapo against women; crimes that had come to light during my absence”.

“My admired role models should have done all this? All the equality and solidarity that we talked about all these long nights – valid only for men? Yet the authoritarian policy of Swapo government told its own tale. I had to realize: These are not my comrades anymore. Swapo is an ignorant mens club!

She resigns her party membership and retires from politics but keeps up her dedication to the cause: from this time onwards she works for a human rights organization and studies law: “Initially, I had the feeling that the party can really help women. But Swapo was blocking laws that would protect women. Eventually, I realized that I had to go back into politics again.”

Together with other enraged former members of the Swapo Youth, she founds a new party: the Congress Democrats, and is elected a member of Parliament. For three years she tries to push through many draft policies to protect women and minorities. She becomes infamous as an inconvenient voice, a grain of sand in the gears of a Swapo government that becomes more dictatorial by the day – but she also receives appreciation. When it gets too much for her and she leaves Parliament, even MPs of the opposing party say: “It has become lonely without her”.

No matter what else she is busy with, her home is always open to children and young girls who need advice or something to eat; be they relatives, or from the neighborhood. That is what she focuses on now. She founds the organization “Breaking the Wall of silence”, where, together with her comrades, she devises alternative initiation rites for young women.

“Five days are sufficient. Why should they be absent from school for longer and then, again, be disadvantaged compared to the boys? During this time the young women learn practical things about women’s bodies, hygiene and contraception. They get to know their rights, and in a circle of women they speak about their hopes and aspirations in regard to profession, and to love. Of course, in the end there is also a dance party together with young men, but in this case they are allowed to select the boys, not vice versa.”

By now, Visolela observes that girls who have a different experience to the societal norm, develop differently at this pivotal point in their lives.

“We can break the wall of silence and recover the treasure and the knowledge that lies behind it. Come on in, take off your shoes, take a seat. This is a house of love, you’re safe here. I want to be able to say this to more and more women and girls.”

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