The Questions We Can’t Ask, the Questions We Can Answer: Finding Language For #FMF To Read While They Heal




Mandala”Changing Consciousness” By Karin Koen



How do we think about physical and mental illness in this age of HIV? When a comrade is ground down by too much grief and loss, do we check up on them are we too busy continuing the struggle? Do we respect weakness as well as strength? Or are we still stuck in the macho resistance culture of last century? Have we become brutalized? Is this why we are not only shooting our own children but emotionally abusing them – as if the burning of buildings can somehow justify shooting young people in the face and telling them it is their own fault? As if things becoming more important than people is a normal and everyday feature of life.

Mustard gas was a weapon of war during the two European World Wars. It was a tool of oppression when the then Minister of Education, F.W. De Klerk ordered apartheid police to teargas students in 1980. Now we do it to our own. Have we completely lost it? Sometimes it is comforting to think of taking refuge on madness. Sometimes the ones who are gone appear to be the lucky ones. At least they did not have to live to see this world we have created.

When people ask me what I do, I tell them I am a traditional healer. I try to heal the society which makes people sick, I say.

The recent death of a friend from breast cancer, the death anniversary of another, and the breakdown of a third brought low by too much loss, has brought home that I complicate my grieving by insisting on seeing illness as socially determined. Like another cancer survivor said:

“I completely agree with Lorde’s assessment in The Cancer Journals that the higher instances of cancer and other chronic illness are the result of toxins in the environment.  The challenge is for all of us is to force federal agencies to implement more restrictions on the use of pesticides and other toxins that ravage our air, food and water supply.  Without any drastic changes made to reduce and/or eliminate these toxins, I suspect we will continue to see higher instances of cancer and other chronic illnesses.”[3]

Deaths from perfectly preventable diseases had become essentially a call to action. They told me I was not working hard enough, my hours were not long enough, or that I was not shouting loudly enough.  My grief had become inseparable from my struggle. I used to at least give myself some recovery time according to Lorde’s maxim:

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”[4]

But then the Black feminists went and complicated it for me. They asked “Why?”. Why should Lorde have had to look after herself?

“Audre Lorde didn’t die a natural death.  She died an institutionally produced one, a death that was generated at the level of social infrastructure. I want us to learn to regard Audre Lorde’s death as an effect of racial capitalism—its fundamentally unequal provisioning of wealth and social goods, its ableist and productivist standards as to what constitutes a healthy person, its fashioning of health care as a private commodity rather than as a fundamental right, and its particular commingling of sexism and racism that at one and the same time materializes the constant demand that black women work and renders the work they do invisible. The conditions that produced Audre Lorde’s death, in other words, might also serve as a reminder that in the aggregate, black women bear a disproportionate share of racial capitalism’s propensity to work its workers to death. And a major feature of these death-making conditions is to be found in the ways in which it is structured so as to refuse to recognize as work what so many black women do for themselves, for each other, and for their communities…”[5]

Bahati Kuumba had by this time spent many years trying to bring us to consciousness about the sheer amount of emotional housework we do even in the struggle.[6] It was from that history that the idea of self-care seemed to me a revolutionary idea: a hot bath, a good book, actually not doing any carework (emotional or otherwise) for the day. Now, the notion that actually, maybe if I was not so undermined on a daily and hourly basis I would be well without having to self-care struck me with blinding force. Young people do occasionally come up with interesting ideas.

See, years of the sustained attack on Queer people’s existence known as hate crimes has left me often unable to grieve. I say my grief muscle is overworked. I started a new poetry collection called “the New Normal” trying to express this feeling that violence had become so normalized that any random day would bring news of another one killed, raped or beaten up.  The grieving stacked up so much that I was never able to finish it. There was no time to write. And I’m talking only about the ones which hit the headlines, many other private griefs would come to me rumour-wise. I could not other than see these deaths as political.

There are also the living dead. The one who took a government job and since then can only talk about what she owns. She has no conversation except about what she owns,[7] sends her son to a very expensive private school but lives in fear since she witnessed corruption and is scared for her life though it is obvious to the meanest intelligence that she will never tell. I look at her and think “What future? What future are you preparing for your son?”

The friend who disappeared down a bottle and never came back. The friend who can only hold it together on legal drugs. The friend diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder who could not hold down a job and was forced back to live with the preacher father who quite likely perpetrated the traumas which caused the BPD in the first place. The friend who was never diagnosed with BPD, outwardly highfunctioning but who continues to push-pull in her personal relationships, going from one wreck to the other. The steady, responsible but emotionally autistic friend. The friend who promised not to commit suicide but who is barely part of living community. As Neo Musangi has put it:

“it surprises no one that i disappeared

i have been the space between lines,

a face in the crowd, a crack on peeling paint,

he knows that to gradually disappear, she only needs to love

an empty heart.”[8]


The living dead clutter my life, sometimes they come to workshops. They think of themselves as comrades. Sometimes this is the only meaning in their lives left to them, coming to meetings bearing mute testimony to the physical and mental violence which broke them. It is hard to feel alive amongst these comrades. I wrote about it in that poetry collection I never completed:

“I have been silenced and separated by violence

Mind, body and soul torn apart

I am with Audre Lorde on this one

I just don’t think chains and whips can be sexy for the children of slaves

Still, I too have repressed memories of a reality so evil that physical pain seemed a pleasure by comparison

I remember the need to re-enact those dramas of dominance and submission

Trying desperately to imagine a sense of control

I know the long road up the Mountain

Re-mothering myself

Studying the difference between pain and pleasure

Learning self-love like a child, one step at a time

Until I no longer needed to cut myself just to feel something like alive”[9]


So the idea of wellness as a birthright, to no longer feel tired but rested and full of energy as the norm struck me with stunning force. I knew that state once. It was youth. I had understood my exhaustion as simply the consequences of age. These young feminists questioning Lorde’s legacy made me rethink my approach to wellness. I became more aware of the constant draining from emotional housework. I started to be able to literally see the energy draining from my soul as I organized with my loving but emotionally dead comrades.

What I then noticed is that I myself had become unfeeling. This urge to be well, to not be drained constantly, to actually feel like getting out of bed in the morning was so overpowering, I simply did not want to other-mother the struggle for a while. This meant not supporting my comrades. It was not depression, it was not any form of mental illness. It was simply tiredness. I was about to cross over to the living dead. The important thing about this response was that it was a normal response to what was happening around me. Human beings are so made that they habituate, to a drug, an emotion or a situation. I was simply suffering-ed out, death-ed out. I don’t think I am alone in this. In the age of HIV/AIDs and gender-based violence, we have sustained so much loss that we run out of feeling. And it has become the norm. Koleka Putuma says that illness has become an embarrassment to the social polity:

“There are protocols to reaching out:
Do not share a meme of your panic attacks on social media
Your 3456 friends do not know of the epilepsy that came before,
The willpower it took to pick up the phone and tell your mother
That today, it is hard.
It is sore in all the places you cannot see or wrap uh gauze around.
Do not post a selfie of your self-mutilation
God forbid, your status reveals that you are lost or breaking
No one will comment on how raw or close to healing your wound is.” [10]


Let me repeat this point again. I am not saying that mental or physical illness is rife, or that lacking in compassion has never been a feature. I am saying it has become normal. My friend Tandisa Nkonyeni used to counsel out of a container in Soweto. She said to me once: “A woman comes in complaining about depression. I ask her about her life. 45 minutes later I tell her ‘there is nothing wrong with you. This is an absolutely sane reaction to your circumstances. If you lived your life and were not depressed you would be having a serious [mental] problem.’”

To underline this point by force of contrast, let us turn to Keguro Macharia who reminds us of a past before we were overwhelmed by loss:

“Audre Lorde framed black women’s lives and experiences in terms of survival. In her hands, survival was more than simply enduring. It was not about resigning oneself to a fate and hoping to make it through. It named the strategies of care and knowledge that made it possible to imagine, make, and transmit how to live and how to love and how to be across generations. “[11]

What does it mean when our current young poets are framing their experiences, not only in terms of loss, but in terms of the fact that people cannot be expected  to care? That those who are sick are afraid of even seeking compassion, lest they be a bother to the tired ones?

More force of contrast: amongst the ancient Khoesan there was no word for ‘evil’, only ‘sick’ as ‘in out of balance with the ecosystem’. A person who has lost touch with the rhythm of Creation. So the cure for illness and evil would be the same: to bring the afflicted person back into the community of interdependence. But a species that lacks care for its young? I seek a herb or a ritual for that.

Perforce, over the past five hundred years, the Khoesan studied evil in minute, intimate and daily detail.  It became a loan word, coming perhaps closest in meaning to ‘alienated’.  The consensus seems to be that of the first cause there can be no understanding. It is a question which does not compute. What species wishes to place itself outside Creation? Why hurt another when the principle of interdependence means sooner or later that pain will come back to you, or somebody you love? Why build up bad karma for yourself in your old age, or for your descendants? To these questions there is no sensible answer. The words ‘to be part of’ just didn’t seem to compute for the primary evil doers.

Accepting first cause as a given, though, it is possible to come to some answers. I shall frame this in psychological terms: when evil is done to us, and we do not process in a safe and supportive environment, we continue to re-enact the traumatic events over and over again. Our subconscious needs to tell a narrative and if we are unable to express it in words (like, say, we don’t have a language for it, or we do not believe that anybody will listen) we will act out over and over again until resolved. That is, we will do unto others what was done to us unless there is a conscious effort to heal. Healing is hard. Many people prefer to become separate from their pain, to deny, and thus to re-enact over and over again. Once begun, evil will give rise to heteropatriarchy, capitalism, white supremacy, ableism and ecocide.

The descendants of the Khoesan and slaves studied evil for two hundred and fifty years of slavery, meaning two hundred and fifty years of institutionalized rape. After a  century or so of silence we eventually came to speak about it – although rarely directly. That is not how the children of rape speak. We revived Khoesan culture, language, and built a movement. As a people we said that we would not allow the slave master to survive in us. The genetics we could do nothing about, but we could counter-genocide by turning our back on the culture into which we were forced to be born. This we have done. Throughout that battle, values came first. We lost our land, our cattle, our knowledge, our very bodies, before we were prepared to lose our values. For to become other than ourselves meant that we would have lost everything. Therefore this new state of non-feeling worries me (whenever I can summon up enough energy to worry). To held on to our values until just when we are almost in sight of victory would be a great tragedy. It would render the last five hundred years meaningless. It would mean that evil has triumphed.

Meaninglessness is indeed just another word for evil. Chaos is as necessary as structure for creativity. Pain, as in birth and death, is normal.  It is in the life between that one seeks to make happiness as in worship. Pain, as in loss and gain, is part of living. I used to when I was younger rush to help a comrade because I knew that if I did not rush they would be back on top again soon and I would have lost my chance to be there for them. I hear nowadays this is called ‘co-dependent’. But for my ancestors it was called ‘normal’. It meant ‘belonging’. But to be in pain alone, to isolate yourself from other people because you are afraid of being a bother, to refuse connectedness, to be too tired to care, is the triumph of meaninglessness.

I plan to retire in this country. When that happens I would like it not to be riddled with corruption to the point where no implementation occurs. I would like it to be run by caring, competent people. It makes sense to me to invest in free liberatory education now so I can spend my last years in peace. That is every adult’s plain and simple task, surely?

In short, my #FMF youngsters, you did well to rise up. The last 22 years have not been good to us. Those of us who sold our souls for dollars (or more precisely Renminbi’s) are not having such a good time as they thought they would. Else they wouldn’t need to be constantly high. Here I do not even mean in spiritual terms, as in the thirst for material things cannot be slaked and leads only to an ever greater spiritual poverty. We know that. I mean it in a literal sense. The black middle class has not been sober for decades, whether abusing substances, religion or power. Because they cannot cope with what they had to do in order to be what they are. Because they cannot deal with separation from their communities. They stopped computing and have nothing but addiction to replace it with.

So don’t listen to anybody, including me.  I could say so much: Continue to refuse to be part of the living dead. Care for one another. Be the parents you never had. Practice compassion. Stay true to your values. If my generation is to have any redeeming feature, let it be that we have shown by example that selling our souls does not bring happiness.

I could make a call especially to Queer youth. I worry about the tremendous pressure for conformity, within the broader movement and even weirder, in the Queer movement itself. Suddenly, it appears, there are normative ways of being Queer. Really? How does that work? It just tells me that we desperately need to move away from the politics of fear and hatred towards a revolution of love. Who is going to do that if not the Queer youth? Is love not what our movement is all about? Did I miss something?

But you will none of you listen to me and that is exactly as it should be. You are young and will make many mistakes. That is also as it should be.  Experience is the most expensive education ever, taking payment only in heart’s blood, sweat and tears. School of hard knocks does not accept credit cards. But bless you for rejecting all notions of settling for less! Keep up the good work! Nothing and nobody can ever stop you from learning.



[1] .

[2] . I am sorry I have forgotten where I found this. If anybody knows, please comment so I can attribute intellectual property.

[3] . Christian, Tanya Breast Cancer: Lessons that Audre Lorde Taught Me The Feminist Wire 14/2/2014.

[4] . Lorde, Audre A Burst of Light: Essays Firebrand Books,  New York,1988.

[5] . Low End Theory  On Audre Lorde’s Legacy and the ‘Self’ Of Self-care, Part 2 of 3 14/5/2013

[6] . Kuumba, M. Bahati. African Women, Resistance Cultures And Cultural ResistancesAgenda 20, no. 68 , 2006, pp. 112-121.

[7] . “Jimmy Choo! Really? One year’s earnings of a domestic worker on your feet? Another on your head? And you expect me to think this a good thing?”

[8] . Musangi, Neo If I Dissappear

[9] . Love Her – One  22 September, 2014.  Unpublished.

[10] . Putuma, Koleka Grief Will Always Ask: Why Culture Review Magazine 20 September, 2016

[11] .Macharia, Keguro Michelle Cliff and Cedric Robinson

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