It’s almost a year since that evening we met Nonhlanhla, but I can’t forget her. I wonder about her. I wonder what’s happened in her life in the days, weeks, months after that night. Did she break up with him? Is she safe where she lives? Did he beat her again? Has he killed her yet?
I ask other questions...
Where would she turn to - Realistically, if she’d wanted to break up with him? Where would she get help? Who would listen to her talk? I wonder... and I sometimes despair that because I am better off than most of the world’s population - I have a warm bed, food to eat, money in my wallet, and I don’t need to fear for my life - that I’m too far removed from her life. From the reality of it - right up the street from my house!
I’ll back up a bit... Nick, Logie and I were driving home one evening last year at almost 9pm. Just at the roundabout in front of our driveway turning, we see this guy dragging a woman right across the highway by her clothes. He’s headed to the tall grass; she’s only wearing one flip-flop and seems dazed. Other cars are driving by quickly. Its late, my son’s in his car chair mostly asleep, home and our beds are a hop across the road and 500m away. It could’ve been anything - maybe we didn’t understand what we were seeing - maybe they’d been drinking and were stumbling home.
Something in my spirit checked. I had a desperate feeling to stop. That if I didn’t I’d regret it.
It’s funny now, in hindsight: We must’ve driven round the little circle at least three times, arguing if it was safe to stop, trying to figure out what the guy was doing to her, if she needed help or not, keeping an eye out for traffic, for where the two were headed. But when she noticed our car, and broke free to run a bit in our direction, yelling... We. Had. To. Stop.
Nick was worried there might be more guys in the bushes we couldn’t see or that he was armed, I was certain if he got her to the grass, and down the dark dirt road, they’d disappear and we wouldn’t find her. What an insane, slow motion, high speed moment. We stopped, reversed to under the streetlight, and I jumped out like a crazy person, yelling at him to back off. She’d pulled free again and was stumbling towards the car. He was standing there, I don’t know, unsure, measuring us up, wondering what WE were thinking? I made sure she was in the car, Nick was furious, with me, with him. The guy was swearing at us, it was weird. We sped away, around the circle (again!) and start driving back up to town, partly coz Nick was worried if we went straight home now he’d follow us (at least one of us was thinking safety), and we also had to find the cops.
Wow. Now what?! Logan’s staring at us with huge eyes, dead quiet; then he says he’s ok, smiles over at the lady. (Oh boy, mental note to talk to him about all of this later, check we haven't traumatised him or anything) I start talking, I’m watching her body language, need to get information from her, see if she’s hurt, thank goodness I did the crisis counselling training. I’m twisted round facing the back, asking her name, where she lives, does she know the guy, is she ok, did she get hurt, does she want to go to the police station, and can we take her home? Her name is Nonhlanhla, she lives right down that dirt road with her parents, he’s her boyfriend who lives in Matsapha, they were out drinking, she’d tried to break up with him that night, he’d followed her home, normally her two brothers come to walk her but they didn’t that night, he started hitting her, he’d told her he was going to kill her this evening, teach her a lesson, no, she’s not bleeding, yes, she wants to go to the police.
We get there, all of us pile out, we’re at the front desk with that night’s drunk and homeless, there’s vomit on the floor, the place reeks of booze and unwashed bodies, telling our story over and over to four different people. She’s wearing only a tank top (now stretched), and knee-length skirt, dirty, her hair’s all messed up, and no shoes. The cops are sceptical, pushy, speaking fast and loud. They want us to take her back to where we found her coz she knows the guy, he’s her boyfriend, so they can talk out their differences. Thank goodness Nick speaks SiSwati, and he’s a Man. By the time we found the right person to take a statement, she’d changed her mind and didn’t want to press charges of assault or open a case against him.
Nick calls her parents to tell them what’s happened, where she is now, and if they’d like us to bring her home. Her mom’s grateful, they were worried when she was late, the area is unsafe on a weekend night, and her brothers had been out looking. No, it’s ok, they’ll come fetch her.
I write down my name and number for her, tell her to call if she needs to talk, and needs help, for anything. We leave her there at the station. I’m worried. We’re exhausted. Her mom calls Nick the next day to say thank you. That’s about it.
And now I wonder... what we did wasn’t special or heroic, I’d hope someone would do that for me... but that it happened so close to my home.... That she said it was no use to press charges coz by the time the cops found and arrested him, and the court case was over, he’d come looking for her even angrier.... Besides, she’d probably go back to him, what else can she do.
It makes me angry. The hopelessness of her decision. The attitude of the cops. That man acting like he owned her, like she was property, not worthy of respect or kindness.
Most violence against Swazi women is done by men they know and trusted, fathers, brothers, boyfriends, husbands, uncles, teachers, pastors, community elders... The passivity, despondency, and indifference of this nation in response are unacceptable.
Yet, what do I do to change this every day? What difference have I made? Is her life better? There are thousands like her - this was not even a “bad case”. Where do the Nonhlanhlas turn? Who will help them? What can we do to change this around? Do justice, love and security rule in our communities? Our towns, our country, our Africa, our world?
No, in this fallen world, we hurt and maim each other, self-absorbed, petty, speaking words that break instead of build relationships. Hating someone could be defined as merely LOVING that person LESS. If we determined every morning to be kinder, more loving, less focused on the small stuff, prioritising PEOPLE instead of stuff and work and money, quit worrying about what other people might say or think... I wonder what we could do... I wonder at our potential, our capability, at change...