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Breaking My Silence: Amplifying Our Voices as “Others” | Neal Hovelmeier || Radcliffe Institute

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– Thank you very much I've been in America for now two and a half months, and I've never met such friendly and hospitable people

So thank you very much for making an outsider so welcome in your country I'd especially like to thank David Gus, my friend and writer, the committee of the Scholars at Risk Program here at Harvard, everyone at the Radcliffe Institute, and of course, Mr Robert G James, my gracious benefactor, in whose name I am so humbled to hold this fellowship As Myrtle said, a little more than a year ago, I was the subject of a major nationwide controversy in my home country, Zimbabwe

It had a profound impact on me, and has been the focus of intense introspection ever since What follows is an extract from work in progress, which contains some personal reflections on what happened It was an inauspicious, sweltering Thursday morning, middle of last September The city was awash with the pale indigo of the jacaranda trees And there's an old proverb, which says that jacaranda time is madness time

I was sitting at my desk at the private boys' school where I taught for 15 years, when an email arrived in my inbox It was simply entitled "A question" The email was from a journalist at a local daily newspaper He said he was putting together a lead cover story for imminent publication along the lines that I was gay Was I gay, he asked

Did I know it's illegal to be gay? How did I reconcile being gay with my role as a vice principal at a boys? School? He wanted to know if I had anything to say for myself I have no idea how the journalist picked up the story, but I knew immediately how serious the situation was There was no point phoning up the newspaper and appealing for sensitivity The fact that the journalist was entirely wrong in his claims– it is not, constitutionally speaking, illegal to identify as being gay in Zimbabwe– was not a distinction that would prove in the least consequential This was going to be a sensational story and was going to sell papers

I sat there in shock And yet, a part of me had also anticipated this moment A low-grade dread had always drifted at the subterranean level, and now it had surfaced I was about to be outed as a homosexual man in a country which openly cultivates a hatred of homosexuals As the late Robert Mugabe used to tell us, we were worse than pigs and dogs

There was much debate about the wisdom or folly of what I decided to do There was no precedent to go on Strategies seemed futile, and solutions noticeably absent I could have issued a flat-out denial, but why be dishonest? I could have followed conventional press-dodging logic, and issued a statement saying, "no comment" But the questions would keep on coming

And speculation would keep circulating If it was apparent, everyone was going to hear about me soon enough Then why not just be open and transparent? I was confident I had absolutely nothing to be ashamed of No one had made any allegation of wrongdoing against me My only so-called crime was to be a man, an educator, who just happened to personally identify as being gay

In being upfront and honest, I hoped I might at least be understood Nonetheless, no one wants to put their personal life so nakedly on display It was a daunting prospect, a violation of my right to self-determination But this is not an environment which easily tolerates exceptions to its manifest codes of being I had to contemplate constructing an announcement, which would risk reversing every carefully modulated aspect of my existence

I had long ago come to terms with my sexuality, but I had known the value of discretion, that a close cousin of dignity Now, I was intentionally up-ending that axiom, challenging the lay of the land, which consigns gay people to dwell in dark disgrace, out of sight and out of mind I did not sleep that night, but spent endless hours drafting the contents of a speech to deliver to the school early the following morning At 7:30, I found myself standing at a podium at a specially called assembly, addressing 550 students and 80 of my fellow colleagues I felt oddly calm and collected

In this arena, I was someone I believed a good number of my students looked up to I always tried to be a good role model, and I know I was an unconditionally caring mentor In that crossroads moment, I knew it was crucial to be a concrete example of what I was talking about I wasn't speaking in the abstract now I was standing before them, the very embodiment of someone in need of tolerance and acceptance I was appealing for

Later, it would be leveled at me that my speech was self-indulgent, and I deserved the backlash because I should have known better I had brought so much negative attention on the school and the country, it was said, and I was a thorough disgrace to my profession I was told that I had chosen a life of sin, and this meant I was morally contemptible Ask an actual gay person if being gay is a choice Ask an actual gay person if they would really choose to be subject to such a life

The singular word "gay" invokes so much paranoia where I come from It's a descriptor which immediately dominated everything, looming horrific over every subsequent conversation It soon became clear that everything I'd done, achieved, or accomplished, anything well-intentioned I had ever done was not now of the slightest significance In Zimbabwe, when you insert the word "gay" in front of anyone, the word is so toxic, so instantly a pejorative, that it immediately obliterates, corrupts, and defames whatever follows From then on, I was only going to be the gay teacher

And this alone would antithetically define everything about me, while simultaneously negating everything about me, too What followed was a living nightmare Divisions quickly mounted as the press and other gossipers began to fuel the story Soon, I was the subject of a public meeting, which was barnstormed by Evangels and other fervent Christian groups Very pointedly, all the old absurdities were leveled

A gay teacher in a boys' school just had to be a pedophile A gay teacher would infect students with gayness A gay teacher would corrupt morals A gay teacher would spread AIDS I was told I was destined to burn in hell, as all the old cliched verses from the book of Leviticus were invoked before violence broke out, when a student of mine who had bravely stood up to try and defend me was attacked by a mob

Of course, mobile phones were busy recording the giddy entertainment And within minutes, it had all gone viral I was flooded with messages from strangers who threatened to have me hung in the town square, skinning me alive, disembowel me, castrate me, and hang me to pieces with machete to be fed to a sty of pigs My phone number was leaked and my address made public So I had people screaming at me, telling me they were on their way to kill my dogs and petrol bomb my house

It was your classic textbook definition of moral blindness Meanwhile, newspaper coverage was unrelenting and social media was in meltdown That very same week, Zimbabwe's most recent economic meltdown began in earnest, with the price of bread going up over 100% But so focused was the attention on the gay teacher, this fact barely registered on the national consciousness The government, of course, were delighted

Certainly, there were many people who tried to defend me, to appeal for reason and progression But their voices were simply drowned out, and their attempts to help swiftly thwarted I weathered the storm for a few more days, until it became apparent that my position at the school was no longer tenable The final straw came when an ultimatum was issued that I resign by 1:00 PM that day, or else I'd be decisively dealt with I had barely eaten or slept for several days now, and the sense of threat was severe and constant

I tendered my resignation, uttered a few farewells to kindly students, and drove out the school gates I felt wounded and bruised, kicked hard in the chest by the very system I was devoted to Quickly, I withdrew There followed a period of fright and disbelief, then this fragile vulnerability, aware of how alone I now was, having lost a job I loved, students I cared for, and a motivating purpose in life I felt angry, betrayed, rejected, and frustrated, not being able to use my skills as an educator

After another few weeks, I was hardly sleeping or eating, my mind fixated on replaying over and over again all the hate and vitriol, the cruel words, the cutting remarks In combination with this came an intense feeling of panic and alarm over the depraved outcome I knew this event risked having on my students, all students I was gripped with paranoia, fearing what deplorable lessons has it all taught them These were schoolchildren who witnessed firsthand that a statement of honesty can be met with ridicule A good intention can be rejected, that to express yourself fully is a risk, that to dare to be yourself is a liability, that to be different is unacceptable, that the language of religion and custom can be turned to hate and used as a weapon, that what is not personally acceptable to you should be banished, that if you shout the loudest and yell the longest you get your way, that if you induce fear you invoke cowardice

Yes, I was meant to be a role model and figure out positive reinforcement And yet my own students had seen me flee, a craven coward What kind of sick lessons were these? But most tragic of all was this absolute certainty– in the wake of what they had seen happen to me, I knew that any poor boy in that school who might have been struggling to come to terms with his own identity would now feel even more hesitant, more isolated, and less confident to truly accept himself or to feel truly safe and included in his own school To this day, these fears haunt me Riddled with feelings of intense shame and guilt, I was no longer leaving the house very often, but spending all day lying on my bed, shivering with fear, sweating with fever, my teeth aching from how hard I was continually clenching them

I was becoming paralyzed with despair The following three months, I lost 40 pounds in weight For the first time ever, I began to wonder whether life was worth living And I found myself morbidly carrying out plans for my suicide With help from friends and loved ones, I got myself to a doctor, who diagnosed me with severe post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depression

I was put on strong antidepressants They seemed to help In any event, time, as it tends to, moved on This wonderful opportunity to come to America presented itself, and here I am Although over a year later, the deep trauma still persists, and a longing to be back amongst my students and enacting my vocation as a teacher in the country of my birth remains as strong as ever

The spectrum of homophobia ranges in scale from passive to aggressive, from being something that people enact almost unconsciously to something they do with intent and vengeance Homophobia is a discrimination, which makes it different from a disagreement, or principle, or ideology You can disagree, but not display hate, whereas homophobia by nature is energized by some level of enacted abhorrence Sometimes, it's even civil in nature, a wolf in sheep's clothing But it sinks its teeth nonetheless

It's also a discrimination which in many cultures has yet to been called out or held to account And so it still flirts with social ambivalence And [INAUDIBLE] passes largely without censure, rarely with reproach, at least with tacit approval, often with pious endorsement It's almost exclusively a product of a mighty toxic patriarchy, which extends its lineage back to antiquity, and to which all of the human race belongs, with little total comprehension that we do, and from which it shares an affiliation that systems are the chief historical victims, namely sexism and racism In many parts of the modern world, women, people of color, and the queer community have raised their voices and mounted a challenge to the autocracy of the social order, and in some cases, even humbled it

In others, like my country, it remains unchallenged, and so is unbending and unremitting Homophobia, like all discriminations, is morally corrosive to both victim and perpetrator It's one of those anathemas to the entire humanist project, as it both originates and terminates in hate And yet perhaps unlike sexism and racism, many societies have yet to acknowledge just how inhumane it is, and so are adverse to its address There's reluctance, the arguments say, for fear of causing offense to religious belief or cultural creed

And yet intrinsically, one would imagine that these two systems, in themselves the very cornerstones of humanity, would want to disassociate with any enactment of hate in whatever degree Does religion promote hate? Does a culture advocate hating? Are these functions, religion and culture, set out in a conception to facilitate? It's clear that they do, while being obvious that they shouldn't Before last year, even I didn't think very much about homophobia I was outraged by the notion of it, furious when I saw reports about it, but it always seemed to happen in the remove, at an abstract distance, or otherwise it was so pervasively hardwired into the undercurrent of life We risk being desensitized to it, like we are to racism and sexism, so that even those of us it is directed at are sometimes oblivious to it's happening, or fancifully believe it doesn't happen to us

The patriarchy keeps its tools sharpened by conditioning us as children when we are impressionable, compliant, absorbent It works through society's conventions to tell us what is normal and what is othered It conceives groups of grotesques to exemplify this weakness, dichotomies which serve to elevate its status as supreme And so it blurs our naive perspectives In this myopia, we are taught what is natural and what is unnatural, what constructs are expected and which prohibited

And then, it lets us feel uneasy, measuring ourselves against this firm social yardstick With this as a template, most young gay people the world over begin a difficult journey I use the term "gay people" for narrative purposes, although of course, I refer always to the entire LGBTQ spectrum It can be a hard and savage life To navigate that age which cultivates random cruelty against the slightest form of difference, young gay people make every attempt to bond with their peers, to be part of the pack, the herd

This means they become a participant in games that are played on the social playing field The other teams are always constituted unequally, and the same domineering team always wins the game These pressures produce a form of liminal entrapment A young gay person defaults to a mode of self-silencing, while at the same time speaking up in another assumed voice altogether, a false lingo designed to ring true, caught as they are in a halfway hiding act It's a stunt of duplicity played out as a grand performance, a ruse which brings mounting liabilities, not least the misery of self-deprecation

Then there are moments of inevitable self-betrayal A young gay person out of habit or mimesis invariably finds themselves repeating those same anti-gay slurs, that acid scorch of words, becoming fully complicit in the very language which abuses them It's a classic trap So persistent is a sense of being hated that they are hateful towards others, but it's only themselves they are devouring It's a tragedy true of gay people

They are very often to be counted amongst the very first, and very own homophobes And then, a gradual awareness breaks, an insight, sometimes an epiphany of self-realization And young gay people finally see themselves for who they really are The gay homophobe masochist becomes this fully fledged individual, shredding the humiliations and bearing the scars of the past, while urgently and beautifully aware of their own emergent becoming, the pain of the youth now the strength of the adult For many in this modern age, because of the debt owed to recent worries in the struggle, there is now the prospect of hope, happiness, openness, stability, even near full acceptance

What happens to young gay people who come of age in repressive environments? As far as I can work out, they have two choices– they can leave to pursue the Elysian dream they glimpse in far-off Acadias, or they stay Sometimes, economic hardship simply denies them opportunity Other times, a choice is made, for better or worse I could have left Perhaps I should have left, but I stayed

There are tens of thousands of us who do I was 20, and instead of easing into adult validation of who I was, I faced the first real psychic crisis of my life Instead of a celebration, it was like a compression I best describe it as a fall into silence Another way is to think of a split into two, a retrograde separation into two identities, two personas, almost like Jekyll and Hyde

The one presents itself to the public world, to borrow from T S Eliot– politic, cautious, meticulous– while the other self, which becomes the Othered self, with a capital O, must remain cloaked by some hideously deformed aberration, loitering in its clandestine world, invariably timid and suspicious, forever on guard against that close, intrusive scrutiny which threatens a drastic unmasking This is what discrimination of this nature does to you of a time These aversions towards us may appear imperceptible, and our societies might exhibit an atmosphere of indifference, which passes as placid tolerance

But this is an uneasy peace, and never a permanent one Passive homophobia is also largely present in a way you can never quite put your finger on and pin down Its center fails to hold It endlessly recalibrates It has a serpentine underbelly

If this sounds overly dramatic, like something cooked up for a spy novel, I don't blame you But in 70 countries, being gay still poses a very real risk to one's state of being It's the invidious age of McCarthyism, the lavender scare, where subversives, anti-nationalists, and moralists Corrupt state agents lie in wait, ready to entrap, blackmail, and extort us So we descend to the underground, where a realm of paranoia, subterfuge, hidden identities, code words, or these days, emojis, and endless deceit await us

Does anyone want to live in fear of a knock at the door late at night, the blue rove of the police van sirens pulsing through the shuttered curtains? And yet, flush against this backdrop, another screen sits, which only serves to misdirect your attentions As the years pass, everything seems OK You're largely being left alone You're going about living a normal life, lulled into believing in a projected shape of the future, a vague glimpse down the promenade to stable contentment When discrimination shapes itself so that it doesn't look like discrimination all, but a vista of normality, it's akin to the snake hiding coiled and camouflaged in the grass

While staring ahead at the blue sun-filled distance, fangs of poison are inches away from your feet Take one step in the wrong direction, and you're snake-bit It's a terror which doesn't feel like a terror, which is probably the most terrifying thing of all In such a sense, Zimbabwe, despite everything, doesn't feel like a homophobic country or at least didn't And if you ranked us relative to some of its close neighbors, it's probably not, all told

The state doesn't actively seek to hunt and persecute gay people, but there was a sense it doesn't have to Systems like these rest on their own self-assurance You know enough has been done to stoke the boiler to act as a natural policing agent States which peddle in the potency of division as political stratagem know how to keep the heat just simmering under boiling point, and on occasion, to let the steam out, and the taps run full To capture the essence of being a gay person in a repressive system, I would ask you to imagine a room– an empty room, not very big

One person sits on a chair in a corner Another sits opposite him They're both the same outwardly, and perhaps they even share similar talents or abilities, give or take At any rate, they are equals, except one has now been handed a large club, which he uses to savagely beat the other person if they should say or do something that doesn't meet with the club bearer's approval To avoid a beating, this person has two choices– either he must remain silent or he must choose to step out of the room to avoid provoking an attack

In other words, to stay is to be silenced, and to leave results in silence This is ultimately what it's like Silence– what is the nature of silence? What are its nuances, its dynamics, and its degrees of intersect? And what is the relationship of silence to its binary opposite, sound? Silence is a cessation in the continuum of sound, a pause– a pause, a silence in sound which is nonetheless never fully emptied of substance When I was teaching literature, we would often study the plays of Harold Pinter, a great exponent of the pregnant pause, the dramatic pause, the Pinter pause My students were both baffled and awed by encountering Pinter

They were wrong-footed by the charged relationship between text as sound and text as silence In a 1962 lecture, Pinter spoke about silence He said, "There are two silences, one where no word is spoken, the other where perhaps a torrent of language is being employed" I've been thinking a great deal recently about sound versus silence, what this conjunction means, and how it's ordered As metaphor, sound is the voice present, the voice continual, the voice exclusive, while silence is the voice unstated, the voice repressed, the voice strident but unspoken, the voice rejected

In a theatrical performance, no two characters can speak simultaneously for any length of time Well, they can if one, what they are saying is exactly the same– ie, a chorus– or two, if what they are saying is meant as a short dramatic expression of chaos Otherwise, the very coherence of drama collapses

For this reason, one person speaks while another listens in silence, and then if permitted or so desires, speaks in turn This is dialogue, that we recognize as everyday conversation When the length of one character's speech is disproportionate to the another's, and so prejudices their reply, what tends to happen? As the audience, think of your response You've most likely become aware you're witness to a set of unfolding agendas Each character brings with them an agenda to the stage, where some characters motivate their agendas in ways which prejudice others

Samuel Beckett was perhaps the progenitor of the concept of sound and silence as mechanisms of menace I also remember teaching Waiting for Godot, and enjoying witnessing my students' reactions to the moment Lucky begins his long, gibbering rant Lucky has been made mute, but is given permission by his master, Pozzo, to speak When he does, it amounts to a tirade of nonsensical rubbish The question is not really what Lucky he is saying or why he squanders his prize moment, but it's more an issue of interrogating what Lucky wants to say, and what he could be saying to improve his lot, which remains dismal all this time he is not permitted to speak, when he's living in silence

The censorship is allegorized by Beckett to infer the nature of authority of a silence In other words, whoever controls power and monopolizes the right to speaking dictates the degree to which the silenced responder enters and exits his own agency Without this express permission, Lucky remains literally enslaved to Pozzo's material whims Pozzo, in the meantime, speaks when he wants to, with eloquence, with flair, with control Doing so, he dispenses gravitas and authority by the attitude of supreme arrogance

But what he says is likewise just as absurd as what Lucky says Somehow, that's very typical, is it not? It's not what is said in Beckett, but who is speaking at all Power is invested in those who produce all the noise It's not purely a theatrical affectation that Beckett has Lucky physically tethered to his master Pozzo by means of a rope tied around his neck Neck is significant, because it's the body's easiest point of exposure to mortal fragility

Break the neck, sever the spinal cord, and death results Repeatedly, Pozzo cracks his whip and jerks violently at the rope The rope is the live wire between master and slave, oppressor and oppressed By jerking on the rope Pozzo denotes not only a constant reminder of his authority, but also ensures Lucky's submission by curtailing his ability to speak, to protest, to argue his case, to plead for liberty Pozzo applies the pressure of the crude, thick rope to Lucky's vocal cords

If he speaks at all, it's sure going to hurt If he dares to speak out of turn, the rope is always there, taut and at the ready to cut him off, silence him altogether Pozzo is signaling not only his controls over the ties that bind, but also that he has his hands on a weapon, just like the club wielder in the small room In his 1981 dystopian novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, the writer J M

Coetzee echoes this very imagery of the master/slave trope There's a harrowing depiction of black slaves being frog-marched through a barren outpost, with a wire yoked through their bloody cheeks Here, the overt violence and animalistic savagery extend the metaphor Coetzee implicitly construct the dual tethering of oppressor to oppressed by inserting a redoubling paradox While the oppressed is undoubtedly the true victim, the oppressor is likewise a victim of his own moral depravity

Accepting the 1987 Jerusalem Prize, he said, "These deformed and stunted relations between human beings have their psychic representation in deformed and stunted inner life" The reason I draw so extensively on these literary allusions is to establish the imagery which correlates to the universal specificity of prejudice and discrimination In plainer terms, we are dealing with power, and our power is proportioned, and our power is dispensed Power is charged through sound, and seeks to maintain its currency by its hold over silence Silence, meantime, is itself full of the desire to speak, is indeed speaking all the while, but it will never access power or literally be empowered, unless ways are sought to amplify its own sound

Give it the space to answer back, to balance or democratize the stage from which dialogue and discourse originate The metaphor of all this translates with ease onto the templates of modern social strata Though the vanguards of these movements must never be complacent, and the job is far from done, the comparable gains made in the fight for so many important human rights and social justice issues in the past 60 years or so is unquestionable In redressing these imbalances of power, a simple but seismic change has occurred The space on the stage has been recoordinated, and the scenes of the script rewritten to allow the entry of other actors into the dialogue

The results are the beginnings of a correction to the imbalance of power structures which, like Pozzo and his rope, strangulated the voice of the oppressed under the threat of an ever-present noose After years of waiting in the wings, being the marginalized sidelines, these once silent and diminished voices are being amplified While they are talking in their own voices, while they are now commanding the stage, others are being forced to listen What is essential is creating these entry points, establishing validity in the eyes of the patriarchy, exploring ways of allowing dialogue to begin, and power to balance itself out It's in this dogged persistence towards achieving this bilateralism which underpins the basis of any conflict resolution– talking and listening, listening and talking

There is a remarkable man in Zimbabwe, a renowned psychiatrist by the name of Dixon Chibanda In the early 2000s, there were just two psychiatrists serving over 12 million people And yet, in the wake of serious national trauma triggered by dire economic hardship, physical violence, and a general decline in the rule of law, the country was going through a mental health crisis One in four Zimbabweans was thought to be afflicted with clinical depression and anxiety And yet, the suffering has always attracted stigma, a label of weakness and shame

"Tough men don't cry" is an old byline instilled by the patriarchy, a variant of the old colonial "stiff upper lip" sensibility There's also a Shona word, [SPEAKING SHONA] which literally means "thinking too much" Professor Chibanda realized that around four million people were in need of treatment which they simply weren't receiving, 90% of whom do not have access to evidence-based talking therapies or modern antidepressants Given the scale of the crisis, he realized the need for an unorthodox intervention, and in 2006, came up with a simple but brilliant idea of starting what would become the Friendship Bench Program In a bustling market suburb of Harare called Embari, he installed a single bench under the shade of a quiet tree

He then set about training community grandmothers or emboyas in evidence-based talk therapy and attentive listening, as an accessible alternative to mental illness care These matronly grand ladies have always held the respect of their communities Their life-learned wisdom is highly regarded The theory was the grandmothers would simply sit on the benches, and wait for people to approach A polite conversation would begin

The grandmothers would listen for telltale signs of the markers highlighted in Professor Chibanda's training And then, they'll begin to dispense advice, listen further, share stories, build trust Over time, news spread of the grandmothers' work And so a quiet and modest revolution was begun, all based on dialogue, on talking and listening, listening and talking Chibanda's concept was simple, but cut to the rub of the problem

Depression was looked on as a weakness And so depressed people were not talking about their problems, had no outlet for their distress, and were not empowered to feel as if speaking up was valid What they needed to do was break their silence, but in the presence of a trusted elder who could transcend normal patriarchal traditions, and provide much-needed compassion, empathy, and understanding Today, the success of the Friendship Bench Program has been widely heralded The reason it works is clear to see

It is itself an allegory in operation Of course, all clinical intervention relies on talking therapies, but Chibanda's stratagem is ingenious, because it inverts the conventional model of conducting therapy in a closed room, and transplants it to an outdoor bench The private is made public, and so the contemptuous made tolerable By doing this, old stigmas are being craftily deconstructed The very transparency of the project, the exposed environment on which the bench is positioned, the fact that both the emboya and a companion can be seen engaged in constructive conversation not only sends a clear message about the importance of addressing mental health issues, but also fosters an openness of approach that draws people towards it, and welcomes, and not excludes

From Dr Chibanda's project, I take several points of reflection Firstly, the strategy started with the identification of a stigma He knew he couldn't address the problem until he cracked the fear which surrounded it If we wish to address homophobia, we need to pinpoint roots of entry into a complex set of contentions

Certainly, it's a deeply antagonistic subject in the context of cultural relativism and religious belief But such unapproachability portrays a status of privilege, which does not cancel out an axiomatic reality– the fact that 5% to 8% of any collective of people anywhere in the world, regardless of ethnic, cultural, or religious demographic, identifies as gay In Zimbabwe alone, this is close to one million people, one million people who desperately need to somehow enter the stage and break their silence, or to use Chibanda's paradigm, just sit on the bloody bench and have a conversation In Chibanda's case, he circumvented a mainstream cultural reluctance to address mental illness by signifying its association with respected community leaders, people whose stature desists challenge, defies critique, and whose authority is a social given This was a classic case of harnessing leadership and symbiotically tethering the plight of the social fugitive with the credence of a social grandee

Think, for example, Archbishop Desmond Tutu is Africa Of course, it takes courage and audacity to raise your head above the parapet, especially in atmosphere which is already censorious to dissent But what Chibanda clearly realizes is that people-orientated problems require people-powered solutions That may sound obvious, but it's evident the state itself is not anytime soon going to intervene in the fight against homophobia, just as the state was never in a position to provide mental health care to four million patients in 2006 The problem is that the very people who need to be advancing these issues of fairness, equality, and tolerance are themselves beholden to the patriarchy's absolute stranglehold over power

The old saying, "Evil happens when good people do nothing," points to the very dispensation which allows injustice to go unchallenged, where the very people who ought to be holding the system to account have themselves long ago been beaten into submission with the club, or else they, too, have given up, shrugged their shoulders, and exited the room– once bitten, twice shy And so we tend to have a cautious, paralytic response, petrified of giving offense, of treading on toes Though what we need are cage rattlers, truth-sayers, and outright provocateurs The system fashions a social order of professional elders We either start to defend the indefensible or else become passive bystanders in a system which, as Coetzee noted, toxifies everything within it, stunting and deforming everyone

To arrest this, we need to recalibrate our entire approach towards any and every issue which threatens national contagion But how to do it? What needs to happen is a revolution in the way our best human capital speaks back to power Here, the function of education is essential The school must become a training ground for moral mercenaries of a new order Schools need to effect whole-scale changes in attitudes and presumptions they engender in our youth

And they need to do so away from the malign overreach of the patriarchy They need to become hermetic entities, prevaricating the stench of the political, and eviscerating the annals of tradition Schools– and I'm speaking directly in relation to my country– will claim they tackle a whole raft of lingering social discriminations, but it's a fallacy What they do is pay lip service to the vagaries of a pretentious mission statement, which simply reeks of hypocrisy There's still elitism

There's still racism There's still sexism And there's certainly still rampant homophobia I should know, as I was part of the system I was one of the very people who should have been at the forefront of change, sitting on the bench, and calmly working towards a better outcome

But instead, I was too weak and timid to ever speak up, or act to break the very cycle which had, in my own school days, so affected me I was at the very center of a tragic failure of leadership I see clearly now the consequences of my own moral apathy School principals, teachers, coaches, and seniors each inhabit the roles of national sages and moral watchmen in the singular issue of denouncing all discrimination, no matter its origin, in spite of its complexities, but hate-based discrimination itself in principle And there can be no half measures and no exceptions

Discrimination is discrimination Nor is it a matter of asking these leaders to compromise their beliefs, but rather to separate the validity of a belief and the consequences of an action It's a matter of encouraging an approach from the point of view of simple Kantian ethics, the categorical imperative of mutual respect Even for them to say that I don't agree with you, but I have a responsibility to ensure that you are treated with dignity and fairness, would, just in the broader context of Zimbabwe alone, be significantly transformative to the entire sociopolitical landscape In effect, this is exactly what Chibanda has achieved

It's a form of civic humanism or utilitarianism that aspires to maximize well-being for all, at no cost or loss to anyone If we could achieve this, you would, in theory, have the equivalent of the grandmothers What we need next are the actual benches Here, the efficacy of the project rests in its very crucial conspicuousness, its unapologetic signification as a location with designated purpose Viewed in this light, the bench becomes both multi-functional and multi-dimensional

It's an object of bland pragmatism to most, while being a place of refuge to others It passes as virtually meaningless to those who just come to sit on it, but has a whole other meaning for those who come to talk It's both figurative and literal, being one thing or being another entirely It's a support, but it's also a bridge Its benign duality incorporates clever utility, which cuts to the heart of Chibanda's mission

He is drawing attention to mental illness, while paradoxically making mental illness unworthy of attention He's taking stigma, and placing it under a lamp, and daring people to gasp But the parable can easily be extended to make the bench, just as easily, an entire institution The corridors of a school mean nothing to the jaunty kid who strolls down them blissfully content with life But to the boy who's suffering with acute anxiety, they can just as likely be trails of torture

As educators, one of our supreme ambitions, surely, is to ensure that every corridor becomes just as dull and dreary to every kid Our responsibility should be in removing the meaning out of what need not have any significance to begin with Young people need to know when they go to school in the morning, someone has literally got their back, that someone has exercised their responsibility to ensure, as best they can, that the school itself is not awash with stigma, and that every person will treat every other person with mutual respect, regardless of what differences, physical or ideological, separate them Indeed, by its very definition, the school has a duty to protect what happens inside its walls from what is going on outside It should be a sanctum for maniacal sensibility, an architecture of fortitude

It's not surprising that many of my students have reported to me a sense of being uncared for at school, only to go on and be embraced by university There is a disconnect of ideology here, which keeps these hallways of horror in constant motion Just as a friendship bench is a democratizing force, anyone can approach Anyone can sit Anyone can speak, and so cares for the whole human, every human

A school needs to be assertive of its true democracy, its entire sense of inclusion Only by doing this will a school, or a church, or a very community, for that matter, become free like the bench, its entirety a structure of support, emphatically a bridge between despair and happiness, between the bleak now and a brighter hereafter Only by doing this have the conditions on the bench and around the bench been established Only then can the still voice step forward on the stage and break a silence Only when the rope around his neck has been loosened and the club wrenched from the hand of the bully in the room can equality begin

Only when there is an understanding of how dialogue will take place, an agreement that it will be an equal transaction of sound and silence, of statement and response can there begin to be a sense of rightness Only when the torrent of language being employed in the silence, as Pinter would say, is properly amplified, and so at last can be heard, we'll all finally be free from our demons Thank you [APPLAUSE] [MUSIC PLAYING]

Source: Youtube

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