Open up the Gender Binary

Until our legal system changes to allow more than two genders, we are stuck. We would then be operating in a structure that acknowledges and gives rights to more diversity of existence. Until then trans rights are trying to fit into an outdated system which doesn’t do them or anyone else justice.

Until a child can grow up knowing it could be more than male or female and there is a meaningful place for that in our world, people who are gender diverse may only imagine their lives as they ought to be, whilst limited to fitting themselves within the binary for all sorts of functional purposes. That in itself can be harmful. I also believe it contributes to some divisive strategies happening within feminism today. Personally I sit on the fence regarding the gender debate. It may not be fashionable, though to be honest I’m not sure what is! I mean, I think both sides – because that’s what it is (after all we’re stuck in a binary) have elements of sheer value and goodness. I cannot pick a side. I have time for trans activist arguments and gender critical ones. I deplore the negative aspects of both, and as well the fact that they are necessarily at ideological war – a political war for power. They ought to be helping each other.

It’s a distressing situation that sometimes puts me off feminism, or getting more involved. I can’t fit into the current factioned polarity, so I reckon I am better off outside it. I express my feminism as an artist, however my openness to open debate will affect where my work appears and with whom.

I want to hear more lesbian voices. I love this video (below) which showcases a few prominent lesbians in the arts in New York last year. When I see and hear the video, I wish more young girls in particular, but all kids, could see this sort of representation. It normalises female masculinity, in such a way that may or may not be trans; it might be trans that accepts itself as it is. So it offers another perspective that quite often gets missed out in today’s arguments for “inclusivity”. I’m not saying transitioning is wrong; it’s clearly the right thing for many. I just think young kids today might not see enough options to really empower them. If you can truly accept yourself in the body you’re born, that is a very fortunate thing. It’s certainly simpler not to rely on taking hormones for the rest of your life for example. The current pandemic shows how sometimes the modern lifestyle we take for granted can be pulled suddenly from under our feet.

This article explains more about the idea behind the video. The image I have put at the top of this piece, is from the article and it shows a bunch of queer womxn posing for a photoshoot. I am using ‘womxn’ rather than women, as I don’t wan’t to assume their identity.

“…we’re simply not out to appease the male gaze. We disregard and reject the confines of a sexualized and commodified femininity.” Said actor Roberta Colindrez in the article about butches.

I’m not going to write a huge essay on this now. I wrote a bit more last year about gender inclusivity in women’s spaces, for the Spirited Bodies site. It states my position clearly. I embrace the multiplicity of gender and urge a change in the law and the structure of our society which dismantles the binary. I want to see more representation of different types of femininity and masculinity. Until we live in a world that is ok with every version of gender, it’s a lot harder for some of us to know who we really are, and feel safe.

I’ve noticed a current drive by trans activists to push feminists and women’s organisations to make a stand demonstratively. I understand they feel very urgently about promoting their cause, but I think it can sometimes be divisive. The other side has important points too and I will not deny that – like about how gender neutral language can be problematic and erase the experiences of girls. This is very pertinent in addressing violence against women and girls. I also appreciate the need for more varied gender language – like when I used ‘womxn’ above. There is so much to this discussion – and it does contain a lot of nuance – I am just lightly touching on here. I am avoiding linking to either side, but just search on Twitter for examples of them.

The divisiveness is very toxic. I want to hear more people standing up for an open discussion that is not shut down. The message at the moment can sound a bit like it’s from George Orwell’s 1984. If you can’t comply with every part of the activists’ mission, you are their enemy. It needn’t be like that. It would be healthier if it wasn’t. There is another way! That’s why I’m encouraging you to watch the video and read the linked article, as these express in a bit more detail a type of middle ground, and it’s coming directly from some of the queer community. They are people who are more connected perhaps to the issues and I think their voices are so extremely relevent.

Women this is our Blood

I recorded another of Ursula‘s poems which had been part of ‘Girl in Suitcase‘ in 2015, when it was about goddesses, and witches. I used some old footage of myself performing menstrual rituals on the island of Fuerte Ventura in March 2017. It was pleasing to rediscover the text, and the videos, and be able to combine them whilst recording my voice on top.

There is a sense of reclaiming communion for a matriarchal rite, reconnecting sacred blood with menstruation. What a different culture that would look like, that celebrated women’s cycle. That honoured its connection with nature, and all that it brings. The changes in our moods and energies, our appetites and sensitivities. Our fertility. The blood itself as a means of connection; from part of what keeps us alive, to becoming waste blood; on with the cycle. The red liquid that reminds us of mortality, with its distinct flavour and smell. That looks like paint, has been used as paint; to colour our faces and bodies; to draw on walls. To share messages and signs. An essential ingredient of human life; the liquid passed down generations; especially through women in the process of birth.

To restore balance in the world, this natural order must be honoured. The implications are enormous and rock every foundation of patriarchy. The power of menstruation can be revolutionary!

In this phase of blogging, creating new material every day, I feel enlivened. It reminds me of when I used to blog regularly about my life and work as a life model, alongside Spirited Bodies stuff, several years ago. 2011 – 2013 mainly. I was quite open sometimes and eventually realised it didn’t fit having it all on the Spirited Bodies site, so I compartmentalised – and made (this) separate space just for art and myself. I remember how I was always thinking about what I would write next! It gave me a good focus while I was posing. The excitement and pleasure at sharing my process… it’s a healthy thing.

Thinking of blood, I remember this track I listened to a lot in the late 90s. ‘Love Like Blood’ got played on the dancefloors where I hung out. It’s a sad song with a strong edge. ‘Killing Joke’ were part of an intense soundtrack for those years.

The painting at the top is by me, made by dripping my menstrual blood as well as some wax. It is called ‘Lunar Waxing’ and I made it in January this year, at new moon.

I AM KALI Goddess of Time Change & Transformation

When I recently rediscovered the ‘Girl in Suitcase’ script from 2015, two of Ursula‘s poems in particular stood out. When we performed the show, on neither occasion was I Kali’s face/front person so I never had those lines, though I did make a recording at the time but I can’t remember if we used it. It would only have been if whoever was at the front – Ursula or Lidia – felt more comfortable with it than learning the lines or reading them. I really loved saying the words! They are so powerful. So I asked Ursula if she’d like to make a recording now or if she minded if I did. She’s busy with other projects, but she was happy for me to. This is ‘Kali’ performed by me on Saturday in Ladywell Cemetery close to where I live. You will need the sound on to hear the poem!

It took a while to get the right voice, which I added at home. That rich, timeless, reverberant, almost musical intensity; had to be right for a goddess, especially since I was overlaying the voice on to the video. She/I am speaking with my mind. I wanted to focus on being her, as in embodying her, and in particular using my face to express her. I hadn’t learnt the lines so I didn’t want to be distracted by trying to remember them. Also there were people about, so it was one thing dressed down to my tights wearing blood on my face waving my arms around in front of a tree pulling silly faces; if I’d been shouting manically on top of that, we might have attracted too much attention!

When it came to adding the voice, I realised I wanted to slow the video down about 50%. When we’d shot it, I hadn’t been consciously thinking of the order of the lines; I was just moving my face as I felt like in the moment. So then I had to work out when to start speaking so the lines best fit the expressions. I think that worked out quite well, but it would be cool to do it whilst saying the lines live, or to have the lines playing while I filmed my face.

In any case, this was a last minute production where I seized the day – suddenly thought of a simple idea and made the most of Steve being around and us both being free. Not much time to prepare. I literally grabbed the blood from the fridge and said let’s go. On the way to Ladywell Fields, Steve said I think the cemetery would be better, fewer people. And he was right. The cemetery is always quieter, and has a fantastic, atmospheric ambience.

Nevertheless there were some people about and there was a bit of waiting for folk to get out of shot, or kids to stop shrieking, or a motorbike to clear off. Finding the best location within the cemetery was firstly about a quiet spot unlikely to be disturbed, and with the right background. On a grassy clearing, I saw the tree and thought that’s it. We’d discussed how ideally we’d have another person to help make Kali arms behind me, but what were the chances when we didn’t have much time? I’d thought about putting my hands around my face to accentuate them in striking ways as an alternative to having more hands and arms. We’re not proficient in video editing to the point of overlaying extra arms… The tree presented a shape with short “arms” at about the right height and length to create an idea of extra arms. It seemed a natural alignment.

A word on microbes. This hadn’t even crossed my mind, however the blood I used is months old – it’s a composite from several periods and some of it may be over a year old. As I was applying the blood to my face some drops went in my mouth. I wasn’t bothered, but Steve quickly said, “Don’t drink it, spit it out, and don’t let it get in your eye, because the microbes could kill you!” I thought that sounds a bit over-dramatic and didn’t pay too much attention. I just think what came out of my womb will be healing, no matter how old! That’s confidence, or madness, not sure. What I’m saying is, don’t do this at home kids! Or if you do, use fresh blood. That would be safer. I did notice that after I’d washed the blood off, some staining wouldn’t go away for the rest of the day, even if I washed it again. It looked like I might have a rash. It was fine the next day, and part of me wondered if such a thing could even be good for the skin, like a scrub or a facial… not that I’m thinking of trying that. Just saying who knows. They could be good microbes!

Goddesses Vs 2nd Commandment

In 2015 I made performances with female friends. The ‘Girl in Suitcase’ play was reborn, structurally divided into seasons of the year, which represented phases in the life cycle of woman. Extraordinary goddesses led the way, soaring through time to articulate our feminine narrative.

Four friends brought different qualities and talents into the process. Sylvie was around at the beginning for the main development period which also included a red tent gathering with other girlfriends. Sylvie helped formulate the idea, and some of her poems were part of the script. I’d recently read ‘The Alphabet Versus the Goddess‘, about how misogyny culturally emerged alongside the written word. This made a big impression, partly because it suggested the significance of drawing in connection with cultures loving women. The text outlines the neurological impact of reading and writing, and charts how misogyny grew historically in tandem; leading us away from matriarchy and goddess worship as the left brain was privileged.

Smitten with the book I manoeuvred some of its thesis into the play. It talked about religion, mainly Christianity – how Mother Mary had been the centrepiece during the dark ages (obviously she still is to a great extent for Catholics but it seems she had been even more so), after which much of her power was removed. I fashioned a Madonna costume wearing a white dress, a blue sheet, and a white head covering, and narrated some historical detail. The second commandment basically forbids life drawing! That’s still a thing for many Muslims, but has been disregarded by most Christians and Jews these days.

Sylvie’s life was in a lot of flux. She suddenly had to move house a couple of weeks before the performance and cease involvement with the play. This threw me into a mild panic. Her circumstances were critical, so she just had to focus on fixing them. We could no longer be there for each other, having been super-involved up till that point. I had a performance to salvage and she, a very important life move. The script required more than one woman and there was minimal time to sort it out. I had to leave her to solve her crisis, as I cast my eye about and told female friends of my predicament.

Germanic Goddesses came to the rescue! Ursula was interested, and so was Sabine. Even with such a short time to go, I now felt supported by two good friends so my anxiety was relieved. They brought new inspiration – three powerful poems of Ursula’s were added to the script, and Sabine belly danced when performing Isis. We could easily cover all the roles between us, and have fun. What had been a very tricky situation was turned around and made a really lovely opportunity to be creative with other friends. Both of them – and Sylvie as well – had worked with me on Spirited Bodies events; being interviewed; telling their story; and in Ursula’s case singing on one occasion. So there was an understanding of how we work – and play together. Although rushed, this collaboration was fruitful.

Sabine sourced a stunning costume with long, shimmering wings for her dance and practised her moves meticulously. Ursula’s rich ode to the moon poem fitted perfectly, and another was a firebranding feminist call to arms – for menstrual rites. “Women! This is our blood!” we decried as she and Sabine delighted in pouring the period offering over my body. Building up to that she and I got body painted during the Autumn/Enchantress act. First of all we splashed paint on each other and Sabine drew on us before inviting the audience to make their own marks.

It was the first time ‘Girl in Suitcase‘ had not included the original scary art tutor scene – it had morphed into a sexist male tutor played by myself. I took more than one masculine role, as male voices were needed to hound “witches” in the middle ages. To obtain a suitable voice, I used a programme to alter mine.

We became a three person Kali with six arms, fronted by Ursula. Her Kali incantation of survival poem was also a piercing lament for the “witches” killed, sending chills like shockwaves. The menstrual ritual with fake blood (I didn’t start using my actual blood till the following year) came a little later, after which I was pretty sticky. I have done several shows especially in 2015 and 2016, which got royally messy, whichever kind of blood I used. If there wasn’t a shower in the building, the real endurance came after the show when you are meant to relax and celebrate. Either spending a long time taking up one basin and ruining the floor, or just wearing old clothes that stuck to my skin, bearing the discomfort with a glass of wine. That’s show biz!

We wore shawls and hunched over our walking sticks for the Winter act of Crones. Sabine wrapped me in a shroud and helped me into my coffin suitcase – where I had begun the tale in Spring. Sisterly mourning completed the show cycle.

It was a wholly different show now (to previous years’), and almost not about me personally at all. Artemis did have a very spikily charged monologue in the Summer act however, which reminds me I snuck in some of my deeper thoughts at the time. Rediscovering this script has been another revelation for me – similar to what I describe in Script Variations. I can’t believe I buried such a precious gem so long. Life was an emotional dodgems, with too much blocked out by smoking. I was trying to make my life work – but my goodness this had potential. Hey – I am grateful we had the opportunities we did and made the most of them even if only for a while. I can see how my difficult feelings regarding Mum’s condition, were barely fit for public consumption, and I was working out other matters through my relationships.

Even so; the writing and scenography came from all of us. A true collaboration, created by necessity in different phases, much of it hastily. Working with the german goddesses grew our friendships, and particularly with Sabine, it helped inspire her in some new artistic direction. I wish we’d recorded Ursula’s Kali and Menstruation poems, because they shine through the script with timeless rhythm and urgency. Having this time now to look back with a bit more clarity and hindsight, is a gift. To stop and understand allows the lessons to settle. There is still time.

Not long after the March show, I was invited to perform it again in May, at a festival in Norwich called Dandifest. There were a few weeks until the date, but I was going away for two of them to Spain where I had a job. I asked Ursula and Sabine, but it happened both would be away for the performance date. What to do? Again, this was not a one woman show. I thought about who else to ask who might be able to take it on with me and save the day. There was my friend Lidia, also a life model and performer with strong feminist ideas.

Around this time my personal life was taking a change of course and I called her to catch up. She always had a lot to say, and I let her speak a while. In my memory I casually dropped in at the end of the call, oh I’ve got this show coming up, by the way there’s funding. That last bit of course important. Many of my projects are on a shoestring, and for the professional artist, we have limits on how much we can give in these situations. It wasn’t a huge amount, but it helped. Critically she was available, and I think quite keen of the opportunity to perform.

When Lidia commits, a lot of work happens. Work might start happening you hadn’t realised needed to happen. The game is upped, and preparations are rigorous. We had to make the show much tighter with just two of us. Because we were travelling with it, we didn’t have someone else to operate sound, which was too complicated to ask one of the Norwich crew. Lidia recorded all the sound in one long track, which possibly had to be stopped a couple of times during the show, when one of us was off-stage which wasn’t very often. Most of the time we had to be bang on queue with every move. Lidia had it covered, rehearsing us with dictatorial precision till we nailed it. She organised props; from the most ideal squirty body paint, the best fake blood recipe, I think two different extra long wigs, and she’d been inspired by Sabine.

Lidia had kindly filmed the last performance (see above) so she knew what she was dealing with, and now she was taking on some of the key roles. She was the belly dancing Isis (I’m not sure how much belly dancing she’d done before, but while I was in Spain I think she studied it) complete with wings; a very inviting enchantress; and I think as well a moon character with white shiney hair down to the ground (the photographer perhaps ran out of battery at that point).

There were some stand-out moments. Because we have both trained in physical theatre, we incorporated some contact improvisation after the Kali scene. This allowed the thick black paint which I had brushed on to her, to spread onto my body as well during the dynamic movement. We were running across the stage at each other, colliding and sliding one over another; pulling, resisting, and receiving impulses to send ourselves beyond or under. Imaginatively, this expressed the rage and torment of the women burnt as witches. Part of the text speaks of the Malleus Maleficarum, which ordered these killings on behalf of the church, and made it extremely dangerous for women to be seen to be – or just be – friends with each other. It underscored a genocide of female power and sisterly love. Our physical movement together, demonstrating unguarded connection, was also disturbed. Circumstance forced us against one another; to survive at all we would have to fight. Spiritually we were vanquished; brutalised and distraught.

That could have been the end, but our characters – now crones – did find means to live, and unbelievably regroup. With elderly wisdom (and new found gentle spirit) we invited the audience to model for us (some of them had been drawing the show). It was very cold in St Margarets Church (what an appropriate place!) with stone floor, and we were largely kept warm by our adrenaline. Most of our audience were not tempted in the slightest, but we did have one keen novice, who immediately stripped. He was quite drunk, and pleased of this chance which legitimised a likely urge he already felt (he’d been an avid body painting participant already). We duly got on the floor ourselves to sketch him while he posed to Bananarama’s Venus.

It was a lot of fun being part of the Dandifest and meeting their folk, not to mention that it provided reason to develop the piece. I’d met Christina when she’d come to Spirited Bodies at WOW, and now she introduced us to some wonderful artists she created with in Norwich. It was also a treat to have the Lidia experience. It made a difference working with someone who had a similar training, and intense feminism. There had always been something peculiarly familiar I felt with her, like we’d known each other in a past life. I mean, she understood part of me on a very deep level, and it was to do with trauma. There were particular dark things I didn’t have to explain – she just knew.

Performance Artings

Tectonic plates were shifting in my world in Autumn 2015. Vibrations increased through the Summer, but I was late to detect attraction with a new mate, having been certain of his unsuitability. A friend of mine had pointed him out a few years before, “I think he’d be good for you!” No, I said. He’s far too normal. He has a job. Far too functional. It would never work. Nice guy though, and 100% reliable and trustworthy… a few things in common. A few important things it happened, like a penchant for participating in nude performance art adventures!

I am not consciously tactical when it comes to choosing partners, but perhaps over the years I had retrained my unconscious. I don’t have a checklist; it’s all about desire and chemistry. I know in advance something is going to happen because I can’t stop thinking about the person I am falling in love with. I barely sleep or eat, and once contact is established, consummation is not far off. There then follows inevitable fall-out over some months, for not having addressed (or even noticed!) major issues of concern ahead of diving in. Aspects of their life and personality which will bother me and possibly vice versa. I work hard for some years to fix this stuff, and they do too, but usually after 5 years or so, I or we give up. This pattern repeated with Steve, however since things calmed down after the initial shock; it has mainly been peaceful and rewarding.

It’s not cool to listen to The Smiths any more since Morrissey came out as unequivocally supporting the far right. That is a shame because some of their music is brilliant, and he knows that for lots of people it captures an essence of a generation’s emotion. I played one tune over and over in Autumn 2015; ‘Money Changes Everything’ (maybe it’s ok since Morrissey isn’t singing? – it’s basically a Marr number). I was experiencing a new kind of awe, fear and heated anticipation. I am a serial relationshipper, and each partner brings a whole scene change of characters, sounds, places, smells, tastes, moods… the anticipation of these is all wrapped up in the attraction. You have an idea what some of the change will look and feel like, and then there’s the unknown dimension that is like moving to a country you’ve never been to before or learning a new language.

With Steve, as soon as I was conscious of the attraction, I sensed that massive change was afoot. My partners didn’t usually have normal jobs, a reliable income or own a house. I said I didn’t have a checklist, well I probably had an anti-checklist for many years. Mustn’t have conventional trappings of the sort parents tend to approve. That’s why Steve wasn’t even considered, until… our paths just crossed a bit more often, and I couldn’t ignore an interesting tension. Nothing has actually changed in the circumstances of my living since we got together, but I have been on a lot more exciting holidays. In the past I only travelled for work, or to visit a friend. The exception was in Summer 2014 when I took off to the Highlands for a week of solitude.

It took me a while to adjust to letting him pay for holidays. Was I giving away my power? I don’t know, but I got used to it. Sharing those travels is very special. Moving in with him in Essex is not so likely at least while I can keep my home in London, because my life is based there. Until lockdown, travelling was the longest time we would spend with each other – trekking a rainforest in Ghana, a desert in the Cape, or sailing to Zanzibar. It wasn’t just touristing; I always learnt about the places or had personal reasons to visit them. It helped me appreciate more viscerally what the UK is, to see its effect on other parts of the world. For someone who comes from quite a few different countries (and I haven’t visited them all yet) it has been incredible to go to those places. I understand not only the UK past and present better, but also my ancestral heritage.

The first time we travelled together was in February 2016, to Venice. It rained almost till it flooded but not quite. We wrapped up warm, tried to hold onto our umbrellas, and I was able to practice my Italian which had been dormant for 11 years. By chance or destiny, we ran into Steve’s performance artist friend, Glynis Ackermann, who lives in Switzerland, and happened to be performing in a festival there in Venice! That unexpected introduction guided our next two trips, for having acquainted ourselves with the festival and its organisers, it naturally followed to bring more than my packing suitcase in future.

A movement sequence from the 20 minute Italian ‘performance art’ version, April 2016.

Although my work contained performance art I’d always thought of it as interactive theatre, and barely paid attention to the live art scene. Seeing a greater possibility of travelling with the show I readily repackaged it. With shorter performance slots of no more than 20 minutes usually, there was a stronger sense of community as several artists would all perform the same evening and enjoy each others’ shows. Much of 2016 was spent in this effort, with denser scripts and more visual action. Italian friends translated my script (my own italian was learnt by ear and works for getting by in conversation) for two different Venice festivals – in April and August.

The complete 20 minute version of the August performance in Venice.

In April’s show, Steve was involved as a sort of prop, and as well in a longer, full length version in London in March, he had a speaking role. I have two scenes recorded from that show;

This show addressed feminist issues very directly in every version; about violence against women, gender inequality, and including in yer face menstrual art action.

Steve made his mark on how I approached performing that year, as we settled into being together. I went to the SPILL festival in Ipswich alone in the Autumn, to see how others do it – I’d made an unsuccessful application. It is a thought provoking genre of variety and endurance. It wasn’t all for me, and I felt there was a bit of a clique around who gets funding. Not surprising, I mean that’s normal. I peaked my head into that tent of curiosities, grafted applications full of appropriate artspeak, and finally found I didn’t fit so well. Theatre was my original love after all, but I do have room for live art happenings too, on or off-stage. The in-the-moment encounter speaks to my spontaneous soul, which is very fond of one-off performance art.

The image at the top of this post is from a show I did at Bethnal Green Working Mens Club in October 2016, at the Panic Sermons performance art event. The Venice shows were enabled by Steve’s passion for travel combining with my need for performance making, and both our love for nude art happenings. At the April festival we both took part in Glynis’ show as well as staging mine.

Glynis’ performance (called ‘Mobilé’) involved the three of us holding frames, with more nudes from an earlier version of her show projected onto us.

Lockdown Rewind ~ part 4

How do we stay relevent in lockdown? I feel for the doctors, nurses, hospital and other medical staff who have been pushed to their limits and exposed to the highest risks, on the frontline of the pandemic. All the essential workers; and some who lost their lives as a result. Many are not paid or appreciated enough. They weren’t or aren’t looked after properly for a long time, and I wonder how the teachers are now. There are other jobs too that keep the wheels of society’s machines oiled, like my partner working for the council. They don’t all have to leave the house, but they are needed, and often their workloads have increased in the stressed circumstances of the changeable pandemic.

Being an artist can feel like a luxury that is not strictly needed, along with other jobs and roles not deemed necessary enough for the risk to be accommodated. Some have been able to thrive or at least get by, making their work online instead. There are advantages, but so much is missed that way as well.

I was a bit lost in the Summer, unsure what to do with myself. Really allowed myself to feel the emptiness, the gap in my life where work had been. I’d gotten a lot from gardening earlier on, at a time when things felt so scary we weren’t sure which way the world might go. But the garden had been sorted, and was just busy quietly growing vegetables. Beyond a bit of watering and harvesting each day, it was taking care of itself.

If I wasn’t going to make my work online, then what? Sensing I needed a focus, Steve suggested I go to college; study something. When he said that, there was just one thing I thought I’d like to do. There are lots of subjects I’d like to know more about but wouldn’t require going to college. Training to be a counsellor however, seemed like something I could either do, or make use of in my work in a more artistic medium, so I looked up the options.

I wanted somewhere local so I may benefit from in-person teaching if it was possible. The local Higher Education college a couple of streets from where I live had an open day imminently, where it was possible to enrol. I booked a place to check out the Level 2 counselling skills course, and during the day I spent there, much of it waiting or filling out forms, I did enrol. Something new was going to happen and I was excited! I’d had to complete a 500 word essay as part of the application process, and sat in an empty art room alone, describing a period of change in my life. It flowed out without hesitation, and I thought, I could get into this subject. I’d just written a 4000 word blog post about gender inclusivity, so this felt like a picnic.

When it came to the actual enrolling, after a long queue, the guy who saw me asked about my employment situation and finances, and quickly surmised I was eligible for a free place. This was going well. The thing that absolutely sealed the deal, much more important than the fee in fact, was this course would be taught in-person. I was thrilled. I would be in a class with other students and a tutor once a week for 5 hours, over 18 weeks. That was an enriching prospect and I was looking forward to learning something new.

I had one major performance gig lined up for the Autumn in November – at an eco-feminist festival organised by Art from Heart. As well as going to college, I needed to prepare a show, and I was potentially starting from scratch. It had originally been scheduled for April… and if it had been then, I probably would have performed a version of ‘Growing Roots’. I was aware however, that show did not really fit the theme. Which goes to show how much I wanted to make that play, because it didn’t have any sort of commission, or fit with anything I’d been asked to do. Although Dani at LifeArt Stockwell‘s openness to me performing however I wanted, gave me a supportive space in January 2020.

Now I had more time, and had psychicly moved on from ‘Growing Roots’, it made sense to think afresh about this performance. Where on the eco-feminist spectrum did I incline to zone in? While that is a theme close to my heart, when it comes to feeling an artistic drive towards writing a story, the means of being hooked are not always obvious. There was however a guideline from my friend Judit, who runs Art from Heart, especially for me. When I had performed at her festival in 2019, I had created the ‘Roots’ show, which only loosely connected to the ecology theme. About some of my activist ancestors, I’d sourced original memoirs and letters to tell much of the narrative, plus written one monologue so that at least one female character could speak. The play had overall been received very well, presented largely as an audio piece with visual tableaux on stage.

Judit’s suggestion for my contribution at her next festival had been, “Now write just about your female ancestors”.

What an interesting and valuable instruction! It would have to be more fictional, and to be credible, involve plenty of historical research. A very thoughtful exercise, essentially rewriting history with some of the untold stories, imaginatively drawn to fill important gaps. To rebalance my ancestral blueprint informing who I am – but the wider symbolism meant adding to a growing shift in awareness about women’s and non-binary part in the past, as well as going forward. It’s a shift which I believe helps to heal everyone including men. I sometimes wonder how much I am affected, influenced by there being a long line of men on one side of my family at least, who we know about, have been written about. They are considered important and relevent. It’s also true that some of the women were prominent in their own right; but that wasn’t impressed upon me as I was growing up, the way the men were.

Judit’s suggestion feels timely, welcome, and currently I am eagerly immersing myself in it. Before the course began I got stuck into the new enquiry, probing Dad for useful documents (he is the family historian) as well as searching online for material about the era, movements of the day, and known figures involved. Very quickly a Victorian cast of torch bearers and trouble makers opened up, and I knew I’d have no problem generating drama. Of course the November date was cancelled – and didn’t go online – but we are now aiming with hope, for October.

The featured image above, is of me performing my great grandmother Rivkah. Below I am performing my grandmother Mary, as well as the statue of Liberty. Both images are taken from the ‘Roots’ performance in 2019 at ‘We Grow into the Forest’ festival. Photographs by Judit Prieto.

Giving Testimony: Breaking The Silence

I want to speak out: for too long I have been silent.

I have been told that my case will be closed but not officially confirmed.

I have learnt to be more quiet. I have learnt to love being more quiet, not having a mobile phone for nearly 4 months. Paying more attention to what’s around me, listening better to others and my own inner voice. Responding to emails when I am ready, looking at the internet and social media just sometimes. This has added enormous quality to my life. It wasn’t just because of the police investigation but the timing worked out, when my mobile naturally died, so long overloaded.

It was a good episode and so far has culminated in my rape survivor talk at WOW on March 11th. There was of course also doing a video testimony for the police, and that whole process, which as well resulted in the accused man being brought in for questioning. I am happy knowing that he knows that I was pissed off enough to report him now. It lets him know that his past actions could yet catch up with him and may be a warning to him regarding his present behaviour. It might make him more careful or even more dangerous… but he knows.

The video wasn’t easy though I was fairly calm. I was nervous too, and the preceding days were challenging for how vulnerable I felt again. Being so re-immersed in that earlier difficult part of my life was a headfuck. I was glad to get it done and found the police ok to work with. Also the support of an advocate from Rape Crisis UK was highly appreciated. I want to state that anyone can access Rape Crisis and its sister organisations like Solace Women’s Aid (there are men’s ones too). You can get advice to find out whether it’s a good idea for you to go to the police. The legal process may not be advisable, and if it possibly is, then it’s great to be armed with knowledge in advance. The Rights of Women‘s ‘From Report To Court‘ is recommended reading as is this essay on institutionalised misogyny in the legal system.

There has been the added bonus that a good friend of mine was involved as a witness, though treated as a separate case. It has been a privilege if in fact awful, to share this with her, naturally for the solidarity. It is a little challenging for the legal system if witnesses know each other, as they may contaminate the evidence, so we were obliged not to discuss the case. At first we thought we were not allowed to communicate at all, which felt very wrong, but fortunately it was discovered that the law was not actually so restrictive.

What I want to say is, it was great to do this even so many years later, in fact because of that and being in a relatively strong place in my life now so that being the right time. It has helped me to re-examine the map of my life, what led to what and what that means for where I am now. The rape preceded an important part of my life that I wouldn’t ever change. The important part didn’t only happen because of the rape, but it was heavily informed by it. I made close bonds in a new community and lived an alternative, underground lifestyle. That shaped me so much that I can’t imagine changing it now. But the rape was not a positive act and it is right to seek justice however unlikely to be met. There is a sense of realigning my relationship with my own past; underlining that my departure from that time in my life, has its origins in rape. There was a very positive outcome to an unhappy family life; I made good out of a dark situation. Moving on entails examining the background circumstances more fully. That was an empowering solution for that time, but by no means solved all the problems.

I would like the man to be put on a register at the least as I think if he is free, he is dangerous. I would love to give talks to teenage girls and vulnerable young women about my experience, though I understand the landscape has shifted towards the online. Still, being vulnerable hasn’t changed so much. It’s about when you are in a desperate place and you have to leave home, or you just arrive in a country with no place to call home yet. You are more vulnerable, sometimes with few options. Men like this one I am talking about, know how to spot this, and to avoid being caught. In my case it was all too easy. Others are drugged. I wish I had been able to report him at the time. I think speaking out must be a lot easier now, not just for me so many years later, but for young women who have seen #MeToo. Of course it is one thing posting on social media and another to report to the police. Then you are obliged not to post online, so it really is a dichotomy. The police are not always useful, and cases can be extremely stressful. I wouldn’t want to go through with a court case unless I was one of several witnesses. Historic cases are difficult to prove. But if you report, then at some point the police may realise they have several allegations against the same man. Or if you have strong evidence yourself and are able, going to court may be viable.

None of the other women I shared the panel with at WOW had gone to the police, so often it isn’t appropriate. There may be family entanglements involved, or the perpetrator is not known… Speaking out is important for being listened to, for owning your story, for fully integrating complex and challenging realities. That is what I have found, and it gave me an appetite to dig deeper, go write more, share more in this way, whether speaking or writing. This is not new to me as several of my performances include personal experience, but somehow this feels more direct. There is not the spectacle, but simply rawness.

Giving a rape survivor talk has allowed me to look at my past through a contemporary lens. Rather than seeing the incident as just an unfortunate thing that happened and was bound to happen, I am ready to see it more for the damage it inflicted in its own right. I want to say out loud that what he did to me (and others) is wrong. Something ought to be done about him if it hasn’t already. I believe if not locked up, he would be dangerous, with a large appetite and no scruples. Even if he can’t be convicted there should be a way to warn women and teenage girls about him.

I met Winnie Li at WOW, she was leading the discussion session after our talks. She was one of the speakers I saw in 2016 at Giving Testimony, and she has written a book called Dark Chapter about her experience. She also started Clear Lines Festival in 2015 as a forum for discussing consent and sexual violence. I hope to join her for a meeting of Clear Lines supporters on April 17th. Her story is one of adult stranger rape and she was able to report and win a court case, most fortunately. She has an inspiring approach, as it changed the course of her life and she has made it into an extremely positive thing, for the benefit of others like myself as well as herself. She brings professionalism and confidence with leadership to an emerging scene; I hope to learn from her! She led the discussion with the equally inspirational Silke Grygier who founded the Survivors Collective and is an activist.

I myself felt a little different for being less innocent if just as vulnerable as my fellow panel speakers. It is just the nature of my circumstances that I was already in some question with the law; I had chosen an underground path. That feels a very valuable thing as society isn’t like that in the same way now, to have followed a less travelled path. Everything is more diversified now with the internet, yet still an oppressive mainstream dominates. We do enjoy considerable freedom of choice and expression here however, which I appreciate keenly. One of the other speakers regularly speaks as a survivor representative on the radio or does magazine interviews I think. Her name is Sophie Yates Lu.

As I grow older I become more interested in the bigger picture of my origins, beyond the immediate time of my life, into the past of various strands of my ancestry. It makes such a rich composition that touches on lots of 20th century history from fleeing Lithuanian pogroms, migrating to South Africa, founding the South African Communist Party, escaping McCarthyism to bring up a family in East Berlin, and living on one of the last colonial plantations in East Africa. With all this in mind, the smaller events of my individual life are put into a grander perspective. I may be relatively unusual for being such a mongrel in terms of having various origins, but all our ancestors lived in vastly different periods of human history, no matter where we come from. Taking it all in, I feel less victim, more survivor, and more connected to different facets in my character.

I wonder how my life may resonate with others, my particular story, who it might reach? I always felt no one could have reached me when I needed it most, as I was not open to it. So who might I reach? Simply being the best version of myself that I can must spread the most positive energy. It may have all manner of outcomes and that I could never plan.

A recent chance experience in Hamburg reminded me of one of the most effective forms of therapy I have come across. Death metal, head banging and loud industrial/noise music/sound. This kind of music saved me when I was a teenager. It’s the sort of thing that sensible parents work hard to avoid their offspring encountering, but sometimes there is a powerful catharsis available through the medium of live performance, the direct connection with singer (or growler!) or simply received via the sound. If you are in a place in life where you feel a great deal of anger, and find that there is no reasonable recourse to justice apparent, that can leave enormous frustration and an intensification of toxic anger. This is very unhealthy if left unchecked, as the impulse to seek revenge being thwarted by fear/legal implications, there is no place for the anger to channel except inwards to the sufferer, possibly affecting others too.

I recommend a good dose of death metal (or similar). Just seeing or hearing someone else expressing what appears to be angry dark emotions (I have wondered if sometimes they are in fact exploring more nuanced, sensitive mental states, though in their screams and roars it is hard to discern, I imagine they must as they produce so much!) seems to validate my own anger. It says, ‘It’s fine to feel this way – for whatever reason – and you don’t need to hide it. In fact you should definitely not hide it, but show it loudly and not holding back.’ Then to join in by dancing/head banging or growling/screaming along allows you to share in the righteous reclaiming of that part of you that felt forced into the shadows. At least that’s how it worked for me. It was my regular practice aged 16 – 20 perhaps, sometimes weekly or more often. It aided the processing of unhappy emotions, and shifted my sense of disaffected outsiderhood towards focusing on a state of elation found in dancing free-form with others. It is a tribal thing, to all be pounding the ground together rhythmically at the same time, to sweat the night through. The dance floor was a temple, the DJ/bands priests and the clubbers a congregation. It was not lost on us as we stomped to Ministry‘s ‘Psalm 69‘. That the psychedelic messages on all the record covers told us to take a trip, to drop out, to groove and feel the love (and the anger) but also to reject mainstream culture and capitalist consumerism, served as a wider political framework to hold such disillusioned youth.

I was visiting my friend Sabine in Hamburg over Easter and she is a musician who recently moved back to her home city from London. We wanted to see some live music and quite randomly picked something from the listings which none of us knew, and nor did we research. Just took a chance. I might not have chosen it had I known it was death metal, but I was so pleased we did. It took me back to the clubs of my youth and the immense source of power I found them to be! An issue that had been plaguing me relentlessly recently, now found a place to be deposited.

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Rolo Tomassi at head CRASH 31/3/18

In Rolo Tomassi‘s combination of rage and sensuality, soaring synthscapes and earthly torment, I found redemption. The switch in my head to release such negative emotions was flicked. I left the head CRASH venue just off the Reeperbahn, a happier, more connected and grounded person than the distraught harpy who arrived earlier. Modern life – mass produced culture leaves swathes of loneliness, devastation, anger and deep sadness amongst us. But there are natural remedies out there if you look hard enough!

Recently I wrote and performed Girl in Suitcase, once more at my local Telegraph Hill Festival. I had the tremendous musical support of Sarah Kent, and as well other friends were involved too. It was a wonderful opportunity to be celebratory and make something I wanted to, be an expression of myself in the moment! With some preparation of course… So I leave you with a few photographs by Judit Prieto. I was developing some of my narrative here, particularly about being a life model. The slideshow is very indulgent; for the non-nudity collection please see here! This was the Equinox performance at The Telegraph pub on March 20th 2018.

 

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Following Grandmother’s footsteps in Africa

I have slowed down since going to Africa – Tanzania – and my inner compass has been reset. It is on a more peaceful course now that the barometer of importance shifted back down to Earth. I was humbled to spend time in a city, a town and a village where people live so much of their lives on the street, in the open, in community. They are in touch with the elements of their existence in a way that few are in the West, beyond the homeless or eco communities.

on Zanzibar

In some ways they are behind us, when it comes to women’s rights or LGBTQI rights, or state provision for health or welfare. Their life expectancy is lower (about 62), HIV is the biggest killer, and the majority of their population are young. Women are not allowed to defend themselves in court – they must be represented by a male relative, and homosexuality is punishable by lengthy prison sentence. In England women were in a comparable situation legally in the 16th century – if they were poor and tried for witchcraft (the two often going together), they were not allowed to defend themselves. Gay men in the UK however, faced imprisonment if outed until relatively recently; homosexual acts were decriminalised just 50 years ago. Part of the reason Tanzanian law is homophobic is a legacy of colonial law, so that while Britain was in power there until independence in 1961, the change in UK law in 1967 did not pass on.

off Zanzibar coast

I was in coastal areas of Tanzania – Dar es Salaam, Bagamoyo and Zanzibar – where 85% of the population are Muslim. The women are very well covered up, even in intense heat wearing many layers. It was my first direct experience of the call to prayer which happens 5 times a day, and is often most noticeable at the quietest times like just before sunrise. In each location we stayed, these calls varied according to the caller. My favourite was in Dar es Salaam, which could only be heard early as the city is so noisy the rest of the time. It was a sonorous, melodic voice that carried a powerful reach to a higher source. It was a music that did inspire, and I appreciated that this part of Muslim practice is absolutely in touch with the Earth’s passage around the sun. It’s a regular call to nature, a reminder to retune to the essentials and spiritual side of life.

In 1947 my Father’s family moved from England, via Johannesburg where he was born, to Kongwa, central Tanzania (then Tanganyika). This was because my Grandfather, who was an agriculturalist, had been commissioned by the British government to work on the controversial Groundnut Scheme as head of the scientific department. They were trying to find ways to grow crops on less favourable land, in order to feed more people easily. Massive and monumental mistakes were made right at the start of the project and it was a complete disaster wasting untold resources. Because of a post war oil/fat scarcity, sample testing on small plots of land which would have been the intelligent thing to do, was bypassed at a political level in UK parliament. Instead, they planned from the outset to clear over 3 million acres of dense bush (about the size of US state Connecticut) using the most advanced machinery to tame the land, in order to create a peanut monoculture. My Grandfather was brought in after these decisions had already been made, and did his best within the framework. By Summer ’51  the Scheme had been abandoned and my Grandfather drove North alone to a place known at the time as Tozi, in Northern Sudan for his next contract. The rest of the family flew back to England to spend time with my Grandmother’s family in Lancashire, while the site in Sudan was being set up.

“Prison Island” near Zanzibar

For my 40th birthday my partner Steve offered to take me anywhere in the world. I immediately thought of Africa due to some interesting family history there, and never having been before. South Africa would have been the obvious choice (my Grandfather’s family having been there since the turn of the last century), but I was drawn to less well trodden soil, and the place where my Grandmother allegedly began to lose her marbles. In a shamanic sense I wanted to go and find them, and to reclaim her story. My Grandfather is well remembered professionally in an annual memorial lecture given at the University of Reading, where he held a long professorship, and even has a tree dedicated to him in Kew Gardens. Although the Groundnut Scheme was a failure, he had more success subsequently and was a renowned agricultural scientist throughout his career.

in the Slavery Museum at Stone Town, Zanzibar

My Grandmother’s life was more in the shadows, and not unusually for her time she endured her husband gallivanting with numerous other women. He was well known for that too. After his death it was even said by old family friends and fellow scientists, that not until a particularly open affair out in Tanganyika, did my Grandmother crack, as if catalysed by his behaviour. This seems an unusual observation for my Grandfather’s former colleagues and close friends to share (with my Father), about 50 years after the episode. It seemed that for them it was important to pass on information out of respect for my dear Grandmother. She had suffered a great deal following diagnosis of schizophrenia, with the typical procedures of the time – institutionalisation, EST (electro shock therapy) and medication – apart from the illness itself. This didn’t all happen at once mind, rather she had episodes of illness, yet managed to hold family, work (she was a teacher at the school in Kongwa) and home together very well the rest of the time, but under great strain I imagine. Following my Grandfather’s Sudan contract, the family relocated to England which was probably due to a few reasons. Sudan gained independence from ’56 and prior to that Westerners were increasingly unwelcome. Apart from that my Grandmother’s family doctor in Lancashire had warned that for the sake of her health she must return to England. That advice likely came in ’51 yet she continued on out to Tozi to support husband and children throughout their African spell.

At her funeral in 2005 (in Reading), her brother came down from Lancashire and spoke about his sister’s plight for the first time to her family. He pointedly called that episode in Tanganyika a turning point from which she was never the same again. He felt when seeing her after that time that he had lost his once extremely bright and sharp-witted sister – she was the first person from their town to get into Oxford University where she got a first class degree in English Literature. With her (and Grandfather) now dead, he was at last free to express this. I have long been aware of the connection between the onset of her illness, and her husband’s painful and blatant infidelity. Since researching this piece I have also wondered about a psychogeographic connection with the destructive and large scale rape of the African land, that was the Groundnut Scheme. Local African wisdom was completely ignored, the area to be farmed known as “the country of perpetual drought”, which tallied with available meteorological data. Moreover the land was not tameable as hoped, and only a tiny fraction of the original plan went ahead, but still a lot of land was damaged in this process. The Scheme was more a symbol of colonial power and agriculturalism, than what it actually yielded – more peanuts were flown in to start the growing than were ever harvested.

In Mangapwani, Zanzibar

My partner and I did not go to Kongwa, which is a very rural place in central Tanzania and not so easy to reach, especially in just the fortnight we had available. It is a large country that can take a long time to travel across, so we stayed in more accessible places. I was pleased they were not all touristy, and in some places we were the only white people. It was in Zanzibar, in Stone Town, which is very touristy, that we got hassled a lot and there were many other white people around. I generally felt safer there as I knew people would speak English more and there was infrastructure for westerners’ benefit, but I did not enjoy it so much! I knew that a lot of what we saw there was in place to cater for our needs, and try to tempt our purses. Indeed, for some locals I think we were basically purses on legs. On the occasions that someone spoke with us outside of that agenda, it felt such a warm privilege.

Fish market in Dar es Salaam

One such time was on my favourite day of the holiday, when we took the daladala (bus) from Stone Town on Zanzibar to a village called Mangapwani. We went there because it had some places of historical interest, including caves and a slave chamber, as well as a beach. In the event, the journey by bus was most rewarding for an authentic African experience. We were the only white people who crammed into this single level lorry/bus with a very low ceiling. Everyone except small children had to bend over and crouch to walk inside it when finding a seat. There were different types of bus, some with rows of seats, and this one with a bench all round the edge, everyone looking inwards and very close together, also a few people sitting in between the others’ feet.

the 102 daladala

This was the 102 daladala and we had a walk from the main road where we were dropped off, to Mangapwani. The caves were a really interesting discovery; not easy to navigate in the dark by torchlight, but it was surprisingly big down there, with large pools from which locals collected fresh water in buckets.

It was at the slave chamber that the guide himself made a very positive impression. We had already visited the slavery museums at Stone Town in Bagamoyo and Zanzibar – the first with a guide who shared much interesting information in particular relating to the present day experience of descendants of slaves. The second had a really well documented exhibition telling the whole history, and as well some slave chambers to go inside. So what we saw and learnt at this spot in Mangapwani was not so new for us, though it was different for only pertaining to the time after slavery had officially been abolished. These were secret chambers used by Arab slavers who continued their trade on the quiet for some years, away from British patrolling eyes. What really struck was the nature of the guide. We both came away with a strong feeling of his personal warmth, the care he took leading us down dusty steep steps in the dark, or along a rubbly pathway to the shoreline. He showed extra consideration beyond the call of duty. Also our guidebook had warned us that we would be forced to pay much more than the going rate for entrance. It was not the case – in fact it cost less than the (2015) guidebook suggested – so we’d been set up to expect dodginess when none was present, just a very decent sweet man. After being so much hassled in Stone Town, this day out in a village free from that, and this particular encounter, stood out. I think it’s normal that some descendants of slavery feel wary towards white people, even if it was in fact Arabs who did the slaving in these parts. The gentleman at this chamber, however, seemed quite neutral, and as with the museum guide in Bagamoyo, incredibly knowledgeable. The experience with him, although brief, left a resonance of human connection that I won’t forget. It was of the sort that heals where faith in our fellow humans has been eroded. Difficult to explain, but it was felt by both me and Steve. This was an unstated aspect – I mean our conversation with the guide stayed on topic, but it was something special and rare about him.

Inside Mangapwani slave chamber

We made another pleasant connection that day during the ride back to Stone Town. This time we took a daladala direct from the village and, being the first to get on, we were given seats next to the driver. I asked if he spoke English and he shook his head. Then I saw a Liverpool football club sticker on the window and asked if he liked them. Now it became apparent that he could speak some English… if it was about football! He first asked if we liked Liverpool (before in fact answering the question). Steve said he liked Tottenham Hotspur, who of course the guy knew. He then asked me and I said I didn’t care for football, which made him laugh. Then he told us he actually liked Manchester United and the sticker was not his. The football connection opened communication between us and although we couldn’t talk a lot, a few other exchanges happened after that.

 

 

Also in Mangapwani was a quiet beach, the chance to swim briefly in the warm, clear water, and discovering the most divine cafe/bar within a grove of monkey-laden trees and overlooking the Indian Ocean. We were the only visitors so it felt an extra treat to have escaped the tourist trail.

To remember Granny, I performed a ritual by myself whilst standing in the sea. I had originally planned to do this in Dar es Salaam as I have a photograph of her on the beach there in 1949, on holiday with her small boys including my Dad, so I know she went there. After checking out the beaches in Dar however, it became apparent that the quiet areas were not wholly safe for westerners. We found out why as well, since we walked that way and had a scary encounter with a man hassling us in a very disturbing and dramatic fashion. It seemed likely that he had mental health issues, as we say here – his eyes looked like he was on something. For a while he followed us in a place where no-one else was around, jabbering frantically in Swahili (I presume). He tried to put his arm round me a few times, and was attempting to hold on to Steve, but we shrugged him off. He expressed immense desperation in his gestures, madly trying to get our attention, but we could not understand him and I felt a bit scared. He intoned words rhythmically, repeatedly as if cursing us, but I thought he was a very broken, damaged person. He had a naked torso and many scars. I sensed that he was fearless, which is why I was scared, and also because I could not see potential help. He was relentless and I didn’t know what he might try to do. Luckily after quite a while walking a long stretch with him trailing us, we saw a stall where there was a guy in uniform. We headed towards him. I wasn’t sure who he was as the stall seemed to be sponsored by Pepsi, but just his presence felt favourable. As we got closer we saw the sign that he was a policeman, and he called our unfortunate companion over. We imagined it was not the first time that those two individuals had met… Later we found a passage in the guidebook (that somehow we had missed before) warning of that dangerous area.

Art market in former slave market at Bagamoyo

So, after a few days in Dar, we travelled North to Bagamoyo, a town known for arts and also its history as a centre where slaves were taken. The name means ‘Lay down your heart’, as it was seen as an end point to many slaves’ long journey from far away where their tribes resided in the centre of Africa. Those who were weak would not make it beyond Bagamoyo as they were not valued enough to be worth selling in the slave market. Many wouldn’t even make it that far, so gruelling the weary journey. Those that made it to Zanzibar were then often sold on to masters in the Middle East. We were told that the reason that slave descendants are not widespread in the Middle East despite so many Africans being taken there during that slave trade, is that unlike the slave masters in America and the West Indies, the Arabs castrated all their male slaves (and presumably didn’t raise children with female slaves). The slaves who remained in Bagamoyo were put to work in whatever ways they could be used.

We were staying at an eco lodge called Firefly, which was very friendly and comfortable. The woman running it also organised local beach cleaning to deal with the tide of plastic bottles washing up amongst other waste (the beach was the other side of the lodge garden). She had teams of Western teenagers on gap years dropping in to do their bit, which seemed highly enterprising! It was along this beach during the quiet of the day, when Tanzanian workers are still working and there were few tourists around, that on our last morning there I decided to do my ritual for Granny. The tide was a long way out so it was easy to get some distance from walkers, hawkers and men building boats at the top of the beach, by walking right up to the water’s edge. I was in my bikini as nudity might cause too much of a sensation in those parts and I didn’t want to attract undue attention, rather be left alone. Even a bikini was extremely unusual there, the local women always being covered up.

Bagamoyo beach

I had brought along a picture of my Grandmother, a portrait of her that was photographed when she was 17: young, bright, hopeful and quite innocent, I imagine. I had been looking at several images of her before we travelled to Tanzania, and that was the one I chose for this ritual as I wanted to focus on her at a time before she became ill; when her soul was perhaps most intact. That was the idea. To focus on restoring that sense of her healthy vibrant soul, and in so doing, restoring the connection between her and her lineage. Healing a damaged female line which should have passed on strength and power instead of trauma. To represent the female blood line, I had collected my most recent menstrual period that had begun on the first day of our trip to Tanzania so it was pretty fresh. After a meditation focusing on the image of Granny and her soul, I poured my blood onto each of my limbs, then washed it off in the sea. Finally I focused on the horizon while I was still in the zone, and then walked back to the sand where my bag and clothes were. I sat down and immediately recorded some feelings.

There was a lot more to this journey that I could share. I suppose what struck most strongly was the feeling I had in Dar es Salaam. Being in an utterly new place, where people make homes out of anything – often corrugated iron, and further out from the city, mud and sticks – and live close to the ground. It was a privilege to be among them. We were staying in Kariakoo, the African neighbourhood as the guidebook called it at the heart of the city, which bustled throughout from dawn till late. The people looked healthy and live tremendously physical existences. There is food but they work hard for it. There is poverty as we know it, yet I sensed some richness of spirit that many of us have lost through the acquisition of (and dependence on) too many material goods and processed foods. And we’ve become more separated – from ourselves and each other – because of our relative wealth. I mean almost all of us in the West, even if we don’t think of ourselves as rich. Compared to them we are, because the state is and the infrastructure is, but that doesn’t make the soul rich. Being all crowded together in the streets of an evening sharing a meal, that looked like a different world to me. Not yet tarmac streets either; but dusty, crumbly, bumpy, earthy roads with holes in. I know it’s not what their middle classes aspire to, you only had to watch the TV in the hotel to see that.

part of Kariakoo market

Technology is changing the world rapidly and while it takes longer to upgrade the outer infrastructure – buses, trains, roads etc, as I sat crammed on an old daladala in Zanzibar, some of my fellow passengers were using newer, more powerful smartphones than my own! We witnessed them at a juxtaposition of older and much newer ways of life. It seemed like an exciting combination and I hope they don’t lose too much of the old, though their women’s and LGBTQI rights need a complete overhaul.

Colobus monkey on Zanzibar

Watching boys play football impromptu on a promenade by the sea, from about 4 years old up to late teenagers, kicking the ball to each other, practising their footwork; I was reminded of my brother playing as a child with his friends, sometimes I would join in too. To see their control of the ball and physical confidence – and barefoot in Tanzania – I thought how that sight has become rarer back in England. I don’t mean in the proper designated places, but just in an empty street or car park; we used to enjoy playing in the streets. Not only are parents much more cautious now (and rules probably stricter), but also children are busier with little screens and tiny keyboards and I think it’s a shame. We used to get a lot of exercise making our own entertainment playing outside. It was a pleasure to watch the African boys, and it was a common occurrence in the different places we visited. Later towards sunset and beyond they were running and diving over the wall into the sea below, each trying to outdo the others’ prowess, inventing new styles, playing games in friendly competition.

red colobus monkey

The other side of this is that I couldn’t see the girls enjoying such physical fun. They were very covered up from an early age, from babes in arms in fact, with bonnets and long sleeves; only faces and hands revealed. They were not able to be wild and free, always supposed to behave in a coded, mannered way. I don’t think that’s healthy for girls and women; they cannot access the intelligence of the skin and the body this way, or the confidence that grows from sharing physical connections with others. They are limited instead and encouraged to view others’ dress critically instead of focusing on what really matters. I tried to adhere to local etiquette when it comes to dressing, but one of my long dresses has a slit up one side. I thought nothing of it, just that it is comfortable, but as I walked along the street local women stared at me, and the only thing they looked at was the slit. Maybe they were just curious but I thought I detected judgement. It reminded me how women end up enforcing the systems that oppress them.

more colobus!

I felt more strongly that I would never defend a woman’s right to cover up back home, though equally I would never tell her how to dress. It is for women to decide themselves, but if your culture has that norm it could feel daunting to break it. I personally think that if women’s modesty is valued too highly, it creates a culture of victim blaming. It is saying that if a woman doesn’t cover up, she may expect to be abused somehow. It is removing the responsibility from men for their own atrocious actions and putting it all on women. That is the Patriarchy and while I understand that hearing these words from outsiders may be less appealing than being told what to wear by your own people, I want to be open because too often we feel unable to speak from the heart. And it does affect my life in the UK (and the world) if there is a pervading culture of victim blaming within the population. I don’t think the West has all the answers; we have much to learn from each other. It ought to be a dialogue.

hippos at Sadaani National Park

In Tanzanian law marital rape does not exist; a woman is deemed her husband’s property by virtue of his having paid bride price – he may do what he likes with her providing he does not disturb the peace of others unduly. That means other people’s peace, not his wife’s. Many women there will suffer domestic violence in silence as there is little they can do to escape. I think that state of affairs is fairly common, particularly in parts of Asia and Africa; sometimes much harsher too. In the UK marital rape was only written into law in 1991.

I’m not totally down about Tanzanian dress code, however – they have amazing textiles and know how to cover up with style! The prints on women’s dresses were visual candy, kaleidoscopic, psychedelic, every-coloured, multi-patterned joy! And although I usually couldn’t understand them, there were some outspoken, authoritative women on TV, and vibrant front-women singing and dancing in bands in a local festival. Oppression is everywhere in the world, and it is relative to the state of the society. What I observed about women was just a part of my experience; the overriding feeling I had was about the whole way of life – the African way, it seemed. An outdoor way of life, where the kitchen may look dirty but the food tastes amazing. I am remembering the lunch we were treated to in the village of Sadaani which is in a National Park. From my diary;

stall where vegetables for the meal were bought

“The meal in the village was very fine, all vegetarian as I had requested. Coconut rice, okras with what our guide, Adam had called white tomatoes, though I had assumed them to be related to the aubergine; spinach prepared with carrot and garlic, and a dish with kidney beans. All very tasty, also with fresh water melon and cucumber. All together. No separation of courses, just eating, because the luxury of eating is appreciated. It looked and felt a feast. The room we ate in was a shack like the rest, semi open, ground floor as in earth floor, like outside. Dirty by western standards. Basic facilities, cooker if you would call it that black/burnt from use, looked old like many items, mixed together with newer plastic bowls etc. Small children wandering about outside, playing drafts, also small goats.”

We were driven around the park slowly – the roads are bumpy and you don’t want to scare the animals – and saw giraffes, baboons, waterbucks, warthogs and antelopes (also lots of elephant shit!) Then we travelled by boat on the Wami river to catch sight of hippos, crocodiles and many different birds – a fish eagle, storks, southern ground hornbills, yellow weaver birds and African spoonbills. It is a relatively new park and quite bushy so harder to spot animals than on the open plains in other regions. Also, animals like elephants that until 2005 were hunted in the same area, hold on to that memory and still are afraid of man. I think it was the river journey that inspired me most – the muddy banks and mangroves, families of hippos, and occasionally a croc dashing into the water! Another world.

I loved the market in Kariakoo too, like what Peckham or Deptford are suggestions of, but nowhere near as busy in my experience. The colourful dresses on sale, rummaging in piles of beautifully printed frocks, searching for some that weren’t ridiculously long as so many were. The women there were not so tall so I never understood this. Pairs of leggings modelled on mannequin legs with large bottoms! Absoluely anything and everything on sale on the ground or a table; old electrical items, cuddly toys, soap… books in english on how to get rich. A man with various rare doves in a cage on the back of his bicycle!

the old German Boma at Bagamoyo, Stone Town

There were quieter parts of Dar too, that looked more like streets in East London and had tarmac roads, plenty of mosques. Also the ‘colonial’ area of old, with more official and gated buildings, but much less character. The ruins in Bagamoyo’s Stone Town, with the old slave market now housing lots of artists’ work for sale. Enormously wide girthed trees with roots above ground, and red colobus monkeys in Jozani forest. I have so many wonderful memories of this trip, and a lot more in my diary but I will leave it here for now. It was such an educational – in the widest sense – trip, helping me to understand my family background better, and also cultural – colonial. I have finally travelled to Tanzania, to remember Granny, and gained a closer knowledge of my own connection to the past. With so much love and thanks to Steve for taking me there.

 

A useful article I found about the Groundnut Scheme.

Reporting historic rape; telling women’s stories; & the Solstice

It began in a funk; I was depressed and disinclined to leave my home on Thursday 1st June. Yet I had planned to go to a Women’s Equality Party meeting in Catford, of the Lewisham branch which I had recently become a member of. A friend of mine was going to come with me. She isn’t local but had also joined the party and encouraged me to do likewise. I messaged her to say I was not well and couldn’t make it; she responded that she was already on her way! So I quickly put sandals on (it was warm), and went to meet her. We had time before the meeting to sit in the park and chat.

After a couple of hours, and a drink, for by now we were in the beer garden of the pub where the meeting was due to take place, we got on to a subject she had been wanting to discuss with me for a while. Rape. I wrote a blog post almost a year ago, about being raped 22 years ago. This had resonated with her, but it had taken her a while to find the opportunity to bring the subject up. She started describing something that had happened to her about 9 years ago, being raped, and why she hadn’t felt inclined to report it until reading my blog.

As she described her experience and all the details, particularly of the man involved, I began to pick up on distinct similarities. I asked her pointed questions about the location and his physical and personality description, and came to the conclusion that this was the same man. We were struck with incredulity! How had this happened to us both, with the same man? Before we knew each other, and many years apart. How extraordinary. At that point it was necessary for her to check old emails, as her experience had, unlike mine, happened within the digital era. There were email records, with other digital links. This could lead somewhere and we were just left with the certainty that we would both report it to the police.

This process has since been underway, beginning with making contact with Rape Crisis UK. We wanted to learn about the system we would be getting involved in before contacting the police. We wanted to be prepared for a very challenging mission. This proved to be a brilliant move and I found much value from all contacts concerned. I was guided early on to the extremely helpful ‘From Report to Court’ document, written by The Rights of Women. This spells out step by step what to expect from the legal process and what you are entitled to as a victim or witness. It makes clear that there are a lot of safeguards and improvements in the system for victims these days. It actually made me feel firstly very empowered for the knowledge of the process, and secondly encouraged to go forward with my report. It made me feel supported, knowing that The Rights of Women exist, and that although there’s still a long way to go in dealing with sexual violence, there are structures in place to protect us. I knew there was help out there, and Rape Crisis also proved to be really efficient and supportive.

Not long after reading ‘From Report to Court’ I felt inspired to switch on Woman’s Hour one morning, and most fortunately the woman speaking, Karen Gardner, was describing her experience of taking a rapist to court and the legal system. I seemed to be in synch with the universe (I by no means often listen to the programme, and I had not checked the content in advance)! What she said was far less favourable than what I had read about in the document, and her experience was recent and in London. It made it apparent that sadly victims often don’t receive the good care and all they are in fact entitled to. It was useful to get this real life account, but also the speaker said that she still felt it was worthwhile. Even if there is not enough evidence to prosecute, and it is a very difficult case, you as a victim are doing your bit to achieve justice. This may be beneficial for your own inner peace and ability to move on, and it may also help to protect potential future victims. The report will still exist even if the perpetrator cannot be sentenced. It may add to a body of evidence. That said, I understand well why many women do not report, and that it may not always be helpful for a woman to do so.

I was assigned an advocate who I met up with a few days later. She added more insight to what I had gathered already. Where I had been led to believe that if my friend and I continued speaking with each other, this could be used against us if the case went to court, as we may supposedly be contaminating each others’ evidence, this turned out not to be the case, much to our relief. While we are obliged not to discuss the case once it is in the hands of the police, that does not inhibit our friendship otherwise. I had wondered how victims would feel encouraged to come forwards if they could not support each other during an already testing time.

My advocate accompanied me to the police station to make my first report. I was not exactly in a traumatised state, so many years later, but I did feel anxious and I knew that her presence would only be positive. In the end it took more than two hours with quite a lot of waiting around, and the policewoman not being sure of protocol in such a situation so checking with others upstairs. But it was fine. I had already tried to think about it from their point of view, the facts they would want to know, some of which are uncomfortable to remember, while others I could not. I was able to describe the scenario fairly matter of factly, while she looked up spellings in the dictionary! She listened, asked sensitively, and very importantly, I felt believed and treated with respect. I was thanked for my patience, for coming forward and being brave. This was the beginning of an important process that is a sort of turning point.

A few days later my assigned SOIT (Sexual Offences Investigative Techniques) officer called to check a few details that the first officer had missed. These concerned the nature of consent, or lack of; questions that help to determine if, when and how the perpetrator committed crimes. To understand how the case may unravel in court if it gets there, what sort of line of defence would be likely, and perhaps the probability of a successful conviction. These questions could feel intrusive, but they are important. I felt very grateful to be approaching this now, so long after as I am not so reactive. There are still triggers, but I can see them more. I was aware that if I was freshly traumatised, this process would be an ordeal I think. I don’t know how they improve that for victims. In cases where it is not physical overpowering that is involved so much as psychological manipulation, there may be a very strong burden of guilt on the victim, for allowing it to happen. Yet the more people that come forward about these sorts of cases, the better understood they should become and more familiar to those who work within the law and police.

It is an unexpected turning point, even if a natural progression from sharing the blog post. I did not expect this, but it has been a game-changer in terms of going to the police. This has allowed me to consider the past differently already; I have imagined being in court, seeing him again, what I would say. It has bonded me in a newly bizarre way with my friend, and that certainly helps one to feel empowered on this path. I reconsidered the actual impact of the rape all those years ago. Where I had blurred the memory into the hectic and intense events that soon followed in my life at the time, I now unpicked it. The rape itself had happened at a turning point. I was at a very critical juncture; soon to leave home, make a new beginning, and I lacked strong guidance. What was going to affect my choices? Maybe I would have made the same ones anyway but I will never know. That incident stood out at the time as extremely disturbing. I masked it with drugs because I didn’t know how to get justice.

Apart from this serious matter, I have been aching for new activity on the artistic and activist front. Something to distract me from dwelling too long in the past, and focus instead on creating a new Spirited Bodies format. I met the Feminist Library last year when working at the Fawcett Society conference in London, and having visited them knew that they have a workshop space. I wanted a venue that share my values and were not commercially driven. I also felt it was time to involve professional models in a more active (and paid) way. It is all very well creating a space for body empowerment through life drawing, but as a professional model myself, I want to work with my colleagues rather than separately. I want them to share their experience in a way that enhances their modelling role. I want to include all our voices, especially of women who are outside of mainstream beauty ideals. I want to give them a chance to share their feelings and any difficulties they may have come up against by giving them a lot of freedom to create their session in their own way (with some guidance), so expecting variety! The new series is called the Stories of Women and began on 17th July, for women only. The next is on Monday – 21st August, featuring model Jennifer Farmer.

Finally, this year’s Summer Solstice celebration was exceptional with the heatwave coinciding perfectly! This time my friends and I were not the only ones with the same idea at Hilly Fields stone circle! We were in brilliant company and enjoyed sharing a ritual with lovely folk, dancing naked until late. I leave you with a few images and a lovely clip which was originally found on Instagram.

P1010277-01

By Rodger Kibble

solstice

By Rodger Kibble

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https://www.instagram.com/p/BVnvNaYBzFK/