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Afems 2018: on death, desire and spirituality

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Dr Nthabiseng Motsemme
Dr Nthabiseng Motsemme

By Nokwanda Dlamini, fourth-year Bachelor of Journalism and Media Studies student

Academic Director of the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIHSS), Dr Nthabiseng Motsemme, presented an informative keynote address at the second annual African Feminisms (Afems) 2018: The Mute Always Speak conference hosted by the Department of Literary Studies in English and Fine Art.

The focus of her body of work has been African women’s voices at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and gendered memories under violent regimes. She explores how township women lived and embodied their suffering and healing, how this affected their daily philosophies, and how the aesthetics of survival under apartheid and democracy have played out. She believes the work on African cultural production has really been about interrogating working class African women’s deep subjectivities and how they create meaning in their lives. “I am interested in the different versions and visions of their lives,” she said.

Dr Motsemme considers the creation of meaning to be an act of agency – of re-humanisation. She explained that “African women who have been relegated to margins inherently understand that survival is about creating alternative meanings.”

In her address, she reimagined the African women’s archive through various themes.

The first emerging theme she presented is: African women’s ways of knowing through maternal legacies comprised of survival wisdom and moral wisdom. In the context of uncertainly, scarcity, corruption, trickery and general social suffering, she believes poor African women have cultivated their own ways of knowing. They have derived meaning and hope through ultimately “humanising” their experiences.

She argued that their search for meaning, which sustains forms of knowing such as corporeal epistemologies (the body’s way of knowing) and moral and survival wisdom, organically arise. Survival wisdom involves ways in which the oppressed negotiate their terrains in such a way that they re-imagine and re-create alternative spaces of humanisation and citizenship. So in instances of dehumanisation, the central work of ‘survival wisdom’, the idea is tohumanise the horrors of marginalisation created by oppression and extreme forms of violence, while asserting dignity and worthiness.

Moral wisdom describes the lived experiences of racism, gender and cultural discrimination and economic exploitation generationally inherited by African communities as having necessitated the creation and cultivation of values which often subvert mainstream negative constructions of African womanhood. Dr Motsemme said to survive such oppressive social realities requires what black feminists and womanists have called ‘moral wisdom’- which iswhere women’s appraisal of “what is right and wrong, good or bad develops out of the various ways of coping related to conditions of their own cultural circumstances.”

The second emerging theme embodies forms of knowledge that African women feminists and womanists intuitively know. “Intuitive knowing is always a consequence ofspecificexperiencesandembodiment,” Dr Motsemmesaid. This intuitive bodily knowing is based on women’s long experiences and versions of marginalisation, survival and humanisation impulses.

The third emerging theme involved desire and desiring as a humanising force. “Desire is not simply a sexual force, but part of existence and what constitutes being human.”  For her “desire is the desire not simply for a body, but for the desire of the other - the desire to be recognised, to feel free of lack and loneliness--the desire to be desired because desire humanises.”

The fourth emerging theme in her work references the death experience, with particular reference to the 1980s mass political violence and the 1990s HIV/AIDS epidemic. She stated that in the 1980s, young mothers and grandmothers lost many sons and grandsons as a result of mass political violence, and in the 1990s, township mothers were forced to watch many of their daughters die of HIV/AIDS.

Dr Motsemme explained, “Historical continuity of the death experience for African women - of them burying their loved ones - embodies a deeply painful experience that remains difficult to express; often inaccessible to language; for many women. Furthermore, these repeated death experiences have meant that women’s ‘caring’ and ‘compassionate’ roles in death practices have been and continue to be severely over-stretched.”

Her final theme was African spiritualties. She noted that mainstream “social theory, even African feminism, has failed when it comes to incorporating African cosmologies and spiritualties within their analyses.”

Ultimately, Dr Motsemme drew the audience to the fact that the mute always speak and that dominant western narratives and orality are not the only way to convey meaning. Poor and township African women do not only hold feminist roles, but these roles provide them with agency previously denied to them.

Source:  Communications

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