About a month ago I contributed to a platform called the Unmothered project. Started by Emalohi Iruobe as a way of grieving her own mother, the unmothered is an artistic endeavor that urges African women who are dealing with death of loved ones to share their stories through taking self portraits so they can proclaim their visibility to the world. I shared my own story of losing my sister and you can find it here.The exercise gave me a lot of perspective and and brought my thoughts to how we process grief and trauma in African culture and my evolving view of the subject.
Outside of losing my sister, I belong to the HIV-AIDS generation in my country, Zimbabwe. When I was in high school, our statistics stood at 1 in every 3 of us was HIV positive and I lost a lot of friends and family to the epidemic.The experience gave me a false sense of being desensitized to death. It’s not only the amount of death that made me feel this way but also the cultural attitudes to it, that I have found to be prevalent amongst my African friends. We do not properly grieve our dead or process trauma.
The universal spoken words to comfort people going through trauma are
“Everything will be alright. ”
While people probably mean well when they say this, it is a misleading notion.The African belief in this mantra is further compounded by how religious we are, and when any trauma strikes we defer to the divine. People almost always believe whatever happened is God’s plan and we should accept it and afterwards almost no one is checking for you on how you are dealing. Because of the way our lives are set up, before you know it you are dealing with some more life altering trauma .
Closely related to this philosophy is the romantization of the strength of black women in popular culture globally. Check out this AJ+ feature on this topic.The superwoman syndrome is rampant in African culture and me and my friends all remember being taught to soldier through menstrual cramps because what will we do at childbirth?? The strength of African women is legendary and poetic. We are expected to summon this strength in all sorts of situations, from raising whole villages and making homes out of nothing, to walking 20 miles to fetch water and fleeing wars with children on our backs. It is the same strength we are supposed to summon when experiencing grief and trauma and it is supposedly limitless.These are all well meaning but toxic ideas I had to unlearn in my journey to face up to my trauma.
Unlike my friends at home, I had the privilege of processing my trauma living in an entirely different culture that gave me emotional space to explore the topic and access to resources I did not have before. On the urging of my advisor, I went to therapy for the first time as a freshman in college.I remember being bewildered and highly suspicious of the whole suggestion because where I come from, you do not sit and tell total strangers your problems. However this proved to be quite a useful tool to process what had happened in my life.
As I dug into my memories I had one vivid one of advice I got after my sister died from my friend, who was also 14 like me at the time and had just lost her father.
“You do not get over things, you get through them,and learn to live with them.”
I never grasped the meaning of her words until that much later. If you do not process trauma, it does not go away, it just morphs up into something else and shows up in places in your life you least expect. Mine was manifesting in some seriously toxic and self destructive ways in my young adult life and I had to recognise that and work on it.I also learnt to stop referring to myself as a broken person, because that impedes me from forming healthy relationships with myself and with others.
My trauma does not define me.
My biggest treasure from this process is probably, my amazing friends who have been my family so far away from home and a huge part of my healing journey. I used to spend thanksgiving with the same group of friends for a few years and even though we are now all dispersed around the world, that group chat is still one of my favorites. I also have a fierce girl gang who never let me think for one second that I am less than my worth. p.s. we recently changed our group chat name to Dora Milaje because #wakandaforever!
In my exploration of living with grief and trauma,I learnt I do not always have to be strong and to recognize when I need help. Most of all, I learnt that processing trauma in a healthy way does not make me any less African. I think that’s what most of us grapple with, what is an African woman without her defining strength? The answer is a more refined, balanced and albeit stronger African woman. I believe I am, and I also will always miss my sister.
Lets thrive on sisters!