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Pandora’s Box

by Mlilo Mpondo / Illustration by Sasan / 15.02.2013

I recently joined a new department at work and found myself at yet another empty desk begging to be adorned with baby pictures, perhaps plastic flowers and any other paraphernalia which attempts to bring a sense of belonging to a place that you would rather not be in. If not to only placate the nudity of a desk that had bid farewell to its previous, newly promoted owner. I stared at the desk’s emptiness wondering who I would be sharing this space with. I was oblivious to what was expected of me, not only as an employee but as a person, and hoped that my charm would conceal the fact that I had no idea what I was walking into. Not only did I not know my job, worse I did not know the people that I would be working with.

And so the day started. I was greeted by nods and warm smiles, unsure if it was only politeness or sincere intrigue, I nodded and smiled in return. My office and the office next door to it, in fact the entire department, was filled by black women. Now, even though I am a black woman, raised by an entire tribe of black women, I still find black women to be severely intimidating, they have a way about them, us, at times a pompous air, at others downright nastiness.  With black women you never really know where you stand, and I would advise that when in the company of black women one should always know what position they hold.  An hour after my arrival, once greetings were exchanged and names memorised, I was offered a cup of coffee and invited to sit in the office next door to mine where the women convene on most mornings for conversation and or gossip.

I was the youngest in a group of the middle aged, and the skinniest in a sea of heftily built and heaving bodies. They spoke at random about office duties which still had to be completed, and I sat quietly trying to read each of them for their personalities. This continued for all of five minutes until one lady told another that her package had arrived. The heftiest of them all, with large arms, the type that sagged like Oprah prayed hers never would, got up to inspect what was inside the box that she had ordered. The contents were tubes of lotion, pink bodies with black lids, and smelled beautifully. These, she explained to me, were sex lotions designed for stimulation in the bedroom and she had ordered this box to sell to her clients.

Her clients I soon learned were the women seated in the very office I was in, hefty, curvaceous, middle aged black women. I was gobsmacked. Here were women well beyond their fifties, some mothers and others grandmothers. Some married and others single. Some were born again Christians and others more traditional in their beliefs.

They laughed and joked about their bedroom endeavours, quite explicitly so. They shared suggestions about the best way to reignite a flame that had since died, and emphasised the need for women to pleasure herself with or without the aid of a man. Many complained that in a marriage sex ceases to be an adventure and that after a tiresome day at work, a tap on the back was their only signal to turn over and allow their men to have their way with them. Foreplay they explained was a thrill left at the altar, to be inherited by the younger more daring generation of their daughters.

All of this changed when this pretty sex kit was introduced to them. The kit, I soon discovered, frequented the offices of everyone from the young and experimental secretary to the single and highly demanding CEO. The massage lotions, therapeutic bath oils, stimulating vagina creams, vibrators of all forms and sizes, and luxuriously scented bed sheet sprays were a gift that every women deserved to celebrate herself with.

Eureka! Finally Pandora’s Box had been opened and I felt right at home. This was the kind of talk my girlfriends and I always had. I never thought that in a million years woman as old, if not older, than my own mother were sharing in the same banter.

The thing is – irrespective of a high degree of qualification, a fashionable closet, a business that you may run in the highest of heels, and a Jaguar that you may (or may not) have purchased from your own bank account – in the household, black women have always been perceived as the dutiful and reliant wives. Not on any media platform have they ever been afforded the role of the assertive and independent. They are always typecast as the abused, the victimised, cheated on and uneducated, even on Generations, arguably the most popular “black” television series in South Africa, the women are ever at odds with the men in their lives, always conflicted, confounded and in need of rescuing. The high profile careers which they hold, serve only as backdrops to their romantically tumultuous scripts.

In real contexts the townships and the rural areas are where poverty is the only language that many are fluent in, and education and opportunity a privilege for the very few. The lives of women – who are all too familiar with the reality of vanished daughters, forgotten husbands and the rearing of AIDS orphaned grand babies – are often glorified as the examples of female strength. Their struggles are romanticised by literature and their plight applauded. They are referred to as strong black women, as though disparity was their choice, or the only way in which a woman can demonstrate her patience with all of the nonsense that life throws at her.

I stand corrected but I am yet to recall any instance where black women of that age spoke as freely as they did in the office next door to mine. A meeting which I know I was privileged to be a part of. Black women hardly ever discuss matters of coitus with their daughters. I didn’t even know that black women knew they owned vaginas; these were body parts used for the pleasing of husbands, the birthing of children and the passing of urine. If anything a chore. I now know that I had severely underestimated these women, no amount of patriarchal culture, or exclusive media, unequal pay or threat of stigma has been able to keep these women, my women, from what was truly theirs to own.

Karl Marx once stated that social progression can be measured by the position of the female sex. Just as I was ready to give up on the government, ridicule the dismal education system and wash my hands of the vicious treatment of women in all contexts of this country, I stumbled into a room on the second floor, and in it I discovered that perhaps the daughters of my generation are not lost. If as children, woman are meant to be seen and not heard, in our silence we are speaking volumes.

*Illustration © Sasan.

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