When a frog is put into boiling water, it will jump out; if that frog is put into warm water and the temperature is gradually raised, the frog will die in the water. This is an analogy for abusive relationships. It is not just about these 16 Days of Activism, but 365 Days of Awareness.
Domestic violence is so prevalent in African households that it is safe to say we all know an abuser. What makes it even more difficult to extrapolate just how pervasive abuse is is the fact that it largely goes unreported. From Swazi women who are tethered to their husbands forever since they cannot get divorced under Swazi Law and custom, to men in Nigeria who are fettered to patriarchal structures that don’t recognize that they too can be victims, the data clearly states that domestic violence and abuse is a scourge on the African terrain.
The idea of “tibi tendlu,” a Swazi colloquialism that could loosely be translated to being about not hanging one’s dirty linen out, is part of the reason so many cases of abuse go unreported. The idea that the abuser must be protected because they could lose their job, or the façade of a happy household would be shattered or any other myriad of reasons that discounts the safety and dignity of people who live in fear day after day. The cacophony of defenders of abusers and character advocates when accusations come out are soon drowned by the brouhaha of people who feel that it should take the abuser’s employment into consideration. How many times has someone said “what if he loses his job,” when abuse allegations come out? This doesn’t even take into consideration the diminished ability abuse victims have to do their own jobs when they have to contend with a tyrant in their lives. Moreover, there is an idea that black men must be particularly shielded from scrutiny and accountability since society already stereotypes them as being savage and dangerous. These stereotypes are apropos of nothing, yet when we allow abuse to continue unmitigated by turning a blind eye, we are allowing there to be a case in point.
I wanted to discuss that, but I was struck by how ubiquitous abuse was which led to the realisation that most of us have been in a situation where someone we knew was being abused, and we did not know how to react. I used to have a friend who was dating a guy who had the worst temper issues; the first time I met him he was shouting at her in public, and this struck a chord with me. If only I knew how prescient my disconcertedness was. I should have said something to her, but I quieted that voice. Nonetheless, as their relationship progressed, her friendships regressed. She was no longer available and even when I would make an effort to call her, he would text her to hang up. Eventually, he had isolated her so much from everyone in her life that when the abuse turned physical, she had no one to turn to. What should I have done, what could I have done? More importantly, what can you do when someone in your life is being abused or is an abuser?
Abuse largely goes unreported because people do not believe the victims. It is hard to admit to yourself that someone you know, that someone you let into your life, is capable of abuse. Therein lies the temptation to ignore clear signs of violence, and use the “I’ve known them for years” excuse. It is a natural struggle to reconcile the perception we have of someone of the person they are when no one is around; nevertheless, people almost never lie about abuse. Anyone is capable of abuse, whether they are our kind friends or our compassionate family members. Even if it is someone you dated, there is a clandestine victim blaming that lies in saying “he never did that to me.” Abuse is already psychologically damaging enough, without being compounded by people outside the relationship apportioning the blame to the victim.