Choosing to become a survivor is a daily fight for me towards light and away from darkness. I was gang-raped outside my home - a space I was supposed to feel safe in. I went to a private hospital emergency room that night, carrying with me all the money I had, because medical aid was not possible for a freelance theatre technician like me.
I had inadvertently walked into the safest space this city offers in the aftermath of trauma. A space made for survivors like me by an amazing organisation called the Jes Foord Foundation. I had no idea then how profoundly this team would change and influence my survival. The kindness and care I received at St Augustine’s for two weeks was beyond extraordinary.
I remember holding on to Jes’s words: “You have taken my body, but you will never take me.” I have never understood something as clearly or wanted to fight for my spirit as hard.
Working as a theatre lighting designer, when I really think I can’t anymore, the show must go on and so theatre forces me up a ladder to literally switch on light and paint in colour.
Every day since then has been a choice - a choice to be stronger than those who hurt me. I’m glad no one told me then how hard most days would be. But three years later, I’m slowly turning the tide and now most days are good ones. I’m fortunate in that I have a support of love around me that allows me to have bad days without judgment. Most survivors don’t. On my bad days I can paint my nails turquoise, lie in the sun, make theatre that matters, watch films, read a novel and re-imagine my life.
What matters is “speaking truth to power”. For too long I’ve been unable to find the words to speak about what happened. To see that in my sharing I could help someone else and most importantly that it would give me power to face tomorrow. Statements are enough in broken climates.
I want to make theatre that matters and bring children to see shows, so that for a moment they too can have a childhood of imagination. I want to give child survivors an afternoon in a magical space where they can reclaim their childhoods - even if just for a moment.
I don’t want to hold secrets anymore. I want to paint light around me in the shape of my heart. I want to listen to an orchestra or a musical performance - to arts’ ability to transcend.
I try not to worry (my anxiety doesn’t always listen). But if I can, I just try to focus on showing my strength so others will not feel the need to wrap me up in cotton wool and think of me as a victim. I am not the sum total of what happened to me. My eulogy is not written on my body in the scars left where I was burnt. I will not let this be the end - I have a new story to write.
I don’t want to build higher walls to feel safer or put more alarms in my house. I want to live and be a better human. The only way to do that is to take down the barriers between us and talk. Support organisations like this that make a REAL difference! But most importantly when we don’t know what to say, simply to listen.
To fellow survivors, I want to share the most important thing I have learnt - we are more than our adorned miseries. Our hearts are not the last vestige of hate and suffering. We are not victims with broken limbs, birds who forgot their wings. Yes, we know the impermanence of life; we consult with our scars every day, yet in choosing light and love we must turn away and speak.
Yes, we are survivors negotiating our way through a land scarred with hate and blood. I don’t have all the answers.
I choose to travel this new path with my ancestors - the sisters and mothers who have travelled this before me. Africa has at least given me that! We are not broken and in need of repair, and we are never the ignored elephant in the room - instead we need to festoon our stories with marigolds, offer up a cup of tea and speak truth to power.
I want our stories to be heard - their words like seagulls declaring truth - I am a phoenix rising. And this was not my fault. Be you. Stand tall in your heart. Speak. It’s the antidote to immense struggle.
Nothing can take this away from us.
* This is an abridged version of the keynote address Tina presented at the annual Jes Foord fundraising ball.
Tina is a full-time technician at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre on UKZN campus and lighting designer for all KickstArt productions. She is currently lighting the KickstArt annual family panto, Sinbad the Sailor.