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 that 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 owner, I stared at the emptiness wondering who I would be sharing this space with. I was oblivious of 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 new 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 mere courtesy or sincere intrigue, I nodded and smiled in return. My office and that next to it, in fact the entire department, was filled by black women. Even though I am a black woman, raised by a tribe of black women, I still find black women severely intimidating, they have a way about them, at times a pompous air or downright nastiness. With them 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 to mine where the women convene on most mornings for conversation or gossip.
I was the youngest in a group of middle-aged women and the skinniest in a sea of heaving bodies. They spoke at random about office duties and I sat quietly trying to read each of them for their personalities. This continued for about 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 the contents of the box. Inside it were lotion tubes, pink bodies with black lids. 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 women, 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 explicitly joked about their bedroom endeavours, shared suggestions about the best way to reignite a flame and emphasised the need for women to pleasure themselves with or without the aid of their men. Many complained that in a marriage sex ceases to be an adventure and that after a while a tap on the back becomes their signal to turn over and have the deed done. Foreplay they explained was a thrill left at the altar, to be inherited by a younger uninhibited generation, that of their daughters.
This all changed when this pretty sex kit was introduced to them. The kit I soon discovered frequented the offices of everyone. The massage lotions, therapeutic bath oils, stimulating vagina creams, vibrators of all forms and luxuriously scented bed-sheet sprays were a gift that every women deserved to celebrate herself with.
Eureka! Pandora’s Box had been opened and I felt right at home. This was the kind of talk my girlfriends and I always had. Never in a million years did I think that woman as old, or older, than my own mother were sharing in the same banter.
The thing is — irrespective of your degree of qualification, the business you might run in the highest of heels and the Jaguar you might have purchased with money in your own bank account — in traditional contexts black women have always been portrayed as dutiful and reliant wives. Not on any media platform have they ever been afforded the role of the assertive and independent. They are always the victimised, cheated on and uneducated typecasts. Even on Generations, arguably the most popular “black” television series in South Africa, the women are at odds with the men in their lives, always conflicted, confounded and in need of rescuing. The high-profile careers they hold serve only as backdrops to their romantically tumultuous scripts.
In real contexts the townships and the rural areas are where poverty is a language that many are fluent in and education and opportunity a privilege for the very few. The lives of women that are familiar with the reality of vanished daughters, forgotten husbands and the rearing of orphaned grandbabies are often glorified as 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 to mine. A meeting which I know I was privileged to be a part of. 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. I now know that I had severely underestimated these women, no ]patriarchal institutions, exclusive media or unequal pay has been able to keep these women, my women, from what is 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 discovered that perhaps the daughters of my generation are not lost.