Taboo. Uttering the word vagina is taboo in my country. Taboo things and practices are usually proscribed to women. The Oxford dictionary defines taboo as:
1. A social or religious custom prohibiting or restricting a particular practice or forbidding association with a particular person, place, or thing.
‘many taboos have developed around physical exposure’
2. A practice that is prohibited or restricted by social or religious custom.
‘speaking about sex is a taboo in his country’
A few years ago I set out to produce the first ever performance of Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues in the country. The team of angels in my all woman communications agency was excited and undaunted by this new challenge that would undoubtedly raise eyebrows and set tongues wagging. Our first task was to enjoin a cast of souls including a young man who was tentatively coming out of his closet. We took the plunge, deep diving into our pain, wiping each other’s tears and hyping each other’s glory – we bonded. Together we undertook research, reframed the original stories, localized some of them and added our own.
The opening scene of the play is a happy word play discussion about the word vagina in many languages. We looked forward to this like naughty children. However, when compiling the words for vagina in our languages we found only negative words, none that honored that center of our physical being, that life giving shell of soft flesh, that treasure of pleasure, that font of humanity. The words were so cruel they were a taboo to speak. The fact that our cultures did not, even privately, revel in the sensual nature of woman, who is more god than man, was more hurtful than we had expected. Men truly hate women. We needed to take those names and destroy them and give them new names. And we did. We gave those names stories, real lives and loves and thus our vaginas came alive.
I submitted our script to the Censorship Board and after several weeks (less than a fortnight before the play’s opening night) they responded with a denial to license the play, as it was “likely to cause public offense and negatively influence morals”. Upon informing them of this, our sponsor UN Women pulled out. The institution that was set up for the protection and promotion of women had turned its back on the play that would raise women’s voices. I was actually unsurprised but that’s a discussion for another day.
The police picked me up from my café, interrogated me and threatened me with arrest should the play be staged. Yes, I was shooketh. But our cast and crew were emphatic in their refusal to be silenced. They unanimously voted to veto their fees and to continue regardless. This sisterhood of vaginas and one penis buoyed me. This brave and generous young man who would come out to the world through our play, stood with me when my now ex-husband, ashamed and weak did not.
The opening night tickets sold out. Vindication! I wept several times that day and again later that evening as I stood before the audience and read the statement from the Censorship Board, explaining to them that they were at an illegal gathering and they could choose to leave. The crowd adamantly refused to leave. Our play was performed in an outdoor theatre; people sat on picnic blankets, hugging each other, drinking hot chocolate and warm wine on that winter night, under the trees and eyes of our twinkling foremothers above. The audience laughed, raged and cried with us. Our world was ablaze and it was all, absolutely worth it.
With an ever-evolving cast I have co-written, directed and produced many versions of the ‘Chitenje Changa Monologues’. It means ‘my kanga/ wrapper’ and is partly inspired by the late and respected Khwezi of South Africa, but that is also an essay for another day. One of our cast, activist Beatrice Mateyo was arrested at a protest we held against sexual gender based violence in 2017 for her placard, which proclaimed in English and in Chichewa language “My pussy, my pride. To be born with a vagina is not a shame”. Charged with “offending the modesty of women’, three years later the case remains in court – justice denied.
We have performed around the country as well as in Zambia, Kenya and Uganda. We saw how much women resonate when they are together in a safe space. Moved by the countless interactions with women and focus groups, Sharmila Elias and I created Feminatti, a safe space for expression, healing and harmony. We use words, counsel, listening, physical touch and ancestral participation in our group sessions and retreats. I curate Taboo Thursday events – a platform for hard conversations that include everyone. With staunch male allies we launched Ferminart, the first feminist festival in 2019. We keep moving!
In writing resistance I am unapologetic. I express myself with my hefty chest because being loud and ungovernable is not only who I am but also it is both armor and missile in the war to dethrone the tyranny of patriarchy and unshackle women (and humanity as a whole). We must demand and take back what has been looted – peace, opportunities and space.
I was raised and inspired by Malawian women who defied the ‘humble, quiet, good woman’ stereotype, excised it from their flesh and set it on fire. These honored women have blessed communities and Malawi with never ending acts of resistance. In the footsteps of these generals with clitorises, I am a joyous ‘Vagina Warrior’ and I will continue to wage battles so our vaginas have new names – angry ones, beautiful ones, happy ones but most importantly – loud ones.
We are in my favorite bar where my best friend and I meet to multi-task on Thursday afternoons. As I type these last words, my MacBook battery is powering low down at 3%. I must now celebrate myself. The tequila shot glass is suspended mid-air as I raise a quiet toast to my amused eyes in the bar counter mirror opposite us. I am a soft brown rotund sprite with twirling dreadlocks, which are visible between the displays of imported liquors. Red lipstick lifts my matte lips into a slight smile, maybe a smirk as I ignore the quizzical interest in the face of a barfly who tries to invade my mirror moment. I salute myself ‘viva vagina!’ and deftly dip a slice of lime in the small pile of salty snow and on my tongue for a sensual lick. I pour and savor the gold liquid and nibble the lime. Satisfied by the private moment I turn my full gaze on Sarah who is warm with wine, regaling me about her productive day of COVID-19 social distance meetings and deadlines. Viva! Viva vagina!
By Zilanie Tamara Gondwe
Social media – Twitter @ZilanieGondwe / Instagram @Zillies Chiilies / Facebook: Feminatti