It's said that in the South African townships, disfigurement is associated with witchcraft.
Late last year, I spent a week in South Africa's townships researching the jolly topic of masculinity and child rape for an article. Being my first foreign assignment, I was expecting a bit of a rough ride into an unknown territory and the horribly distressing subject matter within it, but nothing I couldn't handle. However, there was to be a minor stumbling block: the fact that I have a disfigurement.
I hadn't considered my disfigurement as something that really needed discussing, but the rep from the NGO hosting my trip did her utmost to make me realise how naïve I'd been. She decided to "address the issue" in her own unique way: "You do realise that, in Africa, disfigurement is associated with witchcraft?" I'd imagined that interviewing people about child rape would be a tough job for anyone. I knew it wouldn't make things any easier if the interviewees couldn't look at me without feeling apprehensive.
After having a mild freakout, I retrieved the sensible half of my brain from my meltdown and realised that, of course, the rep had a duty to be concerned for my welfare. But the way that she'd broached the subject did make me feel like my disfigurement turned me into a kind of test subject, someone being used to measure how successful their initiative was.
With the words of the rep imprinted in my mind, I flew out to Johannesburg not understanding why the word "witchcraft" had been used and why I'd also been told to expect "more than just stares". Was I going to find myself hanging dead from a rope over a fire? No, probably not, so I told myself to forget the Apocalypto decapitation party playing on loop in my head and reminded myself that there was a slim (but far more likely) chance I'd be bitten by a rabid dog.
When we arrived, we were met by our designated driver for the week. He was a recently unemployed labourer, the car a maroon Nissan that had broken windows, stiff door locks and no seat-belts, AKA a coffin (or, more specifically, my coffin) with the ability to just about get its passengers from A to B. The driver told me he supported Manchester United, I told him I supported Arsenal; he started to take the piss out of me for Manchester United buying Robin van Persie from Arsenal. It was a long drive.
Three hours after landing on the tarmac at OR Tambo Airport and detouring via our accommodation – a gated B&B in a secluded neighbourhood of Benoni, some 20 miles outside of Johannesburg – I was standing between rows of shacks crudely built from a mixture of bricks, scraps of wood and rusted iron sheets. A putrid smell of burning petroleum and charred meat (most likely sheep) lingered in the air. My disfigurement started to seem a little trivial in comparison.
Rubbing my eyes, bleary from a lack of sleep, I began to absorb how far out of my comfort zone I was – obviously, this wasn’t the romanticised South Africa you see on postcards. But the level of poverty wasn’t surprising; the country’s ranked 121st in the Human Development Index, 95 places below the UK and 118 places below the USA.
The purpose of the trip was to look into why men in townships are cultured to rape. Most of the stories I heard pointed to young males being trapped in a vicious circle of alcohol, abuse and violence. For them, rape was a way of re-asserting their masculinity. Without letting the situation overwhelm me, I knew that I'd have to quickly learn how to manage reactions to my disfigurement so I could get the most from my interviews. It was obviously a sensitive subject, and some of the interviewees were receptive, others more withdrawn. I had to remain professional, focusing on making them feel as comfortable as possible, both in terms of them being able to look at my face and open up about some painful memories.
Over the next several days I interviewed female and male rape survivors, households that were headed up by children and families broken by domestic abuse, violence, drugs and death. It was a sobering experience and tough to keep my emotions in check.
Then I found out that the interviewees had been aware of my disfigurement before I'd even reached South African soil. The NGO had requested a mug shot of me at the briefing and, at the time, it didn't strike me as particularly out of place. However, it later transpired that the photo had been sent to the South African charity they were partnering so that interviewees were "prepared", just in case they reacted with shock or were going to have difficulty speaking to me.
On the fourth day – and my 25th birthday – I discovered that witchcraft did indeed still exist. The minister of a church in another township told me how the body of a newborn baby had been abandoned in a rubbish-strewn alley behind the grounds of his church. “She had had her heart ripped out. My guess is that it was a kind of witchcraft used against HIV,” he told me, the pain visible in his eyes. “It was probably a group of men who think they're protecting themselves from sexual diseases. These uneducated men are the ones most likely to rape.”
Hearing this left a knot in my stomach. I started to question whether the NGO had been right to treat my disfigurement as an "issue" at all. But soon it dawned on me that my judgement had been clouded by the loaded word "witchcraft", which seemed to me to be a bit of a misnomer. Yes, witchcraft exists in areas of the country and the rest of the continent – typically carried out by witchdoctors making animal or human sacrifices in a misguided attempt to increase the potency of their alternative medicine. But it didn't seem to me to be something that was widespread – no medicine man approached me with a concoction of herbs, offering to cure my face or, indeed, threatening to remove my eyes and shave the skin off my cheeks to use in some magical concoction.
The concept of witchcraft in Africa is largely folklore nowadays, a neo-colonial stereotype usually used in reference to a community with a lack of modern medicine, education or access to adequate healthcare. The representative’s use of the word turned out to be scaremongering. I think she would have been better off using the word "stigma".
Not unlike the UK, disfigurement and disability comes hand in hand with a hefty dose of stigma in Africa. It just seemed that there, where money is far more scarce than it is in Britain, the consequences of that stigma are more pronounced and tragic – the only disabled children I saw in townships were being cared for in rehab centres; a number of them abandoned by families who chose to care for able-bodied siblings at their expense.
Earlier this year, I was invited to attend the NGO’s first ever annual general meeting as a guest speaker. My job was to laud how wonderful the work they were doing was and how supportive they'd been during my trip. Of course, I couldn’t tell the whole truth, but there had been some positives and the representative I had travelled with was generally lovely.
Looking back at the process, I'm glad the NGO had put me on such a rollercoaster ride. I'd met some wonderful people, and their stories had put things in perspective. As for that witchcraft, I’m still waiting for a medicine man to come along and offer me a cure.
Follow Rich on Twitter: @richmceachran
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