“Yes please.” “No thank you.” “Yes please.” “Yes please.” “Yes please.” “Yes please.” “No thank you.” “Yes please.” These were the expressions of individual young voices as the sisters at the nursery school brought the tray of triangular sandwiches with colorful fillings to the children after the afternoon nap.
We were all standing in a neat row as the tray of sandwiches was brought to us in our colorful classroom. I was in the yellow unit and my friend was in the blue unit next door. The red and green units didn’t matter to me because I had no friends there. The place was St. Pius Nursery School in Zimbabwe’s second largest city Bulawayo, and it was my first day at crèche.
The sisters who taught and cared for us, were neatly clad in navy blue bell-bottom trousers with either pink, green or white short-sleeved safari-suit like blouses depending on their level of seniority. Despite their ranks, they listened to each individual child.
My young mind quickly observed that those who said “yes please” were rewarded with a sandwich. This was quickly affirmed by the child on my right who had been around and was well-versed with the operations of the crèche.
“Yes please,” I piped when the sister got to my side of the line and as if by some magic, the tray was lowered to my height and I picked a sandwich. The class then sat down and we enjoyed milk and sandwiches while waiting for our parents to come and pick us up or board the bus that would drop us at our respective homes, depending on the package our guardians had chosen.
I later learnt that this was the daily routine at the nursery school, but my first experience was memorable.
But why is this important, you may ask?
It is important because it is my first recollection of ever exercising my freedom of choice outside the family environment. At home, that choice was given, but outside my parents’ abode, it was not guaranteed.
In this particular instance, at this nursery school, I tasted freedom of choice for the first time in my conscious life and it felt gooooooooooooood. I was allowed to exercise my right to choose within the confines of the available options. My opinion mattered and I felt valued, despite my tender age.
I don’t remember what I wore or which sandwich I chose that day, but I clearly recall being given the right to make a choice, and the choice I made being respected.
This seemingly inconsequential experience got tucked somewhere in the recesses of my mind until recently when I suddenly lost my freedom of choice and had to fight to get back.
As I grew older, I learnt that life is full of choices and is a series of decisions we make based on our right and freedom to choose. Like all human beings, I freely exercised my right to choose in my daily life. My parents entrusted me with bigger choices as I grew older, until I came of age and could make individual decisions without having to consult.
In my adult life, I continued to make choices as is the norm with human beings.
There’s a saying that: “You never know what you’ve got until it’s over” and so it was with my freedom of choice. I exercised it and learnt that it was a right that no one could take from me, so I relaxed in the knowledge that I would always be able to freely choose what I wanted.
Well, it was not to be so.
Fast forward to about three decades after my first taste of freedom of choice and I suddenly found that freedom taken from me. I did not voluntarily give it, but it was stripped from me, layer by layer, while I looked on, wondering when the stripping would stop.
I met, for the first time in my life, people who did not share my ideals. They did not believe that choice was a right and certainly did not think a woman should have a right to choose. I found myself under the wings of a self-appointed god-father when I moved to a new apartment. A man whom I had neither met nor known before, took it upon himself to take care of me without seeking my consent. It was assumed that being a woman I automatically needed to be taken care of. Never mind that I’ve been on this planet for over three decades without him. I was suddenly expected to abdicate all responsibility for my life and hand it over to a man. As a rent-paying tenant, I found that strange but being new, I was polite.
I have been told that I am very polite. That’s true, I was brought up to be polite and later in adult life, I made the deliberate choice to remain polite, after all, there is no point in being rude. Unfortunately, not all cultures appreciate politeness and common courtesy. Some mistake it for docility, and so it was the case with my self-appointed god-father. I walked into his world, where women are neither seen nor heard and was therefore expected to comply without question. That was his norm and I was expected to adapt to it. My personality, upbringing, preferences, experiences and all that made me an individual were brushed aside as inconsequential. He was to be my guide without being questioned or challenged.
Every choice possible was taken from me in the twinkling of an eye. The right to choose my apartment, the layout of my rooms, the right to decide my meals and when I would eat, the right to decide whether or not to exercise, the right to decide what music to listen to, the right to manage my time and decide what to do, when, where, with whom and why. Even my work was almost affected when he would demand to know why I worked late on a particular day and at some point threated to confront my boss, as if working late was not a choice I had made.
I was robbed of the right to make basic choices about my life in the name of some stranger being caring. I found myself having to negotiate with a total stranger on decisions concerning my life!
I was relegated to a child while he elevated himself to a father figure in my life. I found it strange because I have a partner and brothers who love me and respect my right to choose just as our father, while living, allowed us our rights.
I couldn’t understand it because I was a tenant who was paying rent from my salary just as he was, and was therefore entitled to the same rights, yet he decided to set himself above me because he was male. Such patronage was unbelievable. Mind you, there was absolutely no relationship between us, it was just a case of two people living in the same apartment block and one assuming superiority, authority and responsibility over the other by virtue of being male.
It still puzzles me how I lost my basic rights to a stranger, I honestly can’t say exactly at what point I lost that right, as the process was gradual and systematic through a series of acts that I politely tolerated. What I do know is that at some point I woke up to the realization that I would have to take back my freedom to choose and negotiation was not an effective strategy. I realized that politely and kindly trying to defend my rights, would not work, this person felt that being male entitled him to authority over me and he was doing me a favor by availing himself as my patron. It was an awkward situation that caused me much discomfort as weeks turned into months of cultural, psychological and social imprisonment.
So began the battle to regain my freedom of choice. It was not easy, but I managed to take it back. How I did it is a subject for another blog post, but what matters is that I reclaimed my freedom and learnt some lessons in the process.
So what’s the big deal?
For me, the right to choose and the freedom to exercise that right has been central to my being since childhood. This cuts across all areas of life, whether its voting, marriage, friendships, a career, undertaking further studies or where to hang out.
Also, in my world, consultation is a part of life. No one assumes anything on behalf of anyone. If you want to know how someone feels about something, you simply ask them, regardless of whether they are male or female, young or old, everyone has basic rights, including that of choice. So, generally, everything about my life is based on consultation because I do not live in a vacuum and as long as other people are involved, their opinion counts – in fact, decisions are made based on our collective opinions. What are we going to do today? Where do we want to go? What will we eat? These seemingly mundane questions are just part of the daily life choices we make. Indeed, they don’t require much thought, but hey, they are part of our inalienable right to choose and to be.
What were the lessons learnt?
After weeks of a battle steeped largely in our diverse cultures and psychological make up, I finally disentangled myself from the tentacles of my neighbor’s control. It was not an event, but a process of constantly reasserting myself, sometimes at the cost of offending him.
Here are some of the lessons I learnt from the whole experience.
- Be polite without giving away your power. You can be courteous and still be assertive.
- Recognize abuse for what it is. See abuse and oppression for what they are, no matter what cloak they wear, and leave no room for them. I gave in to abuse and politely conceded my right to choose thinking that my neighbor’s treatment of me was a passing phase while not recognizing it for what it was. Sometimes, I conceded in order not to offend him, which was a big mistake on my part. I imagined he’d get tired, get on with his life and leave me alone. How wrong I was! It almost became a way of life and he began to feel entitled. My wake up call came when I began to push back in order to assert my freedom and he would yell at me for rejecting his well laid out plans for me. I was taken aback, but that was when I knew I was dealing with a problem. Had I not chosen to fight for my rights and freedom, I don’t know how long I would have remained under his shadow and the control and abuse, neatly dressed as kindness, love and care. Clearly, the inequality was of benefit to him and he was enjoying his newly usurped power hence his reluctance to let it go and leave me alone.
- If something makes you uncomfortable, deal with it immediately. Don’t make any excuses or assumptions for other people’s behavior or treatment of you. Deal with the situation and facts at hand. We like to assume human beings are inherently good and well meaning, hence we make excuses for them when we see something wrong, but some people are just manipulative, controlling and will take advantage of anyone. I excused behavior I was uncomfortable with because I assumed it would come to pass, but it did not and I eventually had to deal with it. If you don’t like something, nip it in the bud before it becomes established as normal.
- Draw the parameters of how you are going to relate with people from the onset. Don’t leave anything to chance or hope things will work out on their own, set the tone for how you will relate. Empower yourself from the beginning.
- Express yourself. Don’t be shy to express yourself because it seems impolite. If you’re not happy about something, say it. Never assume people can read your mind and feelings, they can’t, and even those who have an inkling how you feel may ignore you unless you express yourself.
- Be wary and question acts of kindness. Finally, be very wary of people who flood you with acts of kindness, particularly if it is beyond what is normally acceptable. While most people are generally kind and well meaning, that does not apply to everyone. Some people have personality disorders and psychological imbalances that may manifest in acts of kindness, particularly when it goes overboard. Be careful of people who overdo anything, including those who are overly kind. I believe part of the reason I got entangled in this web was because I accepted seemingly harmless acts of kindness thinking it was just a single act, but not realizing how that acceptance was encouraging my neighbor to continue as I unwittingly fed his appetite to feel needed and to patronize me. One little act of kindness, became a series of acts that gradually entrapped me. It’s okay to turn down kind offers if they have the potential to encroach on your future freedom. Sometimes it is better to rather say no, offend the person and retain your freedom.
- Be careful of people who always want to “help” you. Nobody is perfect and we all need a little help as human beings are generally inter-dependent. However, if someone sees you as a victim and constantly wants to “help” you all the time, particularly when the assistance is unsolicited, then there is a problem. In fact, stay away from people who see you as someone who is constantly in need of “help” that only they can provide as if there is something wrong with you and they have been sent to correct it. My neighbor tried to “help” me in every area of my life and I soon became beholden to him as my benefactor as even my right to make and learn from my own mistakes was taken from me. While it is good to accept help from other people, in this case it created an unhealthy dependence on him and had to be cut off. One of the ways to deal with this, was to reclaim my right to solve my own problems, and to look to other people for assistance when needed. That way, his control was gradually clipped.
Now armed with these lessons, I’m a little more careful about how I relate with people when I meet them and I hope someone can draw some lessons from this and avoid the pitfalls that I encountered.