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'Every residue leaves a beginning'

Journalist Charlene Smith looks back at the lessons she has learned and taught others about survival over the past ten years.

Ten years ago on April 1, journalist Charlene Smith was raped and stabbed in her home, seven days later her account of that event appeared in Mail & Guardian and signalled the start of what would become a global campaign to ensure better care and treatment for rape survivors. She looks back

Our greatest teachers don’t look the way we imagine them, their lessons aren’t like those in universities, they come dressed as tumours, car accidents, a criminal, and in my case, a knife-wielding rapist.

No one likes to be known as a rape survivor, a widower, a person infected with HIV. They’re all terms that engender pity and often awkwardness. I was often told I was “brave” for speaking out, for refusing to bow when then president Thabo Mbeki attacked me after I called for greater access to treatment and care for those raped or with HIV and for convictions of criminals. My positions led to Mbeki effectively cowing some newspaper editors into refusing to carry my articles about rape or HIV.

But those financial losses—serious for a single parent with no maintenance—led me into media consulting and again I learned that if we refuse to crumble when others try to harm us, behind them we find a great door with remarkable new opportunities.

I shake my head when some say, “you’re so brave”. There is no bravery in survival, no courage in values, nothing extraordinary about determination, we only think it is so, because we have become so careless about the importance of life-enhancing achievement.

My campaigns after I was raped led to global changes in research, laws, rape treatment and care, especially driving post-exposure prophylaxis to prevent HIV in those raped. It reached as high as the World Health Organisation and Centers for Disease Control in the United States. I’ve counselled thousands (at no financial gain) who have experienced severe trauma or who have HIV or Aids. One person can truly make a difference but only when enough others care to support that individual.

South African society was galvanised for a brief time to stop harm coming to women and children; we began creating the best standards in the world but have since retreated. We’ve again closed our ears, turned our heads and surrendered to criminality. We have meaningless media campaigns that fail to disguise the lack of transformation in our homes and streets.

So what can we as individuals do? I believe that violence is so acute because the importance of parenting has fallen away; we think parenting is a right not a privilege and we set aside too little time to listen and hear. Listening and hearing are too infrequently the same thing. And too, we don’t touch each other enough in respectful caring ways. Medical science teaches students emotional distance—nothing retards the healing of patients more. Touch and emotional connection are the most powerful healing agents we have. I was in Kenya during tribal violence last year and three days after I arrived doctors and psychiatrists asked to see me. “What are you doing with the patients,” they asked. “They’re experiencing dramatic turnarounds with you.”

I was doing what every parent should be giving their child: thoughtful listening, affection and touch.

I embrace those harmed, I’ll hold their hand, put my head on the pillow next to them, sit on their bed, rub cream into Aids dry skin and visit them frequently. Healing and self-confidence surge.

There are other things I have learned. Being tied to the conventional can hamper our ability to grow. To be all you need to be you have to shed some of that which you have been told you must do, must believe, should never attempt because what would others think? Trust yourself.

And know too that the word “normal” has become a term that too often justifies stricture or discrimination. I believe that normal is when we feel good about ourselves and our lives, when we feel in control. It is not a state we, or others, can define; we know what is aberrant, what is destructive or wrong, but “normal” like “truth” defies a single, simple definition—so stop criticising your life according to a non-existent standard.

It’s your life, all that matters is how you feel, what you think, what you need to do and that you never harm others. It’s about going through this incredible tangle called life and instead of stopping at the knots using them to fly from.

And as for the thousands spent on quests to “find ourselves”? With a bit of luck you will never know exactly who you are, because if you live your life in the right ways, you will constantly redefine yourself. Hopefully, there is not just one way, but many ways, to describe you.

Humans are parasitic, we cannot sustain life alone, we need others to draw from and give to. Just the simple act of acknowledging with a smile or a hello those you pass by, those you see, the supermarket cashier, the car guard, those small acts make us less invisible. We see ourselves more clearly when we are acknowledged by others—but first we have to see them too.

I help many who have experienced violent trauma—rape, hijackings, the murder of a loved one—and those incidents, as well as life-threatening illnesses, throw up flags. The flag signposts things we have left undone, ignored, pushed away — the flag always says “deal with me”—and until you deal with it you won’t heal or learn how to manage current and future challenges. After I was raped I learned that I could not live day by day nor hour to hour, I had to live minute to minute. I had to learn to manage myself. It was important to forgive myself when I failed and to congratulate myself on success. Having a heart condition helped inform that process, my heart has taught me to monitor myself, if I start feeling faint, breathless or tight across my chest I know I have to slow down, control my breathing, calm myself. I’ll often say over and over: “I can do this, I can do this” until fear leaves and calm returns.

After I was raped, I loved the words of Vinata, the daughter of Daksha, one of the Hindu creator gods, who literature tells us said: “One day you’ll realise that nothing can be exterminated, because everything leaves a residue, and every residue leaves a beginning.”

The five most important lessons I have learned?

You are helpless until you act.

You are insignificant until you step forward.

No one hears until you speak.

Love comes in abundance to the thoughtful.

The world does not notice what we give up, it notices what we give.

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