By Tikiri Herath
There was a girl in my eighth grade who didn’t have any parents.
Joyce was an orphan but no one talked about it. It was her adopted parents, Dutch expatriates who had been working in South Africa, who sent her to school, bought her uniforms and books, packed her lunches and sometimes came to pick her up when the buses weren’t running. And buses and trains weren’t so reliable in the capital city of Zambia at that time, so they’d come often and wait patiently in the parking lot for her.
This girl was a few years older than the rest of us, a mid-teen already. She had the soft features of a South African, lighter skin than the other Africans in my school, full lips, and small slim eyes. She was always dressed conservatively and had her hair up in two pointy ponytails tied in ribbons, something any other teen would’ve died rather than have. Those were the days of Madonna and Cyndi Lauper, of huge hair and hairspray, hoop earrings and acid jeans. Yes, me too and I’m not ashamed to admit it.
The other South African girls and boys in my class were gregarious, opinionated and the first to thrust their hands up and speak in class, sometimes shouting, drowning out the rest of us. It was like they had something urgent to say whatever the topic, and they wanted the world to hear them whether we wanted to or not. I now wonder if that was because back home, where they came from, their voices weren’t heard. What my young mind didn’t fully grasp at that time was the extent to which they were not heard.
Joyce didn’t talk much, unlike her fellow countrymen. Not her. She sat in the back of the class with her nose in her books. Quiet as a mouse.
Now I was the curious one, always asking this and that from my classmates, from my teachers, the school gardener, the kitchen cooks, even the bus driver. I had gone to international schools all my life and thrived in that mixed milieu of people and cultures. I was fascinated by the different things going on in the world and couldn’t help wondering, marvelling, questioning. I’m sure I was the most annoying kid in school. Why do you wear that? What are you eating? How do you make that? Why do you pray like that? What language was that? What does that mean? That sounds cool, can you say that again?
One morning I sidled up to Joyce in the back. I looked at her ponytails and her pretty face.
“Hey Joyce, why do you put your hair up like that?”
She looked up from her book and wrinkled her nose, like I smelled.
“Why don’t you put your hair down?” I said. “Zoe can do an amazing do for you. It’ll look gorgeous.” Zoe was the self-proclaimed hairdresser in our class who took her clients to the back of the school where she worked with gusto on hair of all kinds; wavy, kinky, straight, or silky.
“My mama always liked it this way.” Joyce had a quiet, thoughtful voice. An almost adult voice that made me stop in my tracks and think before asking my next question.
“Where’s your mama?”
Her eyes flickered and she looked down. There was a long pause before she said, “She’s not here anymore.”
My time to pause. I was dying with curiosity but I knew I had to tackle this gently.
“What happened to her?” OK, as gently as a twelve year old could muster.
“They were shot.”
It was I who almost shot out of the chair. I stared at her dumbfounded. Did I hear that right?
She was scribbling on top of the page with her pencil now. A flower of sorts. I looked at her face. She looked bored, like I’d just asked her what she had for breakfast that morning. She didn’t seem to realise the weight of her words, but I recognised the invisible veil she had on, one that hid deep emotions, memories, stories. Stories I couldn’t fathom even if I tried.
"Why?" I said quietly.
She shrugged and kept scribbling.
I stared at her. That’s so wrong. So wrong. No one deserves to have their parents shot. Why would anyone do something so horrible?
“Why would anyone do that?” I couldn’t help myself.
Joyce sighed. I guess she knew she wasn’t getting rid of me that easily. “They were sitting in front of the parliament and they were shot. It was the police. I was with my aunt behind them.”
She was looking up now, directly at me. Her eyes were dark, strong, angry.
“I saw it,” she said.
I sat stunned. Numb. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“You saw…? You saw them being...” I couldn’t finish my sentence. A bitter taste had come to my mouth. “But why?”
Joyce’s voice didn’t waiver. “Because Papa said he was going to vote that day. Mama wanted to vote too.”
I hadn't really understood what a vote meant that day. I hadn’t understood why anyone would have died to “get” one. And I certainly hadn’t understood why anyone would find someone asking to vote so threatening they were willing to kill for it.
It was several years later I learnt black South Africans didn’t get their right to vote till 1994. I remember seeing photos on TV, photos of people lining for up to twelve hours at times to cast their ballots, a first for many of them, an experience Joyce’s parents never got to have. Imagine that in 1994 the rest of us were watching Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction. This was not long ago.
Universal suffrage, the right of the general adult population in any nation to vote, came early to some countries like New Zealand (1893), Finland (1906), and Denmark (1915). In the aftermath of the first and second world wars, many European countries got on board and extended voting rights to all—Germany (1919), France (1944), and Belgium (1948)—mainly in recognition of the role women played in the wars. North America followed suite, albeit slowly. Aboriginal Canadians were not allowed to vote until 1960 and universal voting rights were not in place formally till 1965 in the USA. Just imagine. This was not too long ago.
What astounds me most though, is how women have been restricted in taking part in the electoral system around the world, and still do today. In Oman, women didn’t gain the right to vote till 1994, 1999 in Qatar, 2006 in UAE, and 2015 in Saudi Arabia. I cannot help but wonder, what were they so afraid of? Then again, given most women can’t move freely on their own and are severely restricted by families, communities, and cultural values backed by austere legislation in these places, it is highly doubtful these laws are given any respect. Also given a lack of fair democratic processes in the first place, such laws are dubious at best.
Some nations like Nigeria and India claim vociferously to be democratic with India loudly claiming to anyone who'd listen that they're the biggest democracy in the world. Yet we hear time and time again of forced voting, of entire villages being persuaded by either threats or bribes to vote for a certain candidate. I wonder how many village women in India know of their right to vote or can even read the ballot. When I hear of wins of 90-percent-plus like in Ethiopia in 2010, I wonder how fair and free the process had really been. The world is still waiting to see how Hong Kong pans out, now it is part of China. Elections are being planned for 2017, though this is shrouded in controversy, protests and arrests. I wonder about Hong Kong but I wonder with hope. Because there are still places like Brunei, Burma, Iran and several other sad countries in this planet of ours where there is no opportunity to vote whatsoever. Elections are simply not held.
So let’s not squander this precious right we have here in the free world, a right that others have died for, that others still want for and fight for. Their deaths and their battles should never be in vain. Let’s not take for granted our right to vote, our right to take part in this democratic process we have. It may not be perfect, and perhaps we can work together to make it better, but it is all we have. It is how we make our voices heard, how we make change, how we make history. One vote at a time.
Here in North America, we’re ramping up for two important elections; the federal elections in Canada on October 19, 2015, and the Presidential Elections in the United States on November 8, 2016. Whatever your stripes or leanings, wherever you fit into the political spectrum, or whether you fit into any such labels at all, you do have one duty. Do the right thing. Get out and vote.
Like all my international school friends, Joyce moved onto another school and another country, but not before I got to know her better. We hung out and over the next year became friends. She somehow overcame her nightmares and reclaimed her childhood. I remember waving my last goodbye to her as she got on a plane to go to the Netherlands with her adopted parents. That day, her hair was down and her smile was bright. She looked free.
Today, every time I put a cross mark on a ballot, whether it’s for a national election or a local one, I’m grateful that I’m able to do so. I remember the first time I voted. I’ve never missed an election since then. And every time I put that cross, I give silent thanks to Joyce’s parents.