Mother Behold Thy Son
When my phone rang last May, I saw the call was originating from the Canadian Arctic. Who would be calling me from there? I wondered. The voice on the other end of the line said, “I have been looking hard to find you. I need you to edit my book.” So began my adventure working with Francisca Mandeya, author of the memoir Mother Behold Thy Son. Over the ensuing months, I was privileged to learn about Francisca’s life— and her life’s work. What follows is an excerpt from her book; its subtitle expresses her mission: One Woman’s Journey to Dismantle Patriarchy and Live a Life of Equality, Love and Freedom.
I was born at Mt. St. Mary’s Hospital in Wedza, a rural area in the province of Mashonaland East, Zimbabwe. My parents’ home was in a village named Goto, Zimbudzana Kraal, about 25 kilometers from the hospital. Wedza is known for having provided iron to the ancient people of this Zimbabwe land. The Mbire people of the Soko clan owned the land. It was known as Mbire before colonial powers called it Wedza. It is in this village that my umbilical cord is buried and from where I was educated from age seven to 13 save for one term in Marondera in 1979.
In 1984, when I was almost 14, I left home for four years to attend boarding school at St. David’s Bonda in Nyanga, followed by two years at St. Ignatius high school in Chishawasha, a Jesuit mission not far from Harare. For my siblings and me boarding school became more of our home than our village home because we stayed there nine months of the year.
I am a mother. I am a mother of two girls and a boy. I once was married. I am a single mother of two daughters and a son, raised in my home as equals, not a common practice in a patriarchal culture like mine. Each of my children is pursuing their passion: in clinical psychology, telecommunications, and aviation.
I have studied accounting, development education, and systemic family counseling. I am a scholar of development studies. I am a mother who has dared to be vulnerable, visible and authentic. While in this book I focus on my son—and by extension on all boys’ journey to manhood—my daughters (and girls and young women) are also always close to my heart! Mother Behold My Son is for them, too.
I long to see my son become a man of conviction, confidence and integrity, a loving brother, husband or partner; a father, citizen, leader, co-worker—all that he can become. I long for him to be a “Proverbs 31 man” who will find his Proverbs 31 soul mate (a virtuous, ideal partner). I long to behold my son reaching his full potential and becoming the best version of himself. If he treats his fellow human beings as equals, I am convinced that ideal will be attained. I have a dream.
Mother Behold Thy Son
I long to free myself from the clutches of patriarchy as I bare my soul and stand tall to tell my story. Through storytelling, I hope to teach my son to extricate himself from the jaws of rigid, traditional masculinity that threatens to undermine his happiness. I teach my son and daughters to stand in this world as equals, to question anyone who boasts of possessing knowledge and authority. I encourage and challenge them to learn, to unlearn and relearn as they journey toward their purpose.
I am an optimist with abundant energy and an unbreakable spirit. I am the voice that has refused to give in to the culture of silence. I am a voice from the universe proclaiming that we must employ the power of love, not the love of power, if we are to turn wounds into wins. I am a healer committed to the healing of the feminine and the masculine.
This book represents a sliver of my life. In it, I expose not just the toxicity of gender inequality but also recount my journey to free myself, my family and everyone I can, from its poisonous legacy. I know that my family and I are not alone. I am bringing out into the open issues that many families would rather ignore. As Oscar Wilde said, “This is no time for wearing the shallow mask of manners.”
I am writing this story from my home in the Arctic Archipelago, in Nunavut, a Canadian territory nearly 13,000 miles from my native Zimbabwe. How did I end up here in the frozen north, so far away from Africa? Let me explain. While in Zimbabwe, my quest for freedom and belief in justice and peace often got me into risky, sometimes lifethreatening situations. One such incident occurred in 2012 after I sent a government minister’s wife a Mother’s Day message. “If as mothers we all told our sons not to participate in election violence,” I wrote, “no mother would be mourning the death of her child. Happy Mothers Day.”
The response was fast and furious. “Who are you?!” she responded angrily. “I will have you followed by the Central Intelligence Office!” A chill spread through my body. I shivered as if the coldness of the text had jumped off the page and invaded my body. I never answered; I never heard from her again.
The Central Intelligence Office is notorious for being hostile to dissidents. True to the minister’s wife’s menacing warning, one day I was followed and threatened with being “disappeared”— right in front of my family. I told the young man—an agent of the Central Intelligence Office—“You don’t carry Zimbabwe on top of your head like I carry a bucket of water or a bag of mealie meal!” I stood firm. He was surprised that I challenged him and asked for his ID. My brother-in-law (who witnessed what was unfolding) noticed the white Mercedes-Benz the young man was driving had government license plates. After the ordeal, I went to Highlands Police Station to report the matter, in part to make sure there was a record of what had happened. This was neither my first nor my last brush with the system.
I never meant to leave home but I was weary from my dangerous adventures (and being so distraught I contemplated suicide). I felt compelled to leave such a toxic environment. It was more than “urging” from my sisters—they demanded I leave. I moved to Nunavut to live with one of my sisters, Tina, on Christmas Eve 2014. Canada is now—to me—the land of the free. It is where I have come full circle, where I can use my voice and my power without worrying about who might be breathing down my neck.
Preoccupied Father, Entitled Attacker
You know the phrase “boys will be boys”? While both women and men have uttered those words, until recently neither thought much about their impact. As the mother of a son and two daughters, hearing that old adage makes me cringe. It irks and unsettles me still. On its own, I suppose the expression “boys will be boys,” could be seen as harmless. However, in the context of how it is usually expressed I can only feel a righteous anger: this damaging expression must be uprooted; not just from our culture but from all cultures!
I remember a day back in 1988, when I was 18. I was blossoming into adulthood and getting comfortable with my changing body—a developing chest and emerging hips. I was conscious of my darker complexion and how I resembled my father—which I was often reminded of by many who compared me to my lighter and prettier siblings. Since I cared about getting compliments, I took extra care to do my hair and look and smell good. Still, I wanted to excel in my academic life, and I was not as excited by boys.
It was Parents’ Day, and I was lost in thought. All the lower sixth or form five students would be showing their parents their work and having a day of celebration. As the ceremony began, I stood on my tiptoes looking around for my father. Where is he? Is he all right? Surely, he would not want to miss this occasion. Today, he would want to witness my academic progress and meet all my teachers. I had done well so I knew my dad would be proud of me.
With a heavy heart, I realized my father was not coming. My friends’ parents tried to console me, but the heavy load I was carrying did not get any lighter. I felt betrayed by my father. Other dads had shown up, why not my dad? My best friend Felly tried to console me, and others offered a hug or a pat to acknowledge my accomplishments, but all I could do was sob. I couldn’t seem to catch my breath. With each pat or hug my friends offered for my accomplishments I kept heaving ragged breaths of distress accompanied by a full chorus line of tears. Nothing would ease my pain except seeing my dad. Have you ever experienced a similar type of disappointment? How is an 18-year-old supposed to be consoled? It was a struggle to come to terms with my absent father. I was his little girl; I was his angel.
While deeply immersed in my disappointment, I was surprised to see a figure in the school garden. No one should be in the garden, I thought to myself. It wasn’t allowed. Even through my blurred, teary vision I could see the figure approaching. My eyes fully opened and I met the gaze of a young man my age. His eyes were sparking, red like hellfire. When he grinned, he revealed teeth resembling those of a vampire ready to eat. A sense of unease gripped me. He was getting closer.
With a self-possessed expression on his face, he soon was standing directly in front of me, assessing me, sensing what I might do. For my part, I could do nothing. I could think nothing. I could say nothing. He knew he had the advantage. His eyes traveled up and down my body. Then, with a lecherous smile, his hands started to go to uninvited places.
I was frozen. I could not speak, scream, or put up any kind of a fight. I was paralyzed, unable to resist his unwanted advances. Beads of sweat formed on my brow. I could feel the heat in my body rising, not out of desire but fear. A banging noise in my chest was getting louder as my heart slammed into my chest. My ears were on fire. The hair stood up on the back of my neck and my heart continued to race and throb. I desperately wanted to escape but didn’t know how or even if I could get away, where to go. I felt helpless. My thoughts immediately went to my father. Where are you!? Then to my brother; where was he? That is who I was looking for—so we could cry together!
My mind was racing like a wild animal instinctively knowing it must escape this danger. But while in my mind I was screaming, “Help!” I remained frozen. He was tall, hovering over me. What should I do? What could I do? Who can help me? His hands were exploring every part of my body. By my silence had I granted him permission to touch me? No—I had not! Silence, yes, but inside I continued screaming. I was calling out—in silence—for my father, my brother as the attacker’s hands dug into my flesh.
That day I was a young, innocent girl. I had never known a man in this way. He was exploring my body with such a sense of entitlement. I knew this was wrong. His manhood was rising, and all I could do was scream inside, “My God! Where are you, Lord?” I need You now. “Where are you Dad?” I needed him, too. And my brother— “Where are you?” No one answered. No one came. No one was in sight, not even God, or so I thought.
As his behemoth hands continued gripping me by my hips, finally, finally, finally I found my voice. I screamed so loudly that I could swear the ground shook beneath my feet. “Stoppppp!” I screamed. “Get your hands off my body! No! No! Don’t touch me.”
Once they started, the words began tumbling out: I had found my voice! From a place deep within, a surge of energy coursed through my body, accompanied by the strength of King David. I shoved him hard and he fell. I did not recognize it at the time, but God was there with me. God was the speed in my feet. God was speaking to me, reminding me that even though neither my father nor my brothers were present, I was not alone.
The assault was my first experience of unwanted attention. Are girls really supposed to be exposed to such unwanted sexual attention? Are we supposed to put up with being assaulted for the enjoyment of boys? Really!? As long as the attention pleasures the boy, it’s just “playing,” right!? Absolutely not! My head was throbbing. Where is my father? Doesn’t he feel I need him now? What happened to our connection?
As I caught my breath and gathered my wits, I started down the hill toward the gate where vehicles entered school grounds. Despite feeling so hurt that he hadn’t been there, my connection with my father was extraordinarily strong. At that moment, it was as if my cry of despair had somehow summoned him. I looked up and there in the distance was his car heading toward me. Instinctively, my feet began a happy dance, and I ran to meet him.
“Where were you, Baba? It is almost time for parents to go!”
“I had some business to finish Fraa. You know how hectic it can get. We were at Portland Cement. I am here now. Don’t cry.”
“How is school?
” “It is perfect. I came in first in Physical Geography.”
I said nothing about what happened. My lie by omission nagged at me, but I ignored it. It crept into my thoughts with each sentence to my father. “I no longer want to be in this school, Baba. I want to go home.” Those were the words I wanted to say, but they were stuck, unspoken on the tip of my tongue. I couldn’t access them even though my father and I have a remarkably strong spiritual connection. My father also carried a gun. He had a fiery temper that I inherited. He was aptly named, Ignatius—fiery one. If I told him what had happened, I imagined he would want to use his gun on the man who violated me. So, even if I had wanted to tell, I couldn’t.
Change Is Possible
It is 1986 and I am 16. I remember as if it were yesterday. I am sitting—dazed, bewildered and confused. I see my father surrounded by 16 nurses. Was there something magical about that number? Was this merely a vision or reality? The coincidence was so surreal. At that moment, it was only a vision, a dream. Later it would become reality. Because of the vision I never spoke with my father about the horror I experienced that day in the school garden. My lips remained sealed for all these years. Until now; I am telling you. While I always trusted my father and his intentions, I feel I know exactly how he would have reacted to the humiliation I felt. Things would not have ended well, for him or the perpetrator. Back in those days schools usually dismissed pleas girls made to be protected from abuse. Shamefully, all they would say is that useless phrase, “Boys will be boys!” Dad would have seen what happened for what it was; a clear violation of his darling angel, Fraa.
Most boys grow to manhood socialized to believe they are entitled to privilege. Too often, when boys and men abuse girls and women, we survivors keep quiet. As a result, the abuser gets away with it, goes unpunished. As girls and women, we feel afraid we’ll be blamed for what happened. And it is this sense of blame that creates the conditions in which shame can grow and in which boys can shrug, hiding behind the “boys will be boys” façade. It is the basis for so many injustices perpetrated against girls and women. They take it lightly; we take it hard.
Unbelievably, years after he sexually assaulted me, the perpetrator actually sent me a friend request on Facebook! “Do you remember what you did to me in the school garden?” I messaged him back, wondering why he wanted to be my friend. “No, I do not remember,” he lied. And here is the worst of it. I do not know why but I accepted his friend request. Later, he unfriended me.
In 2018, 30 years after that terrible time, one of the boys I went to high school with made an astonishing statement to me after exchanging a few messages on social media. “I can’t even believe we are chatting with all the stupidity and immaturity I had during our time together in school. I hope you will find it in your heart to forgive me.” He was not involved in bullying me, or body shaming, or groping me. He was just a passive bystander yet he felt guilty for all that had happened to me. He felt the need to apologize on behalf of the boys who were unkind to me. His apology gave me a sense of hope that mothers can behold their sons becoming the best versions of themselves. It also demonstrates to boys that they can be active bystanders (and avoid carrying guilt over the years, kicking themselves saying, “I should have protected that girl”). Change is possible; we need more men who are honest and transparent enough to speak up, to break through the male code of silence.
Excerpted from Mother Behold Thy Son: One Woman’s Journey to Dismantle Patriarchy and Live a Life of Equality, Love and Freedom by Francisca Mandeya © 2019. To order a copy of the book go to amazon.com/Mother-Behold-Thy-Son-Patriarchy/dp/1999278305. To reach her write: firstname.lastname@example.org.