these poems do not

let themselves be written without

lifting lids

and disturbing the dead

these poems are hauntings

they could not live without bringing

buried things back

ghosts out of silence

bearing witness

these poems exist between worlds

written out of mist and prayers

and last breaths

these poems have no respect for the living

these poems are part of what remains of

missing names

these poems can never be a full story

there are desperate poems elsewhere

dying to be said

these poems might be the only evidence

that we were here

And with these haunting words, lids were lifted and the dead began to be raised as we sat forward in our chairs to lean into the spirit-shaking, heart-searing performance of We Are Dying Here by the supremely talented Siphokazi Jonas, Hope Netshivhambe and Babalwa Makwetu.

We Are Dying Here cast

An Entanglement of Styles

Not quite a spoken word gig but with words spoken, not quite a poetry reading but with words put to rhythm, not quite a musical but with music, We Are Dying Here moves and glides and soars and dives all over the place as it refuses to be contained in a single genre.

This production will not be boxed. Just as these women with powerful voices and stories and expression refuse to sit back and do nothing when faced with the seemingly insurmountable tsunami of male violence that rushes like a wave to meet them and women like them.

A show of expression. Of expressing. Of groaning. Of feeling weighed down by the immense pressure and forcefulness of the violence that is inflicted through word and act and system and silence.

An exposure of the oppression found in the lives of women and in the daily lived experiences of male and patriarchal violence in a variety of ways as well as the silencing of voices in response to the inflicted pain.

We Are Dying Here

My response

We Are Dying Here is a difficult and uncomfortable piece to watch. Because of how true i know it to be. True in terms of the lived experiences of the women on stage and some stories they have borrowed from loved ones. True in terms of how it was echoed back to them afterwards in a beautiful space they created for debrief and reflection. True in terms of friends and family members i know who deeply resonate and relate to the words that flew at us from the stage in all too frequent experience. True in terms of what i witness on social media and sometimes see on the streets around me.

The hardest part of watching We Are Dying Here is probably the feeling that i am watching with the choir. As i look around the room, the women outnumber the men. And it’s not to say the men who were there are not in need of work and change and rehabilitation [because we definitely are] but that those who really need to see and hear this pulsating message are not likely to voluntarily step into this cauldron.

i say ‘cauldron’ and yet one of the standout features of this production was an absence of swearing and a sense of out-of-control rage in a context that feels most suited for it. Rather it is the cleverness of the words or the deep messages woven into piercing metaphors that bring the message home so clearly:

The men she has loved throw stones

Baptised in black and blue paint

At stained windows

They are not be satisfied until things rubble

Their love makes things crumble

Between mosaics of accusations and apologies

She is diminished, disfigured

a cathedral of shards.

It is the words that are doing the punching here, blow by blow they land on the ears and hearts of the audience members, fighting to make themselves heard. And understood.

Abuse trades in currencies of silence

We are all too willing to

Drape Pandora’s box in bandages until she is mum

Tongues embalmed to emulate speech

But the private stink is always on the brink

Of unravelling false sympathies

Passed around cremated pews

with the zeal of an offering plate

The church as an institution that has been known for violence in many ways, shapes and forms, especially against women, receives due attention through many of the pieces as a lamentation of mourning the spaces that were meant to be safe but proved otherwise.

We Are Dying Here

We Are Dying Here has so many things that work for it. Repetition is one of them. A line that hits you, hits you again, and then a third time and just when you think you are done, it strikes once more, refusing to let you escape.

One line that struck me with brute force, knowing some small measure of what women face when simply walking on the streets:

Every step taken by a woman in the streets is a prayer to not be seen

Especially when followed in succession by:

Every prayer made by a woman in the streets is a question to God

Every breath taken by a woman upon her arrival is a sigh of relief

Before moving towards an ending of:

a sigh of ‘I made it alive, in one piece…today, I hope tomorrow is the same, I hope to be invisible, to not make a sound, to not bother a man, to not bother his demons, to not attract his demons, NO! To not bother him, to not attract him, it’s him!

as if it is not safe to have us living whole, happy, unafraid, at peace

What will it take for him to stop,

As if we are a challenge to be conquered.

What will it take for men to stop

That could be the tagline for We Are Dying Here: What will it take for men to stop?

And we don’t receive an answer.

There is no happy ending moment of hope descending rainbow of colour.

The women end the production wearing the same garbage bag clothes they started it in.

The questions and damning statements remain on pages stuck to the walls and on the floor to be stepped over as you leave the theatre.

During the Debriefing Space that they graciously offered to the audience directly after the show Siphokazi quotes Craig Stewart who often speaks about the need to remain in the discomfort of disequilibrium and this is where we are left. No answers, but a clear calling for the commitment required to finally get serious about the need to be doing more about this. Audience members were given a chance to share how their stories connected with the words spoken and sung from stage and to express gratitude and resonance.

This was the ending that we needed. To be able to sit with the pain and darkness and hopelessness of a country that treats women so violently. That the very sitting in that space and moment will grab hold of your very soul and convince you of the absolute need to refuse to be silent and uninvolved.

We Are Dying Here

We Are Dying Here: An Epilogue

The biggest shout-out to Siphokazi, Hope and Babalwa for an incredible lived experience, a piece that felt like it was delivered with a personal cost.

Thank you for giving of yourselves and creating something that really brings the message home. We Are Dying Here will be seen in Joburg in the new year, but we need to do everything we can to help bring it back to Cape Town and send it around the country. We need to find a way to get this in front of more men with the invitation to see ourselves and all that we represent. It should not be the women who are wearing the trash bags here one feels.

There was no weak moment of We Are Dying Here. No advice i could give, no room for improvement. Every single beat falls as it must and does the work it sets out to do. But it was the Epilogue piece that drew attention to hashtags and social media justice that was one of the most hard-hitting highlight pieces for me, and i will end with this…

Thanks for the hashtag, but

there’s no time to tweet

between taxi rank, construction site, and street.

Only clutch your bag to your body

Your body to yourself

Yourself to this thought





Thanks for the hashtag, but

there’s no time to tweet

in the boardroom or by the photocopy machine.

Power pinches the purse strings, and

Makes you puppet –

Everybody knows

The puppet master’s hands like to slip below the neck

Below the hem,

below the waist.

But the show must go on, so

The audience claps. And claps. And claps its way to a 13th cheque.

Thanks for the hashtag, but

there’s no time to tweet

in vestry or confession booth.

Scriptures are interpreted behind smoke-screens,

between a collar and a robe.

The pulpit is now a bookshelf of bodies, and

God was cast out a long time ago to make space:

“And the spirit of silence descended on them like tongues of fire.

Their tongues were on fire, and no one said anything. They swallowed the ash.”

Thanks for the hashtag, but

there is no time to tweet

in parliament or court.

We’re in the business of cooking laws

To serve justice to the vulnerable!

First, a few questions to prove your innocence:

Did you say NO?

Do your clothes say NO?

Your values, your virtues, your life?

How long have you lived as a NO?

We put it to the court, that when you said NO (or couldn’t say it at all), you really meant YES!

We submit, Your Honour, that what matters is not what she says,

it is what he believes he heard.

Thanks for the hashtag, but

There’s no time to tweet

There’s no network here

Data is expensive here

How do you explain Twitter here? Or a hashtag for that matter?

My aunt, my cousin, my grandmother don’t speak English here.

There’s no time to tweet here

The police ask what I did to deserve it here

The docket is for sale here

They family wants to solve this as a family here

They pay damages to make things right here

The lecturer fails you here

The principal is king here

The prophet is father here

The breadwinner must not be questioned here

The bread must not be endangered here

The neighbours mind their own business here

They say I’ll ruin the family here

They say bekezela here

They say “don’t try be clever” here

They say they’ll teach me a lesson here

They say they want to “fix” me here

They say “smile” here.

The trend is #wearedyinghere.

[To read some more about the production of We Are Dying Here, take a read of some words from Martin Myers]

[Photo credit for top three pictures goes to Yunus Le Chat]

[For men asking, ‘But What Can I do?’ here are some ways to get started]