Notes on a Plane
From all available evidence, the man sitting beside me was a Frenchman. He was one of a pair of middle-aged European men who’d descended on my aisle brandishing EU passports and little English. They spoke to each other in bursts and deluges of French, stopping every so often to chuckle in unison. The man closest to me did not acknowledge me, and I was relieved to conclude we would not speak at all. I put on my headphones and prepared to spend the 10-hour journey from Johannesburg to Frankfurt working, eating, and sleeping fitfully. Five hours later, as he ran his hot fingers down my back in the dark cabin, his first words would be, “You want I to stop?”
I used to be a nervous talker – a creature so acutely aware of its need for connection. It pains me to remember her scanning the world for softness and finding it in the passengers prepared to drink at her pace. A British doctor, a German film editor, a Greek man fresh from safari; blurry figures in my memory. Accents in clouds of cologne.
Later, when I’d become a person who travelled frequently due to a surprise career as an international speaker (or – what I’d really prefer to be called, so that I may demur – a public intellectual), I’d perfected the art of moving about the world in a sober and hostile silence.
That is why I was confused when I realised that, while I slipped in and out of the fitful rest that fails to cure one of the anxieties of flying in a box full of strangers, the Frenchman had slipped his hand up my dress and was now fondling me.
French is an African language. More than 50% of the world’s French speakers are Africans, and it is projected that about 85% of the world’s French speakers will be Africans by the year 2060.
We of the Commonwealth know very little about our francophone compatriots. This, incidentally, was why I was travelling in the first place. This was what had spurred this worldwide speaking tour I was on. From Europe to Asia, from North America to Africa, people wanted me to talk about how the internet was giving young Africans a chance to cross borders that were inauthentic to our shared ancestors and to bridge the gaps left in our colonial education systems. We were getting the chance through social media to learn about each other and ultimately (pause) to learn about ourselves. The reason I bring this up is that all day after the night he touched me and whispered in a heavy accent, “You want I to stop?” – I kept saying to myself in a comedy of morbid hue, “What does he think this is? The Congo?”
I remember learning that the French had embarked on a blood-thirsty tour of Africa at the same time as our British overlords set sail for the cape. I also remember being told, by the British man who taught my high school class History*, that the British were benevolent officials while their French counterparts were godless psychopaths who travelled from the coast to central Africa atop the decapitated bodies of their African slaves. The British were mild-mannered missionaries and lords who drank tea under avocado trees and sought only to bring electricity to the natives, while the French, scoff, the French! saw the continent as a woman to be ravaged, sucked dry, and discarded like, like, like a dried grape or something.
What reason had I at age 14 to question this narrative? Indeed, growing up in Botswana whose only real colonial legacy was that English is the official language; it seemed more coherent to embrace the image of Britishmen who wore safari hats and three-piece suits in 30-degree weather.
My first foray into the history of colonialism was the portion of World War history where the Scramble for Africa was illustrated to us via a cartoon of European leaders slicing up a map between them. We were presented with their perspective on the matter and taught about the complex world of geopolitics and ‘the great powers’ and what they wanted from the world. What Kaizer Wilhelm dreamt of. What Queen Victoria hoped to see her empire become.
African history in schools all over the continent is usually presented as something emanating from a single moment, like the Big Bang theory. It usually starts for real for real with Independence. The before times are mentioned only briefly using the sanitised language of European explorers who saw the natives as part of the fauna of the place more than anything else, as bodies that blended into the wilderness.
Sometimes we got the oversimplified testimony of the odd grandparent who was there when the whites arrived. These were often merely brought in to explain the etymology of lekgoa, mlungu, oyinbo, mzungu, and so on. Other than that, if one wants the gory details, the bloodied scrolls, one must seek them out herself. And seek them out I did.
I remember – or should I say, will never forget – the night I stayed up to watch a documentary on Patrice Lumumba and his *nudge* mysterious *wink* death. I was maybe 14 or 15, atop the glass coffee table at home, made courageous by my parents’ heavy sleep. My eyes were glued to the TV in horror and disgust. But the disgust was so great that I feared changing the channel lest I be overcome by an impulse to vomit. It seemed the only remedy was to see the thing through.
In my mind, the documentary is a silent march of interviews and black and white clips of 1960s Democratic Republic of the Congo. But one thing stands out in painfully crisp detail: the description of the assassination of DRC’s first democratically elected prime minister. First, they kidnapped him. Then they tortured him. Then they laid him against a tree and shot hundreds of bullets into his body. Then they cut his corpse into a bunch of pieces. Then they threw these pieces of flesh into a vat of acid. Then they gathered the bones that remained and scattered them about the wilderness – his only remnant a tree trunk pockmarked with bullet holes.
How can anybody forget that?
I am aware that this history belongs to the Belgians and their madman of a king, Leopold II. But the French is what stands out. These two empires did not operate very differently, and today it is perhaps irrelevant who did what when in central Africa – it all had the same result: chaos.
When I landed in Berlin, I told my friends in a WhatsApp group that I’d let it go on too long before I said anything. My friend Rachel asked, “Was he hot?” I didn’t say that I had been too ashamed to look him in the eye in the morning when the lights were turned on, and that I’d eaten breakfast rigidly like a robot programmed to face only forward, to see nothing but the TV screen. My face was hot. My friend said, “Cause if he was hot he could have just asked.”
I watched #MeToo from the sidelines. I doubt I was the only one who was nervous. A shared reality felt unreachable. And it takes a long time to shake off the shame of “falling for it.” Assault makes you feel hurt, but it also makes you feel stupid.
Often, when girls are taught to protect themselves, we are told to “be smart.” The obvious conclusion being that the difference between the girls that got raped and those that didn’t was drawn across an IQ scale.
Somehow, it makes sense if you think of it as a game of trickery and wit. Victims often wonder why they’d believed him when he said: “If you sleep over, I’ll be a gentleman”; “I won’t hurt you”; “I’ll stay on the couch”; “It’s okay to come with me”; and every other variation. They talk about feeling stupid perhaps more openly than feeling ashamed.
Even though it was clear I’d done nothing to ‘cause’ the event, I felt unspeakably stupid; as though I’d fallen for something. As though he’d said, “Yes, it’s safe for a woman to sleep next to a strange man on a plane,” and I’d nodded the exaggerated nod of a cartoon fool. Except he hadn’t said a single word to me.
One is inclined to look back and search for the unspoken agreements, the secret contracts. Did Bill Cosby say, “Yes, it’s safe to see me as a beloved father figure and, as such, to come to my house when invited”? Did Jeffrey Epstein say, “Plenty of underaged girls massage me without being raped”? I doubt it. And yet to hear the victims speak of it; they were ashamed of falling into a trap they didn’t know was set.
But what if it is as simple as this: we were not foolish, and it was they who were devious. These unspoken words were not our downfall. All on their own, these men betrayed our trust. And yet we all felt stupid.
Of course, worse things have happened to me than being fondled on a plane. But this stands out for some reason as particularly strange. No matter how many men I encounter who have the aura of a predator, I will never forget what this man had in true abundance: the gall. The audacity, the dizzying courage, the entitlement of Herculean proportions. How could he? And I mean literally, how could he do it?
I considered many other conclusions before I came to this: the Frenchman groped me because I am an African woman. It does not please me to embrace this conclusion, but it is the only one that makes sense to me.
After all, the man and I met on a plane out of Africa, which means he had spent time amongst my people and had concluded that touching me was an option he could entertain. That is, he had gazed, as his ancestors did, on nations of people who showed reverence for their customs, had families they loved and cared for, and he had concluded that they were his for the taking.
It is not hard to believe. If he had spent his time in the parts of the continent where the Black body is nothing but a servant – driving you through Nairobi, carrying you up into the mountains of Tanzania, dancing for you in KwaZulu-Natal, pointing at wildlife in the Kgalagadi – then I guess that he came to understand the continent as what his ancestors dreamed when they cut through forest and people indiscriminately: the brothel of Europe, as Franz Fanon famously warned.
Or maybe, as George Orwell wrote in Marrakech, he did not see me at all. The European gaze, said Orwell, seemed particularly adept at looking at the place and seeing only its splendour and not the poor and brutalised bodies that lined its edges. Perhaps my attacker had travelled through the continent and seen only gorillas and lions and giraffes and Mount Kilimanjaro and the Sahara and nothing else. And perhaps when he saw me sleep beside him, he saw the splendour of a body and not the human that lived within it.
I don’t know. I’ll never know why a Frenchman sat on a plane and fondled me in my sleep. My version of this story involves an entire history, a roving examination of history and power and race. My story is that of a woman searching desperately for connections that might explain away a moment she shan’t forget. But what if the Frenchman’s story is as simple as this: on a plane, he felt a compulsion to touch the sleeping woman beside him, and so he did.
*as described by the GCSE
Siyanda Mohutsiwa is a satirist from Botswana and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is currently at the University of Chicago.
*Image by Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash