Get Out & Vote
Others Have Died For this Right
Published in the Georgia Straight Magazine
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 Forest 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%+ 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 19 October 2015 and the Presidential Elections in the United States on 8 November 2016. Whatever your stripes or leanings, wherever you fit into the political spectrum, or whether you fit into any label 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.
“There is no place I would rather be”
Last weekend, I took off on a British Columbian ferry to the beautiful Salt Spring islands on the West Coast of Canada. It was a much needed break from a difficult few months, months that had been filled with challenging work projects, cross-country red-eyes and desperate house hunting. When last Friday came along, I was ready for a jaunt. A jaunt with just me and my little car with the top down. Here are some pictures to share with you the natural beauty of this part of the world I’ve just begun to discover.
My decision to go on this solo trip was made late Friday afternoon, a few hours before work finished. Nothing was planned or booked. As soon as I logged off work and closed my laptop, I jumped in the car with my weekend bag and got to the Vancouver ferry terminal just in time. My car was the last one they let on. From there, I looked up Airbnb and found a lovely couple of ladies on the island who were renting out their spare bedroom and had two nights available. Pure luck.
I was on the milk-run ferry that day. It seemed like we stopped on every island on the Georgia Strait along the way. But with the Pacific sparkling around me, a warm bench to sit on, a good book in my hand (Adventures in Solitude: What Not to Wear to a Nude Potluck and Other Stories from Desolation Sound – a really good book), and the wind and sun on my face, I had nothing to complain about. The only question on my mind was if we’d see any Orca whales that day, especially since a pod was seen swimming in and around the Vancouver harbour that week. Instead, seagulls galore swooped over the ferry, squawking like they always do, and a few smiling seal heads popped out of the water a few times, making the kids on the ferry squawk like the gulls. No, I had absolutely nothing to complain about.
It was past eleven at night when the ferry docked on Salt Spring Island. I followed the other cars out and drove along the snaky, curvy road, occasionally glancing at my GPS to make sure I wasn’t missing any turns to the bed and breakfast. There was not a street light or sign in sight, just the headlights of the car on the asphalt. The wind was cool now, but still pleasant. I looked up at the darkened sky from my open car. The stars – more numerous than in the big city – were twinkling like far away disco balls hung up in the heavens.
Salt Spring Island is a beautiful place with rolling green hills, vineyard valleys, ocean beaches and views of the giant snow-capped mountains of yonder. This island was first inhabited by the indigenous people of the Pacific North West region mainly from the Salishan nation. Then in the late 1850s, a group of African Americans running away from slavery in the United States made home on the island joining European settlers from the UK and Ireland. Today there are about 10,000 people living on this northern island paradise.
As I drove around the island the next day, I saw deer and geese in fields, lamb and horses in farmyards, and children playing on pebbly beaches. Magnificent, tall and dark firs, cedar and hemlock trees lined the winding island roads. Every once in a while, I’d turn a corner to see a blue bay, shimmering under the sun just in front of me. It was heaven. I was travelling slowly with eyes wide open and a goofy grin on my face, trying my best not to get distracted by the scenery. There were a few times I had to move over to the shoulder and wave to let local traffic by and not hold anyone up. No one honked or got mad at the tourist. They just sailed by with a smile.
That weekend was the one time of the year when local communities teamed up to offer free boat rides between all the Gulf islands, a program aptly called Tour des Iles. Sunday morning, I jumped into one of the sailing boats and joined the locals who were visiting friends and family on the neighboring islands. These islands are full of people from everywhere, including retired judges, a senator or two, university professors, architects, designers, plumbers, farmers, writers, artists, and outdoor enthusiasts. This region has the highest per capita retired PhDs in the country, or so I was told. PhDs or not, everyone I met were nice, friendly, down-to-earth and showed me around and explained the history of the place they lived.
The sail boat ride from Salt Spring Island to Galiano Island, as part of the Tour des Iles, was the highlight of my weekend. Imagine sitting on a white washed deck of a sleek sailboat, captained by the owner who was volunteering his time and his boat to show strangers around his watery neighbourhood. On a beautiful sunny day to boot. Everyone on board had a story to tell, a joke to share or a scarf to offer if the wind got too cold. At the end of our trip, the captain helped each one of us down the stairs by hand, saying “Thank you for visiting the islands.”
No, thank you, lovely islanders. Thank you for such a treat, a brief but unforgettable get-away, a weekend that made me forget my troubles and put a grin back on my face. For that, I’m grateful. I’m also so thankful to live in a place where an experience as lovely as this is only a ferry ride away.
I’ve had a lucky life.
Yes, like many others before me, I’ve had my share of hardships and heartbreaks along the way. I’ve cleaned stinky hotel toilets to pay for rent. I’ve kept a diet of stale noodles for years, hoarding every penny to pay for college tuition. I’ve spent many a lonely night wishing I had someone with whom to share my dreams and my fears. Also, like many others before me, I’ve had a dysfunctional childhood I’d rather forget, but in the end, while life’s been a bit rough, I feel that I’ve been lucky. Very lucky.
At nineteen, I walked out of a negative, hurtful environment, got myself to school, then started working, made a living, gained my independence and most importantly, made a new life of my own making. It was hope that kept me going. Hope for a better future, a better life. Now I’m grateful to live in a country where for the most part, I can walk on the streets or get on a bus without being groped or harassed, unlike girls in many other places in the world. I also know in this country I’m safe in my own home and can always call and depend on help if I ever need. I also know that at work, I can be a contributing member of a team and speak up in the boardroom without being silenced, unlike women in many parts of the world.
Of course, my world isn’t perfect, but I know the main thing that comes between my achievements and myself, is myself. Only myself. As long as I have the conviction and put my sweat and my brain to it, I can do anything. I’m convinced of it. So I wake up every day feeling lucky. So lucky.
Sadly, life is different for millions of girls and women around the world. They don’t get half the chances I have. While I grew up in an environment where girls were clearly not equal to boys and women had their place – in the back –, at least I got to go to school. Many girls aren’t allowed to learn, sidelined by families and communities who believe their sons deserve a better chance. Other girls, not past their adolescence, children really, get married off to men who are twice or thrice their age. These girls lose their innocence, never getting a chance to be a child, to play, to laugh, to learn, or to grow up in safe company. Then there are others who get forced into female circumcision, something too horrifying to even contemplate. And then others get beaten, raped, acid thrown on their faces and live lives of terror, a kind of life I have a hard time imagining still exists on this earth of ours. I’ve known one father who sold his eight year old daughter to a brothel so he could buy a large screen TV. In these societies, girls are secondary, if not tertiary, beings. Their value, insignificant. Well, perhaps worth the price of a television set.
These little girls live lives of quiet desperation, heart breaking isolation, with little knowledge of their own world around them. They have no say in what happens to them, their bodies, their children, their futures. Modern slaves, is what they are. At least, that’s what I call them. My heart goes out to them and I wish I could do something. I don’t want to cover my eyes and pretend this is not happening, or live a life of ignorance and indifference. For now, I pledge to write. I will write loudly and vociferously. And even if one little girl gets inspired from my stories, maybe, just maybe she’ll learn that she has the right to say no. No to stopping school. No to forced marriage. No to being carted off to a brothel. And fight back with whatever might she has. If more voices rise with her and more join in her fight, maybe others will listen. Maybe they will start to take notice and begin to understand the impact of their decisions on the most vulnerable of our families and societies.
I imagine a world where I don’t feel like I’ve won the lottery in life. Every child should have the same chances that I’ve had. I imagine a world where a girl can dream to fly and soar above whatever life has dished out to her, and make her dreams come true. I imagine a world where young girls and boys can together, laugh, learn, grow and become strong and confident, and be equally contributing members of our society.
Yes, I have been lucky. I wish all the little girls in our world would have the same chances I have had.
This story is dedicated to all the little girls of the world. Dare to dream. Dream big. May your dreams take flight and give you the joys you wish for. May you never, ever stop dreaming.