On Books, On Law, On women, On writing, Other Stuff

your one wild and precious life


We are living in strange and uncertain times. Isn’t it always so? We make history in some way or another every single day in relative terms which will impact someone, somewhere in a future which, today, cannot be known, is certainly indeterminable, economically unquantifiable but will impact none the less. Even if it’s just one person. Or your own child. And that’s good enough… if it’s good.

I live miles from America. In fact, I’ve never even been to America (sure, it’s still on my list, though now it’s dropped a little) but it’s clear that the impacts of 9/11 (yes, weird) have stirred something in me, which surprised me too. Because if you extrapolate the cruel absurdity of it all and look around you at the state of humanity even in your own country, you will see that there is much work to do. So much work that there is no more time to waste.

What the hell I am talking about?

I’ve read and researched and observed and heard some stuff in the last few weeks and this that has been a wake-up call for me. I wish I could find another word: ‘wake-up call’ sounds so inadequate, an epiphany too grand. We all have these ‘aha’ moments, though mostly they’re there and we merely fail to grasp them or even see them for what they are. Or we’re scared of seizing them: fear of the failure, the out- of- comfort zone, the exposure, even the shame.

We are all so small and vulnerable. Each and every one of us. Even the ones with big muscles, or small and fast cars.

I hoped that Clinton would win: she had all the credentials, policies and humanitarian ideals. She represented hope. I identified with her on many levels: I too am a white, privileged, educated women.


(I found the new edition of this only yesterday and added it to my TBR pile)

And now?

Now is the time not to give up the fight. If there ever was a time, a call to action, it’s now, World. Please, you have to believe it. The ideals, the core, the very essence of a ‘reasonable’ man (in a generic sense not the masculine one) whether he be the religious man, the philosopher, the lawyer, the artist, the partner, father or friend, must look at that man (I can barely mouth his name, let alone have to be insulted by his arrogant, yellowing fuzz-topped face (okay that’s not really his fault, our looks are pre-determined to a point) and wonder how, after all the movements in the world over the centuries to create harmony, liberty and equality, we could possibly have dropped so far.

But I don’t live in America and I only have limited influence in what I alone can do.

So what the hell then must I do? I ask myself. What must I now do with my one wild and precious life?

At half of a hundred (yikes, that’s me now!)  I have more than I could wish for and my job as carer of my own precious priorities, my own children, can extend a little further now I believe. It must.

Why? Because there is so much damn work to do. But who, I ask, is most deserving and who can I serve? Where can my influence lie and how do I do it now?

One of the things I came across this week was an article in De Rebus by Diana Mabasa. It talks about the practice of Ukuthwala which is essentially the practice of an arranged marriage and the attendant issues of a young women’s sexual passage.

(The article won an award: see: http://www.golegal.co.za/gauteng-attorneys-piece-on-ukuthwala/)

It is entitled: Ukuthwala: Is it all culturally relative?

I’ve copied the first bit for you to see if it’s interesting for you.

One of the fundamental ideals set out in the Preamble of the Constitution is the attainment of a society based on social justice. This ideal will remain a pipedream if the dehumanisation, sexist exploitation and suffering of black women and girls under patriarchal tyranny are allowed to continue under the guise of custom, in particular ukuthwala.

The practice of ukuthwala has been thrust into the spotlight by a criminal appeal case of Jezile v S and Others (WCC) (unreported case no 127/2014, 23-3-2015). In a landmark judgment delivered by a full Bench of the Western Cape Division, the court held that ukuthwala is no defence to crimes of rape, human trafficking and assault with the intent to do grievous bodily harm.

This judgment can be applauded as an example of where the experience of a black girl sensitised judges to the harm that can be caused by a cultural practice. Oppression is a beast with many faces and ukuthwala is a classic example of overlapping forms of oppression on the grounds of age, race, gender and culture. Black women are uniquely situated at the focal point where these exceptionally powerful and prevalent systems of oppression come together, resulting in gender specific, and race specific harm. It is this, multi- layered harm that is highlighted by the concept of intersectionality.

The next section briefly summarises the facts and findings of the judgment – which comprehensively deals with the meaning and history of ukuthwala. It then demonstrates the importance of this judgment by linking it to intersectionality, in particular to highlight the plight of those multiply burdened. It concludes that such rethinking will lead to significant social change and realisation of constitutional ideals for black women and children.

Ukuthwala in its traditional form is a collusive strategy by the willing lovers to secure marriage negotiations. In this form it has been described as ‘innocuous, romantic and a charming age-old custom’. Certain essential requirements must be met –

  • the woman must be of marriageable age, which in customary law is usually considered to be childbearing age;
  • consent of the parties is necessary;
  • as part of the process the parties would arrange a mock abduction of the woman at dusk. She would put up a show of resistance for the sake of modesty but in fact would have agreed beforehand to the arrangement;
  • the woman would then be smuggled into the man’s homestead and placed in the custody of the women folk to safeguard her person and reputation;
  • the father of the man would then be informed of the presence of the woman in his homestead and of his son’s desire to marry her;
  • sexual intercourse between the couple is strictly prohibited during this period; and
  • the man’s family would then send an invitation to the woman’s family to inform them that they wish to commence marriage negotiations.


It was highlighted by the experts that in customary law no marriage is possible without the consent of the woman’s parents. If her family rejected the proposal she had to be returned to her home along with the payment of damages for the unsuccessful ukuthwala (at paras 72 – 74).

However, over time the practice has mutated and taken on a pernicious form in flagrant disregard of fundamental rights of the girl. In what the court termed ukuthwala in its ‘aberrant’ form, young women or girls are abducted and subjected to violence, including sexual abuse and assault to coerce them into submission. This is criminal conduct under the guise of custom (at paras 75 – 76).

It often occurs with the agreement of the girl’s parents and family, who are paid a fee, improperly described as ‘lobola’ for permission to abduct their daughter. This is often the case where the family is trapped in a cycle of poverty and poor socio-economic circumstances. It is endemic in certain rural villages in South Africa.

The practice was denounced as an extreme and fundamental violation of women and girl’s most basic rights, including the right to dignity, equality, life, freedom and security of the person, and freedom from slavery. It was condemned as ‘sexual slavery under the guise of a customary practice’ – made possible only because of the patriarchal nature of customary law (at para 78).

The High Court correctly rejected the appellant’s reliance on the aberrant form of ukuthwala as justification for his criminal conduct. The appeal was dismissed.

Read the whole article if you wish to read more:

So, how does it link to your one wild and precious life you ask?

Because this is exactly the sort of thing that white, educated, privileged men and women, in South Africa must be highlighting and fighting in order to rid the rot of society where patriarchy and sexism continues to lurk.

My precious Milly walked in this morning and I said to her, “Tell me what you think about Ukuthwala”.

And she did. She told me that women are identified by having a scarf put around their necks as desirable.

“Why is it that Zuma can have so many wives Mil?

‘I don’t know, I don’t know’, she said. ‘Five wives’, she added holding her worn working hands up to show me the number. ‘Five’.

‘And the women? I asked facetiously. ‘They must only have one hey?’

‘Yes’, she said and laughed.

‘So, it’s only about the sex then, Mil? The sex and power…?’

‘What you think? You think a wife must lie with the husband and there’s no sex? There’s no love. No love. It’s like a slave.’

Last week I was chatting to Phumi. Phumi told me some of her life story. It spoke of poverty and shame and regret and abuse: in trying to find a protector and provider and escape a family where the marriage was broken by alcohol and drugs, she married a man 40 years older than she. And when she could take no more of the abuse in an attempt to find someone to care for her, she found another ‘nice enough’ guy with whom she had a child. And that ended, and now she’s with another. And he’s ‘okay, for now. Much better than the others, at least’, she smiled with her beautiful shiny taut skin and soft eyes.

There are so many masks.

So there is so much work to do. Here in South Africa, and Africa. Yes, so it turns out, still in America, let alone in places like Saudi Arabia. I don’t understand it all and maybe it’s none  of my business and I don’t even know where or how I fit in. But I do know, as did Mandela that education is the most powerful weapon that you can use to change the world.


And so I’m lucky with my weapons. As are so many of you: you writers, and lawyers, and teachers, artists, singers, preachers and people of God: you women of worth who are mothers of the earth.

And all educated men too.

Now is the time to act. Now is the need to use our elite education to help the world to thrive and survive, in whatever way we can.

Each in our own vulnerable little way.

And now you tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

The Summer Day

Mary Oliver

Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean- the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down- who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away. I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

from New and Selected Poems, 1992 Beacon Press, Boston, MA

Copyright 1992 by Mary Oliver. All rights reserved.


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