I could hardly watch tonight’s Channel 4 News report from China; it is impossible to imagine the grief of mothers finding the bodies of their children in the rubble of the earthquake. And now I find it difficult to write about the story of an earlier earthquake in China. Of course it is not my story but it stayed in my memory long after I finished reading The Good Women of China by Xinran.
I picked up the book tonight thinking I might take a few extracts from the chapter called The Mothers who Endured an Earthquake. Xinran discovered their stories in 1992 when she went to Tangshan, an industrial city which had been completely rebuilt after it was destroyed by the 1976 earthquake. 300,000 people died.
I went looking for the book because of the reaction of the Chinese government this time: quick to accept help, apparently openly allowing criticism and comment in the press. In contrast, after the 1976 disaster the government – struggling to cope with the death of Mao Zedong – did not respond at all. In fact communication was so bad they knew nothing about the earthquake until it was reported in the foreign press through information from international monitoring centres.
Xinran went to Tangshan because she was curious to find out more about the women there for her late night radio programme Words on the Night Breeze. She went to an orphanage founded and run by women who had lost their own children in the earthquake and she interviewed two mothers who had watched their children die, trapped in the ruins of the city, unable to reach or help them.
In The Good Women of China, Xinran tells their stories with simple, understated sympathy; at times I think she is numb with horror. She found it difficult to write and it is difficult to read. It feels intrusive and unnecessary to select extracts to post on my blog, so far removed from the suffering. But it is worth saying that her radio broadcast inspired an outpouring of emotion in the much more suppressed and secretive China of 1992, and the last words of the chapter are inspiring now in their human understanding.
“On the train home, I cried all the way. I cried again when I took up my pen to write down the experiences of these mothers…
“They did not lock their mother’s kindness away in their memories of their children; they did not immerse themselves in tears of suffering and wait for pity. With the greatness of mothers, they made new families for children who had lost their parents. To me those women proved the unimaginable strength of Chinese women.”
May 14th, 2008
“Ordinary women cannot afford sanitary wear. We are using old pieces of cloth or newspapers. Consequently we’re suffering the loss of our dignity and serious infections, in some cases leading to infertility. Many women are facing violence from their husbands who believe these infections to be sexually transmitted.” Thabitha Khumalo, 2006.
Today, when I signed three petitions in support of democracy and human rights for the people of Zimbabwe, I was thinking of the truly remarkable woman I met two years ago. Thabitha Khumalo was in the UK to raise money and support for a campaign to secure safe supplies of sanitary towels for women in Zimbabwe. The economy was so bad – inflation was then a mere 1000% – manufacturers of sanitary products had left the country. An appeal for help produced a generous lorry load of sanitary towels from South Africa but Robert Mugabe refused to let them into the country.
That act has stuck in my mind. It seemed such a twisted abuse of power from the country’s leader, a terrible symbol of male dominance in a land where the life expectancy of women is now 34 years.
The campaign promoted by Thabitha, Dignity Period, continues. Revisiting the ACTSA website tonight I see that last year, in support of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), they successfully delivered 5 million sanitary pads to women and girls who could not otherwise afford that very basic, intimate, personal comfort.
But occasional Google searches for Thabitha do not produce much up to date news and I often wonder how she is: a brave and generous woman who spoke with warmth and good humour to a small meeting of Labour women in Edinburgh City Chambers on a cold spring night in 2006. As a trade union activist (she was then secretary of the Women’s Advisory Council of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions), she was returning to almost certain harrassment if not more of the beatings and imprisonment she had already suffered in her struggle for human rights.
The future for other women and men in the country must be equally uncertain. Who knows whether Morgan Tsvangirai would be more democratic in office (interesting that his trade union affiliation is given as the reason for Tabu Mbeke’s hostility towards the Movement for Democratic Change). I feel almost foolish in trying to do anything to help; adding my name to a petition seems so futile. But doing something seems better than doing nothng.
ACTSA – the successor to the Anti-apartheid movement – says we can send money so ordinary women can continue to receive sanitary supplies.
We can also add our names to petitions to the leaders of neighbouring Tanzania and Zambia. On Friday April 18 ACTSA are mobilising a demonstration outside the Zimbabwean embassy in London in support of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions which is staging a strike from Tuesday 15 April until the full election results are released. I wonder if Thabitha is among them.
The other petition I signed in response to an email from Celina, a Kenyan friend and another remarkable woman, is on the website of Avaaz, “a new global web movement with a simple democratic mission: to close the gap between the world we have, and the world most people everywhere want. ”
PS. according to the BBC Zimbabwe inflation has just hit 165,000% and ACTSA says sanitary towels cost 50% of a month’s earnings for ordinary women in Zimbabwe. I reckon that would make a packet of tampons around £1,000 in the UK but correct me if I am wrong.
April 16th, 2008