From this distance, Thokozile Matilda Masipa appears to have at least four significant strikes against her: She is a woman in a man’s world. She is 66 years old in a world that largely favors youth. She is black in a predominantly racist world. She is African in a world where Africa and Africans are essentially disregarded.
Ah, but look closer, and you’ll see something altogether different: Thokozile Matilda Masipa, an educated, accomplished, and respected woman, is the presiding judge in the sensational murder trial of Oscar Pistorius in South Africa.
As one of Masipa’s former colleagues was quoted recently in an article about her in The New York Times (“From Apartheid-Era Jail Cell to the Bench in Pistorius Case,” by Norimitsu Onishi, August 6, 2014), “Whoever thought that one day a black woman would be standing judge over a white boy?”
Masipa’s rise from her poor beginnings in Soweto, a black township near Johannesburg, to the nation’s High Court was, like life in general in Africa, neither quick nor easy. In her youth she was once arrested during a protest and ordered by her white jailers to clean her cell’s filthy toilet. She began studying law at the height of apartheid and became a lawyer only in her 40s. When in 2003 she was being considered for a seat on South Africa’s highest court, she argued that her race, gender and disadvantaged upbringing would be assets. As the Times article quotes her, she told the chief justice, “I can make a difference.”
Masipa’s story reminded me of the many women I got to know in the years I lived in Africa – women who made an enormous difference in my life.
One in particular, whom I wrote about at length in my memoir, How to Cook a Crocodile (Peace Corps Writers 2010), was a woman I adopted as my maman (mother) during my two years of Peace Corps service in Gabon (1996-98). At the time I guessed her age to be about eighty. She worked at the marché selling sandwiches to support herself, and every day when I visited the marché to buy fresh produce (I didn’t have a fridge), she’d pat the wooden bench beside her and beckon me to sit and rest a while. As I wrote in Crocodile:
“In many ways Leora reminded me of my own mother, whose name was Lee and who would have been close to Leora’s age if she were still alive. Both women were small, thin, and strong as a sailor’s rope; both were a rare blend of spirited and shy, funny and cynical, vulnerable and sinewy. And they both looked at me similarly – with a singular focus, as though I were the most fascinating and baffling creature they had ever seen” (p.58).
In our daily visits Leora and I became close, and I learned more from her (and from all the African women I came to know) than words can say — about strength, resilience, fortitude, humor, dignity and determination.
I also learned that from a distance African women, especially older African women, can easily be mistaken for simply poor, downtrodden and miserable. Dismissible. But up close, when you see them clearly, for whom they really are, you see just how wrong you can be.