I saw him hit her and I couldn’t stop myself. I had to say something. Here is what happened. It was almost 11:00 pm, and we were headed back home after staying a short while at Jams Addis to celebrate their 1-year anniversary, and to support my friend’s reggae band (resident band performing on Thursdays and Saturdays). We got a taxi aka a matatu and we got the two seats in front with the driver. Because it was very late, there were not too many matatus around and this particular one seemed to be going to a variety of random spots so it got packed pretty quickly. I assumed we were going to be extra comfortable since we were placed in the front with the driver. Well, I was wrong. Before we took off for ‘Mexico’, the tout opened the door and rapped some Amharic at me while gesturing wildly for me to move over. Then the couple that was preparing to join us did some acrobatics. The young man, looking to be in his early 20’s, lifted his girl (I assumed) onto his lap and rudely shoved himself next to me, his left bicep clocked hard against my throat. I started to choke and thankfully I managed to pull his arm away and clear my vision. So there we were. Unicorn was pressed next to the driver, I was squeezed in right next to him and the young girl (also in her early 20’s) was propped up on her boyfriend’s lap. Then I saw him hit her. His right hand swung up and hit her right in the face. At first, I thought it was a space issue: perhaps he had tried to adjust himself for comfort’s sake and hit her by mistake…THEN he did it again and I could not stop myself. I reached across, between their bodies and pulled his hand down, telling him in my firm voice to not hit her. He looked like he wanted to hit me and I gave him my ‘just try it and see what happens to you’ look. He told me that it was none of my business. And I replied,’Well, her mouth is full of blood and it is my business because she is hurt.’ My biggest fear was that I would make things worse for her by coming to her rescue so I tried to soften my approach. Unicorn’s answer was to pull me closer away from the boy and, thankfully, he did not tell me to mind my own business. If he had, oh boy. So, the boy tried to explain and justify to me why he’d hit his apparent girlfriend. She had said she was leaving him, he said. He claimed, to me, that he did a lot of things for her and she did not appreciate it and wanted to leave him for another man. He spoke to her in Amharic, his arms wrapped like a vice around her slim frame that was racked by sobs.
‘Do you know why I beat you? It’s because I love you…’
‘You cannot leave me…’
Unicorn translated for me, later.
I tried to reason with the boy. I asked him, what is the use of having her as a girlfriend when you’ve effed up her face and she’s lost her teeth because you beat her up. His answer: ‘I would rather she loses her teeth than I lose her…’
What else could I do? The matatu ride was about 15 minutes and for 8 of those minutes, he was berating her (it seemed) in Amharic and biting her back, and for the first 30 seconds of that ride, he used his hand to knock at her face, leaving her mouth brimming with blood and her face full of tears. I gave her a wad of tissues from my pocket and helped her to dab at her mouth. I wanted to take her and hug her and tell her she deserved more than this, more than a face-pummeling in a public transport vehicle at 11:00 pm. Who knows what the boy would or has or had done to her before or in the future? I was not in the US where I could call the police or have the other people in the taxi rally against the boy. I was not in a situation where I could convince him to never hit her again or where I could convince her to not put up with being abused physically. I do not understand what led to the abuse but I do understand that I, as a woman, cannot stand idly by while another woman is beaten in front of me. Unicorn said that perhaps I had lived in the US for so long that I did not understand the culture. I refuse to believe that. Beating women should not exist in the same sentence or mention of culture.
Even if I had never left the Continent, I would still speak out against physical violence against women. I, luckily, have never been at the receiving end of a beating from a boyfriend, but I have friends who were beaten while we were young in Kenya. I never hesitated, then or now, to speak out to them and their boyfriends directly. It should say something about our society today when I have to categorize myself as ‘LUCKY’ to never having been beaten by a significant other. It is not a matter of luck, it is a matter of choice. For these boys who think they can control the women in their lives by acts of physical violence, I believe they can make a better choice. For the girls who think it is okay for their men to beat them because it shows that they are loved, I believe they can stand to understand themselves a bit better and see how accepting these actions as a norm shapes and may take their lives in a different direction that may include death.
On that 15 minute ride, I did not rage as I would have liked. I feared to make things worse for her and I was the only faranji on that ride but I was far from the only woman. For other women not to step in as well, I was astounded. However, I have never needed a crowd of people to make my stand when I see wrong being done. I hope that girl survives that relationship, and I hope that boy realizes that hanging onto a girl by hitting her is not the most respectful, logical way to build a relationship. I can only hope that when I have my son or my daughter, I can teach them that respect for others is a two-way street. Lord knows I tried to maintain some respect while navigating that 15 minute ride that gave me a glimpse into this young girl’s life. It broke my heart.
In the words of Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good [people] to do nothing.” Let’s not be those people – Ruzwana Bashir, 2014.