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Breaking My Silence: Amplifying Our Voices as 'Others'

A Humanitarian Lecture for the Public

Harvard Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study

Harvard University

Breaking My Silence: Amplifying Our Voices as 'Others' A Humanitarian Lecture for the Public Harva: News

(A video broadcast of this lecture, delivered on November 13, 2019, is available here.)

A little more than a year ago I was the subject of a major nationwide controversy in my home country, Zimbabwe. It had a profound impact on me and has been the focus of intense introspection ever since. What follows is an extract from a long-form work in progress which contains some personal reflections on what happened:


It was an inauspicious sweltering Thursday morning, middle of last September. The city was awash with the pale indigo of the Jacaranda trees and there’s an old local proverb which says that “Jacaranda time is madness time.” I was sitting at my desk at the private boys’ school where I had taught for fifteen years when an email arrived in my inbox. It was simply entitled, “A Question.” The email was from a journalist at a local daily newspaper. He said he was putting together a lead cover story for imminent publication along the lines that I was gay. Was I gay, he asked? Did I know it is illegal to be gay? How did I reconcile being gay with my role as a Deputy Headmaster at a boys’ school? He wanted to know, “if I had anything to say for myself?”

I have no idea how this journalist picked up the story but I knew immediately how serious the situation was. There was no point phoning the newspaper up and appealing for sensitivity. The fact that the journalist was entirely wrong in his claims – it is not, constitutionally speaking, illegal to identify as being gay in Zimbabwe – was not a distinction that would prove in the least consequential: this was going to be a sensational story and it was going to sell papers.  

I sat there in shock, and yet a part of me had also anticipated this moment; a low-grade dread had always drifted at this subterranean level and now it had surfaced. I was about to be outed as a homosexual man in a country which openly cultivates a hatred of homosexuals. As the late Robert Mugabe liked to tell us: we were “worse than pigs and dogs.”

There is much debate about the wisdom or folly of what I decided to do. There was no precedent to go on, strategy seemed futile and solutions noticeably absent. I could have issued a flat-out denial, but why be dishonest? I could have followed conventional press-dodging logic and issued a statement saying, “no comment,” but the questions would keep on coming, the speculation would keep circulating. If it was apparent everyone was going to hear about me soon enough, then why not just be open and transparent? I was confident I had absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. No one had made any allegation of wrongdoing against me: my only so-called crime was to be a man, an educator, who just happened to personally identify as being gay. In being upfront and honest, I hoped I might at least be understood.  

Nonetheless, no one wants to put their personal life so nakedly on display. It was a daunting prospect, a violation of my right to self-determination, but this is not an environment which easily tolerates exceptions to its manifest codes of being. I had to contemplate constructing an announcement which would risk reversing every carefully moderated aspect of my existence. I had long ago come to terms with my sexuality, but I had known the value of discretion; that close cousin of dignity. Now I was intentionally upending that axiom, challenging the lay of the land which consigns gay people to dwell in dark disgrace, out of sight and out of mind.

I did not sleep that night, but spent endless hours drafting the contents of a speech to deliver to the school early the following morning. At 7:30 I found myself standing at a podium at a specially called assembly addressing 550 students and 80 of my fellow colleagues. I felt oddly calm and collected. In this arena I was someone I believe a good number of my students looked up to. I tried to always be a good role model and I know I was an unconditionally caring mentor. In that crossroads moment, I knew it was crucial to be a concrete example of what I was talking about: I wasn’t speaking in the abstract now, but was standing before them the very embodiment of someone in need of the tolerance and acceptance I was appealing for. 

Later it would be levelled at me that my speech was self-indulgent and I deserved the backlash because, “I should have known better”. I had brought so much negative attention on the school and the country, it was said, and I was a thorough disgrace to my profession.  I was told that I had “chosen a life of sin” and this meant I was morally contemptible. Ask an actual gay person if being gay is a choice. Ask an actual gay person if they would really choose to be subject to such a life.

The singular word “gay” invokes so much paranoia where I come from. It’s a descriptor which immediately dominated everything, looming horrific over every subsequent conversation. It soon became clear that everything I had achieved or accomplished, anything well-intentioned I had done, was not now of the slightest significance. In Zimbabwe, when you insert the word “gay” in front of anyone, the word is so toxic, so instantly a pejorative, that it immediately obliterates, corrupts and defames whatever follows. From then on I was only going to be the “gay teacher” and this alone would antithetically define everything about me while simultaneously negating everything about me too.

What followed was a living nightmare. Divisions quickly mounted as the press and other gossipers began to fuel the story. Soon I was the subject of a public meeting which was barnstormed by evangels and other fervent Christian groups. Very pointedly all the old absurdities were levelled: a gay teacher in a boys’ school just had to be a paedophile; a gay teacher would “infect” students with “gayness”; a gay teacher would corrupt morals; a gay teacher would spread AIDS. I was told I was destined to burn in hell as all the clichéd verses from the book of Leviticus were invoked, before violence broke out when a student of mine who had bravely stood up to try and defend me was attacked by a mob.

Of course mobile phones were busy recording the giddy entertainment and within minutes it had all gone viral. I was flooded with hate messages from strangers who threatened to have me hung in the town square, skin me alive, disembowel me, castrate me, and hack me to pieces with a machete to be fed to a sty of pigs. My phone number was leaked and my address made public so I had people screaming at me telling me they were on their way to kill my dogs and petrol bomb my house. It was your classic textbook definition of ‘moral blindness’. Meanwhile, the newspaper coverage was unrelenting and social media was in meltdown. That very same week, Zimbabwe’s most recent economic meltdown began in earnest with the price of bread going up over 100%, but so focused was the attention on the “gay teacher” this fact barely registered on the national consciousness. The government, of course, were delighted. 

Certainly there were many people who tried to defend me, to appeal for reason and progression, but their voices were simply drowned out and their attempts to help swiftly thwarted.

I weathered the storm for a few more days until it became apparent that my position at the school was no longer tenable. The final straw came when an ultimatum was issued that I resign by 1 pm that day or else I’d be, “decisively dealt with.” I had barely eaten or slept for several days now and the sense of threat was severe and constant. I tendered my resignation, uttered a few farewells to kindly students, and drove out the school gates.

I felt wounded and bruised, kicked hard in the chest by the very system I was devoted to. Quickly I withdrew. There followed a period of fright and disbelief. Then this fragile vulnerability, aware of how alone I now was having lost a job I loved, students I cared for and a motivating purpose in life. I felt angry, betrayed, rejected and frustrated not being able to use my skills as an educator. After another few weeks I was hardly sleeping or eating, my mind fixated on replaying over and over again all the hate and vitriol, the cruel words, the cutting remarks.

In combination with this came an intense feeling of panic and alarm over the depraved outcome I knew this event risked having on my students; all students. I was gripped with paranoia, fearing what deplorable lessons this had all taught them. These were school children who witnessed first-hand that a statement of honesty can be met with ridicule. That good intention can be rejected. That to express yourself fully is a risk. That to dare to be yourself is a liability. That to be different is unacceptable. That the language of religion and custom can be turned to hate and used as a weapon. That what is not personally acceptable to you should be banished. That if you shout the loudest, and yell the longest, you get your way. That if you induce fear you invoke cowardice. Yes, I was meant to be a role model, a figure of positive reinforcement, and yet my own students had seen me flee a craven coward. What kind of sick lessons were these?

But most tragic of all was this absolute certainty: in the wake of what they had seen happen to me, I knew that any poor boy in that school who might have been struggling to come to terms with his own identity, would now feel even more hesitant, more isolated and less confident to truly accept himself, or to feel truly safe and included in his own school. To this day, these fears haunt me.  

Riddled with feelings of intense shame and guilt, I was no longer leaving the house very often, but spending all day lying on my bed, shivering with fear, sweating with fever, my teeth aching from how hard I was continually clenching them. I was becoming paralysed with despair. In the following three months I lost eighteen kilograms in weight. For the first time ever, I began to wonder whether life was worth living and I found myself morbidly carrying out logistical plans for my suicide. 

With help from friends and loved ones, I got myself to a doctor who diagnosed me with severe post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depression. I was put on strong antidepressants; they seemed to help. In any event, time, as it tends to, moved on, this wonderful opportunity to come to America presented itself, and here I am. Although over a year later the deep trauma still persists and the longing to be back amongst my students and enacting my vocation as a teacher in the country of my birth remains as strong as ever.


The spectrum of homophobia ranges in scale from passive to aggressive. From being something that people enact almost unconsciously to something they do with intent and vehemence. Homophobia is a discrimination which makes it different from a disagreement of principle or ideology; you can disagree but not display hate whereas homophobia by nature is energised by some level of enacted abhorrence. Sometimes it’s even civil in nature, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, but it sinks its teeth nonetheless. It’s also a hate-based discrimination which in many cultures has yet to be called out or held to account and so still flirts with social ambivalence ensuring it passes largely without censure, rarely with reproach, at the least with tacit approval, often with pious endorsement.

It’s almost exclusively a product of a mighty toxic patriarchy which extends its lineage back to antiquity and to which all of the human race belongs with little total comprehension that we do, and from which it shares an affiliation with that system’s other chief historical victims, namely sexism and racism. In many parts of the modern world women, people of colour and the queer community have raised their voices and mounted a challenge to the autocracy of this social order, and in some cases, even humbled it. In others, like my country, it remains unchallenged and so is unbending and unremitting.

Homophobia, like all discriminations, is morally corrosive to both victim and perpetrator. It’s one of those anathemas to the entire humanist project as it both originates and terminates in hate and yet, perhaps unlike sexism and racism, many societies have yet to acknowledge just how inhumane it is and so are averse to its address. There’s a reluctance, the arguments say, for fear of causing offence to religious belief or cultural creed and yet, intrinsically, one would imagine that these two systems, in themselves the very cornerstones of humanity, would want to disassociate with any enactment of hate, in whatever degree. Does religion promote hate? Does a culture advocate hating? Are these functions religion and culture set out in their conception to facilitate? It’s clear that they do while being obvious that they shouldn’t.

Before last year, even I didn’t think very much about homophobia. I was outraged by the notion of it, furious when I saw reports about it, but it always seemed to happen in the remove, at an abstract distance, or otherwise it was so pervasively hard-wired into the undercurrent of life. We risk being desensitised to it, like we are to racism and sexism, so that even those of us it’s directed at are sometimes oblivious to its happening or fancifully believe it doesn’t affect us.

The patriarchy keeps its tools sharpened by conditioning us as children, when we’re impressionable, compliant, absorbent. It works through society’s conventions to tell us what is normal, and what is othered. It conceives groups of grotesques to exemplify this weakness, dichotomies which serve to elevate its status as supreme, and so blurs our naïve perspectives. In this myopia we’re taught what is “natural” and what is “unnatural”, what constructs are expected and which prohibited and then it lets us feel uneasy measuring ourselves against these firm social yardsticks. 

With this as a template most young gay people the world over begin a difficult journey: – and I use the term “gay people” for narrative purposes, although of course I refer always to the entire LGBTQ spectrum – it can be a hard and savage life. To navigate that age which cultivates random cruelty against the slightest form of difference, young gay people make every attempt to bond with their peers, to be part of the pack, the herd. This means they become a participant in “games that are played” on the social playing field. Here the teams are always constituted unequally and the same domineering team always wins the game.

These pressures produce a form of liminal entrapment. The young gay person defaults to a mode of self-silencing, while at the same time speaking up in another assumed voice altogether, a false lingo designed to ring true, caught as they are in a half-way hiding act. It’s a stunt of duplicity played out as a grand performance, a ruse which brings mounting liabilities, not least the misery of self-deprecation.

Then there are moments of inevitable self-betrayal. The young gay person, out of habit or mimesis, invariably finds themselves repeating those same anti-gay slurs, that acid-scorch of words, becoming fully complicit in the very language which so abuses them. It’s a classic trap: so persistent is the sense of being hated that they are hateful towards others, but it’s only themselves they are devouring. It’s a tragedy true of gay people that they are often to be counted amongst their very own and very first homophobes.

And then a gradual awareness breaks, an insight, sometimes an epiphany of self-realisation and young gay people finally see themselves for who they really are. The gay homophobe masochist becomes this fully-fledged individual, shredding the humiliations and burying the scars of the past, while urgently and beautifully aware of their own emergent becoming; the pain of the youth now the strength of the adult.

For many in this modern age, because of the debt owed to recent warriors in the struggle, there is now the prospect of hope, happiness, openness, civility, even near full acceptance. But what happens to young gay people who come of age in repressive environments? As far as I can work out, they have two choices: they can leave to pursue the elysian dream they glimpse in far off Arcadias, or they stay. Sometimes economic hardship simply denies them opportunity. Other times, a choice is made, for better or worse.

I could have left, perhaps I should have left, but I stayed. There are tens of thousands of us who do. I was twenty and instead of easing into adult validation of who I was, I faced the first real psychic crisis of my life. Instead of a celebration, it felt like a compression. I would best describe it as a fall into silence. Another way is to think of a split into two, a retrograde separation into two identities, two personas, almost like Jekyll and Hyde. The one presents itself to the public world, to borrow from T. S. Eliot, “politic, cautious and meticulous,” while the other self – which becomes the Othered self with a capital ‘O’ – must remain cloaked like some hideously deformed aberration, loitering in its clandestine world, invariably timid and suspicious, forever on guard against that close intrusive scrutiny which threatens a drastic unmasking.

This is what discrimination of this nature does to you over time: these aversions towards us may appear imperceptible and our societies might exhibit an atmosphere of indifference which passes as placid tolerance, but this is an uneasy peace and never a permanent one. Passive homophobia is also largely present in a way you can never quite put your finger on and pin down; it’s centre fails to hold, it endlessly recalibrates, it has a serpentine underbelly. 

If this sounds overly dramatic, like something cooked-up for a spy novel, I don’t blame you. But in seventy countries being gay still poses a very real risk to one’s state of being. It’s the invidious age of McCarthyism, the Lavender Scare. We’re subversives, anti-nationalists, immoralists. Corrupt state-agents lie in wait, ready to entrap, blackmail and extort us. So we descend to the underground where a realm of paranoia, subterfuge, hidden-identities, code words – or these days emoji’s – and endless deceit await us.  Does anyone want to live in fear of a knock at the door late at night, the blue rove of a police van’s sirens pulsing through the shuttered curtains?

And yet flush against this backdrop another screen sits which only serves to misdirect your attentions. As the years pass, everything seems okay, you’re largely being left alone, you’re going about living a “normal” life, lulled into believing in a projected shape of the future, a vague glimpse down the promenade to stable contentment. When discrimination shapes itself so that it doesn’t look like discrimination at all but a vista of normality, it’s akin to the snake hiding coiled and camouflaged in the grass. While you’re staring ahead at the blue sun-filled distance, fangs of poison lie inches away from your feet. Take one step in the wrong direction and you’re snake-bit. It’s a terror which doesn’t feel like a terror which is probably the most terrifying thing of all.

In such a sense Zimbabwe, despite everything, doesn’t feel like a homophobic country, or at least didn’t. And if you ranked it relative to some of its close neighbours, it’s probably not all told. The state doesn’t actively seek to hunt and persecute gay people but I also sense it doesn’t have to. Systems like these rest on their own self-assurance; they know enough has been done to stoke the boiler, to act as a natural policing agent. States which pedal in the potency of division as a political stratagem know how to keep the heat just simmering under boiling point and, on occasion, to let the steam out and the taps run full.

To capture the essence of being a gay person in a repressive system I would ask you to imagine a room, an empty room, not very big. One person sits on a chair in a corner, another sits opposite him. They are both the same, outwardly, and perhaps they even share similar talents, or abilities, give or take. At any rate they are equals, except one has now been handed a large club which he uses to savagely beat the other person if they should say or do something that doesn’t meet with this club-bearer’s approval. To avoid a beating this person has two choices. Either he must remain silent or he must choose to step out of the room to avoid provoking an attack. In other words, to stay is to be silenced and to leave results in silence. This is ultimately what it’s like.


Silence. What is the nature of silence? What are its nuances, its dynamics and its degrees of intersect? And what is the relationship of silence to its binary opposite, sound? Silence is a cessation in the continuum of sound: a pause. A pause is silence in sound which is nonetheless never fully emptied of substance.

When I was teaching literature we would often study plays by Harold Pinter: a great exponent of the pregnant pause, the dramatic pause, the “Pinter Pause.” My students were both baffled and awed by encountering Pinter. They were wrong-footed by the charged relationship between text (as sound) and text (as silence). In a 1962 lecture, Pinter spoke about silence. He said, “There are two silences. One when no word is spoken. The other when perhaps a torrent of language is being employed.”

I’ve been thinking a great deal recently about sound versus silence: what this conjunction means and how it’s ordered. As metaphor sound is the voice present, the voice continual, the voice exclusive, while silence is the voice unstated, the voice repressed, the voice strident but unspoken, the voice rejected.

In a theatrical performance, no two characters can speak simultaneously for any length of time. Well, they can if 1) what they are saying is exactly the same, i.e. a chorus or 2) if what they are saying is meant as a short dramatic expression of chaos. Otherwise the very coherence of drama collapses. For this reason, one person speaks while another listens in silence and then, if permitted or so desires, speaks in turn: this is dialogue, what we recognise as everyday conversation. When the length of one character’s speech is disproportionate to another’s and so prejudices their reply, what tends to happen? As the audience, think of your response: you most likely become aware you are witness to a set of unfolding agendas. Each character brings with them an agenda to the stage, but some characters motivate their agendas in ways which prejudice others.

Samuel Beckett was perhaps the progenitor of the concept of sound and silence as mechanisms of menace. I also remember teaching Waiting for Godot, and enjoying witnessing my students’ reactions to the moment Lucky begins his long gibbering rant. Lucky has been mute but is given permission by his master Pozzo to speak. When he does it amounts to a tirade of nonsensical rubbish. The question is not really what Lucky is saying or why he squanders his prized moment, but it’s more an issue of interrogating what Lucky wants to say and what he could be saying to improve his lot which remains dismal all this time he is not permitted to speak, when he is living in silence.

His censorship is allegorised by Beckett to infer the nature of authority over silence; in other words, whoever controls power and monopolises the right to speaking dictates the degree to which the silenced responder enters and exits his own agency. Without this expressed permission, Lucky remains literally enslaved to Pozzo’s mercurial whims. Pozzo in the meantime speaks when he wants to, with eloquence, with flare, with control. Doing so he dispenses gravitas and authority via the attitude of supreme arrogance but what he says is likewise just as absurd as what Lucky says. Somehow that’s very typical, is it not? It’s not what is said in Beckett, but who is speaking at all. Power is invested in those who produce all the noise.

It’s not purely a theatrical affectation that Beckett has Lucky physically tethered to his master Pozzo by means of a rope tied round his neck. The neck is significant because it’s the body’s easiest point of exposure to mortal fragility: break the neck, sever the spinal cord and death results. Repeatedly Pozzo, “cracks his whip … and jerks violently at the rope.” The rope is the live wire between master and slave, oppressor and oppressed. By jerking on the rope Pozzo denotes not only a constant reminder of his authority but also ensures Lucky’s submission by curtailing his ability to speak, to protest, to argue his case, to plead for liberty. Pozzo applies the pressure of the crude thick rope to Lucky’s vocal chords. If he speaks at all, it’s sure going to hurt. If he dares to speak out of turn, the rope is always there, taut and at the ready to cut him off, silence him altogether. Pozzo is signalling not only his control over the “ties that bind,” but also that he has his hand on a weapon, just like the club-wielder in the small room. 

In his 1981 dystopian novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, the South African writer J. M. Coetzee echoes this very imagery of the master/slave trope: there is a harrowing depiction of black slaves being frog-marched through a barren outpost with wire yoked through their bloodied cheeks. Here overt violence and animalistic savagery extend the metaphor. Coetzee implicitly constructs the dual tethering of oppressor to oppressed by inserting a redoubling paradox: while the oppressed is undoubtedly the true victim, the oppressor is likewise a victim of his own moral depravity. Accepting the 1987 Jerusalem Prize, he said, “These deformed and stunted relations between human beings have their psychic representation in a deformed and stunted inner life.”

Coeztee’s early projects as a writer similarly focused on exposing the tensions which exist between the oppressive and the oppressed. In The Life and Times of Michael K, Michael is born with a cleft lip which hampers his ability to speak and so his whole life is subjected to a kind of Kafkaesque manipulation, while in Foe, Friday is literally without a tongue and his bondage to Cruso is exemplified by Cruso’s ability to speak where Friday cannot, but also therefore his ability to speak for Friday and narrate his voice. When someone else speaks for you, who is speaking? What is Cruso saying about Friday’s life while Friday cannot? What is Pozzo saying about Lucky? As such the parable in Foe is what Patrick McGrath in a 1994 New York Times essay claims is Coeztee’s, “idea that those without voices cease to signify, figuratively and literally.”

The reason I draw so extensively on these literary allusions is to establish the imagery which correlates to the universal specificity of prejudice and discrimination. In plainer terms, we are dealing with power and how power is proportioned and how power is dispensed. Power is charged through sound and seeks to maintain its currency by its hold over silence. Silence, meantime, is itself full of the desire to speak, is indeed speaking all the while, but it will never access power – or literally be “empowered” – unless ways are sought to amplify its own sound, give it the space to answer back, to balance or democratise the stage from which dialogue and discourse originate.

The metaphor of all this translates with ease onto the template of modern social strata. Though the vanguards of these movements must never be complacent, and the job is far from done, the comparable gains made in the fight for so many important human rights and social justice issues in the past sixty or so years is unquestionable.

In redressing these imbalances of power a simple but seismic change has occurred: the space on the stage has been re-coordinated and the scenes of the script rewritten to allow the entry of other actors into the dialogue. The results are the beginnings of a correction to the imbalance of power structures which, like Pozzo and his rope, strangulated the voice of the oppressed under the threat of an ever present noose. After years of waiting in the wings, being in the marginalised side-lines, these once silent and diminished voices are being amplified.

While they are talking – in their own voices – while they are now commanding the stage, others are being forced to listen. What is essential is creating these entry points, establishing validity in the eyes of the patriarchy, exploring ways of allowing dialogue to begin and power to balance itself out. It’s in the dogged persistence towards achieving this bilateralism which underpins the basis of any conflict resolution. Talking and listening. Listening and talking.  


There is a remarkable man in Zimbabwe, a renowned psychiatrist by the name of Dixon Chibanda. In the early 2000’s there were just two psychiatrists serving over 12 million people and yet in the wake of serious national trauma triggered by dire economic hardship, political violence and a general decline in the rule of law, the country was going through a mental health crisis: one in four Zimbabweans was thought to be afflicted with clinical depression and anxiety and yet this is suffering which has always attracted stigma, a label of weakness and shame. “Tough men don’t cry” is an old by-line instilled by the patriarchy, a variant of the old colonial “stiff upper lip” sensibility. There is also a Shona word, kufungisisa, which literally means “thinking too much.”

Professor Chibanda realised that around 4 million people were in need of treatment which they simply weren’t receiving, 90% of whom did not have access to evidence-based talking therapies or modern antidepressants. Given the scale of the crisis, he realised the need for an unorthodox intervention and in 2006 came up with the simple but brilliant idea of starting what would become the Friendship Bench program. In a bustling market suburb of Harare called Mbare, he installed a single bench under the shade of a quiet tree. He then set about to train community grandmothers, or ambuyas, in evidence-based talk therapy and attentive listening as an accessible alternative to mental illness care.

These matronly grand ladies have always held the respect of their communities; their life-learned wisdom is highly regarded. The theory was the grandmothers would simply sit on the benches and wait for people to approach. A polite conversation would begin; the grandmothers would listen for tell-tale signs of the markers highlighted in Professor Chibanda’s training and then they would begin to dispense advice, listen further, share stories, build trust. Over time news spread of the grandmother’s work and so a quiet and modest revolution was begun, all based on dialogue, on talking and listening, listening and talking.

Chibanda’s concept was simple but cut right to the rub of the problem: depression was looked on as a weakness and so depressed people were not talking about their problems, had no outlet for their distress and were not empowered to feel as if speaking up was valid. What they needed to do was break their silence but in the presence of a trusted elder who could transcend normal patriarchal traditions and provide much needed compassion, empathy and understanding.

Today the success of the Friendship Bench program has been widely heralded. The reason it works is clear to see; it is itself an allegory in operation. Of course all clinical intervention relies on talking therapies but Chibanda’s stratagem is ingenious because it inverts the conventional model of conducting therapy in a closed room and transplants it to an outdoor bench; the private is made public, and so the contemptuous made tolerable. By doing this, old social stigmas are being craftily deconstructed: the very transparency of the project, the exposed environment in which the bench is positioned, the fact that both the ambuya and her companion can be seen engaged in constructive conversation not only sends a clear message about the importance of addressing mental health issues, but also fosters an openness of approach; it draws people towards it, it welcomes and not excludes.

From Dr Chibanda’s project I take several points of reflection. Firstly, his strategy started with the identification of a stigma. He knew he couldn’t address the problem until he cracked the fear which surrounded it. If we wish to address homophobia we need to pinpoint roots of entry into a complex set of contentions. Certainly, it’s a deeply antagonistic subject in the context of cultural relativism and religious belief, but such unapproachability portrays a status of privilege which does not cancel out an axiomatic reality: the fact that 5 – 8% of any collective of people anywhere in the world, regardless of ethnic, cultural or religious demographic, identifies as gay. In Zimbabwe alone this is close to one million people: one million people who desperately need to somehow enter the stage and break their silence, or, to use Chibanda’s paradigm, just sit on the bloody bench and have a conversation.

In Chibanda’s case he circumvented a mainstream cultural reluctance to address mental illness by signifying its association with respected community leaders, people whose stature desists challenge, defies critique and whose authority is a social given. This was a classic case of harnessing leadership and symbiotically tethering the plight of the social fugitive with the credence of the social grandee. Think, for example, Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa.

Of course it takes courage and audacity to raise your head above the parapet, especially in an atmosphere which is already censorious to dissent, but what Chibanda clearly realises is that people-oriented problems require people-powered solutions. That may sound obvious, but it’s evident the State itself is not anytime soon going to intervene in the fight against homophobia just as the State was never in a position to provide mental health care to 4 million patients in 2006.

The problem is that the very people who need to be advancing these issues of fairness, equality and tolerance are themselves beholden to the patriarchy’s absolute stranglehold over power. The old saying, “evil happens when good people do nothing” points to the very dispensation which allows injustice to go unchallenged, where the very people who ought to be holding the system to account have themselves long ago been beaten into submission with the club, or else they too have given up, shrugged their shoulders, and exited the room. Once bitten, twice shy.

And so, we tend to have a cautious paralytic response, petrified of giving offence, of treading on toes, where what we need are cage rattlers, truthsayers and outright provocateurs. The system fashions a social order of professional elders who either start to defend the indefensible or else become passive bystanders in a system which, as Coeztee noted, toxifies everything within it; stunting and deforming everyone. What are the consequences to nationhood when discrimination is so totalising in its reach and influence? As Coetzee suggests, the entire national psyche is condemned.

He was particularly referencing apartheid and colonialism, or, simply put, racism: discrimination which causes such ubiquitous deformity and triggers tragic regenerating cycles of moral sickness. No one and no thing emerges untouched by the depravity of these systems; not the victims, not the perpetrators, and not the bystanders: the very air is infected. I’m not talking about levels of suffering; but about levels of contamination, the moral turpitude which still resonates to this day.

Homophobia may certainly not have the catastrophic historical significance of racism, but its pathogenesis is identical. It’s a social disease just the same. When I mentioned earlier my distress at thinking how dangerous it was that students in my country should be left exposed to the ramifications of my episode, I was talking about just this risk, this potential for absolute moral blinding. The youth, in whom we place the fate of our future, the ability to rescue our fortunes where we have squandered them, can under no circumstances be subject to the risk of contracting from their elders the very diseases these older generations seem incapable of shifting, which will continue to stunt and deform us all. Uncontested, these prejudices pass down from father to son as easy as one candle lights another and so is it surprising that when we allow such projections of moral bankruptcy to map onto our children, countries continue to sink into dysfunction the way they do?

To arrest this, we need to recalibrate our entire approach towards any and every issue which threatens national contagion. But how to do it? What needs to happen is a revolution in the way our best human capital speaks back to power. Here the function of education is essential; the school must become a training ground for moral mercenaries of a newer order. Schools need to effect wholescale changes in the attitudes and presumptions they engender in our youth and they need to do so away from the malign overreach of the patriarchy. They need to become hermetic entities prevaricating the stench of the political and eviscerating the annals of tradition.

Schools – and I’m speaking directly in relation to my country – will claim they tackle a whole raft of lingering social discriminations, but it’s a fallacy. What they do is pay lip-service to the vagaries of a pretentious mission statement which simply reeks of hypocrisy. There’s still elitism, there’s still racism, there’s still sexism and there’s certainly still rampant homophobia. I should know as I was part of the system. I was one of the very people who should have been at the forefront of change – sitting on the bench and calmly working to determine a better outcome – but instead I was too weak and timid to ever speak up or act to break the very cycle which had in my own schooldays so affected me. I was at the very centre of a tragic failure of leadership and I see clearly now the consequences of my own moral apathy.

Additionally, what currently tends to happen in a country like Zimbabwe is that “religious law” supplants “natural law”* or, if you like, “national law”. People brandish their bible as if it were the constitution. Their recourse to justice is rooted in biblical edict not national law. Whereas national law is subject to arbitration, religious edict is absolute. While national law is democratic; religious law is monocratic. What this does is not only compromise the entire realm of discourse based on reason, but establish a propensity for all echelons of society to be unquestionably differential to the religious moral high ground. This has influenced, with drastic consequences, those very leaders of society whose position as lodestars we need to shift more towards “natural law” if we are going to harness their status in helping to breakdown entrenched stigmas and taboos. 

This is not a conspiracy to undermine the validity of religious beliefs, but rather to suggest that modest Kantian ethics could play a part in mediating an acceptable moral framework where religion is concerned. In Kant’s treatise, Metaphysics of Morals, he suggests that, “every human being has a legitimate claim to respect from his fellow human beings and is in turn bound to respect every other.” This is a simple statement calling for fundamental mutual respect as the basis for any human interaction. It not only restores the primacy of natural divine law as in, “every person is equal in the eyes of the law,” but equalises the moral starting point of every interface. It additionally arrests the current toxic prefiguration of the patriarchy in social dynamics and reverts to bilateralism which restores valid agency to every individual. In effect, this is exactly what Chibanda has achieved: it’s a form of civic humanism or utilitarianism that aspires to maximise well-being for all at no cost or loss to anyone.

School principals, teachers, coaches and seniors need to inhabit the roles of national sages and moral watchmen in the singular issue of denouncing all discrimination, no matter its origin, in spite its complexities, but hate-based discrimination itself in principle. And there can be no half-way measures and no exceptions: discrimination is discrimination. Nor, as Kant would demonstrate, is it a matter of asking these leaders to compromise their own personal beliefs, but rather to separate the validity of a belief from the consequences of an action. It’s a matter of encouraging an approach from the point of view of the categorical imperative of mutual respect. Even for them to say that, “I may not personally agree with you, but I have a responsibility to ensure you are treated with dignity and fairness,” would, just in the broader context of Zimbabwe alone, be significantly transformative to the entire socio-political landscape.

If we could achieve this, we would in theory have the equivalent of the grandmothers, and what we need next are the actual benches.

Here the efficacy of the project rests in its very crucial conspicuousness, its unapologetic signification as a “location with designated purpose.” Viewed in this light, the bench becomes both multi-functional and multi-dimensional; it’s an object of bland pragmatism to most while being a place of refuge for others. It passes as virtually meaningless to those who just come to sit on it, but has a whole other meaning for those who come to talk. It’s both figurative and literal, being one thing while being another entirely; it’s a support but it’s also a bridge. Its benign duality incorporates clever utility which cuts to the heart of Chibanda’s mission: he is drawing attention to mental illness while paradoxically making mental illness unworthy of attention. He is taking stigma and placing it under a lamp and daring people to gasp.  

But the parable can be extended to make a bench just as easily an entire institution. The corridors of a school mean nothing to the jaunty kid who strolls down them blissfully content with life, but to the boy who’s suffering with acute anxiety they can just as likely be trails of torture. As educators, one of our supreme ambitions, surely, is to ensure that every corridor becomes just as dull and dreary to every kid. Our responsibility should be in removing the meaning out of what need not have any significance to begin with.

Young people need to know that when they go to school in the morning, someone there has literally “got their back,” that someone has exercised their responsibility to ensure as best they can that the school itself is not awash with stigma and that every person will treat every other person with mutual respect, regardless of what differences, physical or ideological, separate them. Indeed, by its very definition the school has a duty to protect what happens inside its walls from what is going on outside. It should be a sanctum from maniacal sensibility, an architecture of fortitude.

The fundamentals of what a school should be in a democracy to what they are in a patriarchy expose a telling failure. As Carol Gilligan talks about in relation to her work on the ethics of care, “within a patriarchal framework, care is a feminine ethic. Within a democratic framework, care is a human ethic.” It’s not surprising that many of my students have reported to me a sense of being uncared for at school only to go on and be embraced by a university: there is a disconnect of ideology here which keeps these hallways of horror in constant motion. Just as the Friendship Bench is a democratising force – anyone can approach, anyone can sit, anyone can speak – and so cares for the whole human, every human, a school needs to be assertive of its true democracy, its entire sense of inclusion. Only by doing this will the school – or a church, or a very community for that matter – become fully like the bench, in its entirely a structure of support, emphatically a bridge between despair and happiness, between the bleak now and a brighter hereafter.

Only by doing this, have the conditions on the bench and around the bench been established. Only then can the still voice step forward on the stage and break his silence. Only when the rope around his neck has been loosened and the club wrenched from the hand of the bully in the room, can equality begin. Only when there is an understanding of how dialogue will take place, an agreement that it will be an equal transaction of sound and silence, of statement and response, can there begin to be a sense of rightness. Only when the “torrent of language being employed” in this silence, as Pinter would say, is properly amplified and so can at last be heard, will we all finally be freed from our demons.

*Natural law refers to the use of reason to analyse human nature to deduce binding rules of moral behaviour.


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© Neal Hovelmeier and Harvard University, 2019

Image - Kevin Grady/Radcliffe Institute

Breaking My Silence: Amplifying Our Voices as 'Others' A Humanitarian Lecture for the Public Harva: Text
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