As I wrap up my experience working alongside the outstanding humans who make up the Justice Desk Africa (JDA), my heart is filled with emotion and there are tears in my eyes. I reflect upon how incredibly fortunate I am to have had the opportunity to spend the last month of my life surrounded by people of such exceptionally high caliber. From the first moment I walked into the office to the final words exchanged on my last day, I have felt nothing but warmth, kindness, and support from each and every member of this incredible team. I have never felt like just a work colleague or simply an intern. From the beginning I have been made to feel like a part of the family.
To say I’m sad to be leaving is an understatement. The people that make up this organization are genuine and possess huge hearts, and I am an infinitely better human after spending even this short amount of time with them. They provide a space where I can feel and act like myself without the fear of being judged or labeled as weak for having emotions and expressing the parts of myself that are considered feminine. I am so grateful for this experience because it has enabled me to give myself permission to feel and act in ways that I have always wanted to deep down but have been too scared to do so out of fear of being rejected by my community. Well, JDA exposed me to a new kind of community. One that empowers its members rather than restricts them. One that from the bottom up is built out of love and compassion rather than fear and judgment. One that celebrates the pursuit of self discovery and self expression rather than conditioning everyone to think and be a certain way.
I’m scared to return home because I don’t want to go back to a community that even subconsciously perpetuates a specific set of expectations for how a man is to act. At home I feel like I am stuck in a box. I feel pressure to be a certain way, and I’ve learned to hate and fear the parts of myself that don’t fit within those criteria. But at JDA, I feel free. Free to be who I am completely, wholeheartedly, and unapologetically. Knowing that such a community can exist, does exist, and after experiencing it firsthand, I am inspired to return to my own community and work to cultivate positive change in the direction of undefining and unrestricting what it means to be a man. JDA has empowered me with the confidence to be true to myself and to what I believe to be right, regardless of the way the community around me wants and expects me to be. An organization that can cultivate such a feeling for someone who only interned for a month is really, really special.
I share my personal experience simply to highlight just how impactful JDA’s work can be for those who are exposed to it. JDA produced remarkable changes within me, but for them, that is just another day’s work. JDA works to combat GBV on many fronts, and they succeed in targeting the root of the problem with their Mbokodo and iNtsika yeThemba Projects. These projects arm the youth of the next generation with the knowledge and tools they need in order to cultivate positive change within their communities, specifically within the realm of gender-based violence. The Mbokodo Project offers girls and young women empowerment workshops, mental health care support, and self-defence programs. Many of these girls are survivors of rape and gender-based violence. The iNtsika Project focuses on creating a space where boys and young men can break down the ideas of toxic masculinity through dialogue and learning, in order to cultivate a more positive masculinity that contributes toward the eradication of gender-based violence rather than perpetuating it.
For me, the most memorable moment of the internship was an event at the V&A Waterfront in honour of Women’s Day. The event was a combination of the two projects and featured choir performances from the Mbokodo girls and some iNtsika boys, as well as individual speeches. While the team did most of the heavy lifting when it came to putting on this event, I was fortunate enough to sit down with one of the iNtsika big brothers, Sethu, and help him prepare for his speech. As we discussed the kind of message he wanted to convey, Sethu shared with me his personal story and the lessons he has learned throughout his life and from being a part of the program. As a matter of fact, the iNtsika Project was actually his idea. Sethu is an exceptional young man, and his journey is evidence of the powerful impact and immense value of the iNtsika Project. To see him stand alone on stage and share his story during this event was a moving experience. Witnessing a young man who very easily could have become another gender-based violence perpetuator embracing his vulnerability and speaking out against the flaws within his community was inspiring, and it provides me with hope for the future.
Sethu was also a part of a silent protest featuring men standing together against gender-based violence, and I was asked to be a part of it as well. As I stood on stage holding that sign, my first feeling was fear. What would everyone back home think? Would I be seen and criticized as just another white dude riddled with guilt who was inserting himself into a battle that he had no right to be a part of? Would I be seen as virtue signaling? As selfish, self-centered, and stealing the spotlight?
Then I thought of my brothers. About the example that I want to set for them as far as what it means to be a man. I felt a surge of pride as I thought about them seeing me stand upon this stage, stone faced, as I stood in solidarity with other men who refused to diminish or downplay the seriousness of gender-based violence. I thought of my future kids. I thought of my daughter looking at her dad and knowing that I have her back and will listen to her and support her and believe her no matter what. I thought of my son looking at his father and thinking to himself, “a real man stands with women, and supports them in their struggles”. In that moment, I was exactly the person I have always wanted to be - the one that I struggle to allow myself to be every day of my life.
To each and every one of you at JDA, I want to say thank you. Thank you for the positive impact you have had on my life and my personal journey. Thank you for the impact you have had and continue to have on the young people of Africa. If I could bring back and implement even just one of your many incredible values into my own community, that would be a tremendous victory. You are a shining example of what a human rights organization should be - people who care about a cause with a burning passion, but more importantly, people who actually do something about it. Your work does not go unnoticed, and it is nothing short of world changing. Please, please, please keep doing what you’re doing. You change lives for the better, and the world desperately needs more of that.
Written by Ryan Garwood