My Lil Sis Neo
While I have never been active on online dating sites or a frequent poster on social media, I met my “sister” through Facebook. Over the past two years, I have had the honor of traveling to Soweto, South Africa through my former high school, Bellarmine College Preparatory–an all-male Jesuit, Catholic high school. During my first trip in 2014, I spent a week living at St. Martin de Porres Parish and School. Whether it was organized events between Bellarmine and St. Martin students or street soccer games, I had only been able to develop close relationships with the young men of the community. After arriving back home after my trip, I felt the desire to continue my relationships with my friends in Soweto, and so as soon as I had access to internet, I logged onto Facebook and messaged my South African friends.
After several months of continued conversation and deeper dialogue, I felt that something was missing. None of my South African Facebook friends were women. As the product of single-sex education, I found this to be disturbing, especially as I began to question the perspective of my own masculinity. As a result, my friend Dumisani introduced to his good friend and classmate at St. Martin, Neo. We soon started chatting online and questions about the struggles of high school exams led to insights on being a woman growing up in Soweto. Together, our discussions wrote several new verses in our own philosophical creeds of life. In a family of only one older brother, Neo became my “lil sis.” In a household of only one younger sister, I became Neo’s “big bro.”
A few months after first meeting Neo, I found out that I would be returning to South Africa in June of 2015 to lead the next group of Bellarmine students. Not only did this mean that I would get to dive deeper into the Soweto narrative, but it also meant that I would finally get to meet Neo in person.
As I took my first steps back onto Soweto’s tangy soil, Neo greeted me with a hug of recognition. Hours of conversations online made our first meeting seem like a homecoming between brother and sister. Throughout the week, we continued our discussions of life in person, and our presence in the physical setting of Soweto allowed me to more fully grasp some of Neo’s struggles and challenges. While physical presence allowed me to witness some of the gritty reality that constitutes Neo’s daily life, one week in Soweto was not enough. Questions of life soon transitioned into questions of when we will see each other again. This past week that question was answered as I reunited with Neo again in Soweto.
Traveling to Soweto for six weeks as a part of The Simunye Project has given me the freedom of time to invest psychic energy into those who give me life. Rather than squeezing in time during the tight itinerary of a high school immersion trip, I now had the time and energy to be present to those around me. So, I spent an entire afternoon catching up with Neo and picking up where our conversations had left off. I recorded part of the conversation so that I could share the story of my South African sister.
On Being A Woman in Soweto
Throughout my last visit to Soweto and ongoing conversations with Neo, issues of gender had often been a recurring theme. After asking Neo about her experience of being a woman in Soweto, she said, “When you come from an underprivileged background, especially when you are a girl, elderly men tend to take advantage of you. There is this thing called blessers, and if you’re a woman, you are a blessee. So they kind of bless you…they buy you expensive things like clothes, jewelry, and as a result, you have to have sex with them for their money because they are taking advantage of who you are and where you come from. I think it’s really difficult to be a young woman in South Africa as a whole. You have to stand your ground to move on and have a future for yourself.” Upon diving deeper into the role of a blesser, Neo noted that “the blesser is probably 40, 50–something like that–and you find the girl is probably 16, 20. The age difference is huge. At first, they were called sugar daddies, and now they are called blessers. They think a ‘blesser’ is more attractive.”
Hearing Neo’s explanation of a blesser frightened me. Had I met a blesser or blessee? How do I stand by my friend in a society filled with abuse and corruption? I was afraid to ask these questions, but Neo continued… “I think I’ve been through a lot. I’ve gone through stuff that someone my age could not manage to go through and end up where I am. Through what I have been through and what has happened in my life, I think by now, I should have been pregnant or had like 3, 4, 5 babies by now if it wasn’t for my mom or the people around me–the support. I wouldn’t be who I am now. I wouldn’t know what I want in the future. Just looking at life in a different way…” After saying this, Neo looked at the smoggy Soweto sky, closed her eyes, and said, “For the fact that I’ve been through a lot and I’ve learned through this process, I think people can relate to my story because many have similar situations at home.”
Hearing these parts of Neo’s story made me feel less like a big brother and more like a small child. Here I was, devastated and in need of an explanation of the evils that had tortured someone so close to me. I felt trapped. I was at a loss and an emotionally unstable state, yet Neo was there to comfort me. Questions of why did this happen and how can I help turned into Neo offering insights of how she can help me grow as a man. She said, “You don’t have to be a father just to your biological children, you just have to be a father to everybody–just be a responsible man, respect other people. A lot of men abuse their power…all the time.” With this in mind, she went on to explain her own vision of women. “There are a bunch of women who have made a difference in their lives without men ruling them. I think that should be used to change how they think. There are some women out there who are doing it, who are making it, who are successful.” In bringing light to the effects of hypermasculinity on women, Neo emphasized that women “are humans too. They have feelings too. They have their own dreams and future. You just can’t take advantage of that. I have my own mind, I have my own ideas, I can do whatever I want.”