O jewa ke eng? – Speaking the unspeakable

Abuse. Brokeness. Cancer. Disaster. Electricity. Fire. Gender. Home. Ignorance. Jokes. Killed. Listeriosis. Money. Nervousness. Other. Penis. Queer. Respect. Sex. Trial. University. Virgin. Whining. Xanax. Zeros.

The A to Z of the human condition. This is the breath of responses garnered from what began as a simple question; “O jewa ke eng?”—loosely translated as “what is eating you up?” But more robustly it is a prompt into the deep problems, challenges and demons that are consuming you.

This question, posed by Keabetswe via Twitter on January 5th, resulted in twenty four thousand responses, twelve thousand retweets and forty one thousand likes. The responses mostly centre around the many psychological, physiological and physical problems that thousands of people are experiencing. These stories are mournful, extremely sad and deeply affecting. Pain made visible.

Anger and melancholy can often lock us in a freezing state and leave us feeling stuck and frustrated, often what helps us become unstuck is to shed our load.  It is often said that one of the most comforting things to hear is “me too”, perhaps this piece of wisdom partly explains the resonance of the #metoo movement. The “O jewa ke eng?” tweet and its many responses not only becomes an important moment for collective therapy but it also becomes a space for one to see oneself in another’s struggles and to see others in one’s own struggles.

Sure social media can foster delirium and hatred but when the actions of those who are on these platforms are sincere and real, it can also be a space for true expression and healing—an opportunity to democratise narrative.

At first glance this simple tweet that ended up trending on social media is quite easy to mock, but it is often the things that are easy to mock that have the potential to offer insight. “O jewa ke eng?” gives us a glimpse into the psychology of the youth (particularly in South Africa) and in a sense “the state of the nation”.

We often underestimate the extent to which many social spaces are oppressive—at home, in relationships, at work, in school—certain things can be said and others cannot. It was Grada Kilomba in her 2018 exhibition with the Goodman Gallery who asked; ‘who can speak?’, ‘what can we speak about?’ and ‘what happens when we speak? In a sense, this tweet speaks directly to this.

What makes this particular tweet relatable is its earnestness. Keabetswe did not claim knowledge or offer solutions or even offer that she would listen to the responses… she simply asked a question. And that question catapulted into a relatable moment.

I had a very brief chat with artist and 2018 Wits Young Artists Award finalist Oratile Konopi about this tweet. Konopi is part of the Bua Le Ênê artistic project, a project exploring the “matrix of masculinities”, thinking about gender and sexuality through candid conversations. A recent exhibition (situated at Wits’ Point of Order) by Konopi in collaboration with Thomas Hazey and Seez, uses this coded language that meaningfully encapsulates various experiences. When I asked him about his use of this phrase in the recent exhibition he responded:

I was captured by how this simple statement had the ability to create a platform for people to express what was affecting them. My work tries to do the same thingto create a relatable space where you hear a voice that reflects your own, while encountering others that might challenge that voice. This becomes a  space for conversation and a space for listening.

This statement came from someone who wanted to relate their experience. Whether consciously or unconsciously, they are sharing their perspective while creating a space for listening. In the same way,  Ênê is about people, expressing a reality, a desire, an imagined future and archiving the experiences the mainstream  overlooks. The question “O Jewa Ke eng?” Is a self-reflexive moment.

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