Two Stellenbosch University (SU) academics are the driving forces behind a new book containing a collection of 35 creative essays through which various South African women describe how the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic impacted their work and family lives, mental wellbeing and coping skills.
Contributions were received from researchers at Stellenbosch University and other South African institutions, and women who work in the corporate and NGO sectors. The essays reflect on how their once “normal" lived experiences have since dramatically changed, sometimes even bizarrely, and how women have had to cope with different layers of loss and care.
For co-editors Prof Amanda Gouws, SARChI Chair in Gender Politics in the SU Department of Political Science, and Ms Olivia Ezeobi of the Department of Economics, the book entitled Covid Diaries: Women's Experiences of the Pandemic serves as an important archive that documents women's voices amid the unfolding health crisis and the statistics that abound around it.
“It is a book about women, a piece of history, but in women's own voices, their own lived experience," explains Ezeobi, a lecturer and PhD candidate whose research interest is feminist economics.
“'Giving voice to' is a cardinal feminist ideal. So often women's voices are silenced, or their stories erased. This book creates the space for voice," adds Gouws.
The stories are categorised into five sections: “The Political is Personal", “The Personal is Political", “A Woman's Work is Never Done", “Of Motherhood and Care" and “The Body on the Front Line".
The sections deal with what the political conditions in which the lockdown ensued meant to people on a personal level, women's ever expanding care burden under the pandemic, and the compounding effect of the pandemic on other health related issues, such as mental health, aging, and cancer, as well as hopeful and uplifting stories.
The editors say they hope that the book might be cathartic and even therapeutic to many readers, as they may be able to recognise their own experiences in some of the essays.
“What struck me about all the stories is how beautifully they are written. There is exquisite language use in some stories in a way that you can see and feel the experience of the writer. It comes from a place deep inside, from being unsettled in ways that needed to find an expression in language," says Gouws.
Ezeobi describes some of the essays as “brutally honest and vulnerable". “The essays are about lived experience. These are the realities for these women, or the women they work with/for as activists and counsellors. The value is seeing the human every-day side of the impact of COVID-19 and lockdown, in women's own voices."
Her favourite essay is that of Jabulile Mpanza, a senior manager at a medical aid scheme, about her 79-year-old gogo (“To be aged, black and terrified"), as she sees her mother and late grandmother reflected in it.
“Loretta Williams' essay is also special to me, because she is the only one of the authors who, to my knowledge, had tested positive for COVID-19 at the time of writing. Loretta, who works at an NGO in the Swartland, wrote candidly about her initial denial and how she was also one of the unlucky ones who went on to become a COVID long-hauler – someone who had symptoms long after the infection," Ezeobi explains.
For Gouws, essays by SU psychology professor Lou-Mar֧i Kruger (on the suicide of a patient's mother), parliamentary gender researcher Ms Joy Watson (on the passing of her father) and SU historian Prof Sandra Swart (about the return of animals to cities in the absence of people) struck a chord.
The book is the first time that the two academics at SU, who share an interest in feminist theory and activism, collaborate. Ezeobi who relished the opportunity, says she hopes that more senior academics will follow Gouws' example of ensuring actual collaboration between established researchers and their less experienced colleagues.
When the pandemic started, Ezeobi had to adjust to working from home while also providing quality care to her toddler. Some days she had to revert to working in her car to grade essays or have MS Teams meetings, because she did not have access to an own office space. Her essay “A room of my own" was inspired by an essay by Virginia Woolf.
In turn, Gouws was on sabbatical while still supervising postgraduate students. She also had to cope with her husband's cancer treatment – or lack thereof within the different lockdown levels. In her essay titled “Things we lost in the pandemic", Gouws writes about her agony of losing seemingly everyday things like the carefree hugging of friends or seeing someone's smile.
“It is also a reflection on how we were forced into a digital world to become 'cyborgs' – the merger of human and machine. I argue that this pandemic is a corrective for human beings' neglect of the planet, of an ethic of care in an integrated ecosystem," she says.
- The book is published by Imbali Academic Publishers and available from leading bookshops. Its publication was made possible through NRF funding for the SARChI Chair in Gender Politics. For more information, contact Ms Olivia Ezeobi (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Prof Gouws (email@example.com). Readings from the book will soon be available in podcast format on the SARChI Chair blog: https://amandagouws.squarespace.com/
- Covid Diaries is dedicated to women who are frontline workers in recognition of their courage, and also to Prof Gouws' daughters and Ms Ezeobi's parents.