I have wanted to write on this subject for a while now and I kept brushing it off. Mostly, because I thought it would make me look weak. I am a young outspoken feminist, how I’m I going to let someone bully me huh?
But recently, I got selected to participate in the Mandela Washington fellowship and a one of Malawi’s online newspapers caught it and an article appeared on their site about the fellowship. The publication is popular for its really disgusting commentators who hide behind fake names.
So here I was, sharing this article with my friends and family and generally excited that I got into the YALI fellowship. Then I scrolled down to the comments section (yes, I broke the rule of not reading the comments) and they were horrific and totally unrelated to the article.
I will not glorify the commentators by highlighting what was written but when I saw the comments; I brushed them off at first, like most of us Malawians do. I actually told myself, “This happens all the time on this site”. It did not hit me then that I was endorsing the comments by not doing something about it!
When my mum came home from work and started with “you are not ugly Lusu, you are beautiful”, I just broke down. It all came back to me. This was not the first time I had felt helpless over being attacked by a faceless person. This is what made it harder for me to express any kind of emotion. But when my mum mentioned it, I projected my hurt to her. I was so angry and thought of all the things I would like to say and do to the ‘ghosts’ who had decided to come after me.
In the course of a past relationship, I constantly got calls, texts and whatsapp messages from women I had never met. It was awful. I reached a point where I second- guessed myself and my self-esteem was at its lowest. I was angry at myself too for letting it affect me in this way as I was convinced then that it wouldn’t be accepted as a real issue.
For months, I jumped when my phone rang and I cringed when I got a message from an unsaved number. When I traveled to new places, I kept wondering if one of my cyber bullies was there and watching. It was a very stressful time in my life. When I asked one of my friends if I was being paranoid, she told me I wasn’t and she encouraged me to write about it. I didn’t.
You can imagine my excitement when I saw hash tags like #cyberbullying start to trend. Conversations about cyber bullying have recently become popular and I have felt less paranoid since my fears in a way seem validated. I have read stories of cyber bullying and I have admired from afar people who have stood up for themselves against cyber bullying. I say from a far because every time I have experienced cyber bullying, I chose silence.
Moreover, in Malawi, cyber bullying seems like a non-issue. I went to Google and tried to find statistics on cyber bullying in Malawi. What I got was something along “…future studies to assess whether technology facilitated bullying (cyber bullying) occurs in Malawi.” Like I suspected, the data is almost non- existent. This is not right. The culture of silence and passiveness in Malawi allows the bleeding of ghastly behaviors that if ignored cause damage to real people- not people hiding behind a fake name or number. This coupled with the fact that Malawi has inadequate psycho-social services could translate to people who are hurt, bitter and angry but cannot get the support they need.
You only have to go to the comments section of online news outlets or ask randomly how many people receive threats, insults and whatever horrible staff through social media. All the friends I have talked to about this subject have experienced cyber bullying one way or the other and the most popular advice after you experience such is to just ignore it. Another popular piece of advice is to find solace in your faith. For instance, as a Christian, I should go back to all those verses that re-assure me of who I am in Christ. This is powerful and important for your sanity.
But I have found a significant problem in ignoring bullies. I have realized that bullies thrive on their perceived helplessness of those they see as victims. For me, I am strongly convicted that by ignoring cyber bullying which is a form of oppression is almost equal to participating in it. How many times have we seen a friend trolled/ terrorized online and we turned away and just felt relieved it wasn’t us? We have even re-tweeted or shared despicable face book posts of people we don’t even know and laughed, completely unaware of the damage we might be causing to a person. How many times have we been bored in the office and gone online to just enjoy the comments usually attacking other people?
Additionally, I am now convinced that ignoring this trend of cyber bullying in Malawi is equal to nurturing it. It has become the norm that wearing a mask and trolling other people on social media and through instant messaging is oky. Furthermore, when someone decides to fight back, they do not get the support they need. Cyber bullying in Malawi has become “rabid” as one of my friends said. Cyber bullies feel validated when they are not stood up to. When in actual sense, they are cowards who would never say what they write in your face. When they are not called out, they get their high.
There are a lot of people who suffer in silence after being cyber bullied. I recently read an article that mentioned how after something horrible and vile is written about you or you are called disgusting names, feelings of hurt and anger stay with you. Over time this builds up and can have serious effects on your wellbeing. This is why silence is no longer an option. I refuse to be helpless.
Finally writing my feelings and experiences down has given me back my power. I would like to ask that if you care about this issue, do not stay silent as well. If you have experienced cyber bullying, I encourage you to speak out, most times it is worth it. Don’t suffer in silence. On the other hand, you might have never encountered a troll but it is important that you call it out when you see it. The world is a better place when we all exist in harmony and love.
This does not mean not having different views or expressing your opinion objectively and respectfully. It means not feeling the need to belittle, threaten or attack a person based on their looks, their gender or their difference in opinion, values and beliefs. So next time, you want to re-tweet, share or comment, think; “is it true? Is it helpful? Is it inspiring? Is it necessary? Is it kind?