As part of Women’s Month Commemoration, the Sol Plaatje University (SPU), hosted a Public Lecture on the Story of Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman. The lecture was presented by the acclaimed South African writer, poet and story teller, Diana Ferrus. The evening kicked off with tunes from the University’s choir and a poem by award winning writer, Sisca Julius who prepared the stage for the celebrated story teller’s lecture.
Saartjie Baartman was a South African Khoisan woman who due to the size of her buttocks was taken from her home by a man called William Dunlop who exhibited her as a freak show of attraction in the 19th century across Europe. He charged one shilling for those that wanted to see her and a little more for those that wanted to touch her buttocks. She was further forced into prostitution. Saartjie was used as a sexual object to please the spectators and researchers’ curiosity. Caged like an animal her spectators could watch, poke, and plunge at her body. She died alone without her family or friends, in a foreign place within a year in 1815 in Paris.
After her death, the Khoisan woman’s body was dissected and her brain cut open. Her genitals were placed in a container and kept at a museum in France called, Musee de L’homme for further viewing. Even in death she could find no escape from the humiliation and violation of her body, “They were obsessed with her body because they wanted to write theories about black women,” said Diana Ferrus during her speech.
Diana Ferrus is well known for her poem on Saartjie Baartman’s story. The idea came to her in 1998, while she was studying in Utrecht in the Netherlands. She came to learn about the Khoisan woman and touched by the story, she knew she had to do or say something. As feelings of being homesick started creeping in, she wondered how Saartjie must have felt and so put pen to paper and produced a poem in Saartjie’s memory titled, “I have come to take you home”. The poem is believed to be the reason for the repatriation of Saartjie’s remains.
“This is a story about all women and not just Baartman. Her story is one of pain, loneliness, humiliation and home-coming. As we commemorate Women’s Month, it is imperative for us as women to ensure that a story such as this one does not repeat itself. History is our biggest teacher, let us learn from it, let us learn from the power of words. If a poem can make such a tremendous change, it demonstrates just how powerful words can be”, said the Deputy Vice Chancellor of SPU, Mary Jean Baxen.
Diana concluded her lecture with a short story she wrote on Saartjie Baartman. The audience was moved by the story teller’s narration and illustration of how the South African woman was taken from her home and humiliated. This sparked emotions in the audience and brought on discussions on the current social ills of society, gender based violence, and the suppression of women in society. One of the audience members, Patsy P Alley, says that the evening’s experience brought back memories of what it is like to live as a transgender woman.
“I was truly moved by Sarah’s story, so many themes came to my mind; objectification, exploitation and subjugation. It also makes us look at how black human beings were viewed from a Eurocentric point of view, it was viewed as one that is not human or beautiful. As a transgender I can relate to Sarah’s story as I have been ridiculed because my body does not represent what other people deem women are supposed to look like. Women’s bodies are not valued or respected and this is truly something that has to change,” Patsy says.
The Griqua people tried to have the Khoisan woman’s remains repatriated to South Africa in the 1950’s but with no success. The late Baartman finally made her way back home in 2002, after a bill was introduced in France which forced the government to act on the matter.