“The Silence Beyond the River: Encounters with the lives of ukuthwala” is the work of photographer Melanie Doucakis, the culmination of her work with Media Monitoring Africa’s (MMA) project on ukuthwala, supported by Kindermissonswerk “Die Sternsingers”. The ukuthwala project was a natural follow on from MMA’s 2010-2011 project on child protection & trafficking, as a dimension of human trafficking in South Africa as forced marriage.

The exhibition photographs and stories were collected over a period of 4 months in the Eastern Cape in 2013, while conducting interviews with individuals from different spheres of communities on ukuthwala.

Special acknowledgement goes to Lusanda Ngcaweni, who as research fellow for the project, played an invaluable role in the realisation of this exhibition. Her understanding and sensitive approach with communities and her tireless translation of hours of interview recordings allowed these stories to now be heard.

The purpose of the project was to come to a greater understanding of the practice of ukuthwala, and specifically how it is portrayed in the media. MMA observed how stories had appeared in South African media of the perversion of the cultural practice, some highlighting the view that the practice should be criminalised as a relic of a patriarchal past, while others highlighted traditionally oriented communities seemingly digging their heals in, in order to protect their culture from outside interference. The aim of the project was firstly to gain greater insight into the practice by obtaining the views and voices of those in communities where the practice occurs, including children. Secondly, to understand how the different sides of the dialogue are portrayed in the media. Ultimately, to contribute meaningful input into the current discourse and hopefully to a collective solution.

The project saw how ukuthwala, as a perceived part of culture, was frequently understood in contradicting ways, so communicated by the people interviewed. In addition numerous statements made particularly by some of the young women who had been married through this practice, starkly highlighted broader challenges of life in these rural areas where ukuthwala manifests and which play a role in perpetuating the practice. Ukuthwala was often communicated as a perceived solution to some of these very real challenges, where lived realities of people provide little alternative solutions to these challenges.

It became noticeably evident how people hold to their identity as a reflection of their society, embedded in the idea that ‘this is just how things are’; because that is their reality, there is no other. These photographs tell of real South African’s living in this rural reality, one that can be said to be on the other side of a cultural ‘rift’. By seeing them, we hope that a greater understandingly will be shaped of the diversity of South Africa’s collective citizenry and how opposed they can sometimes be, and that with this understanding questions will be asked and solutions devised. Additionally by highlighting these complexities it must be seen, as with trafficking, that the many underlying contributing factors and complexities involved need solutions to be found, without which the abuse of those who are vulnerable will continue. This is the first step to figuring out how to build a better country for all citizens, women men and children.