Book Club

“Period Pain” by Kopano Matlwa

By Hillary Essien | Apr 20, 2022
TRIGGER WARNING; mental illness/sexual abuse

For Sexual Assault Awareness month, Document Women will be highlighting “Period Pain” by South African author, Kopano Matlwa.

“This is the problem of knowing, of knowing but not knowing, of knowing too much but not enough to fully understand. Webs of lies. History is a con man; history writers change stories to suit the times (their times!) and memory is weak and unreliable. And truth? Any man’s guess. And what of woman? The first fool.”

Matlwa deeply and intensely draws the reader into the gruesome and harsh reality of post-apartheid South Africa through the eyes of Masechaba, the protagonist. She intimately addresses these issues through Masechaba’s journal entries; which is what the entire book is, punctuated by scriptures and mostly addressed to God about her thoughts, feelings, faith, doubts and beliefs. The reader is submerged into Masechaba’s mind, a tough journey laced with vivid descriptions and details of traumatic events. 

The title of the book references the protagonist’s struggle with severe menorrhagia and endometriosis from a very young age, a condition that inspires her to pursue a medical career later on. As intimate as journal entries go, Masechaba bares her thoughts and struggles to the reader. She writes about her struggles in coming to terms with her brother’s suicide, a death that continued to feel like a betrayal. She writes about her struggles as a junior doctor, a career she had looked forward to all her life, but she is now torn by exhaustion from horrific working conditions, a crumbling public healthcare system, frustration and guilt from how desensitised she is to the pain of her patients.

Masechaba writes about Nyasha, a Zimbabwean co-worker who naturally becomes one of her only friends from work, they later move in together and Masechaba gets to sit front row to Nyasha’s endless rage and prejudice towards South Africans, and who can blame her? We read Masechaba’s accounts of the extreme xenophobic experiences Nyasha and other non-South African co-workers faced at work and a series of xenophobic attacks within their community. 

Masechaba and Nyasha’s friendship raises eyebrows among South African superiors and co-workers at the hospital, some of whom took it upon themselves to question Masechaba on why she decided to have relations with a [slur word] including Masechaba’s own mother. Nyasha on the other hand appears to feel betrayed by a friend who decides to fence watch. And so, caught between a rock and a hard place, inspired to find some purpose for her life where she could actually help people (as opposed to her medical career) Masechaba starts a petition to end the xenophobic attacks in her community, an initiative that gains her so much popularity and much more hatred. 

The outcome of Masechaba’s goodwill changes the course of her life forever. A catastrophic event throws her out of her mind and leaves her on edge with the world, God and herself. 

Period Pain highlights how women are used as collateral damage at the slightest societal unrest, it is also a tale of being and becoming.  It was not an easy read and being stuck in Masechaba’s mind for about 200 pages made it even harder but this is an important story that needed to be told.  “I tell Ma of the many horrific things our people overcome daily that go undocumented. I tell her that somebody must list them, all the bad things that are happening to them, to me, to us. Somebody needs to write them down.”

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