The story behind the Singer-Fighter

Benny Wenda's portrait is a prayer that hangs above my bed.

Please can I tell about the picture that hangs above my bed?

It’s a drawing of Benny Wenda, the Singer-Fighter.

It’s a portrait,

a memory,

a prayer.

On 24 February, Benny Wenda visited Rhodes University as part of his campaign to raise awareness for the brutal and racist genocide being perpetuated against the West Papuan people.

He is a freedom fighter, exiled chief, Nobel Peace Prize nominee and lobbyist for the independence of West Papua from Indonesia. He also plays the ukulele and wears the most radiantly regal attire. I still send a blessing to him every single day.

Before going to his presentation, I did some background research on Wenda and West Papua. I watched documentaries, read articles and wandered through websites that reported on the occupation, oppression and violence. I couldn’t fathom the injustice that was taking place in the western half of the island of New Guinea.

It was a horrible, horrible, evil affair – there was indescribable violence, widespread suffering and unimaginable exploitation. The Indonesians were stripping West Papua of their resources and executing the indigenous people. 

In the letter requesting a visit to South Africa, Wenda explained West Papua’s history, present and the pillaging:

“West Papuans are black Melanesians who arrived in New Guinea some 50, 000 years ago after migrating from the African continent; we remain part of the pan-African diaspora. We lived peacefully for thousands of years but in the 1800s, we were colonised by the Netherlands. Eventually, the Dutch recognised our right to nationhood; in 1961 they gave us our national flag with promise of independence.”

“However, the Republic of Indonesia wanted the vast natural resources of our country and was determined to take control of West Papua. The Indonesian government threatened to turn communist if the USA did not help them to take West Papua; in 1962 the USA forced the Netherlands to give my country to Indonesia.”

“We, the indigenous people of West Papua, were never consulted about this agreement. Since Indonesia’s occupation of West Papua in 1963, over 500 000 West Papuans have been killed or have disappeared during the Indonesian government’s enforced colonisation of the region and West Papua’s remarkably rich resources of gold, copper and rainforest have been pillaged.”

Another article was especially hard-hitting. It was a message from Gary Juffa, Govenor of Papua New Guinea’s Oro province to the people of Melanesia, the Pacific, Australia and the world. He asked a question imbedded with imagery that haunts me to this day:

“Is it okay if a child just about born was rudely ripped from the mother’s womb by a bayonet in a remote village in Wamena area West Papua and waved around impaled for all to see as a point to deter further acts of dissent by an Indonesian soldier trained in “our” country because the UN Decolonization Committee in 1965 did the “right” thing by handing a Melanesian people who were never consulted to Indonesia because of our Western economic interests?”

By the time I arrived at Wenda’s presentation, my heart was already riddled with shrapnel. But when I heard his words, listened to his song and saw the scenes on his slideshow, the shrapnel became bombs that ripped through my being. I was falling to pieces as he stood before the audience pleading for peace for his people.

In a desperate attempt to keep myself together, I sketched him while he spoke. I scribbled notes and quotes; I recorded his voice and I etched his image into my mind’s eye.

His pants were loose, black and crumpled above his ankles. His shirt was so red. Quivering feathers surrounded his smile, flecks of light were trapped in his gaze and shadowed lines framed his glowing eyes.

His ukulele was adorned with a sticker of the Morning Star – the West Papuan flag. He wore a matching badge over his heart, and a flag rippled in the background.

His stories were beyond anyone’s imagination. The suffering was impossibly immense. The images were windows into a world without humanity and his courage had carried him through the darkest times. He played his ukulele, sang his song and his words rung with horror and called for help.

“This is twenty first century people talking about ‘end of the colonialism’, ‘end of the discrimination’, ‘racism’,” said Wenda as he addressed the audience, “And because all the other leaders, like Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Mahatma Gandhi, other leaders not mentioned – those who sacrificed their lives to liberate, for all human beings being equal. The worst part is we are still facing the same situation of the past. It’s still happening right now.”

“Some of the elders had their tongues cut out of their mouths. Some of them were dropped from helicopters over the villages to warn people: if you do not vote for Indonesia, we will do this to you.”

“Every colony should be given the right to choose their own future, but West Papua didn’t. Today we are still a colony under Indonesia’s rule.”

“They [the Indonesian military] will round them [the villagers] up, beat them up. They take off the clothes and they burn the genitals. They still alive. This is what happens. There are few pictures that we can show you, because in West Papua, if you are holding a camera and running around the villages, you have to pass the military post. There, they take all cameras, mobile phones, everything away. It is lucky we have this picture to show what the Indonesians are doing in West Papua.”

“Every corner is a military zone in West Papua. We don’t have any freedom to speak. We don’t have any freedom to walk. Going to the garden. Hunting. Whatever. It’s always checkpoints. Always.”

On the slide, a photo of West Papuan people with their fists raised in front of a South African flag appeared.

“This is today. My visit here – my people are watching through the Facebook. They confidently come out on the streets because they know the history: what happened with you, what happened with apartheid here. They know the spirit of freedom here.”

Benny Wenda

Benny Wenda

After the presentation, I thanked him for, well, everything – his courage and his campaign. We briefly spoke about his bravery, his people and his plea, and he said something that I still carry in my mind:

“Even to say ‘West Papua’, it is a blessing. Please.”

I had to find a way to get more people thinking about West Papua – to know about Benny Wenda and to bless his people.

But Wenda had survived insurmountable tragedy and shared the tales of his heart. How could I possibly try to capture the experience, emotions and essence in an article that would inspire people to pray?

My mind and my heart grappled with his story. I buried myself in more research; graphic news clips, horrific statistics and dreadful documentaries. I was crushed, broken and entirely involved. I scratched at the walls of my heart for the words to tell his story.

Later that week, I went to Lauren Beukes‘ presentation in the Humanities Department. She’s a highly successful and spunky South African writer, and one of our biggest literary exports at the moment. In her presentation, she spoke about how her journalistic experience and practices served her fiction writing and contributed to her success. She described a killer combination of colourful facts with a splash of splendid comics.

Perhaps I could use that model? I could breathe fiction, imagery and illustrations into an account of an emotional experience. I could tell part of Wenda’s story, describe the presentation and use words as a weapon against injustice. I could weave a narrative that would raise awareness, report on the event and give meaning to the lines around Wenda’s suffered eyes.

So I sat down to write The Singer-Fighter.

Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 10.54.32 AM
But when I was finished writing the article, my heart was still so heavy with the aching of the West Papuan people. I needed to make more dark marks before I could feel lighter. I needed Wenda’s face to be freed from my heart and my black Bic pen.

BennyWenda_SdeVilliers_Photo1_270215So I sat down to draw.

With the words that I had a written still ringing in my mind, and thinking of the life behind Wenda’s lines and light, I drew his portrait on a blank white page with a ballpoint pen, watercolor paint and a heavy heart.

The final package was an illustrated, narrative and imaginative article that did surprisingly well online, thanks to social media and the globalisation of the Internet. The West Papua New site shared the link – as did the campaign’s Facebook group and a number of individuals. People who shared, commented and liked the piece showed that they cared.


May more people care about West Papua, Benny Wenda, his people and the plea for peace.

May their prayers be answered.



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