16 November 2016

How Earphones Help Me Navigate Public Spaces

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I'm coming up to three weeks of navigating the world without earphones. The pair that came with my current phone seems to have disappeared to where beloved things go. I wasn't too upset when I realised because only one earphone was still working at that point. But this sudden disappearance has meant that I'm commuting and walking in a way that might suggest that I'm more interested in engagement than I actually am. When in doubt, assume I'm not. Truthfully, people merely being in your orbit does not automatically mean they want to talk to you.

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When I lost the set of earphones that came with my phone, it had been a solid month since I'd listened to music on my commute. Not only was I down to just one bud, but the other kept catching and dropping sound in the most irritating way. But they stayed glued to my ear. Let's face it, being in public is embarrassing enuf without having to force yourself to be plugged into the horror all the time. And that's how I navigate and cope with being around strangers far too early in my day and long after I've repeatedly imagined myself at home, enveloped by the me-ness of the environment.

When I still had those broken earphones, I would sit with them playing sweet silence and glare at people talking to me, daring one of them, any of them, to reach for the cord.  Aside from the "No facebook, whatsapp, earphones" stickers on taxis, the most I've felt tried about wearing earphones  in public was by a man as I was talking to a woman tallying up my purchases someplace. He had the nerve to stop whatever he was doing and say, "uzozwa kanjani ufake ama-earphone?" Lol I informed him that the sound was in mute and insisted he mind his own life.

Mphiwe, my sister, and I often talk about the tools that help us cope with street harassment. "Unyoko" is one. We've weaponised the phrase in such a way that, whether inflected with amusement or dripping with disgust, we get a little satisfaction from invoking these men's mothers. Earphones are the other tool. 

My sister is tall, a few centimetres shorter than me, she is slim, unyathela ngabantwana and she has this walk that I always tease her about but is hers. "Hheyi wena slender!" Men who feel entitled to acknowledgement, conversation or a glance back say. She walks taller and can plausibly pretend they do not exist in her universe when she has her earphones in. I think this is why when she reports that her current set at the time is doing the least, I always try to come through with a new one. To give her that safety net. 

I believe earphones and headsets help us shrink our worlds to a tiny ball that does not stretch beyond our songs on repeat, podcast episodes, ebooks, silence as we run the to-do list, that conversation, that emoji use over and over again. Whether there's anything playing or not, we can pretend that we did not hear what people encroaching on our space and time say. We deserve that space.

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I was sent these headphones (from Mr Price) by the lovely humans at Meleniamag.com

Please share what you listen to when the world feels too big but you have to be in it, so you shrink it to a song or silence dressed as its opposite.

On my side, here is Swarovski Spiderwebs by Letters Fitzgerald (of which I tweeted this) | jellystone.park by Irrelevant Papi | moonbeans off of jellystone.park by Irrelevant Papi | Alien Suite by Safia Elhillo and a few tracks on Sjava's Isina Muva. 


  1. I often say that my earphones do an important public service when they blank me out to the various harrowing elements of occupying a spot on the street. Without them, I am simply irritated and over it.

  2. 1. How cute are those headphones? OMG
    2. I have been listening to D'Angelo's Voodoo a lot. It makes me feel like I'm walking in one of those virtual reality gwans and the only real thing is me and the music.

  3. Why is my life all over this blog babhemu. lol. this is so me!.The music depends on how I'm feeling. Metallica one day, agnes Obel the next, a little wololo here and there, Some priddy ugly. just nje. Also got a Dan Browns audiobook since i can never finish the hardcopy.

    Mvumikazi | Urban Mnguni |


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