Friday, December 23, 2011

why do i blog?

I have been blogging for almost two years. When I started the blog I thought it was going to be a distraction from the arduous (and often painful) process of researching and writing up my Masters thesis. Much to my surprise I have been a keen and consistent blogger with regular readers who have encouraged me to keep writing. In spite of the limited readership of friends, family and facebook friends, I have enjoyed the process of thinking, “what shall I blog about this week?”.

A few months ago someone asked me why I blog. My response referenced bell hooks and how her writing had inspired me to give myself the opportunity to write, even though I wasn’t certain that my writing caused waves or whether there would be any faithful readers to entertain my thoughts. I discovered bell hooks in my third year and fell in love with her voice that made complex and heavy issues accessible and worth consideration. She gave me the words to understand some of the angst I was feeling at the time but was not able to express because I had not found the words to describe my frustrations with how I often view the world.

However, the real reason I carried on with writing regularly (which led to my first article in the Daily Dispatch and a little later this blog) was my encounter with Nontsizi Mgqwetho’s writing. Her voice has been my secret muse since my Honours year while doing isiXhosa literature. The thought of studying literature in an insignificant language (spoken by less than 30% of the people in South Africa) was a battle considering that I had majored in English literature during my undergrad and people had never questioned this. In spite of the scorn of studying literature in an African language I persisted and discovered a wealth of knowledge from books I may have never read if I had not taken isiXhosa as a course in my 3rd year at Rhodes.

I encountered Nontsizi’s writing through a friend who was reading for her Masters in English literature at the time. Nontsizi wrote poetry in newspapers in the 1920s. There hasn’t been enough research into her work apart from Jeff Opland’s collection of her work A Nation’s Bounty: the poetry of Nontsizi Mgqwetho. Her provocative voice in a male dominated era and medium captured my attention as a young woman in the 21st century. And I wondered: if she had the opportunities I have (access to the web and other forms of social media), her voice and writing may have charged many other minds into action. I don't know if she would accept the accusation of being a trailblazer as I see her, but she had a way of saying what she wanted to say unapologetically.

Her words resonate within me everyday: Asinakuthula umhlaba ubolile (we cannot keep quiet while the world is in shambles). This simple and profound sentiment makes sense to me now more than ever. There is still more that needs to be said about the leadership in this country, the same way Nontsizi addressed the fraught politics of her time. There is even more to be said about the position of women in our society the same way Nontsizi praised women like Charlotte Maxeke for their successes in the 1920s.

So I’ll keep blogging in the new year in the hope that my writing voice will add to the need for women to find spaces to express themselves as my blog has allowed me to do since 2010. Next year I will be in the real world as a teacher and I anticipate there will be endless stories to share from my wonderful school and the learners I will encounter...the best is yet to come, Woza 2012!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

being my mother's daughter

I will not be spending Christmas at home with my mother this year. I had the conversation with Mama explaining my change of heart and she sent me an sms which began with the sentence “I want you to carry on with your life...”.Being designated the baby in the family, I finally felt like I was being given permission to grow up (this is significant now that I’m finally moving to anoher province). Granted, this process began when I left home and moved into hostel and later to varsity. However the apron strings had never been fully severed. And spending Christmas away from Mama means some confirmation that it is possible for the apron strings to be cut.

Amongst the strange conversations I have had with Mama, the most vivid in my memory was about gratitude; where she was expressing how grateful she is that I chose her to be my mother. Amongst Mama’s ideas about the world, she believes that before we are born our souls are always alive and view the world from a celestial or spiritual realm of the unborn (I never asked if this is where the ancestors are as well). While watching the world, our souls are looking for wombs to be born through and the kind of woman we would like to raise and mother us. I chose my mother. It’s quite unsettling to think that I could make such a choice before I was physically born. And that amongst all the women in the world I would choose someone like Mama. Perhaps she is the only woman who would have been able to show me what compassion, empathy, resilience, fragility and vulnerability really mean.

Mother-daughter relationships are possibly the most complex relationships especially when they are fraught with an intimacy that leads to both pain and joy. Much of who I am has been shaped by what Mama has taught me and the values she raised me with. These have made me umntu, a person. However, my darkest moments where the carpet has been ripped from beneath my feet have also been a result of being raised by someone like my mother. The shattered pieces and insecurities still remain but being my mother’s daughter has taught me the importance of forgiveness.

I have never walked in Mama's shoes, yet I have been her golden child and her worst critic, which makes me wonder if I really want to be a mother. There are no guarantees when a mother (like mine) gives birth to a daughter (like me) into a world she does not trust nor feel can be a place for her to claim, but she is expected to teach a child how to “be” in the world. In spite of the unwritten loyalty between parents and children, there are no guarantees that the rules will not be broken by both the mother and the child; shifting the expectations where the mother should be the caregiver and the child being cared for.

Ukuthwala umntwana, ukuba nzima (to carry a child, to be heavy with child) is both biological and sacred; a moment and journey that is fraught with the legacy and shadows of grandmothers, great-grandmothers, ookhokho (ancestors), the living dead who raised children in difficult times. Before my grandmother passed away I listened to Bhele (my grandmother) tell me about her step-mother (Ma’Radebe,my great-grandmother’s clan name. It is common practice for people to be referred to by their clan names rather than their first names amongst Xhosa people ).Bhele and Ma'Radebe had a fraught relationship as some step-mothers and daughters do. I couldn’t believe that Ma’Radebe was the same woman who had raised my mother as both Mama and Bhele had contradicting memories about what my great-grandmother meant to both of them. According to Mama she was wonder-woman and according to Bhele she was the villan. This has always intrigued me while watching the relationship Mama had with Bhele, and the relationship Mama has with my sisters and I.

Being my mother’s daughter, I sometimes wonder if there’s a wretched soul hoping to be born and whether I will be their chosen one. My eldest sister seems to think that there’s a child-shaped space in the psyche of all women, that we all have to have children otherwise we will spend the rest of our lives feeling like something is missing. I don’t think this is a compelling argument for me to have a child, but the truth is, into zangomso asizazi (we don’t know what the future holds). I might be as lucky as Zeus, and Athena could pop out from my head any day!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

a room of one's own

The first time I had my own bed was in high school. I moved into hostel when I was 16 and shared a dorm room with 3 other friends. The only possessions I had were in a single bag my mother bought from PEP. Prior to moving into hostel I’d always shared a bed or mattress with my sister. We learned the economy of space and the importance of sharing when we moved around during our childhood, often into one-roomed flats. My parents shared a single bed and my sister and I slept on the floor.

Sharing space and having no privacy was part of my childhood and early teens. Having no space to be and think was the norm. It was only in Grade 12, where in hostel it was a matric privilege to have a room of one's own that I began to relish the endless joy of having my own room with a key and a lock. My own private space to think. It was by leaving the one-roomed flat (that I called home) that I was able to have a room of my own.

I have bitter-sweet memories of sharing space with my family in cramped rooms. No-one had to tell me but I knew that having space in the world where the outside can't come in is a privilege for many young women who grow up in poor families and can't afford the middle class idea of home and space: where everyone has their own room and cupboard to store, control and protect the possessions they have. Having a room means privacy and a space to be alone and even to be naked unashamedly. To be quiet with one’s thoughts or be allowed to sleep with no disturbances and even a place to hide. I have learned to love being alone and it often feels as though it's a privilege that someone can take away from me.

Yesterday I handed back my keys to my landlord for the flat I've been renting for the past year. Seeing the empty room I wondered about the stuff and things I’ve accumulated since my arrival in Grahamstown. Now that I have to move to another city I wonder why I feel the need to own stuff and things. Instead of one bag as I did when I moved into hostel almost 10 years ago, now I have boxes with books and handbags and odds and ends I’ve convinced myself I need. I can’t take any of them home (where my family is) because I live out of a suitcase and share a room with my sister and nephew. I grew up living with the bare necessities: school uniform and clothes that I could share with my sister, but now my bare necessities seem to include books, handbags and jewelry and scarves that I still haven’t been able to give away in spite of moving to another province.

As I look for a place to stay in Cape Town for next year, I am reminded of my restless childhood where we always seemed to be in between places. Each time we moved was a negotiation of what was necessary and what possessions were a luxury because we always seemed to be moving to smaller and smaller spaces (until our most recent move 5 years ago where we moved into a house with 2 bedrooms and proper cupboards). One would think after all the moving experiences I have had; I would have learned not cling to anything because things are just things and can be easily destroyed or taken away from me. However, I still like to think of myself as having enough. And somehow I will find another room of my own which will have enough space for the stuff and things I have accumulated. This shouldn’t be a luxury, but a part of growing up and finding somewhere to hide when it is necessary and be allowed to negotiate entrance into the world as I wish.

[*title from Virginia Woolf’s work]