This past Sunday, I had the pleasure of facilitating d’bi.young anitafrika’s poetry book launch of Dubbin Poetry: the collected poems of d’bi.young anitafrika (Spolrusie, 2019) at the South African Book Fair. As I welcomed everyone to the space, introduced the audience to her and joined them in applause, she took her heels off. She began to sing and walk among the audience. She moved effortlessly between song and poetry and even monologue. She looked deeply into each person’s eyes and held their gaze. She drew laughter and tears and a deep silence that held us all enchanted. She was a wonder to witness.
The past weeks have been particularly horrible in South Africa and, if you are a woman in this country, then it has been this way for a whole lifetime. Here, the murder and rape of women and girls is a casual and everyday occurrence. We live in the country where the South African Police Service (SAPS) will allow violent mobs of men to loot and commit arson almost everyday as shown in the recent wave of afrophobic unrest yet, teargas and assault women who are protesting for their human right to live. This is just the norm here. So, when d.bi was reciting a poem about love, and mentioned Uyinene’s fatal visit to the South African Post Office to collect a parcel, I broke down and the tears would not stop coming. I had successfully managed to hold myself together that weekend but the gross inhumanity of South African life really shook me up once more. But what is remarkable is that I have been angry and and cynical about our situation but d’bi’s words allowed in a glimmer of hope. I cried but I felt hope that love is indeed the revolution and it doesn’t ask us for anything too grand. It just asks that we love and hold each other through this; that we offer simple gifts of kind words and deeds. It’s hard but small acts of goodness can hold and begin to heal us through this.
And that is what poetry does.
As a poet, myself and many others will simply stand in front of the microphone and read or recite from memory. This is the first time that I had seen the method that d’bi uses and it makes absolute sense. It allows the poetry to breathe and live and tangibly move around the room while carrying person on a journey of their own self-reflection. The method is beautiful and from my view in the audience, I could also see how it is difficult. It demands that one truly be a seasoned and humble performer who can connect with people in that way. And, of course, to be that kind of performer, you need to be that kind of human being, first. That is the part that is not always so easy. But like I say, d’bi is deliberate and delicate in her work and I am in awe of the amount of control she has of herself and her craft and of the room. She is a study in discipline, brilliance and a creative practice of love. May she always be blessed.
* * *
Thank you, Hear My Voice and South African Book Fair, for the invitation.
I have written. I have read. I have edited and deleted everything and started again. I have cried. I have agonised. I have procrastinated. I have carried this work with me to London, to New York (twice), layovers in Cairo and Dubai – while doing other important work, always staying in to write at least one paragraph – and finally, when it was complete, I presented it in Mumbai. I have crossed into new years with this work. I have become an author in a completely new genre while doing this work. I have taken my time and given so much of myself for it to be here today and I’m just so grateful for the community that loved me and held me through this work.
Here’s to the end of the chapter titled: “Lebohang studies and completes a Masters degree – can you believe it?” I wasn’t prepared for how long and demanding this journey would be and the creativity I would summon to distract myself from doing it *enter children’s book and a whole new life as a literary figure* and the many steps it takes until it’s officially done done but we are finally here now. (I consider this the official end because the graduation ceremony is optional.) This research has been such a ride. I really got to know myself anew and witness my entire political beliefs do a 180° transformation. I got to sharpen my instincts as a researcher and to trust the guidance of my intuition. It’s also been very hard being on the opposite side of people’s moral stances and being addressed like a delinquent here and there. So it has been immensely affirming to recieve feedback from people who really get it. My convictions may make the work controversial but as long as I remain true to my personal ethic of thinking and writing about black womanhoods in ways that are respectful and dignified, I’ll be okay. When I approached the women with whom I worked in this dissertation, I promised that I would not reproduce the trope that the media loves; the lie that black women are either so hypersexual or so poor that they have to sleep with men for money. I’m not interested in that. I am interested in exploring adult women’s consensual romantic practices with their partners and the logics that inform their desire to only date men of particular financial and social standings, with the context of a neoliberal society. While I do consider the vulnerabilties and violence that these women could encounter, I am more interested in the pleasures and joys of their lives. I do not want to constantly represent black women’s lives as marred by struggle when there is a plurality of experiences and when we are out here living and loving happily, too.
A few weeks ago, on Tuesday 27 August 2019, I was invited to present a small portion of it on Power FM’s #AcademicDigest with Aldrin Sampear. I really enjoyed the converation. Aldrin really took the time to familiarise himself with my work and interview me in a fair and balanced manner. Here is the article and podcast. Please keep in mind that we had about 40 minutes and we did not disuss my +/-70 page dissertation in detail. The host and producers obviously highlighted what they found to be most topical.
The subsequent Twitter engagement was revealing and not at all surprising. People, and seemingly men, mostly, were against my work. People refused to make space for the possibility that people can be in wholesome romantic relationships and that women can have particular boundaries and standards. It is also remarkable that there people are so unwilling to open themselves to thinking broadly and understanding the myriad of women’s choices and sexuality without reducing them to prostitution. (I have no issues against sex work or sex workers and I refuse to engage in the moral shaming of any woman, ever). It’s also revealing that the constant scrutiny and negative analysis of women’s sexuality and romantic practices is confined to a certain race of women while other women get to live their lives unbothered and unquestioned (as they should). I appreciate all of the people who offered thoughtful responses, suggestions and critique. It was refreshing to have your insight and to also think differently about my work.
Shout out to the National Institute of Humanities & Social Sciences (NIHSS), Dr N. Mkhwanazi, Prof. N. Falkof, Dr C. van Staden, Dr M. Wilhelm-Solomon, Dr D. Ligaga, Prof. L. Lingam and Mpumi’s Magic Beads for showing up with much needed light, affirmation and critical intervention when I needed it most to make this whole thing more wholesome and thoughtful. Who knew the day would come when this would be past tense?
I have such a strange relationship to travelling. I usually spend the entire time being very cautious about every single thing and counting down the days until I am back at home, in my bed, breathing my suburban, South African air where everything and everyone feels familiar. It’s only after I am back home and safely in my bed, that I begin to appreciate everything in hindsight. It’s as though once I have had a safe trip and confirmation that nothing untoward will happen, then I feel like I can go back, live all those days again and really have a good time. Of course, that would mean that life is a dress rehearsal and we all know that it certainly is not. Sometimes I do wish I was a more carefree traveller but I think I’ll just stay the way I am, even if it means staying in my hotel room a little more than exploring. My personality keeps me safe and I like that very much. Plus, America is scary. We know that.
I was so excited to be back in New York again. The first time was when I attended Goalkeepers, held by the Bill and Melinda Gates’ Foundation in September 2018. My second time in New York was just as wonderful. I was there along with all of the lovely women of the Zanele Mbeki Fellowship (ZMF), including our beloved founder Mrs Mbeki, and we were having our third module there. In this module, we were learning about global feminist community by being immersed in the fast-paced world of the United Nations’ 63rd Commission on the Status of Women (UN CSW). I believe it’s the largest gathering of women-related NGOs in the world. Our mission was to attend as many sessions as possible, learn and discuss amongst each other in order to understand grassroots level to world level feminist organisation.
National Museum of African American History and Culture
Honouring Oprah Winfrey.
We had such a fun itinerary. One of our first stops was a trip to Washington, for a guided visit of the National Museum of African American Culture and Heritage. The structure and in the interior are all so beautiful and infused with so much meaning. From pre-colonial Africa to contemporary United States, the museum has taken such great care to document the important histories of known and unknown people, the music, documents, art works and esteemed figures who shaped Black people’s liberation. Finding photographs of our beloved Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba in the section chronicling music filled me with so much pride because, though exiled under difficult circumstances, these great South African ancestors used their gifts to create indelible trans-national connections. Listen, Hugh was a rock star in the realest sense – please read Still Grazing: The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela by Hugh Masekela and D. Michael Cheers (2004). Although it’s easy to think of America as being a giant that influences everyone who encounters it, the truth is that Makeba, Masekela and Keorapetse Kgositsile contributed to Black American culture and swag as we know it, by infusing it with their individual, African elements and, in the case of the latter, by literally giving it Hip Hop’s most talented sons. This often-erased fact of mutuality and cultural exchange among all parties matters to me. I am an Anthropologist after all. I also got to see a Kehinde Wiley painting with my own two eyes!
Among the many panel talks and events being hosted during that week, we as the ZMF had the opportunity to host our own. I had been asked by Naledi, our co-ordinator, to contribute to our panel with our guest of honour, Indian feminist economist, Dr Devaki Jain. The panel was about reflecting on the intergenerational connections of feminist thought. It was interesting because we had a women from different parts of the globe speaking, one from Sweden, the US, Zimbabwe, India and South Africa. So, it also became an interesting glance into how people’s various histories and positionalities may have shaped their politics. Definitely one of the most nerve-wracking things I have ever had to do but, worth it.
While I was attending CSW sessions during the day and ZMF debriefs in the evening, I had left my mother in South Africa with an important green folder containing my whole career. The New York Trip overlapped with my MA submission on March 15 so I asked her to please go to school on the 14th to submit on my behalf. New York is 6 hours behind Johannesburg so I stayed up all night making little corrections so that she would wake up with a polished thesis in her email inbox. She went to PostNet to print, bind and download my thesis onto a disc then went to school to do the admin between faculty and fees office and getting my supervisor to sign my paperwork – it was a whole lot and she was flustered but she got it in! I was thrilled! I actually cried when she sent me the receipt of my submission because it took so much to get here: sleepless nights, torrential tears, attacks on my self-esteem, self-doubt, feeling not-smart, making a children’s book to give myself joy and other forms of procrastination.
I had planned well for this occasion though so I had gifted myself with a ticket to Cecile McLorin Salvant at the Jazz @ Lincoln Centre to say “congratulations for completing your Masters, my love!” The last time I was in New York, I hadn’t realised that we would be doing our daily activities at this iconic Jazz venue and failed to make plans to watch any of the shows. It’s so disappointing, but this is exactly what I mean about having to go to a place first for practice so that I can do better next time. So, this time I was blessed because my favourite Jazz vocalist was performing on Thursday night. It was amazing! Cecile honestly has the best vocals and best dresses in the business. What a delight. I even found the video from that exact night: Look! And on Friday night, I joined my fellow fellows for some NY exploring by going to Red Lobster. We had such a great time. I also have to put it on record that Red Lobster by Times Square makes the best Old Fashioneds, ever.
Saturday ended up with a late afternoon, bottomless mimosa brunch at Brooklyn Moon in Brooklyn. Then did the brave thing of taking a train by myself to Harlem because I had gotten myself a ticket to Salon Africana at The Africa Centre, curated by Somi. This month had Thandiswa Mazwai and Nduduzo Makhathini headlining and I obviously was not about to miss out on that so I attended with Musa and Amelia. It was such an incredible night. Soon enough, it was home time so we went back to JFK Airport, where we experienced a 7 hour delay before our 13 hour flight home. Fun, really, because I had all my sisters with me. This time in New York was astounding, overwhelming, enjoyable and so, so unforgettable. So excited to go back again and do even more!
Thank you, Zanele Mbeki Fellowship for the memories!
On Curious Cat, it comes up often for people to ask me either about loving myself or about my productivity. I understand that I am asked a lot about my productivity because I share a lot on social media about my work and its progress. It’s interesting that the perception is that I am so methodical and diligent. You know, every now and then, I actually wanna tweet: “Oh my god, where can I buy some focus because it’s lit!” but I don’t because my social network includes people with whom I have some kind of deadline at any given time. So, there are some things that I don’t share with as much ease as the next person, that’s all.
Another thing is that I do share about my disappointments, although minimally. I allude to being up all night and crying over drafts and things not going my way but I’m never going to sit there and be self-deprecating on social media. I don’t like to give light and energy and oxygen to those parts because I would rather use as much as I can on the good. When my work isn’t going as well as I would like: I leave it alone. I rest, I go to my favourite restaurants, I pick up a book to read or my colouring book, I build a puzzle or I watch television. I stop and process that I need to get battle-ready for this next thing and maybe I’m not in the mood today or the next two days but eventually, I will get back to it and give it my all. So, that is the ebb and flow of my self-love. I am always giving myself room to feel and do what feels necessary in that moment. If today isn’t the day to get it right then perhaps tomorrow will be.
I also think it’s interesting that self-love and productivity are the things I get asked about often because for me, they are the same thing. It’s important for me to always put my humanity to its best use and my work in Anthropology and with children is exactly that. My work is a testament to loving myself. Doing my work, all the work, is how I love myself. Me being productive, me being creative – it’s all the source giving back to the source. I suppose I am fortunate that my work happens to be exactly what I came to do on this planet. Some people have also asked me: “when or how did you learn to love yourself?” and my answer is usually the same about how all I have in this world is myself and so it follows that I should treat myself with an abundance of goodness. But the question kept tugging at me. I kept thinking: “Is my answer incomplete? Is there something that even I’m missing?” Eventually, I got up and went to my bookshelf, thinking. Continue reading “On living, loving and learning”
When I think about it, the best part about being an Anthropologist is being able to occupy really interesting spaces and speak as an expert on the topic – because that’s what the long days and nights of academic productivity are about. So, in my capacity as a scholar and children’s book author, I was invited to be a panelist at the #CoilConversations event hosted by the Jabu Stone brand and engage in conversation with the MC, Noluthando Nqayi, the legend himself, Jabu Stone and an audience of beautiful, natural hair influencers from around Johannesburg. Continue reading “#CoilConversations with Jabu Stone”
There is huge potential in South Africa to turn our literacy crisis around so that reading becomes a powerful tool, to tackle inequality and poverty. As Nelson Mandela said, ‘Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.’ While education may be the most powerful weapon, reading aloud and storytelling are integral building blocks in learning. Continue reading “#WorldReadAloudDay: I’m this year’s ambassador!”
It is my immense honour and privilege to accept the appointment as UNICEF South Africa’s Volunteers Advocate. This means that I’ll be working with the organisation to establish some volunteer programmes in service of the children in our communities; to come together and do what we can to make their childhoods safer, healthier and more joyful. I’m really excited to make my contribution to this amazing cause. You can read more about it here.