I write, I can put any word that fits my sentence. I can feel any kind of emotion I want to go through. And I find that I am able to heal myself with my own words.
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-- Ntombizanele, age 18
Ntombizanele hates her voice. It sounds like she's getting over a sore throat, low and gravelly as an unpaved road. She's self-conscious about it, as most any 18-year-old would be, and didn't use it much when I first met her. When she did speak, I had to lean forward and concentrate to hear what she had to say. Her name means "no more girls" in Xhosa. She’s the second daughter.
Ntombi, as she's called, lost her mother to AIDS several years ago. (To respect privacy, I've chosen to use first names only in this story.) Now she and her three siblings live with two aunts and many cousins in a small house in Gugulethu, a black township outside Cape Town. In December 2009, Ntombi completed Grade 12 but failed two of her matriculation final exams, math and science. So she could not receive her "matric," South Africa's high school diploma. Without school or a job to occupy her days, she fell into a pattern. Each week began on Monday with a trip in an overcrowded minibus taxi from Gugulethu into Cape Town to visit the public library. She would check out seven books, the maximum number allowed, all fantasy and romance novels. Then she returned home, crawled into bed, and read. She spent every day this way, sometimes finishing all those books in two days.
I came to know Ntombi when she joined the creative writing club for girls that I established in Gugulethu in February 2010. On Saturday afternoons for a year, anywhere from four to 22 girls, ages 13 through 20, gathered at J.L. Zwane Presbyterian Church and Community Centre. At our first meeting, we brainstormed and named the club Amazw'Entombi. It means "voices of the girls" in the Xhosa language, which most of them spoke before they learned English.
Each week, with the help of a prompt -- a phrase or a short piece of writing that gets you started -- the girls and I wrote. Just keep your hand moving, I told them from the beginning. Keep putting words on the page. Don’t worry if you're doing it "right." We built up from an initial three minutes of writing to, eventually, 20 minutes and sometimes longer when the girls asked. Then we would go around the circle where we sat and read aloud what each wrote.
With a quiet demeanor and large lovely eyes, Ntombi paid attention to everything going on around her. At first she refused to read aloud. Couldn't listen to the sound of her own voice, she said. After a few weeks of encouragement from the other girls, she gave it a try. The week's prompt: "I need to find a place."
I’m not sure if it was after my mother’s death or before when I started longing to find a place of my own where I can just be me and have peace all around me. I usually dream about this place that has a need in my soul. I always find myself to be the only person that exists in this beautiful colorful land. Sometimes I feel very happy to be in this place alone and sometimes it scares the bits out of me. In this place I feel that this is the way the world was supposed to be.
I noticed the smile she tried to suppress as her peers applauded her reading.
They are known as "the Born Frees," this first generation of black South Africans coming of age after apartheid. The oldest girls in the Amazw’Entombi writing club were born in 1990, the year Nelson Mandela walked free from prison and the breakdown of apartheid accelerated. South Africa held its first democratic elections in April 1994. These girls are coming of age in a proudly proclaimed "Rainbow Nation" that purportedly embraces all South Africans.
Yet, along with freedom, the Born Frees inherited a country plagued by poverty and extreme levels of income disparity, violence, unemployment, and one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in the world. Young women ages 15 to 24 are three times more likely to be HIV-positive than young men. Several girls in Amazw'Entombi are HIV positive. South Africa as a nation has progressed farther in development than any other in sub-Saharan Africa, and it proudly demonstrated that progress by successfully hosting a spectacular World Cup. Yet, steep obstacles stand between opportunities and girls like Ntombi, in places like Gugulethu.
It is one of the oldest townships in Cape Town. During apartheid, the government instituted the Group Areas Act, assigning parcels of land where people would live based -- as everything was -- on skin color. In the early 1960s, black South Africans were rounded up and transported out from the City Bowl to the Cape Flats, a newly declared blacks-only area of scrublands and sand dunes.
Parts of Gugulethu have something of a middle-class feel, with modest concrete homes, some with added second floors and satellite dishes attached. Then there are the "informal settlements." The phrase makes the shacks in these areas sound temporary, but they are not. They are home to thousands of people. Wooden planks and plastic tarps stretched to their limit form walls that offer neither insulation nor protection from the winter rains. Hefty rocks and old tires hold down corrugated iron-sheet ceilings to keep them from blowing away in the powerful Cape Town winds. Several shacks share electrical wires dangerously spliced from the source. One communal water pump outside serves hundreds of homes. The girls of Amazw'Entombi live in both the concrete homes and in the informal settlements.
To confront 21st century challenges, Gugulethu and South Africa would do well to turn to the girl-child, as their elders call them. Increasingly, global poverty scholars and experts are trumpeting "the Girl Effect" as the key to development. In 2005, the United Nations Foundation and the Nike Foundation formed the Coalition for Adolescent Girls, which now includes more than 30 leading international organizations. It promotes the belief that, when girls are educated, healthy, and financially literate, they will play a key role in ending generations of poverty.
When women earn an income, 90 percent of those wages are reinvested in the family, compared with 30 to 40 percent for wages earned by men. And the effects of not paying heed to girls’ potential can be devastating on a national level. According to coalition member Plan International, the economic cost to 65 low- and middle-income and transitional countries of failing to educate girls to the same standard as boys is a staggering $92 billion each year.
Last March, more than 1,000 supporters and advocates attended a conference for the humanitarian organization CARE, which now focuses its work on women and girls. Keynote speaker Melanne Verveer, ambassador-at-large for global women's issues at the U.S. State Department, called investment in girls' education the single most positive step a country can take to drive its economic development.
"No country can get ahead by leaving half of their population behind," Verveer said. "Women and girls are the world's greatest untapped resource, and investing in them is one of the most powerful forces for international development."
First they must be noticed and heard. Last year, the International Center for Research on Women released a report, Girls Speak: A New Voice in Global Development, one in a series focused on adolescent girls. Its first recommendation to policymakers and program managers: Listen to girls.
"[L]earn about their aspirations, and engage them in decision-making processes. Shift the paradigm from working for adolescent girls to working with them as partners. Listen to girls' unique insights into their lives and work alongside them to achieve their goals."
The writing club I started was not meant to be a "Girl Effect" development project. But creative outlets are rarely offered through township schools, which still lack resources in an educational system that remains inequitable. Many schools do not even have libraries. I knew from previous travel in South Africa that children and youth respond enthusiastically to arts education brought in by volunteers. I was curious to see if girls would embrace creative writing and what difference it could make in helping them identify their strengths and name the challenges they face. Every week, our two-hour Saturday sessions showed me how eager they are to rally their own voices.
Like Ntombi, these are bright, articulate girls who pay close attention to the world around them. In "The Day I'll Never Forget," 16-year-old Ayanda wrote about the xenophobia that has plagued South Africa in recent years.
In my community, foreigners were killed by the citizens of Gugulethu. These foreigners were from upper Africa, from Congo, Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Somalia, Namibia. These foreigners were killed by other black people. I saw a Somali man being stabbed till death. He was running away saying, I'm sorry. I’m sorry. They stabbed him and burned his wife to death. I don't understand how a black person can kill another black person without a valid reason. The foreigners were labeled as makwere-kwere [a derogatory term for non-South African blacks]. I was angry when I saw this happening. I felt the pain.
During our discussion after her reading, another one of the girls pointed out that countries such as Zimbabwe and Zambia welcomed South African exiles during the bleak apartheid years. Now those countries' refugees, searching for a better life in South Africa, face the destruction of their homes and small businesses, stabbings, and the return of "necklacing." This despicable practice involves filling a tire with gasoline, placing it around a person’s neck or chest, and lighting it on fire. It was used to "execute" blacks thought to be collaborators with the apartheid government during the 1980s and early 1990s. Now it’s meant to punish those competing for scarce jobs.
There is a growing black middle class in urban South Africa today. But it's overshadowed by the rise of a much smaller number of elite, wealthy people perched at the top of business and politics, among whom, some feel, materialism is running rampant, after so many years of deprivation. BMWs and Mercedes are making their way into Gugulethu. Mzoli's, a popular braai, or barbecue, restaurant is packed every weekend with local residents and some bolder tourists, the place to see and be seen. Julius Malema, the 30-year-old rabble-rousing leader of the African National Congress Youth League, wears a Breitling watch worth R250,000 (about $38,000) as he rallies young people to stand up for their rights by singing "Shoot the Boer!" -- a historical reference to white Afrikaners. The generation he is addressing, 15- to 24-year-olds, has the country's highest unemployment rate, at 51 percent.
The girls confront these consumerist pressures in ways that are sometimes unexpected. Sharon, who is 20, struggles between her own dreams and a responsibility to her family for their needs and desires. After completing a two-year program in business training that she did not enjoy, she wanted to apply to the University of Cape Town (UCT), one of Africa's best. Her grandmother and mother wanted her to get a job, bring in money, and help build on to a house overcrowded with family members. She must respectfully explain to her elders, who had no opportunities for further study themselves, why an education now can pay off later, why it's best to hold off on that addition to the house. It's enough to make her want to return to childhood.
It's amazing how I always used to dream of finally having the power to decide what I want. The time has come now, and I’m battling with it ... Understand this: When you have the power to make a decision, you also have the power to disappoint people, maybe even your parents. And I don't know about you guys, but that’s the thing that I am most afraid of. That the decisions I make will disappoint the people who care about me the most.
Sharon fought through that fear. In February, she began studying psychology at UCT. She is the first person in her family to attend university.
With Amazw'Entombi, I saw the difference that listening, encouragement, and claiming her own voice can make for a young woman. Ntombi in particular showed me. Overcoming her initial silence, she soon became the first volunteer to read after each week's writing exercise. She told me she doesn't "do" clubs, and then grew into a leader in both Amazw'Entombi and in the church youth group. She learned that, even without her matric, she could apply for vocational training programs at the College of Cape Town campus in Gugulethu. Now she’s enrolled in a one-year course in jewelry making, a potential career in tourist-clogged Cape Town. After watching her close friend Sharon accepted into UCT, she has also begun talking about retaking those math and science matric exams, so she might apply to university herself to study communications.
Ntombi still doesn't like her voice. But now she's not at all shy about using it.
Kimberly Burge, a Sojourners contributing writer and a 2010 Fulbright Scholar to South Africa, is currently writing a book about Amazw'Entombi and the girls of Gugulethu.
Who Am I?
I am a writer by birth
A vocalist by choice
An expressionist by nature
And an instrument by voice.
I pledge to speak my mind
And utter the words that define
My solitude, senses, and space.
I pledge to provoke all existing
Thought and explore every and
Any feeling and emotion of all
-- Annasuena, age 18
Gugulethu, South Africa
I Wish Someone Had Told Me
Time and Timeagain people had told me to stop worrying. Stop crying. Kuzolunga, it's going to be all right. That night when I was told my dad died, that was all they could say. It's going to be all right. It’ll be okay. Everything happens for a reason and it's going to be okay.
So I stopped crying, I stopped worrying. I stopped feeling the hurt. I stopped feeling the pain and for weeks I stopped doing just about anything. I stopped laughing. I stopped talking for weeks to months on end. I stopped thinking and feeling. Feeling what I wanted to feel, thinking what I wanted to think. I pushed all my emotions back so that it wouldn't be so hard to do what I wanted to do in the whole world.
Because of that, I eventually forgot what my father even looked like. Forgot his eyes. Forgot his smile. Funny, huh? Because that smile of his was the only thing that would lighten up my day. I didn't do what I really wanted to do. Because I didn't cry. Because I didn't feel the hurt, feel the pain inside, I almost forgot the one thing that my father had left me: the memories. His eyes. His smile.
Because of that, I really wish that someone had told me that it was okay to cry. It was okay to feel the hurt, feel the pain. But you know what I really wish someone had told me, so that I could always remember his face, his eyes, his smile? I really wish someone had told me that it was okay to miss him.
-- Gugu, age 16
Gugulethu, South Africa