Mamelodi

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My typing cannot keep-up with the pace at which this rain is coming down. For some people, this here downpour could symbolize their growth, rebirth or sum like that. While for someone squatting in a shack somewhere, it’s simply a pain in the butt.

In the same way some still believe that any talk of miscarriages or child loss is taboo or a no-go-area. So much that a term like ‘fetal demise’ is preferred over ‘death’ or ‘passing away’ when talking about this kind of bereavement. But there are rebels out there, with a cause and without a pause, fighting against this stereotype. Palesa Makua is one of them.

EYES OF THE WARRIOR: Palesa Makua. Photo by Sello Majara
EYES OF THE WARRIOR: Palesa Makua. Photo by Sello Majara

Through her movement, Her Skin Speaks, which is dedicated at celebrating women’s ever-changing bodies, Makua put together a photo exhibition titled What Do We Call Women Who Have Lost Children? as a way of healing herself and other women who’ve lost babies.

“I was miserable and almost losing my mind, I then decided to quit my job to fully focus on myself and those like me,” she says. The Mamelodi-native lost her son through stillbirth in 2017 and has experienced two other losses after that. The idea to do this project came to her in January this year.

A patron appreciates the Her Skin Speaks exhibition at Cafe What? in Lesotho. Photo by Sello Majara
A patron appreciates the Her Skin Speaks exhibition at Cafe What? in Lesotho. Photo by Sello Majara

“This project has been what therapy is for most who find it useful for them.  It has not only given me the chance to openly deal with what has happened to me but also gave an amazing sisterhood with women who are strangers yet relate to my story wholeheartedly.  This project has been a healing space for me and it continues to serve that to those I have not yet met.”

Since this was also a therapeutic experience for her, Makua found herself reliving what she had gone through. “I also struggled with holding back my tears when we were documenting real conversations with the women who have lived these stories (which is totally understandable because we don’t necessarily get over the loss but with time we learn to coexist with the pain).

The Her Skin Speaks exhibition. Photo by Sello Majara
The Her Skin Speaks exhibition. Photo by Sello Majara

The exhibition was launched in August. “Showcasing at Vavasati International Women’s Festival hosted at The State Theatre was absolutely a dream come true, having to step on that much of a big entity’s stage and bare my soul was absolutely amazing.  The platform has added enormous weight to Her Skin Speaks ExHERbition as a brand.”

The exhibition has also made its way to the Kingdom. “Lesotho has become my second home and show casing there was absolutely needed as I have featured two ladies based in Barea and Morija (Lesotho) It was an honour seeing the subjects there with their loved ones to witness their contribution to such a movement and even heavier topic,” she says.

A photographer herself, Makua took photos of the four women who were part of this project. “The initial women whom the exhibition was about did not feel comfortable with being shot nude so I had to make a call out for women who are able and would like to embody their stories and it wasn’t really hard for them to agree to this idea as some of them knew why I needed to do this shoot because they are familiar with my story.”

Cafe What? – Her Skin Speaks exhibition in Lesotho. Photo by Sello Majara

The vulnerability that comes with nudity is no child’s play, especially in a society that sexualises the female body. It makes sense why some women would pull out of such a project- we live in a world where people even shun being naked by themselves. But not Palesa Makua, she has a liking for the bod. She embraces the beauty of her body without shame.  “The reason I am fascinated by telling stories through human nudity is because for a very long time women’s bodies have been a battlefield and unfortunately they continue to be.

I honestly couldn’t think of any other way to portray this “Battlefield” in its truest, most beautiful and sincere form as we know it and call it what exactly it is.”

“All these unfortunate events are taking place emizimbeni yethu or it is the foundation of the amount of damage that happens emuntwini, I couldn’t have chosen any other way to document our stories.”

– Her Skin Speaks exhibition at Cafe What? in Lesotho. Photo by Sello Majara

“What I hope that people take from this is that no one has to suffer in silence and in the words of Zewande ‘The soul of a miscarried child never leaves the womb’ also hope that more women finds comfort that we are here holding space for them and that they should never go through this loss alone.  I hope this inspires more women to open up to other women about such events (I know I wish oh I had someone walking me through this).”

Makua will today showcase her work at Black Labone in Pretoria (381 Helen Joseph Street African Beer Emporium)

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I met MoAfrika Mokgathi around 2005 or ’06 at Stanza Bopape Community Hall, where she hosted poetry sessions, Azanian Seeds-one of a few people hosting sessions in Mamelodi. That’s when I was exposed to her work, a huge part of me hoped that she writes a book but now that I know better, she couldn’t have given us My Tongue is a Rainbow at a better time.

Born in my beloved Mamelodi, MoAfrika’s voice is a familiar one. It took me a week to finish this book and I loved how much of an easy read it is. MoAfrika touches on feminism and family orientated issues.

Cover of MoAfrika's book. Photo supplied
Cover of MoAfrika’s book. Photo supplied

My Tongue is a Rainbow is MoAfrika’s first offering and this is also my debut book review- so this is a big deal for me because we’re both infants at this. The title gives away what the poems could be about. Initially when I saw the book’s cover circulating on social media, I had an idea that the book focuses on events taking place in post-Apartheid South Africa. She has a poem tilted Marikana, about the 2012 massacre that saw the police gun down protesting miners in the North West and the piece also talks about how women are violated in South Africa.

When you’ve known someone’s work for as long as I’ve known MoAfrika’s, one prays that one of their all-time favourite poem is included in the book. When I received it, the first thing I looked for was an opening line to a poem I love…They were found fire dancing in the palm of God’s hand…I really love that poem ninani, I was actually sad for a sec [hahhaha].

MoAfrika also pays homage to Her Skin Speaks, a movement I dedicated to telling women’s stories in a poem called Monyamane. It was heartfelt of her to recognize real life events, female trauma and acknowledge the work put into trying to heal the female body holistically.

She has a poem in the book titled Rakgadi that I relate to. The piece highlights the importance of an aunt, specifically from one’s paternal side of the family. Her role in the family is important as it is stated in the poem that…

My paternal aunt has stopped ululating

She has stopped reciting the family clan names during family gatherings gutted that Mokgadi doesn’t greet her with jubilation. Mokgadi is getting married and Rakgadi is taciturn

In our culture Rakgadi is the overseer of everything; she gets the most gifts, and she is one of the people ‘ba layang ngwana’ in this case would Mokgadi.

I truly enjoyed reading this offering and I’m stoked to see what she writes about next. It’s been such an honour to share my two cents

The book is available for purchase. To get a copy you can email MoAfrika here mukgathi@gmail.com

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It is said that it’s not about how thick the book is, but about the knowledge you get in those thick books. With less than 70 pages to it, Surviving Loss is as thin as they come. It is a collection of poems written by Busisiwe Mahlangu about her abuse-ridden childhood.

The physical copy of Surviving Loss is a reflection of Mahlangu. Petite and pretty on the outside, but weighing so much because of the accumulated experiences in the inside. “It was written solely around surviving depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Most of the issues there are around poverty, abuse, rape and violence, and it’s written in a style of searching for healing,” she says.

Chilling on brown leather couches at Black, a restaurant at Pretoria’s State Theatre, I have a two-on-one with Mahlangu and Palesa Olifant. The latter is the director of the play, Surviving Loss-an adaptation of Mahlangu’s book, which opens at the Pretoria theatre today.

The book and the play are more than just close to Mahlangu’s heart, they are her. The abuse she writes about in the book is something she experienced growing up at the hands of her father. When I ask about her dad’s thoughts on the book, with a straight face the poet from Mamelodi says “My father is dead. He passed away end of Grade 10, in 2012. No, it was not good. In all the mental issues, my father always shows up during therapy, during relationships. It was a very violent relationship. Most of the abuse I talk about, is the abuse from my father.”

“I don’t like talking about the specifics of the abuse, but it was physical and emotional,” she tells me. She grew up with both parents, two older siblings and a younger one. “With abuse and violence that happens in the house, everyone gets abused and gets violated in a way. Even my mom went through the abuse, and she was aware that we’re feeling the pain and are being abused. But to an extent, it’s kinda difficult when you’re going through the same thing, it’s not like someone from the outside walking in and saying ‘oh, this is so hard’ and then saves us. It’s different when someone is living in the abuse.”

It was only when she got to Wits that she sought therapy from school, after a friend advised her to seek help from professionals. She only spent years at Wits, then got excluded because of outstanding fees. That’s when her poetry became more of a catharsis, even though she had been writing since high school, the 23-year-old had no inclinations of becoming a poet.

The poems on Surviving Loss date back to 2015. “When I left high school my poetry became more personal, writing more about things that I experience, see and feel. In 2016 is when I started performing, I took poetry more serious.”

“I was studying electrical engineering at Wits. I entered slams because they said you can win R500 and I was a broke student. So I thought, since I do write I might take advantage of the platform”

After her exclusion, she entered the Tshwane Speak Out Loud competition where she made it the finals, and walked away with a big cheque. “R30 000 could’ve paid for my debts at Wits and allowed me to continue with my studying. But poetry was setting my soul on fire, it made me feel lively,” she says without a drop of oomph missing.  She decided to put the money into studying Creative Writing at UNISA.

“Then last year, Vangile Gantsho asked for my manuscript of poetry, and when I sent it to her she said ‘we’re publishing you’ and at the time I didn’t know they were opening a publishing company.” The book is published by Impepho Press.

Reception of the book has been amazing, Mahlangu has done readings across the country. “I didn’t think I’d get to experience so many things. I grew up in Gauteng and whenever I left the province, was whether for a wedding or funeral or some big event in Mpumalanga. But within a year into poetry, I was travelling to Cape Town and other provinces and seeing more of South Africa. I was wowed, and I keep getting surprised with the journey poetry has taken me.”

She had been praying to be part of State Theatre’s Incubator program, and then last year she received a call to come to the theatre’s offices. “When I got there, they told me about the incubator but first, they wanted to have an idea of what I will do. I knew I wanted to adapt the book for stage.”

“I knew I want it to be called after the book because every title I came up with, it didn’t feel like it was strong enough. The title of the book was very strong and every other title that came to us at the time, felt like it was underplaying it.”

The play’s director, Olifant says images shot at her as soon as she began reading Surviving Loss. “Her writing is very raw, and I think that’s the thing I enjoyed most about reading the book, because of how raw and relatable it is, it’s sharp. You can’t ignore it. Those images stick out. Coming into the space, I wasn’t trying to make work that’s polished and pure, I wanted to stay true to her voice. It’s so fragmented and that’s how memories are,” says the director.

Madam Director, Palesa Olifant. Photo Supplied

Olifant continues “She’s talking about so much, that we actually had to make it smaller; we had to find specific points to focus on, so relationships with her father and men, her admiration and the tensions between her, her mother and female members of her family-how all those inform her healing. Then we found music and dance that could speak to what that journey looks like.  Basically, adaptation of the book into a production has been about finding her voice through the music, through the movement and through the poetry as well.”

Mahlangu performs her poetry for the play, with Susan Nkatha doing the choreography and a musician, Darlianoh who wrote original music for the piece.  “I was very direct. I wanted a black woman director. A young black woman director to direct the piece. I didn’t want someone who’s older and established, besides the fact that I couldn’t afford them [bursting into laughter], but I wanted a young black woman director, and on stage I wanted young black women as well.”

FREEING HERSELF: Busisiwe Mahlangu. Photo Supplied

“…the piece is very intimate and I don’t think a man would be able to access some level of intimacy that was needed for the piece because of the different experiences, also some of the poems speak directly to men.”

“I’d be okay with a man coming and giving an opinion, but not the man adapting the whole production. I needed someone who could relate to what I was talking about. As women we share most of our suffering with each other, even if you haven’t experienced it, you kinda understand.”

The play is on for two nights at State Theatre, at 20:00


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