Being a storyteller is one of the most important aspects of my identity. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t searching for expression in one way or another, whether as an actor on a stage, on my couch with pen and paper in hand, or in an art class. As a child, I read books at an alarming rate and watched the movies I loved repeatedly. Essentially, storytelling was my way of making sense of the world.
One of my favourite storytellers is Linton Kwesi Johnson and I remember watching him read his poem Five Nights of Bleeding. In the silence that followed, he told us the story of how he discovered the power of the pen and how he’d used it as a weapon against injustice. Since then, I’ve made the pen my weapon too and have made it part of my life’s work to encourage others to do the same. I have worked extensively as an actor, but I found that it was only when I began writing my own stories that I was viewed as powerful and thereby dangerous. The act of picking up a pen and writing my own narrative as well as those of my people is what I believe changed the course of my own personal journey.
As such, the stories we write and tell about ourselves have the power to transform us. In South Africa, we are in desperate need of a fresh and meaningful approach to the women-empowerment conversation. We are tired of the four weeks of advertising dedicated to celebrating the spirit of “womandla”. Instead, we are telling our own stories consistently and have grown accustomed to reclaiming platforms that would rather not acknowledge us.
The womxn of South Africa are taking up space; making active and visible changes to our landscapes and the reality in which we find ourselves. These are the stories we need to tell, now and throughout the year.
I know this to be true through my own experience. In 2016, as a way to restore agency to young femmes of colour, I wrote “The Girl Without A Sound” -a story about a voiceless girl of colour in search of a sound of her own. I went on to lead an incredible team through the production of the book and it was first published in English and made available for free download. The resulting traffic was overwhelming and caused the website to crash! The journey of The Girl Without A Sound snowballed – from a free, downloadable book that reached more than 2000 downloads in its first week – to hard copies that found homes in the hands of little boys and girls around the country. Soon after the book was released online, I started working on translating it into different African languages to make it even more accessible to young girls of colour .
With the help of the Nal’ibali reading-for-enjoyment campaign, The Girl Without a Sound was translated into isiXhosa and isiZulu, South Africa’s most widely spoken languages, and continues to be well received.
Producing the story in Setswana, my mother tongue, was particularly important to me and launching it in the North West province, where my mother’s family is from, was in many ways a homecoming for me. As I watched school childrens respond to the story, I started to really understand just how powerful my pen could be – and how essential it is.
These students were inspired by the story, how it was created and how my little seed of an idea had turned into an online phenomenon. They saw me as proof of what they could do if they believed in themselves and told each other new stories of possibility, hope and success.
I decided not to stop with launching of the new translations though. We began a national tour of The Girl Without A Sound through reading-club visits with Nali’Bali, a series of university lectures and we will be closing the month with the Lit and Loud workshops – The Girl Without A Sound “Lit and Loud” Workshop is a space of self-discovery where I give young femmes tools on how to go about learning to be at home with their own voices – their own presence in the world.
The inspiration behind the workshops are that I use The Girl Without A Sound and its themes of overcoming silencing as a resource/reference point. Within this environment, I hope that the girls will gain an appreciation of their individuality in a world that works under the systems that were never truly designed to include, or embrace them, and maybe to go on and create their own systems. To build a new world of femme leaders, we need to focus on equipping young girls with the tools to be brave enough to not only be themselves, but to hone in on that individuality and use its power to stand up to an all-too-often violent world.
Stories and storytelling can help young girls create independence for themselves. Our girls are ready for these stories and we have them to tell. We just need to raise our voices.
A writer and an actor, Buhle Ngaba is the author of The Girl Without a Sound – a children’s book to empower young black girls in South Africa. Ngaba is also Nal’ibali FUNda Leader.