Legacies of courage: A writer’s thoughts

On Women’s Day, we celebrate women and their inherent power to reclaim their lives through resisting, creating, connecting, and through sharing their stories of pain and triumph. Recently, one South African woman took it upon herself to share the stories of her painful past with the women of the country.

Pamphilia Hlapa, born and raised in a small rural village called Botlokoa outside Polokwane in the Limpopo Province, decided that if she did not break the culture of silence that had dominated her childhood, then the legacy she would be leaving her children and future generations would be one of oppression and futility. As a result, she wrote her first novel, A Daughter’s Legacy, in order to give other women comfort and hope.

The central character of the novel is Kedibone, a young girl from a rural village who takes us on the journey from her childhood of “slaughtered beginnings” to her conflicted adulthood. Kedibone speaks of violence, abuse, HIV/AIDS, cultural taboos, the complexities of youth, motherhood and gender inequality.

Pamphilia Hlapa spoke to Bobby van der Merwe about Women’s Day, her views on gender inequality and the healing ability of writing.

BM: Why do you, as an author, feel it is essential for women to insist on their role in making and recording history?

PH: I believe that women’s positions and behaviours individually and collectively affect society in terms of ensuring that the next generations of women are better equipped to handle issues that affect their lives. It is critical that women occupy their rightful positions as builders of history and society; otherwise, we will never win the fight for emancipation.

BM: Do you feel that over the last few decades women are finally being more empowered in South African society?

PH: How many women do you know that are entirely free from the deeds perpetuated by gender inequality? The question we should be asking is why do so many of us go out in public and fight for gender inequality, and yet, at home ‘ in our private and business interactions with men ‘ we are often unable to stand up for ourselves. Of course, there are those exceptional and brave women who fight inequality on a daily basis, but what happens to those who are not strong enough, those who are not seen by the public? I think we still have so far to go.

BM: What do you think is the way forward for South Africa in terms of addressing gender inequality?

PH: South Africa needs to find new mechanisms to address the oppression of women. Individuals can only be free from oppression if, from an early age, they understand the difference between what is right and wrong, and understand the consequences of their actions. We also need education: a better education system that does not just tell the children what happened in history classes, but enlightens them in terms of understanding their choices and how those (incorrect) choices can collectively destroy an entire society.

BM: What was your motivation for writing this novel?

PH: In a similar manner to the famous psychiatrist Carl Jung, my favourite author, I wanted to find out if anyone else had the same experiences as me. I did not want to die believing that my experiences were unique and it is ‘ok’ to keep them to myself. I wrote the novel for myself, and then later I realised that I could not have shared my story with others, if I had not written the book for me. I wanted to break the silence around issues that affected and continue to affect women and children in my community, such as rape, violence and poverty.

BM: How do you feel that mothers can empower their daughters in order to prevent this pain from being passed on?

PH: Women need to share their truth. This truth will then be passed on to their children and their children’s children. I believe that many women pretend that things do not affect them, and yet they know that the more they pretend, the more they send incorrect messages to their children.

BM: In your book you emphasise the importance of breaking the silence over rape and child abuse, despite cultural taboos. What gave you the strength to speak out?

PH: I found the strength to speak out because of the pain the silence was causing me. When I looked at my life, I realised the pain would be more bearable if I spoke, than if I kept it inside. I cannot imagine what kind of an upbringing a child of mine would have had in the face of so much secrecy and pain.

BM: On August 9, 2006, when we celebrate Women’s Day, what do you think our priorities should be for empowering women?

PH: Love one another, embrace each other and stop seeing each other as threats. I used to see other women as threats and could not embrace them at all. Now, I am learning to love them and am falling in love with myself as well. Sometimes we hate each other, we stab each other in the back, and we laugh at each other’s pain, as if it will never happen to us ‘ but it can.

BM: What role do you feel that the process of writing could have in empowering women? Do you feel that writing your novel liberated you?

PH: Creativity is another way of finding meaning in life. Women can use it to gain power by making themselves heard. When I write, I see things differently. I go back, read my writing, and realise that things cannot stay the same. Those who can write can really see themselves move on to bigger and better things.

BM: Do you feel that women writers/authors play a vital role today in mobilising women to fight for gender equality?

PH: In the “old” days, story telling was used as a way to learn and pass on important messages. Today, women can still use writing or the concept of story telling to mobilise and fight against issues that cripple them. Personally, I only know how to tell someone something very important through my writing; it has a way of eliminating ambiguity. I use my writing as a tool to liberate myself and enhance my growth.

BM: What legacy do you feel that those women who marched 50 years ago have given to women in South Africa today?

PH: A voice. Strength and awareness of how far collective actions can go towards building our society. I am aware of so much more today because those women marched.

BM: How do you feel we could truly honour this legacy and pass it into our daughters?

PH: We must not fear suffering ‘ we must face it head on, like those women did. It is through our suffering that we can realise there is another side to the coin: the choice to live a life of worth and dignity. This is the legacy I want to pass on to my daughters. Even though we can never avoid suffering, we can adopt attitudes and behaviours that transcend our suffering.

In A Daughter’s Legacy, the central character’s name ‘ Kedibone ‘ means, “I have seen enough” and is symbolic of both the author’s mother ‘ and her central character’s mother’s ‘ anger, disillusionment and hopelessness. Unfortunately, these mothers pass this name and this burden onto their daughters (even though the author has since changed her own name from Kedibone to Pamphilia), and “curse” them with the same powerlessness that defined their own lives.

Fifty years ago, those brave women stood resolute in their belief that South Africa could not allow its legacy to future generations to be one of hatred, enduring racial segregation and unfounded oppression. As individuals, mothers, wives, daughters, sisters, and grandmothers ‘ as proud women ‘ they gathered their voices, their wisdom, their memories, and hopes, and demanded to be heard and valued as South African citizens and human beings.

Even though they had surely seen enough, their legacy to us, as a nation and as women, is courage. This means having the courage to break the silence around issues that threaten to stifle our humanity, the courage to speak out and hold on to a future free of pain and domination; the courage to look to ourselves for inspiration, and the boldness to believe that history does not have to be repeated.

l Bobby van der Merwe is a freelance editor and journalist. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service.

August 2006
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