“You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise you will threaten the man,” reads an excerpt from Chimmamanda Ngozi Adichie’s latest novel,Americanah. This is a phrase I’m painfully familiar with, a phrase that has robbed many young women of a bright future and still, to this day, leads many astray.
I grew up in a village in the Eastern Cape, where girls were often discouraged from entertaining thoughts of becoming a successful woman. Even though it was not often said to our ears, we knew that we were being groomed to be married off to the man who offered a lot of cows for our innocence. By the time I was 12, two girls I used to walk to school with were abducted (ukuthwalwa) at just 14 and 16. They were considered ready for marriage, simply because they could read and write.
Seeing the closest people to me taken away made me live in constant fear. I knew that one day I would be playing udushe (skop die bal or kick the ball) on the street and the next I would be someone’s young missus. Even so, that fear was not enough to curtail my love for reading and writing. Instead it fueled my passion. I read everything anything I came across. There weren’t any books available to read for leisure in the village. Therefore I read the writing on milk cartons, packets of chips and the odd newspaper I came across.
I hid this hobby from my family, having been paranoid that they too would see monetary value in my abilities and marry me off. Then, by some stroke of luck, Mother sent me to go school in Durban. I will never fathom why because I know for a fact she could not afford it, but I would like to think she wanted to save me from an imminent marriage; after all, I’m her only daughter.
For the first time in my life I could read and write in peace; in fact, I got so comfortable that I read in public when I went back to the village. I felt like such a city slicker, that I was hell-bent on telling off any man that tried to abduct me. I often imagined myself educating them about statutory rape and my right to marry a man of my choice.
Of course, my newly found confidence never stopped adults who constantly reminded me not to be too driven, that my independence will be my downfall. They told my mother to put me on a leash before straying too far from my culture. And when she did not partake in the conversation, they would turn to me again and say, “Don’t you wish to get married one day? No black man will ever marry a woman who is as ambitious as you.” And I still sometimes hear young black women also cautioning their friends not be too ambitious (as if there’s another alternative) and encourage them to find a man with lots of money (like that’s all there is to life).
Obviously I want to get married. But I could never imagine any half decent man wanting to be with an uneducated woman, a woman whose only chance of living a comfortable life solely depends on being saved by a rich man. When I look at this rather shaky piece of advice, I realize that fulfilling my dreams is more likely to happen than being saved by Mr Money Bags. I want to be my own woman.
Happily, things here in Joburg are different. Young women are driven, they’re not afraid to set goals for themselves and chase them ruthlessly. I am inspired by these people; their passion is the fuel that drives. Here’s to new beginnings.
As for me, I am not yet where I want to be, but I’m constantly working towards that goal. Now ladies, let us aim to be successful, very successful. Let’s be ambitious, extremely ambitious. And we should expect nothing less from our partners. I also blog for: www.joburgstyle.co.za