Mama Magona, our inspiration

The author and her inspiration.
The author and her inspiration.

She affectionately calls me: “Gwanini”, after my grandfather’s clan name, with whom she taught as a teacher.

Her sense of dedication inspires many, and her vibrant energy can put a “half-woke” youth to shame!

Award-winning writer and mentor, Dr Sindiwe Magona, is as much an asset to the South African community as she was during her stint at the United Nations.

What captivates one is her spirit of sharing with the world her past shortcomings, for the benefit of those who stand the risk of replicating her mistakes.

This is where we most experience her strength.

She joins me together with the Grades six and seven learners of Njongo Primary School in Khayelitsha last Saturday.

Earlier, she had been at the Red Cross Children’s Hospital, where she had read the little ones stories from her personal collection of children’s literature.

Before her arrival at Njongo Primary School, I prepped the kids up to some fun ice-breakers, geared towards listening exercises and critical-thinking stimulation, accompanied by a brief history lesson on Magona’s celebrated life.

The anticipation on their faces was worth the attempt.

They each had the opportunity to read out aloud a page from Magona’s children’s books.

As part of the Department of Arts and Culture Legend Master Classes, my hope in the idea of transferred knowledge from elders to youth, essentially resides in the practice of them being the carriers of stories, passed from one generation to the next.

Having them to listen to stories by Magona would only be the beginning.

And as promised, on her arrival, Gogo Sindiwe did not disappoint.

The children lit up to her responses, as they each had an opportunity to share what they’d learnt about her.

We all come bearing gifts in this world, and some of us have no idea what these gifts mean to us.

People like Magona remind us that when we come into the world, we arrive alone, that even twins emerge from the womb one at a time.

We also exit this world the same way we come to it - alone, in the hope that we will have fulfilled our purpose, with or without the distractions of the world.

Mama Magona affirms her position: “I’m here to be in relationship with you all…”

Then she tells the story of her very humble beginnings.

“I was almost 30 before I read a book written by someone like me: Maya Angelou’s ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”.

The children gasped and looked at each other inquiringly, some giggling and others listening with mature attentiveness.

“Do you think it’s fun not to be able to read or write, kids?” A resounding “NO” sweeps the room.

“That’s why we need to educate ourselves with books and find friendships with disciplined peers, who won’t pressure you to busy yourselves with things that don’t build you: Laziness won’t get you anywhere… Education is for everyone – no matter your background.”

“Who has a library card, so few of you?, she asks and responds.

Books at the library are free, you can read and return them when you’re done!” She enthuses “Do you want to hear a story?”

Both learners and teachers lean forward to hear more.

“I found myself as a single unemployed parent - a mother of three, at the age of 23. To make ends meet, I worked as a domestic worker for four years. I had to make a decision to turn my life around.”

Magona’s persevering spirit understood the importance of finding a way out of poverty – wanting to honour the efforts of her hands-on and caring parents.

By correspondence, using a paraffin lamp as her light, she studied via Damelin College.

“I got my matric in two years. A-Levels followed, also via correspondence.”

A product of London University, Magona prides: “I then completed a BA through the University of South Africa. I got a scholarship that took me to New York, which led to me working at the United Nations for 25 years.”

Her children eventually joined her in the US.

“I’ve been writing for many years. It’s important to do what I do, so that children with similar backgrounds as me can grow up knowing that people like them can also write books.”

Magona,73, is about to embark on a PhD. She encourages the kids: “Don’t be afraid to try something different. You never know where the path will lead you.”

Her life reminds us that even if our pursuits don’t work out as we quite planned, we become wiser with each step taken, rather than allow fear and doubt to have us live wondering what would have been.

Our backgrounds need not necessarily deter us from grabbing whatever opportunities that come our way – the lesson here is: Regret is not an option.

This is a woman who, as a domestic worker, recalls when she slept in a garage next to her “madams” car… “That’s how desperate my situation was.”

She asserts: “All we need to remember are the three R’s: Respect for oneself, respect for others, and respect for the environment.”

Her eyes search around for me in the classroom: “Gwanini uphi?”.

Standing right behind her, hiding behind a banner where my tears could not withstand the bare moments in her story, I emerge with a big smile: “Ndim’ lo Mama, ndim’ lo”.

I take a moment to thank Mama Magona, for her time, love and legacy – which we promise to keep teaching those who come after us… That even in times when we lack courage, we shall remind ourselves of hers.

Basse is the founder of Lyrical Base Project.

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