Write For Rights and Write To Right

‘Write to Speak’ is a new collection of stories told by women from 23 African nations about their odysseys along some of life’s toughest terrain, chronicling their struggles, successes and moments of jubilation. The authors include social entrepreneurs, activists, poets, civil servants, lawyers, doctors and leaders spanning all generations across the continent, with powerful forewords penned by Dr Elinor Sisulu and Dr Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the Executive Director of UN Women.

In an exclusive excerpt for The Room, the Executive Director of Bardill & Associates and Founder of Write to Speak, Nozipho January-Bardill, traces her journey in curating these stories of determination and hope at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, reminding us of the vital need to ‘write’ wrongs with our own stories.

The nagging voice became a deafeningly loud command to document not just my own story of leadership but that of the many African women from across our beautiful and expansive continent, whose voices were also silenced by many personal, social, cultural, economic and structural issues that fuelled their reluctance to tell our stories.

They never wrote their stories, and the reason we are often made to believe is that we Africans have an oral tradition and not a writing culture.

I have been a feminist, anti-racist, gender activist all my life, having grown up in a family of girls and a country that intentionally and deliberately oppressed black people. Our Mum, her three sisters, and the many social aunties who raised us in the proverbial village were educated and active feminists of their time who had not written the stories of their intriguing and dynamic lives. They were prominent members and leaders of the National Council of African Women who fought against a wicked government and unselfishly served their communities with love and compassion. Our Dad and his peers — our social uncles, were men of principle who lived honourable lives. They not only took on the establishment as it tried to steamroll them into submission. They also raised their girls to be women of substance.

They never wrote their stories, and the reason we are often made to believe is that we Africans have an oral tradition and not a writing culture. Although there’s a teaspoonful of truth in this as in all other stereotypes, the real reasons are far more complex. What we do know is that many of their generation never had the time to write because their plates were full, just trying to survive and maintain their dignity in the racist and oppressive Apartheid regime. What we also know is that whatever the reason for the scant documentation of their lives, the result is that our written knowledge of their joys and struggles and their incredible resilience is regrettably undocumented and unavailable to future generations.

But I digress. The aspiration to undertake the first task of the Women’s Writes Network in curating the book Write To Speak was further fuelled by the desire to pay tribute to UN Women on its 10th birthday and the 25th Anniversary of the UN World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. I went to Beijing as part of the NGO representation of women from South Africa and witnessed that moment. In her story, Nomtuse Mbere recalls her involvement in the NGO Secretariat, led by Mrs Zanele Mbeki. The government delegation was led by Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Dr Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, two of our first women ministers leading the departments of Health and Social Development, respectively, in the newly liberated SA government.

I was ready for the challenge to help change our racist and sexist laws into instruments that promote and protect the rights of all South African citizens.

The sterling leadership of the main conference and the NGO Forum by Gertrude Mongella (Tanzania) and Irene Santiago (Philippines) led to the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (BPFA) to achieve global equality for all women. The creation of UN Women 15 years later in 2010 was a milestone achievement for the thousands of women from civil society who mobilised their collective strength to insist on a UN agency dedicated to the emancipation of women across the globe. Despite all the real and perceived shortcomings of the UN system and its agencies, it would be short-sighted to ignore the consequential leadership of UN Women by both Michele Bachelet, who went on to become the President of Chile and is now the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and South Africa’s very own Dr Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, South Africa’s first female Deputy President and an indefatigable fighter for the rights of women and girls, and the Executive Director of UN Women for the past 7 years.

A year after attending the Beijing conference and the year South Africa adopted our new Constitution, I moved to our new Parliament to work alongside South Africa’s first-ever woman Speaker, Dr Frene Ginwala, as head of Transformation and Democratisation. I learned first-hand about the power that politicians have to abolish oppressive laws and replace them with others that make provision for a more just and equal society. I was ready for the challenge to help change our racist and sexist laws into instruments that promote and protect the rights of all South African citizens.

I appreciated the firm, intelligent and authoritative leadership of our Speaker. It was most instructive and inordinately inspiring. She demilitarised the opening of Parliament and always insisted that Parliament, contrary to the behaviour of many elected members, was an institution that represents the interest of the people rather than political parties. I also marvelled at the power of the women in our Parliament who fought long and hard hours to pass laws that have significantly changed the trajectory of women’s lives in our democratic dispensation. What a privilege it was to work with all of them in the government of Nelson Mandela.

When Covid-19 reached our shores and imposed its deadly persona on our busy lives…it created the perfect environment for self-reflection and the chance to affirm the pen’s might over the sword.

After nearly a lifetime of working in a wide range of institutions in managerial, executive and governance positions at home and abroad; from schools to colleges and universities, NGOs, local and national governments, and large listed companies, I was offered the opportunity by Dr Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka to work at the headquarters of UN Women as Chief of Staff for just over a year in 2014. I was reluctant to leave my home and family, but fighting for gender equality was my life, and I couldn’t say no to Phumzile’s request. I agreed to assist the Executive Director in setting up her office and finding my successor in a year. I was heading for 64 at the time and decided to stay in New York for no longer than a year. I witnessed the commitment of all the women and men who work for the entity across the globe.

This experience influenced my decision to dedicate these stories to them and the thousands of women who attended the historic Beijing conference. Writing a commemorative publication to celebrate the resilience, grace and power of women’s leadership felt compelling.

I listened to the voice that nagged me day and night. As 2020 started, I determined that the year would not end without a storybook. When Covid-19 reached our shores and imposed its deadly persona on our busy lives, it “displayed for all of us to see that it is not yet Uhuru for gender equality” as Professor Sibongile Muthuwa points out in her story. However, it also created the perfect environment for self-reflection and the chance to affirm the pen’s might over the sword.

As we progressed, it became clearer that writing our stories is vital.

So, I called an old friend, Louisa Mogudi, who had compiled three anthologies of women’s stories for guidance and, through her, met Rose Ssali, an experienced ghostwriter and publisher and her niece, Sabrina Muchiri, a business strategist and digital consultant. We brainstormed a name and created the Write To Speak Group, now the Women’s Writes Network — an association whose intention would be to facilitate, coordinate and publish women’s stories focussed in particular, on their journeys as leaders of organisations, projects and activities that deliberately empower other women and lead to institutional and individual change. We would start with the book Write To Speak.

How are future generations expected to transform our continent and the world into a more just, peaceful, equal, secure and purposeful place without knowing what preceded them?

The lockdown ironically became our best friend. I sent sixty letters to women from twenty-five different countries across our continent and invited them to narrate the journeys they had travelled as citizens and leaders in their own countries. Despite our very limited resources at the time, Write To Speak had begun its journey, and there was no turning back.

As we progressed, it became clearer that writing our stories is vital. We, as women leaders, have to contribute to building UN Women’s campaign: Generation Equality — Realising Women’s Rights to an Equal Future. The stories of African women from all the corners of our continent and all ages, identities, cultures and professions had to be told. If not, how are future generations expected to transform our continent and the world into a more just, peaceful, equal, secure and purposeful place without knowing what preceded them? Where would the inspiration come from? Technology has become an enabling platform, and the sharing of our history is a crucial catalyst for facilitating the end that we seek.

Excerpt from the Introduction to ‘Write to Speak’ edited by Nozipho January-Bardill.

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