Renowned storyteller and writer, Baeletsi Tsatsi, works on a freelance basis for FunDza in Gauteng to run workshops, activations and training days. We love her and the way that she brings thought and sensitivity to her work with young people. On 28 August, she ran a FunDza reading workshop for young girl learners with Johannesburg City Libraries using one of our Chattalogues (a short printed script that sends people to the fundza.mobi site to read more). This is her record of the experience.
The Johannesburg City Library was built in 1935, this is 21 years before the women marched to the Union Buildings in 1956. The building is iconic, the architecture is elaborate and the interior is like walking into a period movie set. There are marbles, shiny floors, leather, chandeliers and beautiful artworks on the high walls.
I walk into the library with the confidence of one who knows it well, having written stories and taken shelter at the library many times. I know that the escalators are never working at the same time, if the one going up is working, then the one going down isn’t or vice versa. I know that there is never toilet paper in the women’s toilets and I know that high school boys sit in one corner, crowded around a phone and trying hard not to laugh out loud. But I also know that this is a safe haven for many students, myself included. Today is no different. I make my way to the third floor where the event is happening. A women’s month celebration organised by the senior librarian, Thandiwe Gulwa. She has invited 29 girls from three inner-city schools to come and commemorate this important month. Among the guests is one of the school teachers who is invited to motivate the young girls.
I listen closely to her speech as she tells a story about her student days. She talks about boys and tells the girls to stay away from them. She encourages the learners to have high standards for their lives, to be strong and to want more out of life and of course, she quotes the women’s march slogan, “Wa thint’ abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo – you strike the women, you strike the rock.” And I have heard this slogan many times over, but this time I ask myself, “Is this all there is to being woman? The constant warning against men. The constant reminder to be cautious?”
The women of 1956 had a different struggle, and we, the women of 2019, have a different one. Girls are going missing at an alarming rate, they are being raped by trusted male guardians and killed by intimate partners. I sigh and look forward to a time when we are finally told, “Dear women, we know you have been told to be rocks for many years, but now, we are glad to say, be soft, softer than soft. You are no longer in harm’s way.”
But that reality seems so far from today, so instead of sulking, we look at new ways to feel safe, to feel heard and seen and that is in books, in stories, and in libraries. Books start conversations and can encourage you to work towards a solution. And this is what the Chattalogue does, it starts conversations, it gets you chatting.
I divide the girls into groups, with their scripts and give them the responsibility of staging the Chattalogue with limited time and to cast themselves into the fitting roles. “Some of you will have to play boys,” I say.
“Girls can be anything they want,” one of the girls says, and I give her a high five for choosing to see the story beyond the gender roles.
Ten minutes later, the four groups take turns presenting their Chattalogue and after congratulating everyone for playing so well with each other, for reading in front of people and for assuming some level of characterization given the time constraints, I finally ask: What did you like, what didn’t you like and what stood out for you?
“I didn’t like the way the boys spoke about girls,” one girl says.
“How did they speak about girls?” I ask.
“They objectified them,” another girl shouts.
The girls take turns analysing the Chattalogue, agreeing and disagreeing amongst themselves, until I finally ask, “Is anyone here like Lerato?” referring to the mean girl character in the Chattalogue.
There is a chorus of no, and two embarrassed yesses. “Someone said yes,” I say. The girls look around them, having heard what I also heard and some knowing where the yes came from.
I don’t take this further, not wanting to embarrass someone who has come to a realisation of their character, but I ask, “Do you like girls like Lerato?”
The room all shouts no, and one girl volunteers to tell us why. She is one of the girls who answered yes, she had also been cast as Lerato in their play. I smile, because I know that of all the 29 girls that gathered here today, one girl saw the Chattalogue as a mirror and even if she doesn’t stop her behaviour, she at least knows that mean girls aren’t cool as they think they are!
Change follows awareness.
When the women marched in 1956, they made lawmakers aware of the effects of their laws, and change can only be effective when the wrongdoer is aware of their wrong. And for these women to march knowing that their request might be denied or they might be harmed, it took being vulnerable, reaching into your softness and choosing to risk it all for your convictions, even if it results in death or ridicule.
To the young girl who stood up and listed the reasons why mean girls aren’t cool, remember that that kind of courage needs softness. Even though you’re called a rock many times, true change needs a good dose of vulnerability.