issue 248 - October 1993
Make education your husband
Without schooling, a girl is left stranded in the home.
For black South Africans this may mean being a servant
in the home of a white family. Sindiwe Magona recalls
her own escape due to her mother’s insight.
‘Make education your husband,’ my mother used to say. ‘He will never tire of you. If I was growing up during these times of yours, my child, I would not bother getting married. I would just make sure I got an education and then worked for myself.’
Even as a very young child, I was aware of the tremendous importance of education. ‘Akaboni’ (s/he is blind), say the Xhosa people of one who cannot read. Mama told me repeatedly that I would be insane not to fit myself with the only means of self-support that I could ever hope for – an education. She believed that just as we teach children to walk, so we should give them at least primary education. Education is a debt that each generation owes the next.
For an African woman of her age and circumstance, Mama was very progressive in her thinking. Even today, as we approach the end of the twentieth century, there are still countries in Africa where women are in such total dependency on their men that they do not have a right to a pension. ‘Her husband will look after her,’ is the thinking of officialdom, and this is reinforced by law. Despite an abundance of evidence to the contrary, the myth persists that for every woman there is a man out there who will always be able and willing to provide for her every need. And so, in places where resources are scarce, it is the girl child who misses out on an education. She is condemned to drop out of school at an early age; to remain ‘unsighted’ in the modern world.
Thanks to my mother, I was lucky. I did go to school. What is more, I went to secondary school as well as primary, and even to teacher training. By the age of 19, I was ‘something’, not only in my own eyes but also in the eyes of the community. Such was the lack of educated people that even with qualifications that would seem like ant spittle in other parts of the world, I was held in very high esteem. I was a one-eyed giant in the land of the blind.
When, at the age of 23, I found myself a single parent with three children who depended solely on me for their survival, I saw the tremendous advantage that was mine. Many a woman finding herself in a similar situation would have had no other alternative but to find another man to provide for her.
I chose to remain single. I decided to raise my three children alone until the youngest finished high school. Why? I knew that any man marrying a woman in her early twenties would expect to have children with that woman. But I also knew that children are not cement; they do not glue a man to the woman who is the mother of his children. This is what that brilliant teacher, bitter experience, had taught me by this time.
Would I have been in a position to make those choices had I not had my teacher’s certificate, humble as it was? Would I have even been aware that such choices existed, that it was not compulsory to be always attached to a man? I made those choices because I had the means of supporting myself and my children. I knew I would not be confined to menial jobs for the rest of my life. Although I had to work for some time as a domestic labourer, I knew that one day I would go back to teaching. And as soon as I was able to start teaching again, I started studying once more, building on the qualifications that I had. They gave me the ability to dream. And that was crucial. I had a stepping stone to greater things – a stepping stone that eventually got me over the water to a job in the United States.
In the meantime, I knew that I was my children’s only resource. The Government didn’t care. I was determined that my children would get an education. Aware that men, even uneducated men, enjoy better employment opportunities in South Africa, and that women labour under tremendous disadvantages in society, I felt it was my duty to make sure my daughters got an education.
Girls are fitted for the role of wife and mother from the start. From about the age of five, even before they start school, girls are taught to sweep, fetch water from the river, tidy up after a meal, wash and put dishes away, and look after younger children. That last chore, minding children, is perhaps the most lethal to the education of a girl. Whenever mother cannot be with the younger children the eldest girl has to deputize. African women, by definition the poorest of the poor, do not have nannies to mind their children while they go about these demanding duties: they have their own girl children. And so the cycle of educational deprivation continues...
So I was determined to send my girls to school. But events were not always under my control. Black education underwent a violent rupture in 1976, when the Soweto Uprising took the schoolchildren onto the streets. My children, then in primary school, were only mildly affected at first. But some years down the road, when they were in high school, this changed. Like all other schoolchildren, they went on strike. Their schooling came to an end. My paltry plan had foundered.
The thought that I had borne children who would be forced to work as cleaners and nannies in white homes was a nightmare that drove me to the brink of insanity. Was that all their lives would be? Terrible as Bantu education was, it was still better than no education at all. At one stage, shortly before the boycotts, I had nearly taken my eldest daughter out of primary school and put her on a correspondence course. I had had enough of irrelevant subjects being taught to her in Afrikaans, a language she did not understand. I protested publicly against Bantu education. But in the end I kept her in school. At least it would give her the bare basics, something she could use towards a real education which would give her the confidence that she belongs to this world. I was truly horrified at the thought that she might miss out on her education altogether.
Yet this is precisely what happened. In the early 1980s my children roamed the streets. They had no education. They were part of the lost generation of Southern Africa, the generation who were sacrificing their own future for what they saw as a greater cause – ‘the struggle’. They brought their plight to the attention of the world, but in doing so they lost their own education. For me, this was too great a sacrifice; too high a price to pay.
So when I was offered a job overseas in 1984, I knew that I had to go. I knew that it would not be easy to find them an education in the US when they had missed out on so much. I knew that, in their late teens and early twenties, they would probably be the oldest children in the school. But I wanted to give them back their future, however hard this proved to be. I fled South Africa to allow my children to resume their education. I owed them that much.
Sindiwe Magona is the author of Forced to Grow (the second volume of her autobiography) and Living, Loving and Lying Awake at Night (short stories) – published by the Women’s Press in the UK. She currently lives in New York.