There is an undeniable beauty and compassioned spirituality in the way humans can connect through our sharing of stories. My seven-year-old niece, Ayabulela, often calls to read me stories from new books they’ve started reading at school, and after every story I’d tell her how proud I am of her.
The stories are odd but entertaining, from talking spiders making friends with curious boys, to flying cows landing on moons. But the ones I enjoy the most are her recollections and highlights from her day. It excites her to know I attended the same primary school 16 years ago. What I omit from the story is how we had to find a new school after a term, because it was so hard for me to adapt – psychologically and academically – to a white-suburban Model C school in grade 4, after coming from a rural village in the Eastern Cape. I don’t tell her how I was bullied and tormented in the next school, and never quite felt like I belonged throughout my high school.
Instead, in Aya’s daily recollections, I ask her to describe the classroom, to tell me how an activity made her feel, to teach me how to spell a new word she’s learned. She talks; a mere collection of symbols, arranged in an orchestrated manner to relay a memory, a belief, a fear or a dream. The words ignite my curiosity, excitement and even longing. So much of her identity and world view is built around the stories she’s heard, those she’s kept, and those she’s told. The invention of language has offered us something our ancestors never intended in the survival toolkit; a shared humanity.
There are currently over 8 billion people on our planet; each person different, in various and strangely unique ways. And yet, with all that difference, our individual stories have proved to be collective journeys. The very act of quietly and intently listening to someone’s story, be it family, a friend, or stranger, is a simple way of saying, “I see you. Your existence matters. You are worthy.” Sometimes the stories we hear and the affirmations they carry come to us in different ways.
On the 9th of December 2019, I woke up to the news of the Miss Universe announcement. Every news broadcast, online publication, and social media platform was flooded with video clips of Zozibini Tunzi’s answer to the question, “What is the most important thing we should be teaching young girls today?” Highlighting the importance of leadership opportunities for girls, Zozi encouraged girls to start ‘Taking Up Space’. However, what truly stood out from these globally publicised clips, was the powerful story she carried with her message,
“I grew up in a world where women who look like me, with my kind of skin and my kind of hair were never considered to be beautiful. And I think that it is time that stops today. I want children to look at me and see my face, and I want them to see their faces reflected in mine.”
Zozi understood the power of the stories we’ve been told, especially about the value and visibility of Black women in the world. She recognised that she embodied the rewriting of old narratives and making space for new ones.
In the quiet intent of listening to those words and seeing the glow of the body that carried them, I felt seen. Indeed, I saw myself reflected in Zozi; I saw many others online, collectively experiencing similar moments. But most preciously, I saw Aya’s sense of self-worth reignited; an expression my younger self could not attain or let alone embrace. Our next call, recalling the success of her first guitar lesson, she told me how proud she was of herself. There is an undeniable beauty and compassioned spirituality in the way she recognised her own worth through Zozi’s story.