2018 was the year I moved out from home to live by myself; the year I would celebrate my 25th birthday the same day as my Masters graduation. But most significantly, it was the year my 83-year-old grandmother travelled alone from Peddie to Port Elizabeth to attend her first ever graduation ceremony. Morning knocked on my door and was met by gleaming faces aroused by anticipation. For the first time, the wooden floors of my new apartment felt the weight of bustling feet that carried the bodies of women who’d spent their lives carrying me – my grandma, my mother, my aunt, my sister. Although I was the last born of three children my mother gave life to, I was the first in my family’s known generational history to ever graduate from university.
This perpetual journey of learning didn’t start at university but was rather 25 years in the making. I come from a nurturing culture and community where young black boys and girls are raised by their doting grandmothers, and supported by older siblings and passive uncles. It took me half of my life to realise that this reality is not unique to me, but a common case for many black kids in other communities even before my time. Be that as it may, I still prize this aspect of my childhood as the most precious, indeed, the most instrumental in the woman I have become.
I’m told that my name was gifted to me by my maternal grandma. It carries with it a wish, a hope for a better life, perhaps prosperity. Somilangaye; through her, we will grow. It is this wish that has carried me throughout the years. At times, every moment of joy, triumph and fulfilment, felt like I was growing wings on my back, each feather sprouting from the prayers of those who wanted to see me soar. At the age of 3 my gran sent me to creche and by the age of 4-going-on-5, I started school. The popular tale around this early start is that my gran needed to do things around the house and yard without my frequent distractions, vocal curiosities and incessant questions. My vague memory from these early years does not allow me to confirm nor deny these popular tales of my extroverted enthusiasm to learn more.
Memories of my childhood became a lot more vibrant from my school-going years, something I largely owe to my gran. I grew up in a home where the backs of old calendars would be converted to learning boards where ABCs and phonics were written in koki and posted on our olive walls with cello-tape. It was a home where the stone seeds of apricots, peaches and plums from our garden were collected and kept inside tin and plastic jam-jars, and used as counting tools for my maths homework. It was a home where homework was an activity the whole family participated in; I had mentors, tutors and guidance counsellors as siblings, who I could rely on to work through any challenging problem. It was a home where the art on the walls exclaimed affirmations like, ‘Black is Beautiful’ and ‘Ikhaya lethu’. It was a home where my gran welcomed late night conversations in bed where I would ask about the adversities of her own life; how she felt about her father prohibiting her from attending primary school beyond ‘Form 4’ because he saw no value in educating a girl; what impact the failure of her first marriage had when her husband kicked her out because she didn’t give birth to a boy; why her faith was so resilient despite the hardships of working for 3 decades as a domestic worker under apartheid. “Konke okuhle nokukrakrayo emhlabeni kuyingxenye yokukhula,” (All that is good and bitter in the world is part of growing up), she would say, with what I can only describe as wisdom and grace. This is the woman who had worked incredibly hard and sacrificed so much in her life to ensure her kids and grandkids had the opportunity to live a life better than one she could ever imagine for herself.
When I stood at the bottom of the graduation stage waiting for my name to be called, I understood that the moment was not mine alone. It was for the wild dreams of my six-year-old niece and nephew who sat beside the women in my family at the audience stands. It was for my mom who could not be around for those first 10 years of my life because she had to work in the city to provide for our whole family. It was for my sister who paused her plans to study further so she could remain back home and look after my gran and aunt who had been recovering from eight medical operations in a period of five years. When my name was called and celebratory hailing and ululations rang from these proud women, I understood that when my gran named me Somilangaye, she already saw me soaring across that stage, carried by the wings of her wishes, prayers and sacrifice.