Every year on 9 August, South Africa, led by the aloof ANC government, marks National Women’s Day to celebrate the brave actions of over 20 000 women who gallantly marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria 66 years ago. They were protesting the promulgation of pass laws that would further oppress black women and limit their freedom and mobility.
The march was led by phenomenal women and historical leaders such as Albertina Sisulu, Lillian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa and Sophia De Bruyn-Williams. These women have rightly been canonised, commemorated and carved into the walls of South African and world history, and memorialised as the sheroes that they are by having schools, hospitals, roads, parks and other national key points named after them.
I am, however, penning this article as a clarion call to all of us to collectively honour and celebrate women who were heroes but due to their positionality, temporality in history and the cards that life dealt them are not as renowned or celebrated — women such as my late mother, Elsie Ndayeni Chauke, who sadly passed away in January 2021 due to Covid-19 complications. They deserve to be honoured and their names added to history books. I am talking about women who are prayer warriors, omama bomthandazo, women who regardless of religious affiliation and denomination pray for life, success and victory for their children, families and communities.
I grew up in the impoverished township of Soshanguve in Pretoria, with few prospects of a better future. My mother, like the many poor black mothers in our township, prayed for me and my siblings to have a better chance at life. I am writing this article in the United Kingdom where I now reside and work and I can confidently say that is because my mother used to fervently pray over my life. She manifested a life of bliss, success and prosperity for me, though she did not know such a good life herself as an orphaned domestic worker.
My mother prayed at least four times a day, which confused me when I was going through my atheism stage during my studying at the University of Cape Town. I would constantly ask her why she prayed so much, and does God even exist? I can now proudly say that I have since discovered that God is indeed real — women are literal gods who straddle two worlds, the physical and spiritual. I experienced divinity and godliness in my mother and in many other women, whether they had children or not.
Indeed, like the powerful song by Samthing Soweto, Omama Bomthandazo, praying mothers are stars that keep the light on during darkness and we remain strong and fortified due to their powerful and answered prayers.
Webafethu ngikhuluma ngestar
Omama bomthandazo, omama
No matter how hard it was, my mother always made a plan: we never went to bed hungry, because she would sell tripe and chicken feet, old clothes or go work as a domestic worker for various families, both in the township and suburbs. Black women who are prayer warriors are the real stars of this show called life, starring in the movies of so many people. Behind most successful black people who lament about black tax on a daily basis on social media, are omama bomthandazo who deserve so much respect, dignity and gratitude.
My mom taught me how to leave — broken, confused and gaslighted. She taught me how to pick up the million pieces and mend myself after being spilled, and wipe the floor clean of my tears. I know how to not overstay my welcome and to leave anything, in fact everything — and rebuild — from scratch. My mom was a phoenix who rose from the ashes over and over again. It is empowering to know that I will always rise, as Maya Angelou eloquently purports in her powerful poem.
My phenomenal mother rose and refused to die so many times. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why I am still in disbelief that she actually died and is no more — I watched that woman survive a cracked skull when I was three years old at the hands of my abusive father, I saw her build a life for herself without any resources or help, I watched her pray life into her broken and tired bones daily (she literally worked herself to the bone). Without fail, she would be alive — she, like many women, died many deaths, but managed to remain alive.
Though I am in deep grief for my mother on a spiritual level, I honour and celebrate her daily and profoundly. I celebrate her through being excellent, by chasing my dreams and achieving them. I commemorate her by granting myself softness, because life has demanded so much strength and resilience from her and many other black women.
I wish that my mother did not have to be a rock, that “wathinta abafazi, wathinta imbokodo”, because women are not rocks, they are human beings, with blood, bones and souls and it is an unfair practice that the “strong black woman” trope is still championed as the standard.
Mama had to be strong because she had no choice and that is unfair; I weep for the lack of safety she was afforded by this world. I have lost so much but also won a lot more. I grieve while feeling joy and seeing breakthroughs. Grief is so weird: it visits you during moments of victory and joy to remind you of its dominance. Grief finds you with a champagne glass in your hand about to toast your win and it asks, “don’t you wish they were still alive to celebrate with you?”
Then deep sadness sets in.
Perhaps then, being the human who’s left behind and is still breathing and fighting through this thing called life, it’s important to realise that joy and grief can coexist and that in fact, they can make way for each other and never fully leave; we grow around both. My mother’s death gnaws at my soul — I can’t find the words to express how deeply her passing has hit me. I wanted her to see me win, to show her life can be good for her too. To get a breakthrough in the year that she passed was bitter-sweet. I wore her blouse and shorts in her favourite colour, red, to celebrate and honour her on an international platform. I grieve for her death daily.
“Grief is a cruel kind of education. You learn how ungentle mourning can be, how full of anger. You learn how glib condolences can feel. You learn how much grief is about language, the failure of language and the grasping for language,” said Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Perhaps my grief is the reason why I have not written in almost a year; perhaps I lack the language and prose to express my thoughts and feelings.
Regardless, I would like to honour omama bomthandazo like my mother, women who are otherwise marginalised and forgotten and their roles seen as expected and natural. Women who face gender-based violence at the hands of the men around them, who are at risk of being raped and of being killed on a daily basis.
I want to send a huge note of appreciation to all the women who pray without ceasing for their children and the whole country: please, do not stop, your prayers work! There’s nothing more powerful than a mother’s prayer — my mother was a praying woman and I am still reaping the rewards; her prayers carry me while she’s in the afterlife. Pray for and over your children without ceasing: your words will last for generations.
Omama bomthandazo we honour you! Happy Women’s Day!
Paballo Chauke is a writer, thinker and speaker who is passionate about science, Africa and education. He has multi-trans-inter-disciplinary interests and works as a training co-ordinator in the malaria space in the United Kingdom