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Anticipating a Remarkable Future

September 29, 2014

Opened in 1869, a full 30 years before Phoenix or Ohlange, Inanda Seminaryis the oldest boarding school for African girls in southern Africa, and our third stop on Durban’s Inanda Heritage Route.  A long beautiful drive leads up to an anachronistic campus from another century – plush lawns, a gravel car park and eucalyptus trees stretching to the sky.

A chat to the matron in the cafeteria produces two seemingly shy matrics.  After quick introductions, I regret leaving my notebook in the car.  These girls are confident beyond their demeanour and wise beyond their years.   My tour of the institution will clearly become a tour of them.

Tall and slender, Zethembiso jumps in.  She started at Inanda in grade 10, from Izingolweni, two hours south of Durban.  She took the entrance exam and interview, arrived at the school, and still sounds surprised, despite being outspoken, self-aware and two years in.  Zethe says the school “makes me feel at home, you know you have a support system.” Her eyes are intense for a moment, and then a broad smile brings out cheekbones.  “Members are just wise.”  Members?  “Yes, that’s what we call each other, since the school was founded.  Even after you’ve graduated, when you see each other, you hug each other and say ‘Member.’  It means you are part of something, part of a community.  And not mem-burr.  But like the Zulu, mehm – bah.”  We laugh.  How did your family learn about Inanda? “Oh, my mom is a teacher.  She always knew about Inanda.”

I turn to Monde, from Ndwedwe-Ilembe district, with a wide beautiful smile and – if I dare use a cliché with these women – an adorable button nose.  She looks a bit pensive, and then lets forth.  My pen simply cannot keep up so I just listen.  “Something’s activated here.  You have to go for what you want – that just because you’re a woman, you can still go for it.  Here, it’s been happening for 145 years.  Baleka Mbete, Nonkululeko Nyembezi-Heita, Nozizwe Madlala-Routeledge, Noluthando Orleyn.” The Members’ names roll off her tongue.  “Now things have changed and it’s up to us to educate people.  There’s something African women need to understand.  You don’t need a man -” she pauses to change her tone “- a male figure to encourage you.”  How much of this did you understand before Inanda and how much has Inanda shown you?  “I felt this way before, but now it’s even better.  It’s why I admire Mah Edwards [the school’s first headmistress].  She came to Africa alone as a widow in her 40s.”  She waves her hand to acknowledge Mah Edward’s legacy around us, but it’s not just in the buildings and the trees, it’s in her too.

Zethe jumps in, almost as an afterthought, “And another thing I love about this place, they say, oh, that’s good for a black woman.  What does that mean?  Like they don’t believe in me to do better?  Are you undermining me? That favouritism undermines us.” Monde vigorously nods her head.  Clearly, there is a conversation going on, and these girls want to end it.  Inanda is bigger than that, and so are they.

I ask about the headmistress.  Zethe turns on her heels. “We love her.  Once this guy said ‘she’s very strong for a woman.’  That’s an insult! They can just say she’s very strong.  Full stop.”  Monde catches my eye – isn’t that obvious?

What about the future?  Zethe writes her thoughts in my notebook, as I sit mesmerized by Monde’s words.  Zethe has written:  “Study medicine. Get published *fingers crossed*” About studying medicine, she says, “I want to specialize in cardiology. I am fascinated by the heart.”  Her eyes flash the words her mouth can’t speak.  Fascinated by the heart is perhaps an understatement from this passionate 17 year old, whose writings probably reveal the true nature of her fascination with the heart.   As we look over the school’s Administration building built in 1888, Monde says to me “Neurosurgery.  I want to be an African female that’s a surgeon.  I want to get past black or white.  I mean the whole world has that problem, so scared of change and difference.  You don’t see the bigger picture.” She pauses and looks at me and smiles, “we are all wonderfully made.”

There is a focused intensity in their talk, not enraged or entitled, but a matter-of-fact humility and sincerity that assures you that it will come to pass, not because it has to or ought to, but simply because the girls thought it up, and that’s enough.

Inanda is bigger than anything around it.  A school for African girls which unlike so many institutions survived the dark days of apartheid.  Four hundred and thirty girls boarding in the midst of one of South Africa’s oldest and more dangerous townships.  Two young women taking on vastly ambitious futures, fully present in the legacy that nurtures their esteem.   As I drive back down the drive, the hundred-year old eucalyptus trees are outstretched with pride, as if to tell me they told me so.  Zethe and Monde have inspired me to prepare the world, or my corner of it, for the dreams of these girls, and the thousands of girls coming along with them.  Because even still, the world is not big enough for them yet.  I pick up the phone and start making calls.

This article initially appeared in Black Diamond Magazine.

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