Journalist Burge recounts a sojourn in a township outside Cape Town working with a writing group called Amazw’Entombi, or “Voices of the Girls.”
The “Born Frees” of the title are the first generation of black South Africans born after 1994, when the apartheid regime of old had fallen and Nelson Mandela had been elected the nation’s first black president. These young people, she writes, “were inheriting a country awash in contradictions.” Its constitution was among the most progressive in the world, prohibiting discrimination on every axis and mandating gender equality. Yet, Burge notes, the abuse of women is endemic: “More than a third of girls have experienced sexual violence before the age of eighteen,” she writes, while young women are particularly at risk of contracting HIV. The writing club she founded was not a development project as such, Burge writes, but was a means of providing community, empowerment, and a voice. As one of the participants puts it, “To me, writing is me. / It is me listening / to what I have to say...to what my heart says.” Nonetheless, it touched on other development projects in its parent church, including close work with HIV/AIDS and food distribution services. Some girls who lived in overcrowded nuclear or foster households went hungry, since food went to children by blood first. This was a manifestation of a phenomenon called “partial parenting,” in which households are generally fatherless and with mothers absent because of work, so that children are raised by grandmothers, aunts, or friends—the result being a generation of children hungry for attention and thus bursting with the need to express themselves. But not, Burge sagely notes, the need to be rescued: “I didn’t go into Gugulethu to rescue these girls. They did not need me, or anyone, to save them.”
An affecting portrait of post-apartheid South Africa, particularly useful for writing instructors serving at-risk constituencies.