You don’t plan to be perceived as combative, or “sanctimonious”, as one book reviewer called me, or get invited onto radio shows to discuss “African feminism and its impact on traditional African values”. It’s not a choice. Sometimes things happen that are not earth-shattering in the greater scheme of life, but they force you to take a closer look at how the world you had always accepted actually works, which makes you resolve to change just a tiny part of it.
I could have been a different kind of example, the kind I think my mother hoped for when I was born at 5pm on that October Saturday. I was well-behaved, quiet and a diligent young woman well on my way to being a mining geologist when I tripped in the second year of my degree and found myself in my mother’s arms, shattered, along with my dreams. It was this small moment that sparked my metamorphosis into a Pan-African, Intersectional Feminist. Because disruptors are born from disruption.
In hindsight, flunking out of mining geology was not that big a deal, but often the moments that spark internal evolutions are disappointingly pedestrian. I spent hours on the couch, at home, wondering about the job prospects of someone with just a matric. I thought back to the numerous charitable interventions that had enabled me to get a decent education at a prestigious school. I felt guilt at having disappointed my sponsors, but I was also angry at how grateful black children had to be for what should be every child’s birthright. I resolved that in order to really repay my sponsors, I would have to put them out of business. Because black children should never have to depend on charity to have a chance at a decent life. Justice and equality in education became my cause, but eventually it would be justice and equality period. Because disruption is not so much about having the right prescriptions as it is about asking the right questions. It’s about being brave enough to stand up for what you think is right while still being open to the possibility that your beliefs may not always be right or even currently possible. It has been more than a decade since the day of my breaking and my making. In that time, I have managed to start a non-profit youth think-tank focusing on youth transitions into sustainable livelihoods and I currently serve as deputy managing director in a social enterprise that seeks to train youth for sustainable livelihoods as part of its broader mandate. Through these roles I have tried to do work that will drive real change in how the majority of young people are included in the economy. But through this work I have also learned that everyone in every room has a story, a cause and their own values.
I don’t want to romanticise social justice work, because it is hard. As your work expands, you learn that unless you balance your values with those of others, you will be forced to work alone.
You learn that you can stand for these values, but still be forced to prioritise one group over another. Sometimes it’s because you know that focus leads to impact; at other times it’s because you are still blind to your own prejudice. To do anything, you will be forced to contradict yourself. That too is a part of disruption. Your own.
Disruption is a constant exchange between you and the world. The same world that you so often want to change contains glimpses of what you hope for and inspiration for how it can be achieved. I have found that activists are often created in the creases of their old wounds.
When I ask people: “How did you come to know that something in the world wasn’t right?” They reveal deep memories, hidden stories, of being shaken and awakened by that world.
No one chooses to disrupt. To be a disruptor. We are drawn to fix the outside world so we can fix something deep within ourselves. Something that was broken during that awakening story. We are born from disruption. And we are healed by it too.