Consulting with the teenage girl self

by Ongezwa Mbele

I am part of a collective called People’s Education. Our work involves unpacking issues of identity among black people towards regaining and reinforcing impressions of dignity within this community. We provide a safe dialogic environment, free from interference and guardiancies on the part of anyone who is not black. The focus of the collective is to use creative methods to investigate and consult with the black self in an informal educational space or parameter. The people in this collective occupy the cavities and capillaries of my heart, as they have taught me uthando lwemfundiso[1]. It is through my experiences with them that I have come to see uthando as an integral part of learning and unlearning.

[Chorus] [2]

Something happened to our black bodies

Something happened to our black bodies

Something happened to our black bodies

Something happened to our black bodies

Uthando Lwami for the individuals in this collective came quite naturally. My engagements with them have been characterized by a dynamic of care and reciprocity, where we share ambitions to serve and teach one another. This has in turn meant that I feel a strong sense of humanness amongst them.

The reason I insist on using the word uthando (as opposed to love or some other English word associated with appreciation) is because, in isiZulu and isiXhosa, there is no measurement or evaluation of love. It does not come in varying degrees. Consider that no real equivalent for ‘like’ exists in isiZulu or isiXhosa. One either loves, or not. 

People’s Education consulting with uthando


We want to recognize ourselves and consult with ourselves

Because something happened to our black bodies and tongues

Something was taken from us

Revisiting the teenage self

In my teenage years, I became drawn to English through television. In particular, I enjoyed soapies like Days of Our Lives and The Bold and the Beautiful.

I want to travel to my teenage self and tell her it is okay to speak isiZulu and isiXhosa in your Model C school. I want to consult with my teenage self and tell her it is okay not to relax her hair, and that she does not need to look like the actresses in Days of Our Lives and The Bold and the Beautiful.

In 2014, People’s Education became engaged in an intervention around sex and sex education in the black community. As this programme developed, I became more and more interested in teenagers and their perceptions of sex and their bodies. I began to imagine these conversations in terms of consultation with the self and with the spiritual world.

Done in the spirit of uthando, the consultations involved revisiting our past, teenage lives, while interrogating present and future trajectories. There were two of us involved – Sibahle and myself. The process went as follows:

  • We drew outlines of our bodies. These would serve as body maps or body landscapes, through which to explore different bodily regions and the meanings and issues associated with these parts. This was a process of journeying into and through the stories and traumas embedded in our balck bodies.
  • We filled the maps with writings around important bodily or sexual events we had gone through.
  • On a separate sheet of paper, we wrote down words and phrases reflecting on experiences of sex and sexuality as they relate to teenagehood. This was done in a very raw, uncalculated manner. Simply put, we were vomiting impressions and emotions.
  • We took photo portraits against the backdrop of the words and phrases. This was essentially an assertion of our true selves; the way we see ourselves and wish to be seen.

An important part of this process was that it took place inside of a generic classroom space: Formal schooling never provided us with the freedom to explore our true bodily and sexual selves, and so we wanted to re-appropriate the formal classroom, using it as a platform for learning about ourselves and unpacking and highlighting our female and black identity. This could perhaps be interpreted as an artistic demonstration against institutional ways and forms.

Ongezwa and Sibahle engaged in consultation using a classroom space

The consultation went on for three days. In this time, it evolved into an intimate sharing of stories between Sibahle and me. The stories we shared with one another were different and yet similar:

We both, as Xhosa women, had lost out on, or never experienced intonjane, an initiation ritual in Xhosa tradition through which girls are rendered women.  

Our other common narrative was that, when amabele ethu started growing, they were beaten with some object or material by an elder in the family, in order to stop them from growing excessively big and ensure that they would become erect and firm, like tennis balls.

In my case, this was done by umakhulu wami with iqhiya. The way I understand it, she felt the need to do so because amabele ami began growing like lopsided pears on a tree. Despite these efforts, amabele ami rebelled from being contained and grew rapidly.

Goitsione, another member of People’s Education, having listened in on this conversation, shared with Sibahle and me that she had undergone a similar process. Amabele akhe had been hit with a broom, but defied the intervention and continued to grow. At a point in time when many of her peers did not have amabele at all, she was forced to wear underwire bras.

Amabele ethu were seen as abnormally big. They were unlike those of the women in Days of Our Lives and The Bold and the Beautiful, and so we were taught to hide and contain them.

How were we supposed to accept and appreciate our teenage bodies when our elders saw them in such a negative light?

How are we to see and imagine sex in positive ways when our body maps tell stories of trauma and discomfort, when we feel unclear as to whether or not our virginities were broken consensually?


Not to play the victim

But our stories about our bodies are not happy ones

We are traumatized as teenagers because our bodies are changing without our consultation

We are traumatized because no one sees us

Consultation performed

By the end of the programme, Sibahle and I really wanted to take the consultation process further. We wanted to dig deeper into our present-day woman selves and confront the traces of teenagehood that live inside of us. And so, as an outcome for the workshop, we created a performance that interrogated the marginalization of our bodies in mainstream society, but also at home among our loved ones. This was held at Greatmore Studios.

The piece involved a reenactment of umakhulu ukubethwa amabele ami. Sibahle played umakhulu, and I played my teenage self. This was extremely liberating. The sense of freedom came from exposing amabele ami to the audience; from letting go of my insecurities and openly owning that which is me; from supporting my teenage self and asserting the realness of her beauty. It came from the fact that ndiyamthanda umakhulu wami despite her actions; from knowing that there were many other rituals that I had gone through with umakhulu that affirmed and helped forge my identity as a black woman. It came from our being able to perform and retell this story; from knowing that we are enough and that our elders and ancestors accept us as we are.

Taking off my bra signified an important transition. It was an act of defiance, negating that which obstructs my comfort and my breathing, and prevents me from living to my fullest capacity as a human. Today, the chains that hold us back are not actual chains. They come in the form of bras, of culturally predetermined traumas, of the institutional and everyday teachings we receive as black girls.


The chains present themselves

When we fail to acknowledge that something happened to our black bodies

Something happened to our beings

Something happened to me and you

We also burnt imphepho during the performance. We burnt it because we have been taught to do so when healing and confrontation are needed. We burnt it because our process had involved digging up trauma and confusion, and peace had become an urgency.

The performance ended with us speaking to our teenage selves. We apologized to them, and found closure with them.


Something happened to our black bodies

Something is happening to our black bodies

Something will happen to our black bodies

Something will heal in our black bodies

[1] As I was writing this piece, I imagined a chorus of black teenage girls speaking these words to me. Their voices will reappear a number of times.

[2] I don’t want to translate this phrase into English. It is perfect as it is. It means what it means. If you are willing to open your heart, the meaning of this phrase will come to you. I will make use IsiZulu and IsiXhosa words and phrases throughout this article.

Freespace 0.1

Brought to you by People’s Education, Freespace is “an open platform for spontaneous expression”. This session was held in Grahamstown during the National Arts Festival (2015), and ran alongside an experimental workshop on Sex Education in the Contemporary African Context. The intervention was lead by a number of participant facilitators, but members of the general public also took part.