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August’s tribute to women

South Africa's fractured past and troubled history are scattered with stories belonging to women - unique feminine stories of hope, strength and sacrifice in the face of prejudice and injustice - showcasing voices of dignity and influence amid much hardship and suffering. In our national calendar, the month of August is set aside as a time to look back and honour these women.

It is a time to pay tribute to those who went before; who altered the course of history where our feet now get to walk.

These inspirational stories were passed down orally, stored as sepia memories in boxes, written down in journals, and kept as folded clippings. Many will never be told, but some have been recorded for us to read, and on reading them, we get to acknowledge the past and the difference these women made.

If these women were still alive to retell their stories and give us a glimpse into their contexts, I don't believe their narratives would include them deciding to be heroes, or setting out to be activists or pioneers. If I could sit across from these women, I am convinced that their motivations would be simple - illustrating the elusive essence of womanhood - a desire to just do the right thing, to stand for truth and justice, and in so doing, make the world a better place for their families and communities, no matter the cost.

It is this sacrificial nurturing instinct that, no matter their circumstances, resulted in these women never giving up or allowing their spirits to become crushed at the hands of evil - be that unjust pass laws and horrendous abuse during Apartheid in SA, slave labour in the American South where a mother’s child was ripped from her bosom and sold to the highest bidder, or facing incomprehensible cruelty under Hitler’s regime in concentration camps and gas chambers.

Their triumphant stories rise from the ashes, and we are grateful.

It seems only fitting to pay tribute to these women by selecting some of their stories and suggesting them as part of your reading list for August (and beyond).

This is my list of books I have personally read and can recommend.

They have changed me and the way I view the world.

#1 Miriam’s Song

In the spirit of Women’s Day and Women’s Month, my first choice is a South African biography. ‘Miriam’s Song’ is Miriam Mathabane’s story of relentless fortitude and the will to survive in the face of an awful childhood in the township of Alexandra under the dark days of Apartheid, told by her brother, Mark Mathabane. Her hardships and struggles, as a young girl coming of age, are unimaginable to those of us who lived behind Apartheid’s ‘picket fences,’ and each chapter in the book that will stir some emotion in you.

You are welcome to read my entire review, which will hopefully have you rushing online to order it.

#2 Hope in a Ballet Shoe

This is one for teen girls. Remaining on the African continent, ‘Hope in a Ballet Shoe’ is Michaela de Prince’s memoir, who was orphaned by the civil war in Sierra Leone. The horrors and atrocities she witnessed and experienced at the hands of her countrymen and women are told with raw honesty.

Her gritty perseverance, quick-thinking wit and gutsy determination are remarkable in one so young. At the age of 4 she was adopted by an American family and her entrance into the world of ballet is told realistically and with honesty. This is a book that forces the reader to engage with harsh realities and cruelty that one didn’t even think were possible.

#3 While the World Watched

Carolyn Maull Mckinstry’s memoir is a timeous read. Her coming of age story in the American South, during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, is an eye opener for us all, removing any self-protective blinders and exposing blind spots. As four of her friends are killed in a church bombing, she is left to tell the story as her childhood is destroyed and she is exposed to the hatred and injustice of her fellow man. 'While the World Watched' is a frank and soul-searching book that allows the reader to better appreciate the struggle faced by black Americans over the last 50 years.

#4 The Lilac Girls

One of the best ways to expose yourself to the truth of history is to read historical fiction. Sometimes, the only way we can handle the raw reality of the past is when it is shrouded in story, intricately woven with imagination, but carefully researched and told with integrity by the pen of the author.

'Lilac Girls,' by Martha Hall Kelly, is based on the true life events of Caroline Ferriday, a World War II heroine, who was awarded the French `Legion of Honour and the Lorraine Cross after the war.

This novel focuses on Ravensbruck Concentration camp and a group of Polish women called the ‘Rabbits’ - a nickname given to them after they were operated on as lab rats to test the sulphur drug and could no longer walk properly. The voices are three-fold - that of Caroline Ferriday, a socialite working at the French Consulate in New York, and rallying wealthy society with her correspondence in exposing injustice; a female doctor at Ravensbruck; and a young Polish girl sent to Ravensbruck who became one of the ‘Rabbits’.

#5 The Familiars

‘In a time of suspicion and accusation, to be a woman is the greatest risk of all…’

‘The Familiars’ is the debut historical novel by Stacey Halls, based on the Lancashire Pendle Witch trials of 1612 and the heroine, Fleetwood Shuttleworth of Gawthorpe Hall, an Elizabethan mansion owned by the historical Fleetwood family since the 12 century. Richard Fleetwood inherited Gawthorpe and married Fleetwood Barton in 1608.

Fleetwood, a mere girl, is again with child, desperate to give her husband an heir. Her previous three pregnancies ended in miscarriages and she is at risk of not surviving another. Fortuitously she meets Alice Grey, a young midwife, who promises to help her deliver a healthy baby. But Alice is soon accused of witchcraft, a crime that came with hanging. Fleetwood sets out on a dangerous mission to save her young friend and ensure justice is done.

This is such an engaging read, I could not put it down. Fleetwood Shuttleworth, Alice Grey and the other characters are actual historical figures at a time when King James I was obsessed with asserting power over the lawless countryside by capturing ‘witches’—in reality poverty-stricken and illiterate women who used medicinal herbs and natural remedies.

I do acknowledge however, and am well aware, that there are many non-readers out there whose first instinct is not to pick up a book and escape into a world of words and written story. For these friends of mine - I offer movie options - visual retellings of stories of women who have stood for justice and made a difference in their small corners of the world.

Head to the Pause:Read: Engage TV Room and consider adding the following historical dramas and docu-dramas to your movie-watching list this month:

  1. Skin {2008} - A complex and compelling biographical drama set in Apartheid South Africa about a young girl born to a white family but who looks coloured.

  2. Fiela se Kind {2019 with subtitles} - Based on the novel, this Afrikaans fictional account - based on the book of the same name by Dalene Mathee - is set in Knysna and the Langekloof in 1865. The story follows a coloured woman rescuing a lost white child and raising him as her own until the White magistrate discovers him and removes him to a white family. The plot is full of pathos and this is a story of a mother’s fierce love and a child’s identity.

  3. A United Kingdom {2016} - The beautiful love story and inspirational drama of King Seretse Khama of Bechuanaland in 1948 and his British wife, Ruth Williams.

  4. Hidden Figures {2017} - The remarkable story of 3 African-American women employed by NASA in 1961 as human computers and their fight against prejudice and discrimination.

  5. Belle {2014} - An historical period drama inspired by the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a mixed race ‘mulatto’ and fight agains the socio-political issues of slavery and race in 18th century society.

  6. The Book Thief {2013} - The story of 11-year old Liesl, living with the tensions, moral constraints and parameters of Hitler’s Germany during WWII.

  7. Saint Judy {2018} - The inspirational true story of immigration attorney, Judy Wood, and her dogged determination and tenacity to change the American asylum laws, coupled with her compassion for her clients. Judy represents a woman forced to flee her home country after being persecuted by the Taliban for opening a school for girls. (I have not yet reviewed this movie in the TV room, but I have watched it 3 times, which is in itself a sufficient review).

Whether it is books or movies, Women’s Month is a call to pause and reflect, to salute women whose actions have reshaped our history - allowing future generations to reap the fruit of their sacrifices. These women need to be remembered and their stories need to be told, so that their legacies of hope and standing for what is right are not lost in the forgotten shadows of the past.


Please visit the Porch at Pause:Read:Engage.

Sit awhile and enjoy the broad range of articles and conversations.

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