Q&A with Gundo Mmbi

Gundo Mmbi, 27-years-old, is the principal at SPARK Soweto. Photo: Provided

Gundo Mmbi is a Wits BEd graduate and former Wits Education School Council transformation officer. She is a human rights activist and a proud member of the LGBTQIA+ community. She played an active role in the #FeesMustFall movement. In 2017, she became an assistant principal at SPARK Turffontein and is currently the founding principal of SPARK Soweto.

How did a young woman from Limpopo find herself at Wits?
I was told that the child of a cashier will never make it to one of the country’s most distinguished universities. I wanted to break barriers by securing a bursary. I studied hard to achieve acceptance to Wits University and secured a bursary from the housing department to study. That’s how my Wits story began!

You majored in mathematics and English. What factors motivated you to study BEd?
Growing up, I have always been curious about who was setting my exam papers and why the quality of the questions was the way it was. The standard of mathematics in South Africa has been lowered for scholars. Each year, I have watched as the pass mark declines, gradually dropping from 50% to 30%. I don’t think it is the teachers or the scholars, but our country’s curriculum leaders and education officials who may lack faith in our abilities.

Have you always been active in student politics and issues of social justice?
Wits is a world on its own, and you learn a lot there about who you are and what type of person you would like to be. Student politics exposed me to a world of leadership and holding people accountable for what they Wits is a world on its own, and you learn a lot there about who you are and what type of person you would like to be. Student politics exposed me to a world of leadership and holding people accountable for what they are responsible for. I was a shy village girl when I got to Wits until I stood up against my English lecturer when he questioned my gender identity: the activist in me was born.

How did your experiences at Wits lead you to where you are now?
A degree from Wits University enables you to proudly embrace your diversity while being proud of your unique individualism. Wits taught me it is okay to come from Limpopo and be raised by a single mother while fighting for free education.

At 27 you are the principal at SPARK Soweto. To what do you owe your success?
I owe my success to the freedom that was fought for by the people of South Africa. Knowing that their fight for my freedom opened doors to higher learning, I was able to go after what I want with no restrictions or prejudice. I owe it to all the teachers that shaped my life, who ensured that I became the best version of myself and not forgetting “my mother and father” (the National Student Financial Aid Scheme) for the financial support when I needed it.

What led to the move from Turffontein to Soweto?
I applied to be a tutor at SPARK Maboneng in 2015 while completing my degree in education. I then became a maths teacher at SPARK Maboneng and taught for two years. An opportunity to grow into school leadership was offered, and I applied for it. I became an assistant principal at SPARK Turffontein and now founding principal of SPARK Soweto. SPARK Schools has 21 schools across South Africa, and I am part of a group of young people who are changing the face of education.

FEATURED IMAGE: Gundo Mmbi, 27-years-old, is the principal at SPARK Soweto. Photo: Provided

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Lebohang Masango is a poet, author, feminist activist and a masters candidate in social anthropology. In 2017 she published her first children’s book, Mpumi’s Magic Beads, and followed that up with The Great Cake Contest in 2018. She recently submitted her masters dissertation and hopes to begin a PhD soon.

You’ve previously mostly published poetry and features for various publications. What encouraged you to begin writing fiction?

I began writing fiction at a time in my life when I was feeling very overwhelmed with my master’s submission. It came out of a need to do something different with my brain because at the time, poetry was not bringing me joy anymore and neither was my thesis. So I went in search of that joy through writing for children. Which is difficult but I enjoyed the challenge.

Why have you chosen to write children’s fiction rather than adult literature?

I really wanted to create and experience joy. When you’re writing poetry or dissertations you’re very much in the adult world and I remember feeling incredibly frustrated with all of it and like I would rather do something new and interesting with my gifts. And it’s been challenging but so much fun.

You are a master’s candidate in Social Anthropology; how has this influenced your work as a children’s author?

Some of my socio-political beliefs are in Mpumi’s Magic Beads. This book is derived from my honours research on primary school policies on hair and the effect it has on schoolgirls. Being an anthropologist, I care deeply about the world and even though I enjoy anthropology, I understand that work has limits to how well it can reach people as academia has been accused of being exclusionary. As an anthropologist with creative gifts I long ago decided to use my words and body to create things that are accessible to all people. I’m compelled to ensure that my work does not stay in the ivory tower of academia.

Both of your books have featured black and brown children as the protagonists of the story. Why is that?

I doubt authors who feature white characters get asked this question. I’m aware my work is highly political. It’s important to constantly create stories with all black and brown characters until one day this question doesn’t get asked. All of the work that celebrates and affirms black people exists in this canon that is challenging global white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy and the different hierarchies that it has created around beauty and desirability that affect all of us. And through featuring black characters in my work, I want to add to the normalisation of blackness and its representation.

What impact do you Mpumi has already had?

I wanted to produce a text that children love. There have been parents who have sent me pictures of their children with Mpumi’s hairstyle. One thing I’m particularly proud of is that a mother and I managed to change the school code of conduct to allow for braided hairstyles with beads for black girls at her four year old daughter’s school. I’m incredibly proud that my book had a hand in challenging these school policies.

You also regularly host readings at local libraries and bookshops where you spend the day reading your stories to children. Why is this so important to do?

We have very disheartening statistics on children’s literacy rates. Some parents aren’t committed to making readers of their children. That’s why the work of championing literacy is important to me and showing children that to express yourself you have to be able to read and write too.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in getting published as a first time author?

I love to have full control of my work and so I chose to self-publish. I used my savings to create my own publishing imprint called Thank You Books. But I’ve since chosen to get a publisher since I’m not particularly interested in the business side of things. They’ve been incredibly good in getting Mpumi’s Magic Beads translated into nine indigenous South African languages, which I’m very proud of.

What other projects are you hoping to put out in the near future?

I’d like to put out another children’s book. I’d like to create a series of Mpumi books so it will most likely be a sequel to Mpumi. I want to continue to create work that affirms and maybe even inspires.

 

Q&A with Samihah Pargas

SAMIHAH PARGAS is a Wits second-year BA Linguistics and Psychology student who independently published her first poetry collection titled Early Mourning Hours at the beginning of 2019. The 19-year-old regularly publishes her poetry on her popular Instagram account, @shadesofherink, where she has amassed over 28 000 followers. She focuses primarily on themes of love, heartbreak, healing and spirituality.

When did you start writing poetry?
I started in Grade 8. I’d always been writing things actually as early as fourth grade. But my first poem I wrote in Grade 8.

What themes do you cover in your poetry?
The things that touch me very deeply. Spirituality, there’s conflict in the world, heartache of course, and love, self-love, acceptance. All things that I’ve experienced in a very intense sense.

Why did you choose the free verse style of writing poetry?
My style of writing differs sometimes. I think the fact that poetry in this day and age seems to not be confounded by any rules whatsoever allows me to feel free to express myself however I wish. I think it’s just the freedom of it, the freedom of the style. That’s why I use it.

Who inspires you and your work?
They’re not always writers; it’s people who pursue their dreams. In terms of writing this book they would be people who never told me that my dreams are too big. And then, in terms of [poetry] writing, my favourite poets are Yrsa Daley-Ward, Nayyirah Waheed, and writers like Arundhati Roy. How they write in such a visceral way, in such a raw way, really, inspires me to not be afraid of putting my truth on a page.

How did you publish a poetry collection at such a young age?
Two and a half years ago I decided I want to one day publish a book and from then on I started compiling [my poetry]. I would never foresee that I would actually end up doing it, so it’s not exactly as if I decided to do it at such a young age. And again, it was never something I told myself I couldn’t do at this age.

What has the reception been to your collection?
Beautiful. So currently, I’m still working on exposure for my book, marketing it, all the really technical aspects of writing a book. But people who have had it, obviously people who do read my work a lot, really appreciate the offering of love that it’s been. And that’s what I want, that’s the whole intention of it. I don’t write so that I may benefit from it but so that it can be received as love and light by other people. And I think that’s how it’s been for everyone who has read it so far.

Where do you want to go with your poetry?
Well, going back to two-and-a-half years ago, I never saw myself with this book in hand. So I can’t say that I do see myself anywhere besides hopefully, pursuing this passion in whichever way has manifested.

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What are you currently working on?
I have a starring role in a new South African feature film directed by Louw Venter and produced by Urucu Media, which will be released later this year. I’m also directing my first play While We Hate, which I also wrote. It will run at PopART Theatre in June.

What inspired your career in acting and directing?
Watching Sarafina. When I saw Leleti Khumalo on screen, I knew I wanted to perform and tell stories in the same way that she did. I’ve only been directing for a few years, so I’m really taking time to define my voice and fine tune my perspective. I want to tell stories that encourage people to be better than they are. I also want to tell stories that make all people proud to be whoever they are, because as much as I have a very unique point of view, I do want to create work and tell stories that resonate universally.

Have you always wanted to be an actor/ director?
Yes. I’ve always wanted to be a performer and a storyteller. I believe that creating art is a sacred act. There are very few professionally trained actors who are working in our industry, and it shows. The quality of our films and TV shows is a testament to the quality of writers, directors and actors that we have in the country.

What has been the highlight in your career thus far?
Being nominated for a [South African Film and Television Award] for my first role, and becoming one of the few openly gay black actors to get nominated for a performance role in a film. I was nominated in 2018 for Best Supporting Actor in a Feature Film for playing Kwanda, one of the lead characters in Inxeba.

What challenges have you faced as a young black gay actor in the industry?
Very few people are writing complex gay and queer characters which I would be proud to portray, so it makes selecting work really hard. As much as I pride myself in being gay, overtly so, I also resent the idea that because I’m gay I have to play gay characters. I have the know-how and the skills to step in and out of any character.

What advice would you give to youngsters who are trying to get into acting?
Know who you are and know what you stand for. Work on your craft, don’t stop taking acting lessons/coaching, no matter how successful you get. There is always room for improvement. Engage with your industry, both local and international. When you know what is happening, you know what is out there for you to go after.