It’s 22 January, and the first gathering of the Still Waters Black Womens Storytelling Network. The group founder, Zimbabwean writer Fadzai Jaravaza, pauses, takes a breath, looks around at the group of beautiful brown women gathered for tea in a small room at the Institute for Postcolonial Studies in North Melbourne and asks ‘Any questions?’ There’s a short silence. Tinashe Pwiti, a young Zimbabwean woman of 22, clears her throat. ‘Yes,’ she says, ‘why are we called Still Waters?’
I smile, wondering the exact same thing, and shuffle my three-month-old daughter into the red sling strung across one shoulder, eager to hear Fadzai’s response. One of the baby’s eyes opens suspiciously but she ultimately succumbs to sleep. Still Waters doesn’t seem, to me, to be an obvious christening for this newly formed storytelling sister-circle. Water is such a life force – so all-powerful in its movement and strength. Water floods, drowns, devastates, replenishes and revives. Water slides land, washes away foundations and even erodes stone. Still Waters seems somehow helpless, ominous, melancholy. It makes me think of stagnant ponds and lifeless children, of time standing still.
‘Still Waters, because they run deep, but there is no movement,’ says Fadzai. ‘Still Waters because we are constantly struggling to make waves. Still Waters because there is so much potential, right here just under the surface.’ A knowing nod circles the room and all of us are in agreeance. Still Waters. Amen to that. Suddenly, an old spiritual I haven’t heard for years rises up, deep and rumbling, in my ears:
Wade in the water
Wade in the water / children
Wade in the water
The Lord’s gonna trouble the water
I wonder, am I the only one to hear it.
Writing the ‘other’ Black Australia, I tell the sisters of the newly established storytellers group, has been a long and lonely, if productive, road. Particularly in the notoriously monocultural Australian poetry scene. Paving a path as a young black female poet writing intensely political, and at times heavily criticised, work about the experiences of African descendents in the ‘new world’ has not been easy. But perhaps the most difficult thing of all has been the absence of sisters whose solidarity would surely have made the road less rocky.
Yet here they are now, gathered with me on the couches, cross-legged on the polished wooden floorboards of this small room in North Melbourne: Zimbabwean model and writer Teurai Chinakira, writer Tinashe Pwiti, artist Abby Osia-Ogada (an Australian of Kenyan and Italian heritage), writer and group founder Fadzai Jaravaza, fashion and events co-ordinator Salamawit Mekonnen (of Ethiopian heritage). The group’s supported by Australian lawyer and facilitator Annie Davis, theatre and dance expert Liza Freddi, radio personality and journalist Namila Benson (PNG), and journalist and filmmaker Rachel Maher.
It is early days now, and how the group will grow and change in numbers and direction we are uncertain. For now, we are all content hearing each other chant the same incantation. Though we come via different continents, have travelled different journeys and have lived different lives, we are united by storytelling and skin, and ready to start meeting once a month together, writing, workshopping and sharing our work with the world – taking back our tongues.
The Still Waters Storytelling Network meets on the third Saturday of every month at the Institute for Postcolonial Studies, and aims to tell the stories of Australian women of African descent. Maxine Beneba Clarke will be documenting their progress on the Overland blog.