Some time ago I introduced you to the women of Still Waters. So much has happened for this storytelling group for women of African descent since I last spoke of them properly on this blog. There was that second meeting, where the group consolidated themselves into a core collective of six, including myself as mentor.
Girl, do us black women know how to talk, and that second meeting, though we’d moved from the lounge space of the Institute for Postcolonial Studies to the conference room, the serious work of knuckling down to write a collective manifesto under founder Fadzai Jaravaza’s able guidance didn’t always come easy. Conversation veered off into black women’s business – Tariro spoke of the unbearable whiteness of Australian beauty, of working within the local housing commissions and being asked by young African women ‘Why do you shave your head? Why do you wear headwraps like that? Don’t you want to look pretty?’ Teurai chimed in with her experiences as one of the few black faces in the Australian modelling industry.
Tinashe, the youngest of the group at 22, but perhaps the most fiery, spoke of empowerment, displaying a large and elaborate cursive tattoo on her inner arm which proclaimed her mantra: Take Back Control. The energy in the room was electric, and it was clear an extraordinary collective had indeed been born.
The following months saw life take various turns for the women of Still Waters. There was much excitement after an invitation from the Emerging Writers Festival for the group to perform at its opening night. Then, as life lashes out occasionally, an illness in the family took Teurai back home to Zimbabwe; a serious illness saw myself in and out of hospital and then unavailable to guide the group for a couple months; and, as luck would have it, Abby was fortunate enough to have the chance to go wandering – chasing love across the country.
August saw me back on board and guiding Tariro, Tinashe and Fadzai in a workshop to compose a multi-voiced chorepoem for performance at the Emerging Writers’ Festival. The piece, The First Word, came together so quickly on paper that it was clear our first words had been simmering below the surface since our first meeting some three months before. The poem speaks of the hopes, dreams and struggles of young black women struggling to find a voice, and of our fears as writers and the black storytelling tradition.
Tariro realised she was unable to perform at the festival as it clashed with the opening night of her third-year VCA performance, so over the next few weeks the poem was edited, rewritten, and blocked for three performers.
Rehearsing has been a struggle. Between Fadzai, Tinashe and I, we have three young children (me a five-year-old and seven-month-old and Tinashe an eight-month-old). Fadzai and Tinashe live north of Melbourne, I live in the east. We have no car between the three of us and are constrained by family, finances and many other things. But we managed it. Sometimes I would take a bus, then train, then tram over to North Melbourne, with Maya tied to my chest in sling and under umbrella (she is a chubby ten-kilo thing so this, believe me, was no mean feat). Sometimes we’d meet in the middle at Federation Square to rehearse in front of a curious, fascinated or bemused public. Sometimes the others hiked out to my place. And between nappy-changing, school-drop offs, breastfeeding and keeping the babies from beating each other to death with rattles, we rehearsed. At times a friend, my visiting mother, my ex-partner or Tinashe’s partner, Abdul, would watch one or two of the children, but when that couldn’t be arranged we, quite literally, strapped them to our bodies and lulled them to sleep with the rhythm of our words.
Tonight we take the stage, performing the first words of the Emerging Writer’s Festival 2011. It’s been a struggle, but well worth every tired second.
we came from a land we do not know
in every fibre of our being
from four continents of courage
of black love
from the black nation…
– Still Waters
Get your tickets for tonight’s performance of The First Word.