i asked my grandmother
what to do with all the pain,
‘wash it clean with love’
– Ijeoma Umebinyuo
It’s been three years since the most terrifying time in my life.
In April of 2017 my mother went into hospital to give birth and, soon after, our lives almost fell apart. While at home with my baby brother, my grandmother noticed that my mother began to show signs of a heart attack. A rush to the hospital and multiple surgeries on her heart and lungs saved her life, though she still struggles with the effects of these operations years later.
3 years later, I mourn the loss of the woman who held our family together as we went through this, my maternal grandmother, lovingly known as Mama Thoko. She fell ill and died suddenly, fortunately surrounded by her loved ones.
If nothing else, death highlights so many things for us as we go through the motions of recovering what our lives are without the people we rarely imaged our lives without.
It was within therapy where I was able to unwrap all the ways in which my grandmother and mother have equipped me to become a person who so deeply values care, love, tenderness and pleasure in all I do. It was via their teachings that I became invested in understanding the role of our own healing within the path towards liberation. It was through their struggles I learnt to differentiate how I wanted to live my life and all I did and did not want to give my energy to. It was through crying and laughing within various situations that I understood that healing, wellness and self-care are never linear. It was thanks to their duality of strength and softness that I began discovering what feminism could offer a young girl who was angry at how the world drained the women of my bloodline. It was thanks to them that I found solace in the multitudinous nature of spirituality.
It was via the women in my life that I learnt that love is healing and healing is love.
I was fortunate enough that while both of these power women in my life were fiercely Catholic, they never forced me to follow the religion. They, obviously, took me to church with them for years when I was young but as I grew older and started forming my own opinions (and fell asleep in the pews during sermons) they let me be as I withdrew from the church. They came to understand that the values they taught me, the ones I held close to my heart did not need to exist within the walls of a church or the confines of the Bible.
Slowly, I began to find feminism as my own form of church,I found care and healing work, I found ways in which I wanted to root all the work and energy I put out into the world in love and pleasure. My feminism led to greats: Patricia Hill Collins, Ama Ata Aaidoo, June Jordan, Pumla Dineo Gqola, Sylvia tamale, Adena Busia, Octavia Butler, Stella Nyanzi, Toni Cade Bambara, Nana Sekyiamah, Amina Mama and Gabeba Baderoon, amongst others.
Closest to my heart, my feminism lead me to Audre Lorde and Adrienne Maree Brown, whose work is grounded within the erotic and pleasure as a form of power that can be used to create systemic and holistic change.
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare,” Lorde wrote in A Burst of Light” and Other Essays.
This quote, I believe, has since been stripped of its original intention, with how much the self-care and wellness movements have become steeped in capitalist intent. To me, self-care and wellness involve a lot more internal work, rather than the focus on external beautification. The external and internal cannot exist alone, both are necessary and valid expressions of wellness and self-care.
Lorde’s Uses of the Erotic teaches us so much about the power that we have when we tap into erotic energy and how this enriches our practices of wellness. It is an energy that prioritises what aliveness feels like, how we map our destinies and desires and integrates the spiritual within it. It is within this praxis that I’ve been exploring my own spirituality as an extension of my own wellness. It is unfortunate but for Black women, and specifically those of us who are queer, wellness cannot exist solely on the surface. Women who face abuse, assault, those who are taken for granted and made to prioritise everyone else before themselves, those who are made out to be the superhero Strong Black Women because they take care of everyone; this trauma is passed on from generation to generation, without realising it. We are taught to be selfless, to be submissive and carry the world on our backs. How do we begin to heal thought patterns that have been cemented by living in a world that does not afford Black women and femmes the opportunities to connect with ancestral guides, a world in which our wellness, pleasure and justice exist all at once?
Maree Brown expands on this within her book Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, she writes “Pleasure activism is the work we do to reclaim our whole, happy, and satisfiable selves from the impacts, delusions, and limitations of oppression and/or supremacy.”
She allowed me to build on what my grandmother and mother taught me – to understand that politics cannot be separate from my own healing and growth as an individual. I do not have that luxury.
For as long as I’ve remembered my mother was a woman who stood firm in her beliefs, she believed in the power of prayer, in the power of caring for our community and in the power of acknowledging and honouring those that came before us. As a young Black family trying to make it in Johannesburg, a long way from Heilbron, Free State, where she grew up, she, my sister, father and I were separated from our roots – but only by geography.
She made sure that all the traditional ceremonies the family went through were understood by us so that we knew what was happening and why. She made sure my cousins and I understood the importance of being in touch with our spiritual practices as a family so that we would be able to continue this work once she had passed.
As I spoke to Vuyiswa Zekatwane, a practicing sangoma in Johannesburg, I realised that many of us have had similar experiences.
“There are ways in just who you are that call on you to pay homage to people who’ve come before you. It’s just a knowledge that precedes you, we all have that thing” she shared.
There are so many wellness, care and healing practices that are calling to us to find them again, a way for us to heal our bodies, along with our minds and generational traumas.
Nakhane Toure has spoken out about what called him, a queer man, to invest his energy into African wellness,
“I knew that the only way to deal with this was to look at who we, as a people, were before being colonised. So I threw myself completely into our spiritual practices and who we were as a people”.
There is an undeniable shift currently going on that is leading more of us towards identifying with ancestral spirits and allowing our spirituality to cope with and unbound the chains of centuries of oppression. Understanding, once again, that self-care cannot be a shallow exercise for us. Vuysiwa speaks to this beautifully:
“When people say that young people are going back to this knowledge, it’s natural. It’s the information age we’re living in. We have a lot more information, we’re able to make better decisions about ourselves and the people we want to be and so much more aware of our history and the kinds of things that inform our experience. We can, unlike our parents who lived through apartheid or their parents, who were just trying to stay alive, say no actually… We have the benefit of time. We have the benefit of recollection and looking back at the things that did not work out and now the way of our people.”
We have the benefit of easily accessible information, time and a fierce commitment to ensuring we recover from our past traumas with as much honesty as possible. Things gradually get better because there is always a new level of consciousness that is opened with each generation.
Rina Kutama, founder of Umfwa Tank, speaks on this need, the need to learn and grow as a community. On her own healing journey, she felt drawn to creating a space that could act as a creative hub to explore, play, hold space for thought-provoking conversation and share the knowledge she was gaining. “I was raised in a religious household and I very much rebelled against it. I love to see our generation explore what spirituality and the human experience means to each person individually. Not just in a religious context, also in our taking up space as African healers, we’re choosing and forging our own paths. There are many different types of callings now and it’s beautiful to watch how each person embraces their own.”
Investing in creating spaces for healing through joy seems to be an incredibly important thing for many Black women. Wellness that prioritises the inner work shows an intentional move towards linking love with healing, community and joy as resistance.
“I really believe in love. I am a big romantic and I make everything romantic, washing my hair, eating food, the link between trees/water and life. My key to finding joy in life – if you create a space that you love, if you do things with love you pour in light, when you pour in light then there is no space for fear
Bubu Ndela, owner of dairy free ice-cream company Yococo, also holds similar opinions on the connections we can make to expand our definitions of wellness as Black people. Having also grown up in a religious household, her upbringing was more balanced with a focus on Christianity alongside African spirituality. She recently went through an ayahuasca experience to get more in touch with her spirituality.
“I’ve worked through a lot of things. It took time for me to integrate all I was learning and the questions I still had. I always wondered what authenticity means to me? Am I being myself? What does being myself even mean? I know that we can lie to ourselves so much and I’ve been worried that I may have lied so much to myself that I started believing that this is the real me when it wasn’t actually the case. I just wanted to be vulnerable, let go, be open, not be controlling the situation and the thoughts and just see myself without the masks. I wanted to let go of my past relationship, I wanted to let go of my beliefs around money, around fun, around life. Limiting self-beliefs, I wanted to work through them too. I also just wanted to connect to my (late) grandmother; I feel like she’s my person. Just to connect with her in that state – that’s what I really wanted.”
Bubu also notes the importance of doing this internal work in order for us to heal and reach a place where wellness is such a natural state that it’s integrated into how we do our work, how we treat our loved ones and how we share love. She is committed to doing community via sharing what she learns and highlighting the importance of understanding that we are all connected.
My own grandmother taught me all I know about the power of love and healing as community work. She was a nurse for most of her life, she was an abolitionist in nature, having volunteered at prisons. One of her friends said that they visited a prison with her once and my grandmother was adamant about assisting the prisoners get out and enrich their lives in healthier ways. Combined with my mother’s love for all things spiritual, I was fortunate to build a foundation of wellness focused on self-awareness and -development. My mother introduced me to how astrology worked, to crystals and to reiki. I remember whipping out my first tarot card deck and she already knew exactly what it was. To this day, we consult with sangomas, astrologers and reiki healers together.We’ve developed a relationship that while still strained (much like almost all mother-daughter relationships) can always root itself in our continued commitment to self-development and learning together.
As we undid my grandmother’s styled dreadlocks in her hospital bed shortly after she passed, my mother and I wept quietly. I will always remember the meditation that this simple act held for us. As we washed her body soon before her funeral, I learnt the importance of our spiritual practices yet again. I was surrounded by the eldest women in my family as they taught me how to wash my grandmother’s body, showing her love and praying all while we did this. That short time with her before we buried her will always be the source of the majority of my healing and mourning process. My mother made sure I went through it because she knew it would offer me closure. She knew that the process of cleaning and preparing her for her final rests would offer me not only closure but would show me just how important it is to care for each other intentionally, even on our last day.
It taught me just how much Black women have been the main sources of love, healing and holding our communities together. It has shaped my commitment to wellness in holistic ways, always understanding that the physical, emotional and mental should balance with the spiritual. These two women, who have never referred to themselves as feminists, set the foundation of my own feminist politics. They taught me about the importance of bringing along your community when you win. They grounded all they did in love and let that love for their community motivate the ways in which we take care of ourselves and each other.