From domestic worker to doctor: I wrote my own success story
Sindiwe Magona’s life is testament to what happens when dreams meet persistence. Now a writer and acclaimed storyteller, Magona grew up in Gugulethu as the eldest of eight children. She never completed matric, and fell pregnant at the age of 19. Magona was allowed to teach, as the bantu school system deprioritised the teaching of black learners, but lost her job after her third pregnancy when she was 23. During this time, her husband left her. With three children to take care of and an incomplete education, it didn’t seem like Magona would go far. But still she dreamed, bigger than her circumstances and bigger than her qualifications. Then she turned those big ideas into big plans.
Magona turned to domestic work, where she was forced to sleep on a garage floor. Still, she was able to feed her kids and work towards educating herself. She finished high-school by correspondence and went on to register for a degree through UNISA. Her improved qualifications enabled her to teach at Herschel Girls School for five years, during which time she won a scholarship to do her Masters at Columbia University. Magona later worked for the UN for 23 years on their anti-apartheid radio station while also authoring many literary pieces. For her contributions, Magona was awarded an honorary doctorate from Hartwick College. “There is always opportunity to redress anything that goes wrong,” she says. “Life, until you die, never reaches a point of utter hopelessness.”
Magona’s storytelling is influenced by the isiXhosa folktales she grew up with. “Stories are an integral part of socialisation,” she says. They teach children a sense of right and wrong, and they teach them to dream big, much like Magona did. She published her first book in 1990, and has since written a wealth of novels, poetry and children’s books. “Stories can heal our children and arm them for life so that they grow up realising their potential and the gifts they come bringing to the world,” Magona says. She was awarded the Literary Lifetime Achievement award by the Department of Arts and Culture in 2007, shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 2009 and received the Order of Ikhamanga in Bronze in 2011. While her drive has led to her success, the 74-year-old author owes it all to the kindness of friends and strangers. “No one in this world makes it alone,” she says. “I am made of other people’s generosity and open-heartedness.” Today, Magona continues to share the stories of her time, and encourages others to record theirs. “We have to take our lives seriously. They’re all we have,” she says.