Once upon a time, in the shadow of a valley in northern KwaZulu-Natal, there lived a little girl by the name of Yolanda Mzozoyana.
The town was called Dundee, and it was famous, among other things, for the beauty of its mountains: “Indumeni” (where the thunder rolls), “Mpati” (the place of good waters), “Talana” (the shelf where precious items are kept).
Many traders, explorers, hunters and warriors wandered through Dundee over the years, and it was here, on the slopes of a hill, that the first shots were fired in a mighty war between the British and the Boers.
But the hills, too, would later reveal their ancient secret, in the form of a dark, jagged rock that drew fortune-seekers from near and afar.
The legend says that if you take a lump of coal, and you apply enough force and pressure to it, it will magically transform into a diamond.
Science tells us that this is not so, and that the only thing coal and diamonds have in common is the element of carbon.
And yet Yolanda, brought up by her grandmother in this coal-mining town, would come to learn that if you apply your mind, if you focus and concentrate hard enough, you can perform an authentic act of alchemy all on your own.
You can transform words on a page, the raw material of data and information, into the brilliant gleam of knowledge. You can shine, like a diamond.
Today, through the power of reading and learning, Yolanda is a geologist by profession, working for a multinational coal-mining company in the flatlands of Mpumalanga.
Her specialist discipline is geohydrology, the study of the dynamics of water on and below the surface of the earth.
But dig deeper and you will discover that Yolanda is herself an explorer, a miner of human potential, a teacher on a mission to share a lesson from across the generations.
“Education, education, education, education, education,” says Yolanda, echoing her grandmother’s insistent mantra of upliftment. “As much as she wasn’t educated formally, from the stories she’d tell, came a love of reading that has stayed with me for life.”
Those pages became wings on which Yolanda would glide and soar, drifting high above the hills of Dundee to the faraway places of her dreams: the Colosseum in Rome, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Empire State Building in New York.
Books were her escape, her passport to other worlds, other cultures, other experiences. And now, at the age of 26, they are her portal to the ultimate destination: home.
Last year, Yolanda took time out of her busy schedule to visit her old primary school and, in that simple structure of brick and corrugated iron, searing hot in summer, freezing cold in winter, she was shocked to discover that it still didn’t have a library.
That was the spur for her to start a nonprofit foundation called The African Narrative, whose mission is to get all African children access to books “that will motivate, inspire and develop their hearts and minds”.
The first drop of 700 books was made to Sondoda Junior Primary School in Ekuvukeni in KwaZulu-Natal, and the plan now is to shift at least 1000 books into at least five schools by January2020. Where will the books come from? The clue lies in the spark of Yolanda’s own heart and mind.
On the cusp of her 25th birthday, she posted a video on Instagram and Facebook, calling on her followers not to shower her with gifts and champagne but to join the revolution, to fall in with the cause, to help her meet her greater goal as a fledgling social entrepreneur. Changing the narrative of the African child, one book at a time.
In other words, she asked, give the gift of words, wrapped in the pages of the gifts that keep on giving. Books. She laughs now at her impertinence, at her brazen use of social media as a force for selflessness, rather than selfies.
“I’m average-looking, right,” she says, not at all convincingly, “and if I post a picture of myself, it’s like, 300 likes. But if I post, like, okay guys, please donate books for the school, it’s, like, 10 likes. Come on! I might be fighting the wrong battle but all I’m trying to do is make reading and education sexy.”
It’s a battle, she admits, that keeps her awake at night, when she really should be resting after a long, hard day of grappling with the state of the earth and the water table down below.
“I’ll be lying there thinking, there are kids out there, and they’re not reading,” she says. “It’s tricky finding the balance with my work, but there is no other option. If I went through the struggle of not having books throughout my primary school career, why must somebody else? There is a need, and the need is the calling.”
For Yolanda, the calling goes beyond the short-term drive to gather and deliver books to under-resourced schools, and the long-term goal of implementing a culture of reading through the telling and sharing of African stories.
The calling is to change the system itself, to shatter the age-old notion that education, education, education is a process that happens when you sit at a desk and say yes Sir, yes, Ma’am.
“We need to get out of the romantic idea that working your way towards a degree will automatically mean that there will be a job waiting for you out there,” she says.
“That’s not how things work anymore.”
She has decided that, in this new world of work, she can be a scientist and an activist, a speaker and an entrepreneur, a teacher and a learner. That she can earn a salary for what she is qualified to do — “I like my salary!” she says — and that she can busy herself with a project on the side, just for the joy and the love and the compulsion of it.
In the workplace, as a young black woman in a male-dominated industry, she has learned that you have to be “so bloody good” at what you do, no one will be able to doubt your ability to do it.
She has learned to speak her mind when she wants toand to stay silent when she pleases. This is what she likes about her generation. This is what makes her feel proud to be a part of it.
“We’re loud,” she says, turning up the volume on the word. “But we have content. We’re loud about what we deserve. We fight hard, we work hard and we know what we’re worth.”
She casts her heart and mind back to the generation of her parents and her grandparents. If she is loud, it is because she is standing on the shoulders of giants.
But at the same time, because of what they went through, because of the way they were belittled, she and her generation cannot be expected to sit in the corner and wait their turn to be heard. Their turn is now.
She sits back and ponders the question. Does being loud, with content, make her feel contented with her place in the world? No, she finally says. The word that she would use is “fulfilled”.
She feels fulfilled to be working in a field so demanding of her time and knowledge, and she feels fulfilled to be playing a part in making a difference to the generation that will one day rise to take her place.
When that happens, when the narrative changes and the stories are told afresh, to live on in the pages of books, once upon a time, in Africa, will be magically transformed into happily ever after.
This profile is part of the Afrilennials project run by Student Village (studentvillage.co.za). Gus Silber is a veteranjournalist