/ 14 May 2024

A reverent ode to matriarchy and heritage in South Africa

A Plate Of Macarons Placed On A Floral Table Cloth Next To Antique Teacups.
Like the author’s family, before cups knew the feeling of a tea bag, we used a small strainer to contain the tea leaves during my younger days in rural Ruigtesloot, North West. Fresh milk from my grandparents’ livestock and two teaspoons of sugar concluded the ritual.

After receiving my copy of Heart of a Homemaker: Learnings from Gogo’s Bosom, hesitation gripped me for days. Anxiety over remembering my late grandparents was the reason for my paralysis. 

Eventually, I braved up and the taps began running better than Rand Water when I read what Jabulile Buthelezi-Kalonji wrote about her maternal grandmother, especially her love of tea. 

I relayed this to the author — with a Maasai shawl around her shoulders matching her red-framed glasses — when we met in Joburg. 

Besides punctuality, the skill of tea-making is what we reminisced about as some of the key lessons we learned from our grandparents. 

Buthelezi-Kalonji decided to write a book that positioned her maternal grandmother at the centre for numerous reasons. 

Chiefly, she wanted to capture the influence her grandmother had on her life, character and upbringing as her first Zulu grandchild. 

Parallel to this, she wanted to explore the important notion of family as a pillar of courage and identity in black society and community. 

The book, she adds, is an attempt to debunk the one-sided idea of inherent dysfunctionality, the lack of self-awareness, capability and pride in who African people are. 

“I believe for one to fully understand the complexities, and essence of who they are, they first need to authentically face the beauty or ugliness they come from,” she says.

Lessons in tea and healing

Heart of a Homemaker is a heartfelt tribute to the foundational essence of matriarchy — a timeless cornerstone of African society. 

Gogo Esther was a Motswana woman married to a Malawian immigrant, Bambo, who was warmly welcomed by a Seventh-day Adventist Xhosa family upon his arrival in Jouberton, Klerksdorp, in what is now North West province, in the early 1950s. 

According to the author, Gogo Esther was soft-spoken but strict, with an unrivalled power to disarm any teenage resistance, and a prayer warrior who lived with authenticity. 

Buthelezi-Kalonji writes about how her grandparents — under the apartheid government — enjoyed the unique achievement of an extended home — a four-room house with two bedrooms enlarged to accommodate a family of over eight people. 

As such, her grandparents’ bedroom was the “parliament” — a command centre for family business, discipline and fellowship. It was the focal point of the author’s schooling on accountability, humanity, leadership, patience and kindness. 

Not only did tea serve as a “mood regulator” during the toughest of conversations, it was also a love language between her grandparents. 

Like the author’s family, before cups knew the feeling of a tea bag, we used a small strainer to contain the tea leaves during my younger days in rural Ruigtesloot, North West. 

Fresh milk from my grandparents’ livestock and two teaspoons of sugar concluded the ritual. 

After my grandmother made tea for Mkhulu every morning, she would sip hers on a saucer, religiously. Her 4am toils behind the coal stove were her prayer time and we grandchildren would wake up to warm water in the waskom (washbasin). These were my memories as I read the book. 

For most black professionals who grew up with their grandparents, either in the rural areas or townships across our country, these are stories to which they can relate. Thus, the book offers a reflective and healing journey for self, family members and relatives alike. 

One can imagine the triggers and anxieties during the writing process. The journey was both beautiful and emotionally challenging, Buthelezi-Kalonji says. 

“It took me through a different wave of mourning my grandparents,” she says, “and all my late aunts, yet again unintentionally forcing me to address my hurts and disappointments relating to my family set-up.” 

She says the process was necessary both for her healing and for self-reflection. 

“The triggers were also a catalyst for growth, forgiveness and, to some extent, letting go of what is beyond my control, reclaiming my power and focus as an African black woman — but, most importantly, being authentic, compassionate and true to the legacy of my grandmother and, by extension, my grandparents.”

Divided into three parts, Heart of a Homemaker is a collection of bite-sized essays with universal themes that have the potential to resonate with a wide readership. 

Instead of the author approaching one of the major publishers, she self-funded the book, which was independently published by Township Press, founded by the author. 

The decision was deliberate and strategic. Buthelezi-Kalonji argues that it is important to embrace and hold space for the rapidly growing, diverse modern South African literature that is being produced by fresh and unknown voices. 

The telling of realistic socio-economic norms, seen through the lens of lived experience, across rural and urban settings, is vital, she adds. 

“These voices don’t often, or easily, find easy access to the traditional literary marketplace.”

In a world where some read keenly, but might not find substance in the text, Buthelezi-Kalonji was intentional in challenging readers. 

The book has reflection sections at the end of each chapter, something usually seen in personal-development books. 

Reflections, the author states, are an urgent, compassionate call for action to engage and consider one’s unique role in contributing towards greater society as an individual. 

Buthelezi-Kalonji says she’s always understood her love for writing is a catalyst that must move through cross-cultural chains. 

“My richly embedded South African essence, coupled with my eminent pan-African foundation, allows me to cushion my work globally for anyone who chooses to regard and consume it.” 

The book is written with love and compassion and the raw, colloquial textures of Setswana emphasise the township cultural nuances and experiences of the author. 

The mention of Iwisa maize meal, the afternoon rush to watch Take 5 and applying Cobra polish on a red stoep, while the uncles next door are blazing Lucky Dube, was such a nostalgic expedition.  

Buthelezi-Kalonji’s ultimate goal is to educate, inspire and challenge readers to honour the women-driven power and leadership that has led us and kept families together. 

This, she argues, existed before society started only associating powerful women with high-end careers, forgetting and sidelining the homemakers, mothers and grandmothers, who are the bedrock  of leadership. 

The everlasting gift this book gave the author — and hopefully will give the reader — is the healing she had avoided for years. 

“It is a sense of contentment about my personhood, coupled with a solid level of bravery to live life the best way I can, moving forward in honour of the giants that raised me proudly.” 

Heart of a Homemaker is available on the Township Press Publishers website and Amazon for the global paperback edition, including ebook.