Begin at the beginning

Begin at the beginning

Gauteng Women in Insurance (GWII) hosted a motivational event, themed Begin at The Beginning, on Wednesday 20 July at the Bryanston Country Club, with main sponsor Camargue Underwriting Managers and co-sponsors Bryte Insurance, GIB Insurance Brokers, Innovation Group, Marsh and RoadCover.

Author of many books, including if you want to Make God laugh, Bianca Marais spoke to the ladies about how our lives are made up of stories. Every day of our lives, every single minute, is a thread that makes up the tapestry of who we are.

Our lives are made up of stories

“Whether we’ve paid conscious attention to it or not, our lives are made up of stories. And I don’t just mean the books we read or the movies we watch. I mean the anecdotes we tell our friends at dinner parties, what we share with someone on the first, second and third date,  the stories that our parents tell us about ourselves from a time before we remember who we were, the snippets from our day that we choose to share with our partners, what we decide to share on social media… all of these are carefully curated stories,” she said.

“Now, the fascinating thing about stories - that any writer will tell you - is deciding where they begin. Sounds easy enough, though, doesn’t it? Begin at the beginning.  But where is the real beginning? I can’t tell you how often I’ve started a story at one place only to find myself in the wrong place, having to go back and begin earlier,” she added.

A story to tell

“Take my story that I want to share with you today, for example. Did the story begin the day I first drove into Soweto as a twenty-seven-year-old woman deciding I would volunteer there? Did it begin when I first started realising, as an eight-year-old child, how barbaric the Apartheid regime was? Or did it begin even before then, thanks to the love of a black caregiver I had when I was a baby who helped shaped my views as I grew up? I need to go back to the very beginning,” she said.

“I was born in 1976, the year of the Soweto Uprising. A mere 20 miles away, my care as a five-month-old white baby had been entrusted to one of the very people the apartheid government had decided was less than human: our maid, Eunice Ngogodo. As I grew up, she not only fed, bathed and clothed me, she also spent a lot of time protecting me from my older brother who seemed hell-bent on making my life miserable. It was Eunice who helped me rehearse for school plays and ballet recitals (though she was legally prohibited from ever sitting in an auditorium with white people to watch me perform) and it was Eunice who helped me with my homework, though she’d been deprived of a proper education herself due to the Bantu Education Act. And in spite of doing all this, it was Eunice who was assaulted by the police in our home because of a neighbour’s report that she was abusing me (a conclusion they reached based on the fact that they heard me throwing a lot of tantrums),” she continued.

“Eunice retired when I was 13, and her daughter, Millicent, came to work for our family, but we kept up a constant stream of correspondence in the form of letters for many years. We rejoiced together when Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, when the very first black children were allowed to attend my white school in 1992, and when Nelson Mandela was elected president and apartheid ended in 1994. Fast forward to the July of 2000, when I watched as a tiny black boy stood up on stage in front of a large delegation at the 13th Annual AIDS Conference and said, “Hi, my name is Nkosi Johnson. I am 11 years old, and I have full blown AIDS. I was born HIV positive.” Despite his frailty, he summoned enough strength to challenge AIDS denialist President Thabo Mbeki, asking him to allow the South African government to give AZT to pregnant HIV positive mothers. After Nkosi made his brave appeal, President Thabo Mbeki and his delegation did the unthinkable: they all stood up and left in the middle of the child’s speech. In that same July, just a few days before Nkosi’s speech, Eunice’s daughter, Millicent passed away from AIDS related complications. Nkosi Johnson passed away on the 1st of June 2001, less than a year after his historic speech,” she said.

“In 2003, when my husband and I got married, Eunice was the person I chose to spend a quiet night with, the day before the big day, and she was guest of honour at the wedding, nine years after the end of apartheid. By 2003, an estimated 370 000 adults and children had died from AIDS in South Africa, and though I felt completely helpless in the face of the pandemic, I knew I could no longer stand on the sidelines in my safe white suburb and be a spectator to the vicious disease that was ravaging my countrymen,” added Bianca.

“I signed up as a volunteer with Cotlands, a non-profit organisation that provided care for abused, abandoned and HIV positive children. While assisting there, I became head of the volunteer program and began an outreach program in Soweto. When I had been coming of age in apartheid South Africa and learning to drive as a teenager, I was constantly warned to never accidentally take the nearby highway offramp into Soweto. I was told it’s the most dangerous place in Johannesburg for a white woman. But there I was, at the age of twenty-seven, not only driving into Soweto but doing it on purpose, asking other white women to join me. The truth is that Soweto changed my life, because that is where I met the gogos. During my nine years there, I saw two people being murdered through acts of mob justice; worked closely with a man who turned out to be a serial killer of young girls, consoled children whose mothers had died in the same bed as them during the night; begged for donations to procure camping fridges (which we hooked up to illegal electricity outlets so that blisteringly hot shacks could keep pediatric antiretrovirals cold enough to be effective); set up income generation schemes so that eighty-year-old grandmothers could financially support their orphaned grandchildren; and listened to countless women generously share their life stories,” emphasised Bianca.

“It was humbling, empowering, soul-destroying work, and it made me realise that women were truly the backbone of Africa,” stated Bianca.

The stories that others gift us

“I began writing this book both as a tribute to Eunice - a way for me to try and truly understand the life she has led – and as a way for me to come to terms with the many conflicted emotions I had about my own privileged past. And it was only during writing the book that I realised, with much shame, how much I’d gotten it all wrong. All the while as I grew up, I thought the tragedy of apartheid was the many inhumane ways in which it had prevented Eunice and I from sharing in each other’s lives, when in fact the real tragedy was that I was in Eunice’s life at all. In a fair world, Eunice would not have only seen her five children once a year at Christmas when she returned to the Bantu homeland of the Transkei. In a fair world, Eunice would have been able to raise her own children instead of having to lavish all of her maternal affection on someone else’s,” she said.

“My latest novel, If You Want to Make God Laugh, exists thanks to my work with the gogos of Soweto and the legacy of Nkosi Johnson. They are what inspired me to write this book about South Africa’s transition to democracy and the onset of the AIDs pandemic. If You Want to Make God Laugh is a love letter to those women who both uplifted and shamed me as they made me come to terms with my white privilege, and taught me how to use it — finally, finally! — for good. Their fingerprints, and Eunice’s fingerprints, are on every page of my two novels. When I told Eunice that my debut novel was inspired by her, and dedicated to her, she couldn’t believe it. “Me?” She said. “Why me? I was just a maid, my darling. I am no one special”,” added Bianca.

“How to explain that just a maid was in fact the single biggest influence in my whole life? That I could not imagine being me without her? That just a maid shaped me and taught me how to love and how to not see the world in black and white. Every day of our lives, every single minute, is a thread that makes up the tapestry of who we are. We are the sum total of not just our stories but the stories that others gift us with. I am a writer, an artist, because I am the vessel into which so many stories have been poured into,” continued Bianca.

After Bianca’s talk, the ladies each received a signed copy of her book, partly sponsored by GIB Insurance Brokers.

A charitable cause

As customary, members were asked to bring along R50 for the nominated charity, Cornerstone Women for abused women and children. We also asked the ladies to bring along an item or two for FORA, which is a shelter for unwanted dogs and cats. With these winter days, these animals need our help.

We would like to thank each one of you for your donations.

Lucky draws

A few lucky ladies walked away with prizes. Congratulations to all our lucky draw prize winners who walked away with amazing prizes:

  1. 1 x hamper valued at R1 500, including a Sorbet voucher of R1 000, sponsored by Allianz
  2. A Jenna Clifford gift worth R3 000, sponsored by Bryte Insurance
  3. 1 x Sandton City voucher, valued at R1 000, sponsored by Camargue Underwriting Managers
  4. Smothie Blender, valued at R 500, sponsored by Guardrisk
  5. 1x R500 Takealot voucher, sponsored by HIC Underwriting Managers
  6. 1 x Le Creuset voucher, valued at R750, sponsored by Hollard Insure
  7. 1 x gift box with pamper items, including a gown, slippers, bobble head, inflatable crown etc., all embroided with ‘Queen’, sponsored by King Price Insurance
  8. 5 x Stoneglow Diffusers to the value of R350 each, sponsored by MUA Insurance Acceptances
  9. 1x laptop bags, sponsored by One Insurance
  10. 2 x Yankee candles, valued at R450 each, sponsored by RoadCover
  11. Sasria sponsored a branded goody bag
  12. 3 x Sunday Self-Care Baskets filled with bath candles, bath salts, room mist, body lotion, soap, body wash, a writing journal and pen, small towel set, hot chocolate, wine and a wine glass, coffee mug and a book, valued at R1 000 each, sponsored by Sedgwick
  13. 4 x Polo purses valued at R1 200, sponsored by Western National

Thank you

GWII would like to thank main sponsor Camargue Underwriting Managers and co-sponsors Bryte Insurance, GIB Insurance Brokers, Innovation Group, Marsh and RoadCover for their sponsorship and support for this event. Without our sponsors this would not be possible.

Thank you, Bianca, for inspiring us. And to all the ladies, thank you for attending this event. We hope Bianca inspired you with her story.

See photo album here