Oomama Bomthandazo

Oomama Bomthandazo

The prayers of Black women, young and old, have carried me farther than I could have ever gotten alone. They petitioned and wet their altars with tears, interceding on my behalf.

The earliest petitions I recall were from my paternal grandma, Nomvo Adelaide Tsoaeli (Hello, superstar!). She was umama womanyano, the mother’s union of the Anglican church, from the time I was aware of myself to her last day on earth. A prayer warrior, if you will. Umama womthandazo.

She hated that I hated church. I found every reason to complain about church. For me, Sundays were meant for ease and preparation for the coming week. For her, part of preparing for the coming week was communing with other women, in church, laying it all at the altar.

I hated it with a visceral hate. The preparatory work prior to trekking that 30 minute walk to the church? Hell! The frankincense burnt on hot coals inside a canister that swung this way and that way, leaving a trail of sweet smoke in its wake? It made me feel dizzy and hungry. It also left me feeling rattled, like a nut inside of its shell, not quite having found balance. I’d only come to understand these sensations much later in life.

My preference was to not go to church, but I also wasn’t given the option to stay alone in the house. My gran would lock the doors to her house and place the key safely inside her black handbag, next to the green and white smoothies sweets, that smelt like mentholated snuff. Even then, I chose my freedom over communing with their incense and hymns. I was a stubborn little pikin who grew into a stubborn adult who now understands that their stubbornness has a place in the world.

I had never witnessed my grandmother praying feverently. Even in church, I’d never seen her catch the holy ghost, she was always cool as a cucumber. I now understand that to have been a mask. How could she not be panicked and petitioning ceaselessly when life was so difficult and she bore so many responsibilities?

I understand from my own perspective as a mother to many, bearing responsibilities beyond my years, as a Black woman; as umama womthandazo who always makes something, sometimes from nothing. How could I not empathise with my gran’s life when all she did was to dedicate it to nurturing others, seldom ever taking time for herself? I understand the burdens of Black womanhood, with the burdens of capitalism, in a country fraught with femicide and domestic violence; the ceaseless demands of single mamahood. I understand the constant and ceaseless demands of juggling life’s responsibilities.

I appreciate the kindness my grandmother indiscriminately showed to family and strangers, alike. It’s a kindness I have learnt to commune with through the work of being umama womthandazo.How could I deviate from that well of love and pure intentions when the guiding ancestor is the one who indiscriminately loved all? How could I not grant people the love and kindness they so need and deserve?

I have a different appreciation for the work of being umthandazeli/mosebeletsi wa setjhaba, considering the prayers that shower my life. After most encounters with people seeking African ancestral healing, a powerful prayer escapes their mouths. Others whisper it in their hearts, while others say it out loud, while delicately cupping my hand in theirs: “Uphile Gogo”. And with that I understand the words bubbling in their belly, wishing to push past their larynx and to be formed into fervent prayer. With that, we both have a silent understanding of the unspoken gratitude. I understand the words borne from grateful hearts, wishing me unwele olude.

The prayers of Black women have carried me much farther than I could have gone alone. This is how I know I’ll weather any storm that comes my way, ngoba omama bomthandazo bahlezi bengisingathile.

May you always be guided back home. To the centre of your heart. Kukhanye!

Gogo Malepena

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  • Oa tla oa nkgopotša my own grandmother, my prayer warrior. My mother and I often reflect on her unceasing faith, with love but also confusion. Age has taught me that that’s what anchored her. Oh mama waka *heart emoji*
    Thank you for this.

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