In 2016 US singer Solange released, as part of her third studio album A Seat at the Table, the song “Don’t Touch My Hair”. It was heralded as an important addition to the conversation around identity politics, especially where women of colour were concerned.
As fate would have it, this was around the same time that University of Pretoria (UP) staffer Sihle Nontshokweni and her good friend Mathabo Tlali penned Wanda, Jacana Media’s fastest-selling children’s book. The rights of the book have been sold to a publisher in the United States and Canada, and it has been published in four South African languages.
Nontshokweni explained that at its crux, Wanda is a story that engages children at a level that they understand about the large and complex topic of identity.
“Wanda is a confident eight-year-old who is navigating the complexities between what ‘neatness is at schools’ and what her mother refers to as a ‘crown of hair’. She is navigating how she sees herself in relation to her school, home and what the naughty boys in the bus say about her. Her longing is to be brave enough to stand up for herself, yet she conforms. Every day she has the ‘big switch’. She races to the school bathroom before the bell rings so she can style her hair differently from how her mom styles it, and before she gets home, she switches her style back,” Nontshokweni said.
UP staffer Sihle Nontshokweni and her good friend Mathabo Tlali wrote 'Wanda'.
The book also explores other themes such as bullying: “Bullying is explored in the book, the intergenerational transmission of confidence, cultural pride and the power of women. At the end of the book Wanda's grandmother shows her an album with beautiful African women who wear their hair with pride, the likes of Winnie Mandela, Brenda Fassie, Shado Twala, to name a few,” she said.
Nontshokweni (29) is a Programme Manager of the Sikelela Scholars Programme, a University success programme funded by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. The programme supports 420 students with the core goal of ensuring that they complete their studies and find employment.
“The story was in many ways inspired by my own journey. Including my higher education years, I have been to 12 schools in total. My schooling years coincided with the opening [up] of schools in post-apartheid South Africa. My parents’ mission had been to get me to the best schools. In each school I had to navigate a new culture, in conjunction with my own identity. Over the years I found ways to assimilate, I understood the language of conformity. Most of this required cultural and self-denialism – which I began to master. I worked on the book with a good friend of mine, Mathabo, her experiences significantly shaped the narrative of the book,” Nontshokweni said.
She describes her writing journey as something that "happened" after she discovered that writing brought her healing. Her blog https://sihlesapplecrunch.com/ features some of these musings, developed into short stories where she creates characters to deal with some of these questions. It also features some of her international travel, commentary on socio-political issues as well as a link to her YouTube page. She added that the story of Wanda was born from a blog post she had written about women and hair.
Nontshokweni and Tlali’s biggest hurdle in bringing this story to life was finding an illustrator.
“We completed the written work in October 2017 and only found the right illustrator in December 2018,” she said.
Nontshokweni said the most fulfilling part of her journey has been how audiences have received the book. “How relevant the book is in the current context, how well-received it has been, how engaged the children are at every reading we do, how the parents continue to have the children recite the affirmations in the book. More than this, the book has allowed us to have a platform to discuss meaningful themes on children's identity which had always mattered to us,” she said.
Asked why Wanda would make the perfect gift, Nontshokweni said: “Wanda is a classical book which invites children to confidence and self-acceptance at an early age. Any parent knows how crucial this is. At one of the readings a 21-year-old came up to me with tears in her eyes and said, ‘I wish someone had read this to me when I was a child’.
“Beyond the heart work, the book is fun, the characters are engaging, and the illustrations completed by Chantelle and Burgen [Thorne] are dynamic,” said Nontshokweni.