Black Lives Matter #TeaWithNoma

“It’s Noma from Engineers Without Borders South Africa, we had such a beautiful tea date last weekend and I thank you for coming.”

That beautiful conversation has given me the courage and desire to write this statement on behalf of the board of Engineers Without Borders South Africa. I would like to share with you why I Nomathemba Sindiswa Belinda Magagula, Director at EWBSA overseeing the youth leadership portfolio believes Black Lives Matter. 

I was born in Schoemansdal Mpumalanga at Shongwe Mission hospital and raised mostly by my grandparents for the first few years of my upbringing. 

My grandmother was part of the first generation of well-educated and empowered Black women in South Africa; a District Inspector who drove her yellow car. She was born in Nkandla, KZN and moved to the lands of the Swati’s for love and marriage. She was a leader in the mother’s union of the Anglican Church and still is. 

I spent most of my time with my grandfather, a community builder, leader and activist within the differently abled community of Mpumalanga. My grandfather was also a gardener and a huge storyteller. I would go to school, spend the afternoon at this shop he called “Amandla eNdoda”, then walk home, noMkulu to water the plants and listen to him tell me a story whilst the sun set.

The shop had a home affairs office that operated there on a few days of the week to help the differently abled people of our community get their identification documents and the likes, to ensure they had access to government grants, services, aid and the vote. At the peak of his work, my grandfather established twenty groups for differently abled people in the region through his work in the “Disabled People of South Africa (DPSA)” department including the construction of the Silindokuhle School for the disabled children and Simisele centre for grown up people. 

Simisele centre was managed like a school except for the differently abled adults who were encouraged to come there during the day and work on any skill that they could. They made fences, wires, traditional mats, statues and had gardens. They would have a hot meal and mostly a purpose. 

My grandfather’s journey was very beautiful – it deserves a tea date one day.  He once told me a story about a man, that tried to change the world, then realized it was too big, then he tried to change Africa, then realized that was too big, he then tried to change South Africa, then his community… and all throughout this he was aging. At his death bed he realized he could only ever really change his own heart. 

To translate, he just meant any true change must always begin with yourself as a person because you can only ever heal the world by living out your “God-Given identity” (who ever God may be to you) and finding out what that is becomes your journey towards self-discovery and your personal truth. It informs the leader you become. 

There is very little justice that I can do to add to the many narratives that exist about BLM and the many works of poets, activists, actors, musicians, translators and scholars. The work does exist online, the work of you finding it is also part of your journey to the self. So, I would much rather focus on my personal perspective on this matter if I may. 

I have travelled 14 countries so far and nothing is quite as beautiful as our African continent. The experience of having growing dreadlocks, and thick thighs and black skin whilst moving through these spaces has challenged my world view tremendously. I believe blackness is a spectrum & that the many versions of the truth can be simplified by us having better conversations amongst each other because we genuinely need each other.  

The US was one particularly interesting experience each time I went because I honestly expected “amaBlack American” like the ones on all the posters downtown and on TV. They looked exactly like us, like aboDeliwe, oNtombi Ntombi, Gugu, aboZodwa … they just have different names and speak differently. 

I met Nadesha, from Nicaragua and she had to convince us she was black which ended up in us learning more about her country and her people and how they ended up there. She shared this note with me to remind me. I’m sure you recognize this, (the rain dance & our kitchen utensils).

She suggested a book she was reading by William Chancellor – “The destruction of Black Civilization” It’s a tough read but it unpacks precolonial Africa from the scholar’s perspective and vast research. We met ordinary Black Americans and I could always tell they didn’t expect to see an African from Africa when they woke up that morning. All the Nguni girls in me were naively nodding back at everyone until I was taught about the “Black Nod”, then I started actively nodding where necessary too. (The Nod: A Subtle Lowering of the Head You Give to Another Black Person in an Overwhelmingly White Place).

There is a deep desire for belonging and identity in my community so I could relate to them. I have always struggled with my identity because I have ties to Swati’s through my grandfather, Zulu’s through my grandmother, Xhosa’s through my father. I predominantly speak siSwati & isiZulu and I’m still learning isiXhosa. When I was in Zimbabwe, I learnt that the Ndebele’s there speak isiZulu but call it isiNdebele due to the story of Mzilikazi. Hence, I am Nguni from the Bantu tribes of Africa. I was fortune enough to bump into a book entitled “The roots of the Bantu” By Aeneas Chigwedere which put everything William Chancellor mentioned into so much better context for me as an African who recognises the words, totems, cultures and practices mentioned. 

During my time in Katanga, Democratic Republic of Congo. I realized a lot of the words are very similar, we call a white person “Mlungu” & they call white people “Mzungu” (Bantu Migration). I was also advised to read King Leopold’s Ghost to better understand the DRC and I am awaiting a delivery for it.

The history of South Africa does not begin when Jan Van Riebeeck arrived in Cape Town. The history of Africans is known by our grandparents and we ought to slow down enough to learn what we can because it hurt us then and it is still hurting us today. How is it possible that Victoria Falls is 3 million years old, but it was “discovered in 1855”? The name of the place is Mosi-oa-Tunya. 

My experience as a Black woman working in Katanga was very similar to how it is for me in Johannesburg. I am walking around with $20 in my wallet because I was sent to buy a few products at Woolies on my way back to Katanga in my last visit in March. I have all sorts of beautiful fabric from the regions and I have so many more stories on my tongue. The crown jewel of Africa gave me the courage of ten thousand men. Lubumbashi’s dramatic skies taught me to be tender when leading in these emerging markets, to tailor solutions, to always strive to reduce the barriers.

There was such conscious effort to suppress the black voices found on this land and tell stories only from the perspective of the people writing back to their masters that we have lost a true pride in self-due to a lack of knowledge mostly.

The journey of healing is not one you put a bandage on and hope it will heal. The poetry is in facing your scars and actively healing where you can bit by bit. It’s also critical to be custodians of our family’s truest history, languages, customs, traditions for the coming generations and the curious Africans in Diaspora. It’s important to listen to the whole truth not only the parts you like to hear. I call it leaning into the complexity. 

In 2025, Africa is said to have a projection of $5.6 Trillion in consumer spending and have a population growth of 1.2 Billion according to the book Africa’s Business Revolution by Acha Leke, Musta Chironga, Georges Desvaux. The question becomes who will be leading this growth and will this growth improve the lives of the communities we come from or not?

I was so worried about the Chinese presence in the rest of Africa from my soft couch in Boksburg. But in truth when you have not seen progress in your region for years, does it really matter where temporary relief comes from? Why is the relief temporary when Africa has so many black educated engineers? 

I am sure between 1994 and 2020 we have had many passionate engineers that have gone on to be great leaders, have moderate savings, global experience and know enough. The temptation is to want to move away from our communities, but our bright minds should be solving those social problems and actively making our communities better. Prof Majozi summarizes the main challenges within the continent into the food, water and energy nexus which we should be all helping with even in an advisory capacity. 

Prof Thokozani Majozi, a full professor in the School of Chemical and Metallurgical Engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits University) where he also holds the National Research Foundation/Department of Science and Technology (NRF/DST) Chair in Sustainable Process Engineering. Recently awarded the Order of Mapungubwe in Bronze by the Presidency

We should be investing in the communities that raised us with our time, skills and money. The skills we have acquired can impact our communities in a more sustainable manner because Africa will grow whether we chose to lead like we mean it or not.  

The drive for growth in our continent is so encouraging but it requires more compassionate, resilient, resourceful and results driven leaders that will lead with a true social conscience and be very agile and adaptable. The crux of it is that we need to turn our engineering passion into actual engineering action.

As a storyteller and poet, I’ve put my learnings and experiences in a collection of poems called ‘A Nguni Scribe’. Please buy my book from me, it’s a beautiful story.

I challenge you to call the oldest person in your family and learn about the oldest stories in your family history, you’d be surprised what you will learn. 

The Youth Leadership portfolio will be hosting more conversations on #TeaWithNoma focusing on leadership topics within the context of engineering, social entrepreneurship, wellness & career development. Please come have tea with Noma 😊