Everything That Has Tried to Kill Me Has Failed

Tolu Agbelusi
12 min readOct 22, 2020

vangile gantsho is a poet, healer, publisher, cultural activist, curator, co-founder of impepho press, and mother.

The first time I heard her speak (through a computer screen), I knew we would have to connect in person. Her presence was a language in itself and her poetry moved me. It still does.

We start to talk about strong women and vangi reflects on her earlier interpretation:

“a woman who reluctantly or free-willed, displayed some ability to overcome hardship: “the glorified mule”.

We all know the tropes of this woman who must work to be worthy of her womanhood. vangi no longer holds to the view patriarchal society sold to us. For her current view, she takes me to my own poem “cento”:

I think that’s my favourite poem in your book, where it says ‘I am as plain as bread’ [a line borrowed from lucille clifton]. If you think about lucille clifton, you think about everything that has tried to kill me has failed. I don’t need to have done something extraordinary. By virtue of being a black woman who is 36 years old and alive, that is strong enough for me.

When I see a Black woman who is able to create spaces, to love out loud, live out loud, show acts of kindness, that is a celebration of strength in my eyes — of the fact that the world couldn’t take that from us and I know it tries.

This ability for self-reflection infers growth and prompts me to explore how and when vangi consciously stepped into womanhood:

I feel like I grew up too fast. I experienced and saw the agony of the world a lot faster than I felt most of my friends did and I must have attributed it to womanhood somehow. When it consciously happened it was probably 2016, when I started my MA. Aside from all the learning I did, I realized that I was a black woman in this deeply masculine toxic space and I couldn’t ignore that. I became full fire in my black womaness — unapologetic, uncompromising and unafraid to blatantly state it. I started writing in my bio that I am unapologetically a black woman, and whilst moving through I spaces, I’d find myself saying you can listen in if you want, but I am talking to black women. I am deliberate about my work towards black women and for black women and for black women. And it has just gotten progressively stronger over the years to the point that it is like a raging fire. Either you are part of it or part of the burning.

I want to know who the strong women are in vangi’s life:

When I put aside my rebellion towards the strong black woman trope and I use it as a way of celebrating, I think about my mother, the strongest woman I know, and quietly so; without accolade but always with grace and kindness. She has this ability to suffer the whole world and still choose goodness, choose to have faith in God, to give up her chair for someone else and spread the portion so that everyone can have something.

Photo by Te Pania Noonan on Unsplash

Palpable admiration reflects through vangi’s smile and I remark that many people have mentioned their mothers although their relationships with those mothers haven’t always been the smoothest and maybe it’s expected but I think it’s deeper than that. vangi follows my train of thought and answers the question I haven’t yet found the words to frame:

What wokeness has done is introduce a mean girl streak, which is justified because Lorde knows, for all that is thrown at us, if all you’re getting is meanness from black women, you’re getting off lucky. But when you think of our mothers, that’s a generation of women who were able to hold onto themselves despite everything, women who did not let the world reset their default.

I ask the same question differently to broaden the scope: who are the women who have widened the sphere of possibility of who you get to be in the world?

I have a great aunt, uMakhulu uNomhatu. She is one of my guiding ancestors now. People always had something to say about her. She brewed beer, was a drunk, very rebellious, deeply spiritual, married four times. She died at about 84 years old. She was funny, full of life and she spoke to everyone — no one was ever above or beneath her. I also have an aunt uZanele who was a former MK vet, as in member of uMkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC army. She’s an artist, a hippie, makes soaps and candles and she’s very politically vocal.

There’s this story — she had just returned from exile and a family who had borrowed 10,000 Rand from her to send their child to school had refused to pay her back. They were two working adults, who couldn’t even be bothered to approach her themselves.Instead, they renovated their house and sent a lawyer to tell her that they will pay 50 Rand a month until the debt was paid. That was the tipping point. She slung her AK47 across her back and went to knock on their door. Inside, she cleared the table with the back of the AK and said, “I want my money now”. They said no. So she shot the chandelier and said the “the next one is going into a person if I don’t see my money now”. The neighbors had seen her coming and she’s known as the crazy woman who was in exile, so they are all huddling at the window and they go and find half the money to pay on behalf of this family. She collected it and said “on Monday I want the other half. If I have to come back to fetch it, we are going to have trouble”.

These two women, I’ve looked for them in literature, all my life.The closest I could find to uMakhulu uNomhatu is is probably Bessie Head’s “Life”. I love these women and I wish I could see more of them out loud.

I am drawn to how delightfully brazen this woman is but also to the joy dancing through vangi’s voice as she retells the tale. I’m curious about her search for these women in literature and whether publishing was always on the cards. Far from it, vangi tells me that she had studied international relations, was planning to be an ambassador or a diplomat, maybe join the UN and eventually Parliament. But then she didn’t finish her degree.

I couldn’t accept the brainwashing required for me to get the last three credits. How it’s structured is that certain books or texts are credible references and certain texts aren’t. So the Sunday Independent is a credible resource, but the Sowetan isn’t and that shapes a specific kind of political analyst. I kept trying to retake the modules but my spiritual awakening had begun by that point and each time I tried I would literally get sick until the last time where I ended up with, TB lymphadenitis and they caught it just before it got to my spinal cord. When I nearly died, I realised, I cannot get this degree, the ancestors don’t want me to. And it wasn’t that they didn’t want me to study because I got into Tamale, the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute with a full scholarship. They were just saying you can’t finish that module because we won’t let you be brainwashed or rubber stamp something that is part of our erasure.

vangi speaks about applying for a Masters and being uncertain whether she would be accepted since she did not finish her undergrad. In the way of divine intervention, she got a place, a patron paid her fees in full, someone else offered accommodation and she had a job for the year. It’s not lost on me how in tune vangi is with her spirituality and how the overall success of this educational venture in comparison to the first is considered as having been affirmed by the powers that be. I want to know what that’s about, to understand. She obliges me:

I was born with spiritual gifts but then as time goes on you awaken to them. I’m still learning what they are. I have the ability to touch and feel certain things in a way that allows me to listen to what is sick and find how it needs to be healed. Part of that is an acute awareness to intergenerational spiritual sexual trauma and how intergenerational memories live in our bodies, and what that means for our health. I also have a gift of prayer. But for me, prayer is how poetry becomes language, how it manifests in leadership, in using words to change vibrations.

This makes perfect sense since there is no way to hear vangi’s poetry and not be moved. What also stands out, is the fact that listening and surrendering to something bigger than yourself, takes strength, even when the ultimate reward is the eventual joy of walking in purpose. I say eventual because the road to being who she is now has not been easy.

Dropping out meant I had to accept I was going to be my family’s greatest disappointment. But I had to trust that what I was pursuing, (and I had no idea what beyond the fact that I was searching), but I had to trust that something was going to be worth all of that. I’ve worked in a hair salon, a call center agent, a waitress, an assistant, found myself in compromising situations, you name it. It has taken everything from me to get here.

I bring us back to the beginning of this retelling — a question about how publishing came into the vision. vangi jokes about her co-founders having reasons beyond her not giving them an option. For her, it was about those two women she mentioned earlier: uMakhulu uNomhatu and uMakazi uZanele.

uMakazi Uzanele was a christian woman who could quote the bible. uMakhulu uNomhatu was a rural woman, illiterate with hedonistic tendencies. I was looking for literature that gave them space to live because we’re always either the Proverbs 31 woman or the raging whore, but never a complex mesh of life. We are never allowed to be women who belong deeply to ourselves. I wanted to create a literary home that made room for complex black women in literature.

Necessary work for sure but also, work that involves us interrogating the lenses through which we view ourselves and have been taught to do so. I ask, what conditioning vangi’s inherited from the women around her:

Silence is the biggest thing that I have learned — how to hold the knife by the blade silently. How to love a man who hurts you silently. How to endure the cruelty of culture silently. How your strength is measured by the bile you can swallow without throwing up. Silence.

The answer pauses us in its truth. And since she has already signalled a move away from the trope as an ideal, I ask, what unlearning has been necessary to become the woman she is:

The instinctive answer is not being silent. But I think the greatest unlearning I’ve had to do is knowing that quiet isn’t always silent. In a world that values words, and status updates, finding other ways of getting the work done, of changing the vibration is necessary. Just because I’m quiet, or because you don’t see or hear my response doesn’t mean I don’t have a response.

This sounds very much like one of my missions in writing — to show the unperformed (female) self. It also brings us back to where we started and vangi’s current conceptualisation of a strong woman being a woman in everyday living. Living authentically has its issues so I want to know if imposter syndrome ever kicks in and how she overcomes it:

Always and I don’t know if I get over it. I just don’t allow it to be the predominant voice. Also, every time it gets so bad that it feels like it might be swallowing, something happens. I will either be rallied around by a group of black women who will remind me of who I am, or, if I need to be reminded in a tangible way, something big will come along and someone will say we’re trusting you with this because you have a track record of delivering. So I feel like the universe has got my back.

Photo created by senivpetro — www.freepik.com

I take the answer as an invitation to delve into sisterhood — what it is, what it means:

Sisterhood is pretty much everything for me and it’s not just women who are my age. It’s women who are dedicated towards a common growth or a collective growth or a collective healing or a collective holding , who are dedicated to a collective; something that is beyond the individual, and who are willing to step back if required for the sake of the greater collective. And I don’t mean at the expense of yourself, but understanding that perhaps if I do this differently, it is an opportunity for a bigger shining than just a me shining.

What scares you?

Losing my daughter, just in the fact of knowing how the world will try to shrink her, because she’s already outspoken and I know how difficult life is for outspoken women. Also, not finishing my work here and having to answer for why I did not finish my work.

How do you cultivate hope?

My daughter. She teaches me everything. You can’t not have hope when you see a child just willing to jump with no guarantee of anyone catching them. She wakes up and starts singing or she’ll smile or laugh and I think to myself, she is proof that things cannot be all that bad.

I am aware we’ve touched on purpose a bit in this interview but often indirectly, as a result of me extrapolating it from the sense in between the words. So I ask directly to ensure nothing has gotten lost in translation: what is your purpose?

I’m a mother. A messenger. A healer. A manifestation of the black divine feminine. All of this is to say a way to remember.

There’s a clear community focus in vangi’s words, in the span of her artistic and spiritual practice which requires a certain fortitude. There’s also a heart warming softness that creeps into her voice whenever an answer brings her daughter to mind for the upteenth time and she’s almost embarrassed that it is cheesy. Laughing about the reality of that joy, we delve into what kind of world she is working towards and envisioning for her daughter.

In an ideological answer, it would be a world that allows for her to exist safely, freely, and in a way that allows for her actualization in a very practical way. A world that allows her to climb mountains and visit rivers, to learn about plants and choose to be political or economic or artistic if she wants to be. And a world that forces her to have social responsibility, to build things for herself as well as other people while supporting her and not forcing her to be the only one doing that work.

This interviews aren’t over until I ask ‘what armour (fashion) do you wear to go out in the world’? vangi points to her lips before they voice any words and we both burst out laughing as I get the message loud and clear.

Black lipstick. Lipstick and perfume are my armour.

Do you ever think of legacy and what do you want yours to be?

My daughter. I obviously know that our children are not our own and that she comes with her own missions. But I would be deeply fulfilled knowing that by choosing me as a mother, it has contributed to her being able to self-actualize. Also, I want impepho press to be an archive of Pan Africanist Black, Feminist writing, including all people who identify as women and gender nonconforming people. I want it to be an archive of literature that says we existed, but beyond that, we refused to die. So we wrote books and we told stories and we said, this way we’re going to live forever.

I want to end on joy because so much of what vangi has talked about brings to mind balance, the strength of being able to inhabit all of yourselves however contradictory they may seem in a world bent on prescription, making room for other people to live out loud as you do the same. I ask what brings her joy and she mentions “the simple things” — sitting and listening to poetry, or in a jazz bar listening to good music, good wine, good company, spaces where people are in full vibration. I sense that there’s more. vangi watches me, laughs, and instructs, “let’s say it together”. I know what’s coming. Like clockwork I chorus with her “your daughter”.

find out more about impepho press and their books and events at: https://www.impephopress.co.za/ vangi will be performing as part of Aké Festival on 25 October at 19:30 WAT

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Tolu Agbelusi

Nigerian British poet, playwright, producer, educator and lawyer, I write stories that focus on the unperformed self, Blackness and womanhood.