If humility and generosity were a person, they would be Dr Sibongile Khumalo. This worldacclaimed “Empress of Song,” like a polished diamond she was, had multiple facets to herself and I share just one.
I have had the privilege of knowing SK, as I affectionately called her, just over two decades ago. In 2000 South Africa hosted the 14th Congress of the International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (ISPCAN), which I co-chaired. We needed to profile Child Abuse & Neglect (CAN) and highlight the plight of children that had just taken a turn for the worse with rumours that raping young virgins was a cure for HIV/AIDS. As cochairperson of this congress, I was tasked to request SK to not only perform at the opening event, but also to use her song, ‘Mayihlome’, as a theme song for the conference. A fitting request as this lamentation is a rallying call to action for all healers to “attack” HIV epidemic that was threatening to decimate the nation.
How does one approach an international figure with such a request, especially when there are no meaningful budgets for such a request? Make a cold-turkey call and silently suffer the embarrassment if turned down? She not only agreed to give me a hearing but insisted to come out to our home to discuss my ‘proposal.’ Humility personified!!! SK agreed to our crazy request for a nominal fee to cover the basic costs of her backing singers. A great friendship that lasted till her last days on earth was struck. She not only acceded to this request but went many great steps further and agreed to use her name and voice to highlight the well-hidden and often denied secret of CAN, especially in African communities.
A profile analysis of CAN at Zamokuhle Child Centre, the first community-based child abuse prevention facility in Soweto, revealed that two-thirds of child abuse was discovered incidentally. In other words, there was no spontaneous disclosure from the child or the family. Even more disturbing, a third of the perpetrators when such disclosures occurred, were strangers. This finding was not in keeping with studies done in the Western world and in white communities, which suggested a higher prevalence of intrafamilial abuse of children. A reflection of the ‘protective nature of indigenous communities to their young’ and/or protection of family secrets? We hopefully wondered. In September 2002 a sixyear-old Lerato (not her real name) was brutally raped and disembowelled by a family member and left for dead in an open veld, shattering our hopeful wonder. SK reached out as she felt nudged to do something. She rallied a few of her celebrated friends, especially in the music industry, and “Isililo – a mother’s cry” campaign was born.
Isililo is an isiNguni word that means to bewail and lament. Who can forget the more than 5km march led by these intergenerational women from Regina Mundi in Soweto, with Mme Abigail Kubheka in her high heels and make-up to Hector Peterson square to highlight this emerging scourge? What about the multiple village indabas or focus group discussions (FGDs), aimed at nuanced dialogues that she and many other celebrated women so ably and eloquently led, to try and understand the root cause of this emerging threat to our children? What was happening to African culture and maxims such as “your child is my child,” “it takes a village to raise a child,” “mme o tshwara thipa ka mo bogaleng,” to mention a few? These became the guiding themes for the indabas as she gently nudged us to “re-language” our campaign. SK reminded us that if we “fight against abuse” we are complicit in this nascent scourge. Great gems, such as “nurture our young boys and mentor our young men,” were crystallised from these FDGs, long before the World Health Organization and United Nations endorsed and launched “INSPIRE” and “RESPECT” frameworks, the evidenceinformed strategies for the prevention of violence against children (VAC) and women and girls (VAWG).
When COPESSA (Community-based Prevention and Empowerment Strategies), a child abuse prevention initiative in Protea Glen, Soweto, was launched in 2004, the ‘Isililo big five’ initially, and a multi-generational host of other celebrated women later, threw their weight behind it. They freely used their voices and time to raise both awareness and funds for this cause. Whether it was in low-budget overseas trips or in local initiatives such as the “Table of Peace and Unity,” or Gala dinners or fundraising Golf Days, they were there and enduring.
When SK sang your song “Little girl” in one of these Gala dinners, kwasika inimba emadodeni, and attitudes against girl children, especially girls, literally started to shift at that very point in those who were in attendance! Such was the power of her voice! SK was in all this never ‘divilicious,’ she would gladly travel economy class, share rooms and many laughs that helped to lighten sad and maddening moments. She had proudly African and healing perspectives that were a common thread in her daily dealings with life.
She would come to COPESSA to spend time with children and encourage them. She would engage in ‘feet-washing ceremonies,’ the most menial and humble of chores. She gave and gave and never demanded anything back, with the hope that one day child abuse would be eliminated from society. She certainly was not just a patron of COPESSA and the child abuse prevention cause in name only.
Rest easy my good dearest friend and big sister. No number of words can express my deepest gratitude to you. Your sidekick is going to miss your subtle smile, your great sense of humour, your thoughtfulness, your philosophical and incisive mind, your lamenting voice, your humility, your eloquence, and more importantly you. Who will now drag me to such auspicious formations such as the African Leadership Institute (ALI), which you humbly contributed to as a fellow? Our discussions about a Covid-19 social and behaviour change song that you had so enthusiastically agreed to co-create remains a dormant seed.
Rest well “Simbongale,” as Ms Christine Cashmore of the “Table of Peace and Unity” would tongue-twistedly call you. (It could have been easier to just call her SK and I apologise for not letting you in this one, Ms Christine. Not to put myself in your league SK, I have been called Nombulelo, Nombulembu, Nobiso , to mention a few assaults to my name, by non-Nguni speaking people. Hence, I resorted to answering to Nobs). You served your country, humanity and the world with alacrity! Join the throngs of the dearly departed and continue to lament and wail for our shortcomings and missteps. Who knows, our children and humanity may yet be saved! My fervent prayer is that your last assignment with your God was sealed. To us remaining behind, ‘Mayihlome, ihlasele!’, for the work is not done yet. Violence against children, girls, women rages on like a wildfire in a drought-stricken forest…