10 QUESTIONS: Nancy Richards

Nancy Richards, executive director of Woman Zone, tells us about The Woman’s Library Cape Town which the NGO launched in 2015.

Firstly — why a Women’s Library?

Why not? Women’s Marches, Men’s Clubs… it’s a focus. But it’s more than a Women’s Library: it’s a hub – a meeting, workshopping, sharing space. And just to be clear, at this stage, it’s a reference not a lending library.

How did it come about, and who was involved in getting it up and running?

Working on a woman’s magazine and a woman’s radio show for many years, as a journalist (and founder of Woman Zone), I acquired a huge amount of books relating to women. As a collection and a resource, they cried out for a room of their own. The Woman Zone team – whose goal is to unite the women of Cape Town and celebrate their achievements – looked long and hard for such a space. Eventually, after partnering with Artscape and their Women’s Humanity Festival, CEO Marlene le Roux kindly offered us the cube-shaped office we occupy now, conveniently next to the Box Office on the ground floor of the theatre complex.

How many books are there and where were they sourced from?

We’ve stopped counting, but well over 1000 and the figure rises. So they’ve come from my original original collection, from donations, and authors who have had launches at the Library. Initially we had no shelves – just lots of boxes and a small mobile tin unit, courtesy Qualibooks which held 100 or so volumes, and at the launch guests sat on the floor! When the Cape Town World Design capital team broke up their office space at the end of 2014, they donated us some furniture and Steven Harris of Furnspace donated us book shelves. We’ve since bought more – but still more are needed (if you have any to spare).

What kind of books have been selected and what were the reasons for their selection.

Like many of the best things in life, they were less selected than happened. As mentioned above, they are the fruit of collections and donations. Having said that, there are some we have declined, as you can imagine. What kind of books? Hmm, how do we single any out without showing favouritism? Well, there are books that can help – on law, self-assertion, rape, divorce, cooking etc. Novels that can inspire, transport, delight, reveal, charm, make you understand or angry. A very good selection from most of South Africa’s best known women writers – Antjie Krog, Matshilo Motsei, Rehana Roussow, Ingrid Jonker, Angela Makholwa etc etc – as we speak, the very latest addition is Always Another Country: memoir of exile and home by Sisonke Msimang. International authors are also well represented.  But special are the ones that have been donated by the authors – sometimes self-published. Like Surviving Lavender Hill – a collection of personal stories from the women living there and facilitated by the New World Foundation. And although we don’t have a hard copy, Frances Brown from Atlantis came in recently and brought her Afrikaans science fiction novel on a flash stick, motivational speaker Makini Smith from the US came to launch her book and leave behind copies and  another woman popped in to drop off her sister’s book written in isiXhosa… the list goes on. Modestly, might we add that you can also buy here a copy of our own book, Being a woman in Cape Town: Telling your story (Cover2Cover).

What kind of events are hosted in the space?

Glad you asked that question – because for the last year we’ve been hosting a series of Story Cafés. It’s a blanket term, coined by chief librarian Beryl Eichenberger, to cover book launches, panel discussions, story sharing, informal gatherings, writing and poetry workshops, tributes, book clubs, presentations etc. They’ve been very successful and we look forward to more. Our database and Facebook page keep everyone informed about what’s upcoming and the press have been good about putting out word.

Woman Zone is also working on the Everywoman Project – a collaborative textile artwork made out of fabric yo-yos. Yo-yo making workshops have been happening at the Library and elsewhere.

A poetry workshop
Jolyn Philips and Karin Schimke run a poetry workshop.

What have been some of the main challenges in getting the Library operational?

A: The challenges have been outweighed by the joy of having a home for the Library, especially at buzzing and creative Artscape. But it took a while – for a couple of years the books languished in plastic bags in a friend’s garage. Until we were donated the shelves, they burst out of boxes and the mobile tin unit – and even now they’re doubling up on shelves like refugees in an overcrowded tent. A big challenge was cataloguing them. Then a pair of winged libris angels came  along – Anna van der Riet and partner Ilse Arends rallied a team of retired librarians who corralled the titles into the Dewey system, dotted and stamped every one and add to the list with every fresh intake.  Phewy, thanka guys. Biggest challenge however is woman-power. Volunteers open up from 12-2 Thursdays and Fridays – for Story Cafes and other events or ‘by appointment’. Monday and Wednesdays mornings the Library is used for beauty therapy workshops. More volunteers mean more opening hours – and maybe, one day, lending facilities.

What has been the most rewarding moment of working on it?

Having people pop in and discover us. Hosting a Story Café workshop once, a woman got up and said ‘I’m so glad I bothered to get out of bed and come here today, it’s changed my life.’ I mean…!

Describe the library’s typical user.

Women of all ages, colours, backgrounds, beliefs and persuasions have been in an out of our Library. It kind of validates the Woman Zone mandate which is officially to “bring together all women from the Mother City’s cultural kaleidoscope. To get to know one another better, to share stories and experiences, work together, learn from each other – and above all to highlight and promote their past, present and future achievements, not their victimhood. Cape Town’s women are for unity.”

Are there enough women writers in SA? And if not, how can we change this?

How many is enough? Who knows. What we do know is not every woman is born to write a book, but every woman has a story. Our aim is to encourage as many as possible to share her story, through workshops or just by listening – for her own, or the benefit of others who may relate, learn and grow from it. If it gets written we will celebrate it. If it gets published we will launch it. We will always welcome it onto our shelves.

What’s your vision for the Library’s future?

To take the concept of sharing stories, spoken or in print,  into other communities around Cape Town. We call it “sistering”, a female form of “partnering”. We did it in 2014 – every month for the year we went to a different community from Muizenberg to Nyanga, Woodstock to Kuils River and in each,  listened to one woman tell her story. We recorded and transcribed them into our book (co-edited by myself and Carol du Toit, designed by  Lorraine de Villiers). We would like to do more sistering – so get in touch if it can work for your community. We would also like to become a lending Library – and like our inspirational sister, The Glasgow Women’s Library in Scotland, grow into a bigger and still bigger space to become a fully-fledged women’s centre with exhibition and archive space. Imagine that for the Mother City! Our other role model is the Women’s Library at the London School of Economics. Breathtaking in its scope. If ever you’re in London, do visit. Meanwhile, if ever in Cape Town and you’d like to visit our own Women’s Library, give us a call on 083 431 9986/082 490 6652 or mail info@womanzonect.co.za.


POEM: The Good Life


good girls clean chickens
love their grannies
marry well
cry in cupboards
dust under dressers
don’t visit empty-handed
good girls love all children
tweeze carefully
go on beach holidays
google recipes for red velvet
scream into pillows
make Sunday lunch
good girls come like in the movies
wax until they shine
swallow on demand
hum within reason
don’t scratch their pots
put up with a hell of a lot.

POEM: I Would


I would like to _____ someday.
No, you cannot. You would _____.
Can’t I just _____?
No. Girls don’t _____.
Maybe I could _____.
No. That’s for other people. Not us.
One day, I’m going to _____.
No. Do you really think you can? Look at you.


Don’t you want to _____?
No, I cannot. I would _____.

EXTRACT: Dear Bullet by Sixolile Mbalo

My grandmother seldom spoke directly to me about her feelings. It was only when she prayed that I could hear how she felt. So, in hospital that first day, and for many months afterwards, I heard how she felt. She would begin by thanking God that I survived, because I could so easily have died. This she said over and over again. Sometimes she would ask God straight out what he thought she should have done if I had died. How could she ever look after another child if this happened to the one she was looking after with an involved heart? All of this I heard in her prayers.

I also heard the doctors expressing their surprise: why did the bullet not go through my head and blow open the other side?

Two days later, the police came to take a statement. I was still in great pain and my face was swollen. They showed me a photo: was it him? Yes, it was. They had already arrested him. As Pindile was a fugitive, the photo had gone up all over Mthatha. A taxi driver saw him getting into a cream bakkie, took the registration number and phoned the police. The police followed the bakkie to the rank for Cape Town buses and arrested Pindile as he was paying for a ticket to visit his family in Gugulethu. Apparently he acted surprised.

‘Do you know Sixolile?’

‘No, I don’t know her.’

‘So you don’t know the one you raped and shot?’ ‘Who told you that?’

‘She, she is in hospital.’

He was shocked. ‘Is she alive?’

I stayed in hospital for almost three months. When I was discharged, I couldn’t walk properly. I was not fine.

Initially I went back to Grandmother’s house, but I couldn’t sleep and I couldn’t walk or eat. She had to cook soup for me. The neighbours would come in the mornings and volunteer soup and potatoes, because I could not eat any hard food. As they came and went they offered prayers, and in the prayers I heard them saying: God was amazing for sparing my life. I heard that there was a purpose to it that I didn’t die, and that was to give my heart to Jesus. The pastor who took me to the hospital said I shouldn’t cry; it was the way of growing up. If it didn’t happen to me, who else might also have been destroyed? Because I didn’t die, this guy could be caught, and so I saved many, many other girls. There was one old woman who would come into the house and just stand staring at me: ‘Auw mntanam!’ Then she would shake her head for a long time and sigh: ‘We prayedprayedprayed when you were in hospital.’

It was true. Many people prayed for me. I was an Umanyano in the Anglican church – our amachurch. The people from the church came to the hospital to pray, and also later with my grandmother at her house. The community was very shocked and had trouble dealing with what had happened to me. The first rape, that of Fuagase, had happened about five years before, but it was not so violent and had taken place within a family context.

My grandmother slept badly after the incident. She would wake up about four o’clock and start praying and praying. I could hear her grief. At times she would be angry. Other times she just sighed and began to cry, like someone without hope.

The community described Pindile as cruel, as a monster, without ubuntu, to do something like that to a young girl. I heard even the other boys were upset and disgusted with his behaviour.

Growing up as an orphan, I have to say I didn’t have a lot of experience of what they call ubuntu. I was alone, and alone had to fight for everything I had. I became cheeky and learned to look out for myself. I could not blame anybody in Mqekezweni for my suffering, because the one who was supposed to have the responsibility of looking after me – my mother – was somewhere else, enjoying herself.

Although Grandmother was the only one to whom I felt connected, she would sometimes shout and get frustrated with all the burdens and misbehavings around her. When she was like this, it frightened me a lot, because I had to face up to the possibility that one day she might tire of looking after the children of her irresponsible children and abandon us.

Now there was this me, who was not myself, to add to that. I was weak. I was terrified most of the time. I felt unsafe. I had constant pains. I had nightmares. I hardly got up before I wanted to lie down, so I took up more space than anybody else. Nobody in the household could continue as before, as I reminded them of things that they didn’t want to be reminded of. It even felt as if the neighbours avoided me when I came out of the house to sit in the sun.

Dear Bullet by Sixolile Mbalo

Extracted from Dear Bullet, published by Jonathan Ball and available from Kalahari.com.