Iron Lady

Mariam Akabor

© Copyright 2002 by Mariam Akabor    


Photo of  Felicity (right) with a former student, Khanyi Dubazane.

The chairs are arranged in a circle. Not always though. Sometimes a semi-circle. Comfortable chairs – armchairs, leather chairs and warm sofas. There is an aura about this place. It is silent – not eerie, though – except for the hum of the birds and insects and the occasional whispers of the trees. Besides the warmth that the sun emanates through the large windows, it glistens on the swimming pool. Some may say, the gardens are wild but it is in fact, an inspiration. Once we’re all cosy and comfortable with our crisp sharpened pencils and plain white sheets of paper on our lap-desks, we close our eyes when she tells us to and so begins our journey to reach out the creativity within us.

South Africa is an amazing country with a colourful history – one that includes pain, bitterness and unhappiness. However, eight years ago the state of ruling changed. Nelson Mandela made it possible for South Africa to become a democratic republic. This transition affected all races in South Africa. Suddenly there were new rules, new laws and better opportunities for the previously disadvantaged. However, in the midst of this transition, people were still affected. Eight years later, even though South Africa achieved democracy, there are still those hundreds and thousands of children who have no access to proper facilities to education in the rural areas. For if the future generation of tomorrow can be uplifted by learning to read and write, success is inevitably assured in all walks of life.

Amongst the South African citizens themselves, there have been numerous people who have made an effort to change the state of matter with regard to education. But these are the type of people one expects only to read about and admire through the media. Not someone whom you actually had the opportunity to know personally. This is the case with someone I know. Someone whose love and passion for a course has driven her to changing thousands of lives in the country. And I consider myself privileged – very privileged indeed.

My true hero is my writing teacher as well as an author, Felicity Keats. She’s not an ordinary writing teacher though, for she teaches us through a unique method which she devised only seven years ago. Felicity teaches us to write using our “right-brain” only. She makes us switch off our left brain for that period and write from our right brain. As complex as it may seem, Felicity has implemented this method to more than thirteen thousand disadvantaged students in Southern Africa. In a country where the literacy rate is low she has managed to teach children, teenagers and adults to unlock their creativity within them, which has resulted in exceptional novels, short stories and poetry. To date, she has published more than four hundred books written by children (some of whom don’t even speak English as their first language), teenagers and adults under the name UmSinsi Press. The name UmSinsi was apt because it is the Zulu word for a lucky bean tree. But that isn’t the only reason why I admire and respect Felicity.

Felicity grew up in the city of Durban and graduated as an Accounting teacher. Only later on in her life did she realise her dream to write. She worked as an editor and a freelancer for many years. She has had many works of fiction published as well as a non-fiction book for writers entitled Dancing Pencils. I met Felicity for the first time in August of 1999 via e-mail. I found her details on a website and e-mailed her, asking her whether she’d publish my work. She replied, refusing, for she didn’t just publish anyone – only those students with whom she has taught to write via the right-brain technique. She invited me to her next teenage writing class, which is where I met her for the first time. At first I found it extremely difficult to adapt to her method of writing. Whilst the others in my class scribbled furiously on their pages, I would look out the window of the cosy lounge praying that I would write something. A few months later, I mastered the technique.

As the months went by, I decided to start my own creative writing newsletter for teenagers. Felicity was so excited, she encouraged me in every way she could and financed my project, which was later named Ink-links. Felicity had plans of her own. In a previously disadvantaged country like South Africa, Felicity entered a world that was dangerous – the publishing industry. When she first started publishing, she handmade the books, complete with expensive paper and laminated covers. The most amazing part was that it was all under her expense and she worked alone. Felicity wanted to reach out to those talented students in our country and nurture their talent, and at the same time, increase the rate of literacy. She struggled to get sponsorships from corporate companies for they weren’t interested in a project that wasn’t fully established. Besides, in the new South Africa, it was difficult to go anywhere if you were considered “previously advantaged”. The persistent and determined person that she is, Felicity managed to get a sponsorship and since then there was no looking back. Her dream of improving South Africa by increasing the rate of literacy was well on its way of becoming a reality.

I would speak to Felicity for hours whether it was at her house, on the phone or via e-mail and she would discuss with me her plans in confidence. I was only a teenager, fifteen at the time and she would ask my opinion on certain topics and our creative juices would be flowing. Her small grey eyes would shine with excitement whenever she had new ideas.

I don’t think I’ve ever met a person with so much optimism – sometimes it scared me. Felicity had dreams, big dreams that required lots of money. She didn’t know how it would come but she would look me straight in the eye and smile, her reassuring smile, and tell me it’ll happen. She wanted UmSinsi to be the biggest publishing company in South Africa. She wanted to go international. She was determined. I would listen silently, sometimes in amazement at the determination and drive in this woman. The media was invited to every launch of hers but unfortunately not everyone was interested in UmSinsi and it’s wonderful books especially those by child authors. The youngest published author to date was just five years old. Felicity believed that children wrote what they felt others their age would enjoy so she published their books.

After the first sponsorship, the publicity that was coming in wasn’t enough for Felicity. She went down to a rural area in Kwa-Zulu Natal (a province in South Africa) where she had to cross a river via a precarious boat to enter a dilapidated school. She captured her entire day at the rural school on film. She had taught more than a hundred disadvantaged students who had never seen books in their lives and were in astonishment that children their age had actually written the books themselves. Felicity’s rural literacy project started at that point.

I must admit that Felicity has had her fair share in encountering people who wanted to rob UmSinsi off her just because they thought she was an old woman who knew nothing. My remarkable teacher and friend proved them wrong. During the time that I have known Felicity, she has taught me things no one would have ever showed me, at least without charging me a fee. Writing is just one of them. She taught me how to market my work, who to trust and who not to trust and has directed me for she believed in me and she still does.

Felicity trusts very easily. People approach her and promise to help UmSinsi and she’s all too willing to do whatever they ask her to. She has been let down on countless occasions but even that doesn’t stop her from reaching for her goals. She’s not even bitter about those experiences – she sees it as a learning experience and this is a woman with an appetite for knowledge!

It has been just over three years since I’ve met Felicity. Since then, UmSinsi Press has gone online and Felicity also teaches online. Felicity has also trained people in different provinces to teach children her method of writing and has so far proven successful. I laugh to myself at her unconventional “head office” – the cluttered room in her house that is piled with books, pictures and odd sources of inspiration. The media now want to be invited to her future launches – and not just local media. CNN has just recently covered a story on her!

I am elated when I read about the success of UmSinsi Press. The small, almost seventy-year-old, woman with shining blue eyes that spell determination and persistence has come a long way…and she continues to do so – in her soft, witty, humorous way.

When Felicity tells me, “Mariam, we’re going to be the biggest publishing company in Africa”… I believe her.

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