I first came to know Gogo Pumla Jayiya when both of us were involved with the HIV prevention campaign for youth, loveLife where we worked in different capacities on their goGogetter Programme, designed to encourage support for orphaned and vulnerable youth by local grandmothers. To be honest, it is hard not to take note of her, when a Gogo tells an audience that we need to start thinking about teaching our children Chinese because China is becoming a powerful force in the international economy, it grabs your attention.
DGMT’s most recent involvement with Gogo Pumla was around a small grant to sponsor a number of Scrabble board games for the community based initiative that she founded to encourage literacy development in children. Steve Jobs said that creative people are able to connect the experiences that they had in life and in this way they find new ways of doing things or of approaching problems. I was wondering, what were the experiences in Gogo Pumla’s life that brought her to a point of ‘playing Scrabble with a mission’ in her old age? Here is what I uncovered:
Gogo Pumla was born in 1953 in Pimville, a renamed part of Klipspruit in Soweto. Although it was very difficult to be black in South Africa in 1953, Gogo Pumla says that she grew up protected, in a household that was full of warmth and love from both her parents and her grandmother. “As a firstborn child much was expected from me. I was taught respect and gratitude for every good thing that happened in my life. While I was growing up we used to play games like Scrabble, Chess, Monopoly, puzzles and card games to help with our arithmetic and spelling”. Now a Gogo herself, Gogo Pumla says the values and love of her own grandmother made a profound impact on her life: “My granny was always accepting anybody in need. She would encourage us to say our prayers and then she would pray for our future. I always wanted to be a social worker from when I was very young”.
Gogo Pumla started primary school in Gauteng, but when her family started to experience problems she and her siblings were left with an aunt in Transkei (now part of the Eastern Cape) where she completed primary and part of her secondary education at a rural school. Living with her aunt were unhappy times for Gogo Pumla, “my abusive aunt stole the love that I grew up with, but this only served to make me stubborn”. At an early age the love that her life was originally rooted in ensured a sense of self-worth allowing her to refuse to become a victim of her circumstances. “I did not see it as abuse at that time, for me it was a challenge and it strengthened me. In everything I did I would work hard with all my heart to achieve the best as if I were doing it for God”. Eventually she ran away and was assisted by a kindly woman in Lady Frere to get back to Johannesburg to write matric – unfortunately she got pregnant mid-year and as a result she never finished it.
In her late twenties she met her future Zimbabwean husband, got married and moved to Zimbabwe where she said she was “still hungry for education”. She jumped at opportunities to do her O-levels as well as an executive secretarial course. Unfortunately her husband was less impressed by his wife’s progress. Again Gogo Pumla weathered the storm by drawing strength from what her granny told her many years ago: “To put excellence into everything I do and to believe in God and myself”. After getting divorced she left Zimbabwe with nothing to start her new life with and arrived back in South Africa soon to be confronted by the death of her only son and becoming the caregiver of his two children.
In searching for work she was again guided by the teaching of her grandmother: “Granny always used to say look for a need in an area you are living. I saw that despite the fact that my grandson was in grade four, he still could not read nor write. This pained me greatly and I started teaching him myself. When he started improving, not only in skill, but in confidence, I asked myself, how many children are there like my grandson, in school, but not able to read or write? I started to approach school principals and asked for their permission to assist with the children who are struggling. Now I am teaching children from grade 2 to 7 reading, writing, spelling, arithmetic, and concentration skills in the way I was taught when I grew up, using games like Chess, Scrabble and Monopoly. This encourages the children to learn while enjoying games and to express themselves without fear of getting reprimanded. Children love competitions and it keeps them occupied during the week and Saturdays, keeping them off the streets. I believe that in this way it is also contributing towards building a healthy nation because it contributes towards reducing crimes involving children.”
“When I think of the future I would love to see every child exposed to the modern developing world. I would like to see young people being able to speak foreign languages and become business people of the continent. I would like them to value their education and to see their potential so that they can take life seriously and make use of the opportunities that are here in our country. In my community it is believed that passion cannot be taught, that it comes from inside you and you must be born with it, but I believe that when you educate a child at an early age you give an inheritance of love that will shape the way that they deal with the world and no one will be able to take that from them. When you give love you are raising hope so I give love to all the children I work with. The joy I share with them is a planted seed in their lives and mine”.
Gogo Pumla not only represents evidence of early love creating a life-long positive inheritance for people through her own story, but in her insistence on sharing love with children she has an important point which has been confirmed by science. In Nicholas Kristof’s article in the New York Times earlier this year: Reporting on “a Poverty Solution That Starts With a Hug”, he provides an interesting summary of recent research suggesting that if we want to reduce poverty and improve educational and health outcomes we need to protect children from adversity in the early years of life. Gogo Pumla has intuitively not only connected the dots of her own life experience to assist young children to develop their literacy skills, but at the same time she might be helping them to become more resilient, positive people that could make a positive contribution to society for the rest of their lives. This is precisely the type of leadership that is needed in communities and another reason why it is hard to ignore a Gogo with a vision.
 Grandmother in IsiZulu