On a lovely Saturday in Johannesburg I interviewed our April career woman and author, Refiloe Moahloli. The interview took place at Warm and Glad, a trendy restaurant in Craighall Park, which was fitting because that’s exactly how Refiloe made me feel. This bright and petite figure with a gorgeous smile and enthusiastic energy just effortlessly filled the space – It’s not hard to see why she was destined for this career path.
Refiloe is the author of children’s book, ‘How many ways can you say hello?’, which is currently climbing ranks of best book lists all over the country. ‘How many ways can you say hello?’ is described as “…a great way to introduce young kids to South African languages and cultures,” by YOU magazine. For the week of 19 – 25 March, the book was ranked 15th out of 100 of the Best Selling Books in South Africa and ranked 2nd out of 100 of the Best Selling Children’s books in South Africa as per the Nielsen Report.
LM: Tell me about Refiloe, where she grew up and how she became a writer?
RM: I grew up eMthatha, so although I have a Sotho name, I speak isiXhosa. I’ve always been a bookworm and I always knew that I wanted to write, however I decided to study a BCom in Information Systems and worked for a telecoms company for seven years, before taking steps to be a full-time author. During the time in my last ‘corporate’ job, I was on an assignment in India for almost two years and it was that experience that made me decide to take the leap into the writing space.
Soon after, I signed up for a writing course because writing is an art and much as I had ideas and concepts for a while, having someone guide me through the process was exactly what I needed to get to the next step… and this is where I am today!
LM: What brought about the concept for ‘How many ways can you say hello?’?
RM: The concept of the book had always been floating in the back of my head, but I was particularly inspired by a few people and experiences, including my seven year-old niece, whom I’ve watched grow from birth. In her formative years, she spoke isiZulu at home. When she started school, she spoke English more frequently, and at some point, she wouldn’t speak isiZulu anymore.
I later had a conversation with my aunt about this, when she told me that she speaks six of the eleven official languages! I only speak two languages Xhosa and English (and a little bit of Sotho, because when your name is Refiloe… [laughs]). From this it struck me that as South Africans, we should be looking beyond our own languages. That’s when I thought that we should at least be able to greet each other in any South African language, acknowledging each other’s cultures and backgrounds and it’s the best way to start a conversation.
LM: Do you define yourself as a children’s book writer, in particular?
RM: An aspect that I have been enjoying through this journey is reading my book to the
kids in schools and bookstores. Initially, I never set out to exclusively write children’s books, and had been writing books for both adults and children. I realised it’s what I wanted to focus on when I briefed a friend on the concept of ‘How many ways can you say hello?’ and her face lit up and she expressed great excitement, that I felt that this was something special and I wanted to focus on it. For now, I’ll be sticking to children’s books and I’m enjoying it as an adult too, because the books are awesome!
LM: What has been the feedback and support like so far and how has your network responded to the book?
RM: The feedback has been great and there’s been a lot of excitement, especially because the book is very inclusive – everyone can find themselves in the story. I’ve found that parents are especially looking for local content for their children.
The pre-ordering campaign started two weeks before the official publication date and within the first month of publication the book has already going to reprint. What I appreciate is that people don’t just buy one copy, they buy many copies as gifts for family and friends. The book launch was overwhelming; friends and family came to show support and the sharing on social media has been priceless.
What more could an author want? The story must spread, that’s why I write stories.
LM: Are there other black women children’s writers in South Africa? Who are your peers?
RM: [Pauses and thinks for a while]
The one thing that comes to mind, is an organisation called Book Dash, where authors, illustrators and other contributors volunteer their time to create children’s books. I have seen a few black women contributing to that platform. I would say in general, black and woman children’s authors are not in abundance, therefore there’s opportunity for growth and a lot of space for others to enter the children’s book writing environment.
LM: Please share some insights from your journey in writing ‘How many ways can you say hello?’ for others who would be interested in becoming children’s book authors.
RM: You should recognise that there is a rigorous process involved, that requires heaps of patience and a very thick skin. I had so many versions and iterations of the book, which was time consuming and energy draining, but that’s just how publishing works. You must be in the right mind-space and when you decide to do it, make sure you do it properly.
LM: Where can we get the book?
RM: In all leading bookstores, the book has been doing well and more stock will be available at the end of April/beginning of May.
Interview conducted by Lilitha Mahlati, an investment banker and founding member of Mbewu Movement. She describes herself as a gender and transformation activist who enjoys learning new languages and travelling the globe.