“I realized that if I didn’t get off the wrong train it would take me to the wrong destination and I would be too far down the line to hitchhike back to some semblance of happiness and fulfilment. So I called my parents, told them I hated my life and that I would be dropping out of law school.”
One Namibian woman is an exquisite example of the flight that life can take once you follow the calling of your heart. That woman is none other than Martha Mukaiwa the freelance arts, entertainment and travel writer and weekly columnist whose writing has made here a household name in Namibia and whose star status is growing exponentially abroad. 99FM’s MYD Art sat down with the bubbly beauty to talk about the path she followed to ignite her passion and find her purpose, and as is so often the case what was uncovered is that Martha’s path too did not follow a straight line but included many twists and turns including almost a career in law before she found the place where her heart sang through writing.
99FM’s MYD Art asked :
How did you get into writing?
I took the scenic route. If you were growing up relatively smart and black in Namibia in the mid- 90’s, you were growing up in a community whose elders had just got shot of apartheid and the largely inferior formal education that came with it. As such, their children who had the freedom to go to good, government and private schools were encouraged to pursue traditional careers that many of our parents and their contemporizes didn’t have the means or the opportunity to pursue.
Understandably, children who showed academic promise were encouraged to be doctors, lawyers and accountants. These occupations were identified as good, steady and useful pursuits that could eventually help support your family and being encouraged to pursue these careers was a source of pride.
As I was good at English and public speaking, I decided I wanted to be a lawyer. I watched plenty of LA Law, took part in orator’s competitions, won an orator’s scholarship from Charter House in the UK and I went to high school in Cape Town where I continued debating, reading up a storm and excelling in English. When the time came, I applied to do my LLB at UCT and I was accepted so I began my legal studies at the ripe old age of 17. And hated it.
There was no scope for writing stirring, impassioned speeches like I had during my debating days. Instead I had to rotely learn piles and piles of law, apply it, wash, rinse and repeat. It was hard but worse than that, it was boring. So for the first time in my life, I started doing the bare minimum and being dead average. Looking back I realize that that’s what happens when the bulk of your life is devoted to something you have no real interest in. You phone it in. You half arse your whole life, don’t do particularly well and you become really jaded.
Eventually, I realized that if I didn’t get off the wrong train it would take me to the wrong destination and I would be too far down the line to hitchhike back to some semblance of happiness and fulfilment. So I called my parents, told them I hated my life and that I would be dropping out of law school. They were furious, of course , and I was devastated about letting them down. But I had always been good at English and as my LLB electives I had been doing some film and literature courses which I loved so I decided to build on those. I then got a bunch of concessions from the Dean to do first, second and third year courses concurrently and I managed to graduate with a bachelors degree in film, media and writing in the year and a half I had left.
And I loved every minute of it. More than that I was back to being the enthusiastic, happy girl I had always been and I was doing well academically. As I handed in essay after essay about literature and film, I also came to realize that my strength was writing. I always got compliments about my style and structure and I finally realized that that was why I had done well at debating. I had words. I loved words and I loved busying myself with bending them into arguments and stories. I had never been the best at rebuttal or unprepared orals but in the ten minutes my debating team had to formulate our speeches, they looked to me for a sharp beginning and a clever ending.
I had words. I had always had words. I just didn’t want to use them to write letters of demand to people whose accounts were in arrears or threaten people with eviction because they couldn’t pay their rent. So I wrote. About plays and people, authors and films. And the more I wrote, the more I realized that I had always written.
As a child, a teenager and as an adult. I wrote speeches. I wrote really elaborate letters about my day or my life to my friends who would phone me crying with laughter. I wrote crazy, rhyming birthday cards and I wrote poems and a hundred beginnings of a hundred stories. Every day. All the time. When I wasn’t reading or watching people and films. The thing is, writing wasn’t a career. I knew you could be an author but I also knew book deals, great ideas and luck weren’t in enough supply to pay monthly bills or appease my parents. I knew I could be a journalist but I had the same problem that I had with law. Too depressing. Too much bad news.
So I graduated not knowing how I could turn my talent into something lucrative. I came home to Namibia, moved back into my parents house, waitressed, was exploited by a start-up or two as a freelance copywriter for a couple of years but I kept writing essays, poetry and stories in my free time and posting them on Facebook. I got a comment or two. Nothing serious. Eventually, John Walenga, who I had worked with briefly before as a concept developer, gave me a call to ask if I could write. I said I could and he took a look at my CV, saw I had done well in arts journalism at varsity and he made me the art critic for The Villager.
I worked there six months and while there I kept writing poetry, essays and fiction. Eventually, I decided to send a short story to a competition in the UK. It was free and open to the whole world and so I sent something through and won. An editor for DSTV.com saw a link to it through one of my friends on Facebook and offered me a job as an entertainment correspondent for DStv and a few months later I was headhunted by The Namibian and I have been what is essentially a fulltime freelancer and a weekly columnist for them ever since.
That’s the long story.
The short story is yes, I have always had a passion for writing but I never really considered it a viable career. So I took a detour through law school, and a waitressing job or two, but I kept writing whether I got paid for it or not and eventually somebody noticed me , gave me a job, then somebody else gave me a job and now people from all around the world are asking me if I would be interested in writing this or that.
How does following your passion fulfill you?
I think following your passion makes life less of a chore. If you have a natural enthusiasm, interest and passion for what you spend the bulk of your time doing, you don’t wake up to a job; you wake up to your heart and soul. As a writer, I consider myself a professional spectator. I watch the world and I tell people about what I see or experience and that is fulfilling because I get to interact with and consider all kinds of people from all walks of life. There is nothing as sobering as listening to somebody else’s story. There’s also nothing as inspiring. Gratitude, humanity and suspending my own issues, insecurities and obstacles to consider life in somebody else’s shoes are all part of my day and that is fulfilling. Telling society about other people’s expressions of their human condition through performance, visual art or simply by recalling a conversation I had in a coffeeshop or on the street is fulfilling merely because everyone wants to know that they are not alone in their suffering, pain, joy or experiences.
I love a good story. Hearing one, telling one, writing one. Life is a story. The past is a story about things that have happened and it’s tinged with nostalgia and caution. And the future is a fairytale with a happy ending, a projection of desired outcomes. We are always telling ourselves one of the two. I just decided to do what everyone does naturally for a living. It’s really very cunning.
Do you have any advice to aspiring writers?
I am an aspiring writer! Be sincere. Be yourself. Write like you. About things that interest you, inspire you, infuriate you or make you laugh. Authenticity is appealing. Write. It’s as old as chestnut as the original old chestnut but it’s true. I wrote about anything and everything when nobody was paying me for it and eventually somebody started paying me for it. Reading and writing are the only ways to get better at reading and writing. So read widely. Books, news, fiction, non-fiction, anything you can lay your eyes on. Read plenty of books by writers you admire and read a couple of books by writers you think suck just so you know how not to suck. That said, as a writer, you will always feel kind of sucky. Publish your opinions, essays, poetry and stories anyway. It’s a Brave New World Wide Web and publishers, editors and content managers are your Twitter followers’ followers and your friends’ Facebook friends.
Was the journey tough?
Life’s the journey and life is tough. But it’s also fantastic. As a writer, you are probably going to have a little panic-attack every time you send out a piece or press “post.” Then you’re going to feel spectacularly sucky if no one visibly engages with your work or if you make the mistake of reading and agonizing over negative or hateful comments. All this is inevitable so you have to train yourself to rebound faster. You have to claw your way out of the lows , get really high off the sporadic highs and just keep working on what fulfils you. Life isn’t a 100 years of Mardi Gras. As a creative, suffering, struggling and being overlooked is the every day entry fee so what you do has to be more than just ego or money driven. It has to be soul balm, didactic, pleasure and pure oxygen.
Where to from here?
I want to continue living and travelling around the world while publishing my somewhat angst-ridden brand of creative non-fiction. This year, I’m going to start getting my Africa on so professionally I’d like to roam the streets of Zambia next and I’ll probably head back to Asia to unwind. Because ASIA.
Have you experienced any strange fans along the way?
I hate the word fans. I prefer the word readers. In general, I’m a pretty forthright and friendly person, you know, in my own capacity as a human being. But when it comes to meeting readers, I’m awkward in surround sound. It’s the expectation that kills me and some readers’ lack of filter. I get it, though. When you read someone every week, you think you know them and so you approach them forgetting that they’ve never met or seen you in their life. That kind of familiarity can make for some strange encounters. Random strangers coming up to you and asking if you brought them something from Indonesia, getting into cabs and the driver says: “Hey, Marth!” or drunken readers stumbling towards you telling you how your voice is supposed to sound. I guess it’s kind of like meeting a character in a book. You’ve read all about them, you know how they would say things and what they’re supposed to look like, you have ideas about how tall or short they are and how they would move but reality is never quite what you imagined. Of course, most people are really great. Very cool, generous and sincere. It’s fun on a good day and like walking around naked on a bad but it’s mostly fun and endless wealth of conversation for someone with verbal diahorrea.
Strangest thing that a reader has done?
Getting wind of a guy who wanted to date me as some kind of climb up the social ladder. Little did he know that my social life is a recurring episode of me reading Marquez in my underwear while eating Nutella with a fork.
To be clear:
I don’t think you should doggedly follow one manifestation of your passion to your detriment. If you are a writer, a singer, a comedian, an artist or a poet and despite hard work and constant output you aren’t really getting anywhere as the main attraction, maybe following your passion is working as some kind of facilitator in those spheres.
Being involved in the industry in some way that allows you to enjoy what you love while working in an auxiliary, nurturing or development capacity. I love visual art but I’m no visual artist so instead I promote, preview and review art exhibitions. If you love great writing but haven’t really been able to make it work as a paid writer, maybe following your passion means you work as an editor or a publisher. Following your passion doesn’t always look the way you think it will and I think rather than constantly trying to stick to some magic theme for your life, you can create passion.
By pursuing activities and ideas that align with your interests, morals and feed into the legacy you want to leave in this world. By taking pride in what you do and always putting your best foot forward. By taking a real interest in the people you encounter whether you are a doctor, lawyer, or a nurse. It’s about being present, hardworking, wholehearted and constantly learning and leveling up. That’s what passion looks like to me. It’s not necessarily something you’re born with and then follow, it’s something you water and grow.
Following your passion, your interests and your enthusiasm allows you to mine various possibilities of a fulfilling, rewarding and inspiring life. And though, equally valuable, I don’t think the gems are always cut precisely the way you thought they would be.
Take a look at some of Martha’s work here :
From one world renowned writer to another, take a look at author Elizabeth Gilberts advice on how to view your job, career, hobby and vocation here : Question of the Day : WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH YOUR LIFE?