Carry on – with fire in your belly and buckets of water to share

 Linda Mafu is Head Political, Civil Society Advocacy, Global Fund

“The fire in your belly must be greater than the fire out there,” Linda Mafu said.  She spoke from the stage on a leadership panel. Mafu continued, “You should have seen us standing in line to put out the fire. We were so coordinated, as if someone were managing us, but there was not.”  Mafu recounted her childhood in an informal settlement during an apartheid South Africa, a regime that left Mafu’s community and those alike in unimaginable, inhumane living conditions. Unable to rely on fire trucks, located in the ‘white townships’ further away, her community stood together to put out the fire – “and doing so with a smile.”  Witnessing the power of community, Mafu learned an important lesson; whatever tribulations faced, the strength within and grit to overcome must be greater. Even though she and I were not to meet for the interview until the following day, I could already see her strength, courage, energy, and grace shining through. 


We sat down at the table. Behind Mafu, the alp-encircled Lake Annecy showed through the window. Officially, I knew Mafu as the head of the Political and Civil Society advocacy team at the Global Fund. During our conversation, however, I learned that her activism and heart with which she led to ensure access to treatment for HIV, TB and other infectious diseases in South Africa as well as women’s rights, extended well beyond any official-title. While only two questions were answered due to limited time, the lessons shared are overflowing.

What would help boost your projects?

Mafu leads a series of projects in South Africa centered on teaching financial independence and empowering women in her community. These include managing cooperatives, a group of women, making clothes, bags, and other items to be sold, providing courses on professional presentations and personal development plans, and facilitating a support network for women who have experienced gender-based violence (GBV), to name a few.

“For us,” Mafu shared, “it’s about opening doors so that [the women] are able to engage and send their product as a group of women, one of the biggest issues for us is generally the capacity around managing money and having a good relationship with money because of the kind of socialization around money.”  Importantly, the cooperatives seek to have a social impact beyond building the women’s wealth; in fact “the big deal is not money” but empowering and supporting the women ‘to think through what they want and can do with the money – and that’s usually when they get stuck.” In South Africa, to start a business, “you have to know someone who knows someone who knows someone.”  Mafu is able to get around that by building and strengthening business within the community – another advantage of cooperatives. A lack of financial independence puts many women in South Africa at risk for domestic, gender-based violence, with an inability to escape their abusers. While there are legal tools in place, de facto social expectations and poor implementation of the laws fail to protect women. “Some of the women would say, ‘my husband gets paid on Friday, so on Thursday, even if I don’t want to have sex with him, I will, so that there is money on Friday for my children.’ Otherwise the partners will take away the money, even though this is their home and these are their children.  So imagine making a decision based on that.”

The socialization of money is complex. As Mafu explained, “you can’t say to women you’ve paid your dues, it is time you look out for yourself.”  If you did, you “would be hurting them,” as that is not the way they learned to care for their community.  For example “some women have been professional teachers for the past twenty-years, but have nothing to show because of supporting the community. They don’t know how to get out of that and they don’t want to get out of supporting it… so the best thing is to say is ‘okay, lets’ work with developing you so you get to a point where your cup is full and flowing and you share the flowing part.’”

In addition to financial independence, Mafu has empowered and helped women to share their stories and to seize opportunity. These are women with powerful stories, women who “have gone through hellfire and come out with buckets of water for other women.”  She has done so by teaching them how to personally present themselves, interview, and push for the promotion and raise. This year, Mafu even started a conference where women can come together to brainstormed ideas. She hopes to make this an annual conference, so she will continue to find support to mobilize resources.

What recommendations would you give to the Youth?

Inspire is another program Mafu leads that encourages girls to be role models to other younger girls at school. Each time Mafu returns home, she ensures that she spends at least two days in the township, to share the experience of her own life.

“Sometimes when the young and experience hardship, they cry to give up, and I always say, ‘cry to carry on.’ I share my life; I tell them how my mother left me when I was one with my father and sister. I met her when I was 19 even though we lived in the same township.  We grew up with a stepmother and a stepbrother 14 years older than us. When I was 8 he was 22, he raped me for 9 years. Being raped for 9 years affects your spiritual relationship; it affects everything. I gave up on faith when I was 10. It is a lot of pain and you can easily become bitter and give up on your life. I could have given up but I had people in my community that would teach me lessons that gave me hope. And they opened doors of opportunities for me…now I am where I am and I owe it to that community. So when I go to school I talk about hope, I talk about never giving up and I share that things do get better in life and the best thing is that you don’t cry to give up, you cry to cary on. Cry to carry on. 

For me, in your journey, even if you are experiencing hardship, don’t ever allowed that hardship to harden you eternally because that is when you loose humanity, the Ubuntu heart. Ubuntu means I am because we are.”