Ameera Allie, BRAVE Senior Leader, interviewed Mary Magdalene Tal as part of BRAVE Rock Girl’s women’s month focus on inspirational women. Mary, a compassionate, dedicated woman who advocates for human rights and a seeker for justice for all humankind. Mary Tal is the founder and Executive Director of Whole World Women Association. An organization that aims to create safe and nurturing spaces for refugee and migrant women and their families, promoting and facilitating their safe integration into local communities in South Africa. The interview between Mary and I took place on Friday, 30th July 2021 @12:30am. This was conducted via Zoom due to the unfortunate COVID-19 restrictions.
Ameera: What three words describes you best?
Mary Tal: Caring, determined and persistent.
Ameera: What always brings you joy and laughter?
Mary Tal: A lot of things bring me joy, but when I just see a child and how they act, it warms my heart. What also brings me joy are successful friendships, projects, keeping a promise and fulfilling it. Witnessing the sense of relief and relaxation in someone’s breath with those I work with, brings me so much happiness.
Ameera: What motivated you to become a human rights lawyer?
Mary Tal: I was motivated from the moment I was in my mother’s womb. When I came out from her womb, I was such an ambitious young girl. I tried breaking the idea of gender roles, I stepped in and did boy chores, riding horses and looking after cattle. I wanted to challenge myself. I wanted to push myself and create my destiny.
Becoming a human rights lawyer limited me. I then became a human rights defender standing up for all humankind. Being in that position challenged me to feel their pain and suffering, which motivated me to make a change to help end all sorts of abuse.
Ameera: Understanding that you flew from Cameroon, across Africa to South Africa in hopes of better days. What made you decide to leave?
Mary Tal: Growing up in Cameroon, our rights were violated. I decided on studying law and I graduated with a degree. I found myself defending people, and I could see the tragedy in people’s rights. One day, I settled on the decision of quitting the law firm and joined the Human Rights Defend group. My own country and family experienced oppression and domination, which continues to exist. This pushed me and my colleagues to leave. We wanted to organise and reclaim the rights in that country.
What influenced me to come to South Africa, was the history of Nelson Mandela and the women who marched. We thought coming was a ground for us to build resilience, knowledge and ability to go back and take over Cameroon. Here I am today, still sitting and waiting.
Ameera: You run an impactful, uplifting organisation called Whole World Women Association. What or who inspired you to create it?
Mary Tal: Whole World Women Association was inspired by those who inspired me to come to South Africa. I remember so many brave women who sat down and encouraged me, even Lorna Houston. They believed and trusted my capabilities to help the women in this community. We were not bold enough to do the same as other brave women organisations. They told us to build a support group. An organisation that helps recognise your own rights and strengths. That inspired me and we built the whole idea on Whole World Women Association.
We did not want to call it a “refugee women association” and send out discrimination and not include anyone or label only African women. We wanted to include all women around the world. We created a safe space for refugee women and children, allowing them to grow and learn.
Ameera: Can you tell me more about Whole World Women Association?
Mary Tal: We talk about issues to support and encourage all. Some of the issues are documentation accessing the right documents and understanding in terms of the law who is a refugee, an asylum seeker or an illegal immigrant. We had to educate women on their rights, claiming them and how it works, which allows them to live peacefully in South Africa. They did not know the process of seeking asylum and being recognised as a refugee and how long it takes. We stand for schooling all refugees the right and legal way to enter South Africa.
Ameera: I want to acknowledge the fact that in South Africa there are many people who are unwelcoming, filled with hatred and fear to fellow African’s, amongst many horrendous attitudes and acts of xenophobia. What has your experience of South Africa been?
Mary Tal: I have experienced discrimination and I still do. However, all South Africans are not the same. Some understand and believe in other Africans within their skin colour and culture, and there are others who will never change.
My experience was hurtful through education, many attitudes and perception on “foreigners” have changed. My organisation continues to educate others on social cohesion. This is an ongoing activity where individuals from all over share and exchange their experiences and backgrounds of their home country. Creating spaces to understand different struggles, allows others’ perceptions to change.
I have experienced that South Africans does not like other South Africans, especially amongst the coloured community. I found similarities in Cameroon. Their disregard to foreign nationals assuming their criminal nature and purpose.
It’s not fair that only South Africans deal with discrimination. The whole of Africa and the world faces different types of xenophobic acts.
Ameera: As BRAVE, Rock Girl – we run workshops with the girls to reduce stigmatizing, discrimination and xenophobia. What advice can you offer us in our work?
Mary Tal: There is so much advice I can offer. I see girls as golden vessels. First it is important to vulnerable girls, to let them know who they are and their dreams. Allow them to know that life isn’t always easy like a walk in the park, not in a harsh way. Tell them that every sugary thing is not sweet, by filling them with honesty and non-sugar coated education. This builds the right type of woman. Not creating fear but with love, support, understanding and listening to them. Remember that a courageous girl is a confident girl. If she has confidence she can take on the world.
Ameera: We all have our moments of doubts, low self-esteem and anxiety. What motivates and inspires you?
Mary Tal: Truly yes, even at my age. What motivates me; I tell myself if I come this far, then you can come this far. You cannot give up now. I ask for help when it is needed. I stop and take care of my body and mind when it is needed. It is important to know yourself and when to take a break. When I come out of that space of vulnerability, I am resilient.
When I have anxiety, I look at what I’m doing, what is necessary, what can be kept aside for the future. So I put them together with logs of wood. If you put too many logs in, you will only get to see the fire smoking. You need to take out some logs for space and allow more oxygen to burn… for a burning sensation. That is what keeps me going. What I can and cannot do for the future, I take that out, and I go with what I have for now, and I do self-care. I reflect, think, and engage in the beauty of silence and journaling.
Ameera: If there is one piece of advice that you can share with our BRAVE girls, what would that be?
Mary Tal: There is so much I want to share. I am here. I am not going anywhere. You know where to find me. One thing I can say, have a dream. Believe in yourself, you are the only one that can make this dream work in your life. Be confident and ask for advice. Speak to someone when you are anxious and ask difficult questions. They deal with so much unmentioned challenges, speaking and sharing with someone they trust. I believe this makes a difference.