Written by: Mutshidzi Kwinda
We are currently witnessing more and more black African women making their mark in this world. There seems to be a surge – although subtle – of confidence, passion, and resilience embroidered in the way black African women present and represent themselves. Black African woman are shifting, changing, transitioning and evolving into what our ancestors could only dream of.
Today I had the opportunity to talk to one of those young black African women, Gladys Francis. We conversed about how against all odds, she managed to keep her head up when everything else seemed to be crashing down. Gladys is a Bachelor of Pharmacy graduate from Rhodes University, she is a firm believer of Christ, and an entrepreneur at heart. She has inspired many to defy the odds no matter the circumstance. For me, I would like to think that she is the epitome of what it means to rise amidst the storms, and it was such an honour and privilege to hear and share her story.
MK: To help the readers understand you and your story better, can you give a brief synopsis of who Gladys Francis is?
GF: I don’t know who I am, and I am okay with that. Because I am who I am, when I am and where I am. However, I know where I am coming from and where I want to be. I was born 24 years ago on Friday night in the beautiful land of the brave, Namibia. My father passed away when I was barely five years old. I was raised by a single mother, and most often, by my extended family until primary school.
Although I did not attend pre-primary school, I caught up with my peers when I started primary school. My mother, who was once a high school dropout (but returned to school in her adult years), was dedicated and highly involved in my academic career. She tutored me at home and tried her best to make sure that I moved to the next grade. I barely made it to grade 4. I couldn’t read well, and I think this affected my performance. It was only in grade 5 that I had a good comprehension of languages, and from there, my performance peaked. Of course, until varsity humbled me.
I attended high school at one of the best schools in the country. Unfortunately, at this time, my mother was a cashier and couldn’t afford the school fees. But I was privileged to receive assistance from my German teacher, who covered my fees throughout high school.
As someone who came from an underprivileged background, in a household with five to six people, and spending several days not knowing when my next meal would come from, made me look like an intruder at my high school. My family and I lived in a shack for more than 13 years in an area known for crime stricken, elicit drug-use prevalence and high teenage pregnancy rates. For all these reasons and more, the school was totally out of my league. Although I struggled here and there, with the help of my family, I held my head high and completed high school with exceptional results. Which ultimately contributed significantly towards me being able to attain an undergraduate degree in Pharmacy at Rhodes University, in the rainbow nation of South Africa.
MK: The She Evolves theme for this month is “start now”. We are spreading the message that you don’t have to wait for New Year’s Eve to make resolutions. Instead, you can start right now, right where you are, with the resources you already have at your disposal. So, when you hear the phrase “START NOW”, what is the first thing that comes to your mind?
GF: Start Now. A simple concept embedded in a complex network. Whenever I hear the phrase start now, I hear an instruction that requires me to be an active participant. And each time, I whisper to myself, no questions, no excuses because then I know I won’t delay, and I live and act in the now.
MK: As someone who graduated just before the emergence of the covid-19 pandemic and had to face the corporate world (or, as some may say, the real world). How did that change of normalcy affect you?
GF: The change of normalcy that came with Covid-19, personally speaking, is a blessing in disguise. It simply re-emphasizes the principles, concepts and philosophies that I had vowed to live by in my final year of undergraduate studies, which was in 2019.
I hold an undergraduate degree in pharmacy, and I am convinced that health is currency. Therefore, whenever and wherever health is compromised, there would always be some sort of pharmaceutical services required. Hence, before and during Covid-19, I wasn’t concerned about employment or other career-related opportunities. However, with the global outbreak of covid-19, in 2020, it became imminent that the next second, minute or day was not guaranteed. And with this awareness, I knew that if I wanted something, it was on me to make it happen.
With Covid-19, every day you go out in the streets is a risk. With or without PPE, whether you are vaccinated or not, you are not safe. So I decided that if I am going to risk my life, the life of my family, colleagues, and others around me, it should be for something that I believed in, trusted, worked hard for, something that I would be proud of, and something that the world would be proud of too.
MK: Most people, when they are presented with valid excuses (whatever that may be in your opinion), they often choose to use them rather than find a way through them. Was there a time where you ever thought you’d hit the wall and there was nothing else you could do but give up on your goals or life in general?
GF: Yes, I’ve had perfect excuses that I could’ve used and that I could hide behind. For starters, I was born a mistake, and the relationship between my parents was never condoned. It was also hitting shipwreck at the time I was born. I also have stunted growth because, as a child, I was malnourished, and it affected my overall growth development. And I like to refer to myself as a 24-year-old trapped in the body of a 7-year-old, funny. I was also born in a poor background, and there were so many good excuses for me, but there are also several times that I thought I had hit rock bottom or was against the wall. I remember a time when I was once scammed. All my savings were gone, never to be seen again. And then, there was also a time when I had failed my mid-term exams – you must understand I’ve never failed to meet any requirements before, so I thought it was the end of me, I was so angry, and I thought that was rock bottom.
Growing up, I learned that each time you hit rock bottom, the only way is up. Each time you are against the wall, you keep on going with the wall because eventually, there will be an opening. But you know, all these life lessons and learnt experiences, all of them faded in comparison with my most recent life-changing experience – losing my mother.
For the first time in my life, I was stuck, confused and I did not know which direction to take. I was faced with the possibility of saying bye or along with my mother or continuing the journey. It was either I start a new chapter without my primary support, my best friend, without someone who could say, Gladys, I know you “and truly knew me”… Uhmm, for the first time, I was without my role model and my mentor and on top of that, I was left to raise my 2-year-old sister. So in a situation like that, it became difficult to hold on to Faith. It becomes difficult to hold on to principles, values and life lessons when you feel bitter and betrayed.
Sometimes, being a statistic is comforting because at least you are part of a group. With the death of my mother, I wasn’t part of the statistics. I wasn’t part of the covid-19 statistics. I wasn’t part of the group of people grieving and mourning for their loved ones because they had succumbed to covid-19. I was alone, and that for me was underneath the ground rock bottom, for me, it felt like hitting the wall and smashing the wall. But despite all that, there is beauty in finding something bigger than yourself. There is beauty in holding on to what you believed before. There is beauty in having hope because if you build a house on solid rock, on a definite hope, nothing will ever shake you. And when I reminded myself of this, I made peace with my rock bottom. I made peace with smashing the wall because I realized that I would mourn my mother’s departure for a lifetime. After all, she had loved me for her lifetime, and so will I.
After this awakening, I had no reason to give up on life. I had to keep going, and on top of that, I had to be exceptional while doing it. Not only for me but for my little sister too. I decided to start with the little things that matter in my life. Things such as being more present in relationships, managing my time efficiently, completing my internship, and doing small activities that bring me joy and peace. And by doing the small activities and celebrating mini victories, I was able to rise and open up to the world.
MK: Nowadays, whether you hold a degree or not, landing a job of your preference is no longer guaranteed. It seems like the market is overly saturated in almost all corporal industries. And with that, young men and women are forced to fend for themselves by doing piece jobs or starting their businesses.
You hold a Bachelor of Pharmacy degree, and you recently launched a small business, Aios Accessories and Designs. What was the motivation/inspiration behind that?
GF: From my most tremendous pain came one of the best and greatest decisions of my life. And that was to START. As a child, I loved playing with dolls – and I played with them until I was in grade 12. I used to design their clothes and stitch their garments because I liked playing dress-up. When I got tired of styling them, I would rearrange and decorate their homes. Additionally, if something was broken or faulty at home, I was always asked to fix it or come up with some workup solution – although there were other adults around.
That child grew up into an adult who was used to hearing words like you are so creative, you are good with your hands and many more. But that never summed up to anything because I thought these people were exaggerating and that I would never be good enough. But all those changed when I was suddenly forced to part ways with my mother. That was when I decided to live unapologetically, to love and follow my passions. I wanted to create something that would eventually become bigger than me and that would outlast me. And one of the ways I decided to START by establishing a business. I decided to start with what I knew, my skills, and the resources at my disposal. I wanted to promote the creative crafts industry, especially in Namibia, where art is primitive and eventually globally. I wanted to empower young girls and women to dream, create, and to be thankful for their abilities and to redefine norms.
The shortened form of the business, AIO, is derived from my native language Khoekhoegowab, aka (Damara/Nama), and can be translated to “thanks”. So the message that I am translating through this establishment is that I am thankful for the relationships and experiences that I have had. I am thankful for the joyrides and obstacles that came my way. I am thankful for the love and the pain that I have experienced. And looking forward, I am thankful for everyone who will be inspired and who will support AIO. They will not only be supporting my life story but a legacy in the making. I am thankful that they see beauty and purpose in the articles and designs I create because they celebrate life, love, and passion. And hence all AIO articles are inspired by the four elements of life:
- Fire represents passion.
- Earth represents grounding and finding something bigger than oneself.
- Water represents rhythm, flow and the ability to shape, shift and flow with the changing currency and situations in one’s life.
- Air represents freedom to exist and to live.
MK: Lastly, what does self-evolution mean to you?
GF: Self refers to the individual, and evolution to me refers to an act or process of change happening at a particular time. So putting the two together is, in my view when you are changing with yourself. However, that change could be positive or negative. Most people, when they hear evolution, they usually associate it with a positive change, a better version of what was. But that’s not guaranteed. Nevertheless, the upside of any form of change is that you can channel it into exceptional outcomes. So no matter how obsolete, crooked, or flawed your growth or “process of evolution” may seem, you can always turn it into your desired version.
For more please visit Gladys’ Instagram pages @gretchen_fgm AND @shopataio