Saray Khumalo is the first black African woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest but there’s a lot more to her than that – she’s a sister, a mother, an executive leader and loves creating entrepreneurial businesses out of nothing – especially when also making people’s lives better. Saray is Mandela Day Libraries ambassador and through her climbs has been able to raise over R1 million which has gone to literacy and education.
Hi Saray, many thanks for your time, why is literacy and education so important to you?
“I believe that literacy and education is the only way we can secure the future leaders of Africa compete on the global stage. We keep saying the world is a global village – but what are we doing for our kids to make sure they do not remain colonised? I feel that women leaders are a lot more equipped and ready. It is our time to actually make that happen because we are the first in contact with these kids and we have an opportunity to raise them to be responsible adults and responsible global citizens.”
What is your definition of a modern day warrior woman?
“I think it’s being fearless, assertive and confident in who they are. Recognising that they are unique and they have something to contribute. What is nice now is it is not only certain jobs we can do; it is what we want to do and what we are passionate about. It is the ability to almost go against the grain and be fearless in that respect. Being a warrior woman is recognising that you can fail forward, then get up and do this. I believe that a summit is just a next step away – when you stop taking those steps – you’re not going to summit. So get on with it!”
Why do you identify as a warrior woman?
“That’s an interesting question. I think I was raised by warrior women and that’s why I identify as one. Unlike some, I’m not ashamed of my failings. One of the most difficult things that happened to me is I fell off my mountain bike and I had a terrible head injury and was in a coma for three weeks. When I woke up I had scars on my face and it changed my dynamic. I could either have stayed in my house and hid myself from everyone or accept that this is the new me. I can deal with this so the whole world must deal with this. I think that’s important – it’s trusting in what you can still give, moving forward and working with what you have.
I’m a fighter, I’m not afraid to fail and I’m not ashamed of failure because I know in every failure there’s a learning. Those learnings move me forward and they build my character. I am what I am today through the successes and failures I’ve had throughout my journey and I think it is recognising that. It becomes more evident with maturity I suppose – we learn to forgive ourselves and just move on.”
What has been your biggest and most important battle?
“It has been leading myself even though everyone around me was starting to doubt me. Cheering myself on- even though it seemed crazy to people around me. It’s waking up and saying ‘I can do this’, even though the person who believed in me yesterday does not believe in me today. It is waking up at Camp Four on Mount Everest and realising I’m frostbitten, I’m not going to be able to climb again, I have to go down and yet I was 99 metres from the top. It’s convincing myself that it’s okay, it wasn’t my time, I need to wait for God’s time and that’s been challenging.
Also, lot more than that, when people you trust suddenly think you shouldn’t get funding because no black African female is ready to climb the mountain. It is like I am being judged not by my capability but the colour of my skin as well as my femininity. But I am going to show you, for the next girl to come along, to be taken seriously. So, it’s sad and it has been the most low and the most challenging thing. I had multiple legitimate reasons not to go back and fight and anybody would have understood if I hadn’t. But you try and that’s why you have to be your own cheerleader. If you don’t believe in yourself why should the world believe in you? Just the fact that I have summated and you thought I couldn’t is enough revenge.
I climbed Aconcagua and I was the only girl and non-European and one of the guys said, ‘Oh, you’re from South Africa, there are no huge mountains there’, very condescending you know – you’re black, you’re female – you’re not going to summit. But he didn’t and I did. When I came down I just said, ‘Hello – it was amazing up there.’ That was a lesson for the rest of his life; I didn’t need to say anything else and next time he sees somebody like me he won’t judge them because of the way they look or the colour of their skin or where they come from but by their ability. I think we as a generation can live anything and pass the right baton to the next generation of young girls and boys so they can compete at the same level as everybody else.”
What type of warrior woman would you describe yourself as and why?
“Not being afraid of failure is a big thing for me and I wasn’t always like this, it is something you learn over time and it makes you take chances and they may not be calculated but usually I take calculated risks. Also, not being afraid to be vulnerable – because there is strength in vulnerability. For the longest time women were not allowed to air their views – even in boardrooms – being too emotional as a female. But maybe that’s what leadership needs, vulnerability, so that the world can run better. I think we’ve given the male species enough time to rule the world – it’s our time – and if it is, are we ready? We must prepare ourselves for that.”
What are the skills, characteristics or tools of a warrior woman?
“Natural stuff – quite frankly. It’s really about being comfortable with where you are, because maybe where you are is not where you want to be, but in that specific moment, be content with it. Run your own race, it is the discipline to know your own lane and stick to it because your time is coming. We always try and chew more than we need because we’re watching the neighbours – but they’re on their own journey.
Also, being authentic – you are unique for a reason – show us that. Maybe that’s what the world needs to be in a better place, don’t hide it away, be you. We have one Kim Kardashian we don’t need more. And, I think, honesty with self and honesty with the environment. We are who we are because of those around us, Ubuntu, it is something we should all be proud of because it has brought us to where we are.”
Why is it important for warrior women to see themselves as warriors?
“It’s important for us as individuals because it’s the only time to optimise showing who we are to the world and ourselves. We owe it to the next generation and if we look back, we are generally a paternalistic environment – very submissive – and we’re not doing the world, the family, the community, our countries and our continent any favours by not contributing, by not stepping up and stepping forward effectively.
Seeing yourself as a warrior woman is also important because life is for the living, life is an adventure – explore it! Whether it is through cooking, go do that – we need good cooks! It’s climbing mountains, go and do it because that’s what we need at that specific point. Leadership, that’s what we need, there’s a leadership crisis – who is going to fix it? You talking about it isn’t going to fix it.
Our kids are watching us more than anything, our girl-child is watching, our boy-child is watching because that boy-child will treat the girl-child in the future based on how we behave. Which is why I think its important – especially for mothers – we carry babies for nine months and we can direct where this world moves and that’s a huge responsibility. It’s not just about being a warrior and getting excited about that, let’s also recognise how much responsibility that comes with.”
What are your words of affirmation?
“It is our time and that says it all. You need to figure out what makes you extraordinary, what makes you unique – you owe it to yourself, you owe it to the world, you owe it to the sisterhood to show up and step forward because it is time for us to actually change the game.”
Which women warriors do you look up to?
“It is two people mainly who have made such a massive difference in my life – my mother and my grandmother. My grandmother was the Gogo who got us all into her fields to cultivate and whenever she harvested it wasn’t just for the family it was for the neighbourhood. She was a Pastor’s wife and the only Granny I saw who could cycle. She was one of those people who if there was a knock at the door at dinner time she would say bring your plates and share your meat with the visitors because there was no more meat in the pot. For her it was important to share and she taught me a sense of responsibility for the person next to me. If there’s suffering, why am I laughing? Tomorrow I may be suffering. It’s my duty to lift them up because there’s a lot of sun for everybody.
My mother, oh my word! She wasn’t as educated as her siblings but she just believed so much in education and she would always say, ‘I didn’t get a boy and that’s okay – you can be anything that you want’, and she always reminded us of that. If you cried too much about something which went wrong she would tell you to get over it, look at what you learned and move on. She and I at one point didn’t really get along because she was so militant and I suppose she felt she had to be a mother and a father at the same time. I absolutely look up to both of these women because I am what I am today because of them and the role they’ve played in my life.
There are other women I look up to and say, ‘Wow!’ Like Serena Williams and Thuli Madonsela. Where you least expect it we have a voice and the world will cheer you on afterwards. Not everyone will like you, but if what you’re doing is earnest with good intentions, let’s get on with it.”
Many thanks for sharing your vulnerability and wisdom with us Saray.
Listen to Matoyana Media’s Podcasts here: https://soundcloud.com/user-201756680-698831979/8-episode-06-in-conversation-1