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African Women Writers Cultivate Solidarity Through Sickness

In Girl Next Door, two African feminist writers explore how being women has shaped their experiences of living with mental and chronic illness – and how their writing, activism & friendship carry them through.


When I met Sarah Lubala, we'd already been living next door to each other in university residence in South Africa for six months. We became friends quickly - we both loved the written word; when in res, we spent all our time in our rooms; and although we didn't yet have all the language we needed for it, we were both already living with trauma-based illness. 

As we discuss in our latest podcast ‘You’re a girl - Get a grip,’ I was still reeling from the misogynist hazing I’d just experienced as a first year. Sarah had been subjected to it when she was a first year. When I told her about purging the poison onto the page and how that piece was now being used to inform a new university policy, she was astonished. Her experience of being a black African woman & refugee, and an abuse survivor, had taught her she had to stay silent. Her astonishment affirmed that I wasn’t being, as I’d long been conditioned, a weak and oversensitive drama queen. So for the past decade, we have spoken up – in our writings, our academic work, and our friendship, and serving as each other’s reminders (sometimes daily) that what we feel is real. The Girl Next Door podcast, swear words and all, is part of that. It draws on our particular experiences, but hopefully has meaning for those striving to live life with mental or chronic illness; break stigma that still shrouds these topics and induces brutal shame; and testify to the life-saving nourishment of empathy and friendship.


I can recognise, as an adult, objectively speaking how this is gendered but it’s still very personal… on one hand, I understand how women have always been linked to hysteria & that’s a problem … and then on the micro-level, it’s about being a girl in the world & having that all land on you

– Sarah Lubala


Sarah Lubala is a Congolese-born poet. She has been twice shortlisted for the Gerald Kraak Award, and once for The Brittle Paper Poetry Award, as well as longlisted for the Sol Plaatje EU Poetry Award. She is also the winner of the Castello Di Duino XIV prize. Her debut collection, A History of Disappearance, was published by Botsotso Publishing in 2022.

Nica Cornell is a South African writer with her Masters in African Studies, and her Honours in Political and International Studies. She has a 15-year publication record including a national newspaper column, poetry and academic research. Most recently, she presented Whose Body is it Anyway? Disguising a Disabled Self at the Sartorial Society Series.

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