Refiloe Moahloli, 29, took a leap, embraced an ‘abundance’ mentality, and followed her calling to be a writer – she’s now a bestselling children’s author…
From a young age I found comfort in books, and I was always a voracious reader. When I was 19 I read Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, and I had an ‘ah-ha’ moment: since I love reading so much, perhaps I’d enjoy writing, too? Something in me clicked, and I knew that writing was my calling. I lived in Mthatha in the Eastern Cape until my mother passed away the year that I turned 10, upending my small-town world. I was adopted by my aunt and uncle and went to live with them in Joburg; I found myself living with a new family, in a strange city. I moved around a lot during my school years – I went to a convent, then boarding school, and was back in the Eastern Cape for my final three years of school. I was quite shy and mostly kept to myself, my nose often buried in the pages of a novel.
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When I finished school, I needed a bursary to continue studying so I chose to do a BCom, knowing it would help me find a sponsor. I wanted to write, but who was going to pay for me to study English literature? I was selected to be part of a Vodacom Feature graduate programme; I started saving from my first salary so I could one day take the leap and write. At the end of the programme, the best-performing graduates were sent overseas; I ended up in India and had to sell airtime to locals who couldn’t speak English – it pushed me to my limits! In 2014 both my aunt and my brotherin-law passed away and, when you’re so far away from home, the news hits you harder. I was done with India. I thought, ‘Maybe now’s the time to take that leap?’ I will never forget what a friend said to me at the time, ‘The most important decisions of our lives are always difficult.’ I resigned the next day, and headed home.
In SA, I started getting my mind right – I even decided to see a therapist. I didn’t have a job, but I had my savings buffer: I did a four-day writing course, and it was the best money I’ve ever spent. Around this time, I had an idea for a children’s book. I was inspired by my two nieces, with the premise being that a new girl arrives at school, but she doesn’t understand any of the local languages being spoken. My eldest niece had a hard time when she started school. She mostly spoke isiZulu at home, but when she switched schools she only spoke English. I could relate – as I also struggled to integrate when I started school in Joburg – and I mentally toyed with the idea of writing a book where all children can celebrate their linguistic and cultural differences. There’s very little representation of brown-skinned kids in literature; I wanted my nieces to see themselves in what they were reading. One day, my therapist asked me what I was working on.
I told her about my idea – and her eyes lit up. And that’s how my book, How Many Ways Can You Say Hello?, was born. After six months of writing, countless revisions, and a really bad financial investment, the book was ready. I still didn’t have a job, but I took on an ‘abundance’ mentality, aimed high, and submitted the book to Penguin Random House; I felt the worst that could happen was they’d say no – but they didn’t say no. How Many Ways Can You Say Hello? has opened so many doors for me; it’s a children’s bestseller, and the Gauteng Department of Education has it as part of its catalogue. Since then, I’ve started my own publishing company, Yellow Hat, and in October I released Tullula, which is about a majestic African bird who learns that it’s OK to be different. Children’s books with local themes are so important, because everyone can connect to them, not just kids. I’m so glad I took that leap when I did; like Tullula, I’ve learnt a lesson in courage.
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