Woman of the month: Polo Belina Moji
In October 2016, the French Embassy in South Africa was honoured to interview Ms Polo Belina Moji. Ms Moji is a lecturer of French and Francophone Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), Johannesburg. She also serves as the Vice-President of the Alliance Française of Johannesburg.
Ms Moji, could you please give us a few words about your academic and professional career?
I have had a unusual career path. I completed a diploma in media management in Cape Town and then I worked in advertising for six years. After that, I worked for the SABC for one year before leaving to France!
Before leaving, I started French classes part-time while working. I already knew I wanted to do something in France and I am crazy about literature!
I worked as an English teacher’s assistant in Beaune, near Dijon. This was when I decided to complete my Masters and PHD degrees in France. I completed both these degrees at Paris III (Sorbonne University) in general and comparative literature.
After my studies I returned to South Africa where I now work as a lecturer of French and Francophone Studies at Wits University - a completely different career!
In 2005-2006, you received a Bourse de la Région Ile de France, and in 2007-2011, you were awarded a PhD Research Grant from the French Embassy in South Africa. What was the value of this grant for you?
Concerning the Bourse de la Region Ile de France, this allowed me to keep studying in France. The first year of my Masters, I paid for myself but I could not have afforded a second year without this scholarship.
For the PhD Research Grant from the Embassy of France in South Africa, I have to share a lovely story. I had put together the project I wanted to do in Francophone-Anglophone African women’s literature. Unfortunately I did not have the money for it, which was a shame because I managed to convince my two supervisors, one at La Sorbonne and another at Wits University, to agree to do the project.
One day, I visited the Alliance Française of Johannesburg and met the former French language attaché of the French Embassy, M. Philippe Aldon. I told him I was leaving for Paris the next week but didn’t have enough money for my PhD. The Alliance did not have any grants at the time but I was asked to leave my email living expenses. M. Aldon managed to find some money for a living allowance which helped me pay for accommodation and social security. It was really helpful. I’m very grateful that Philippe believed in my project!
You studied in Paris, at the University de la Sorbonne Nouvelle where you got a magna cum laude (distinction) for you thesis which addressed the refusal to address the national question in African women’s writing. Please describe the focal point of your thesis?
When I was at Paris III doing my Masters, we studied a lot of canonical African literature. The writers we studied were all male, which bothered me because women also talk about the birth of African nations, about politics and social issues.
I decided to write a thesis to show that women also have a voice in literature about these subjects and that women across the African continent also deal with the ‘big questions of our time’ (which is independence). I also decided to study both Francophone and Anglophone literature. My research is a bridge between these two literatures.
What were the advantages of studying at Paris Sorbonne University?
Well, where can I start!
First of all, I never thought I would be admitted to study at the Sorbonne University in Paris. It was a dream, and then it happened. Studying there was this instant initiation into really deep and critical thinking about the arts and literature. It was also extremely challenging because for me studying there meant that I had to think in French. It was a whole new intellectual language. Thanks to this experience, I also discovered the literature of the Antilles and the philosophy of Edouard Glissant.
The other really good memory I have about my time at this university is that it was so incredibly international. Some of my friends were Korean; others were South Americans, etc.
I also attended every free student cultural event possible!
According to you, what are the main differences between French and South African universities?
I think that one very big difference is the access to knowledge.
When I was in Paris, I loved the idea of being an ‘auditeur libre’ (free listener). It meant that I was able to go to any lecture on different campuses, it was amazing! In South Africa, you often have to be registered for a course in order access lectures: the rapport with free knowledge is different. In Paris, you really have the freedom to explore things intellectually because you are interested in them, not just to fill the requirements for your degree.
The French system also throws you in the deep end. In South Africa, post-graduate students get a lot of support. In France it is much more the ‘parcours du combattant’ (an obstacle course) where you have to be independent and learn the necessary survival skills, which is really good.
Moreover, when I say access to knowledge, this also applies to the fees for post-graduate studies which are more accessible. In South Africa, these are expensive, in this sense the fees structure for public universities in France make knowledge more accessible.
You have done a lot of research on the question of gender. Why does this field interest you?
Feminism interests me. African feminism interests me. I would even say African feminisms interest me. In Africa, a lot of women live a feminist experience and asserting their power as women without philosophising about it too much. A famous African theorist says that women in Africa are too busy living to name their feminism. There is a lot of power in African women that is not talked about.
I grew up in Lesotho. When I came to South Africa, I was 17. I would call my grandmother a feminist because she raised seven children by herself. I would also call my mother, who was a powerful woman, a feminist, but I do not know if they would have called themselves feminists.
You are currently writing a book as part of a 4-5 year project at the University of Witwatersrand. Your research defines cosmopolitan identities through the notion of Francophone Afropeanism [African + European] and considers these identities through material lived existence of subjects in the cities of Paris and Johannesburg. What is the aim of this research?
Let me first explain you the origin of the word ‘Afropea’. In 1993, the music group Zap Mama, formed by the Belgian artist Marie Daulne who has roots in the Democratic Republic of Congo, released an album called ‘adventures in Afropea’. Their music was thus a mix of African and European music.
The word Afropea then entered the French literature through Leonora Miano, a Cameroonian author who lives in Paris. She wrote a book called ‘Afropean Soul’. This book was about people of different origins living in France. This word has since been used by other literary critics to describe other African writers living in Europe.
Within the actual crisis of migration across Europe, I think it is really interesting to look at this idea of migration around the following questions around identity: what is European? What is African? Am I African if I was born in Paris? Am I French? How is my body considered a representation of a loss of European identity?
During my Masters, I was also an English teacher’s assistant in a school in the outskirts of Paris. In this school there were several migrant communities. My experience very much involved these teenagers and how they negotiated French society. A lot of them had never known any other country but didn’t feel like they belonged in France. I was fascinated by this contradiction. This research, even though my focus is on France, is relevant to the whole of Europe.
I adopt a cultural studies approach to research: films, with the movie ‘la pirogue’ for instance, music, and literature.
Why did you choose to compare the cities of Paris and of Johannesburg?
Having lived in Johannesburg and in Paris, I have noticed the way in which urban geography sort of defines people’s access to the city center and to the urban experience.
You can really compare the distance of the townships from the center of Johannesburg and the ‘banlieues’ in Paris to the center. There are similarities between the ones living outside of the city, and the ones living intra muros (intramural).
This is also an issue of class, race, migration, which defines who feels like they belong in the city.
From a literary point of view, Bessora , a Swiss-Gabonese author who lives in Paris- compares herself to the South African figure of Saartjie Bartmann in order to talk about her body as a black woman in her book ’53 cm’. It is interesting to see how a historical South African figure features in Francophone literature.
In fact, it is all about deconstructing the idea that you have to be one thing or the other. A lot of us are a mix of a lot of things and we constantly negotiate those various identities in our everyday life. I think people have different parts of themselves that are negotiating, around class, around gender, around race etc.
From the research you have done so far, how would you describe Francophone literature?
There are several things to say about Francophone literature. Firstly, Francophonie is actually a very porous space. It is a linguistic space that is open to a whole set of different cultures. Francophone authors inflect the language with their culture as the write.
I have always been interested in how Francophone authors really play with the French language, as well as their use of humour, irony, satire, parody etc. as compared to Anglophone writers.
There are currently 14 Alliances Françaises in South Africa. You are the vice president of the Alliance Française JHB, what do you like about this?
I am a very new Vice-President. I am still learning a lot.
I first came across the Alliance as a student here. I don’t think I would have gone to France without the contacts at the French Embassy and the Alliance Française.
A key element to learning a foreign language is finding something you love; often something cultural. Through films, music, books or art, the Alliance provides a space for that.
I particularly like the cultural openness of the Alliance in South Africa, Africa and the world.
It makes French open to local cultures. It is really a space of exchange. The fact that we have Zulu and Portuguese classes here too, in addition to French, shows this openness.
If you had to give us one word that best describes you, what would this be and why?
I think I have been passionate about literature since I was a child.
As a child, I nearly ruined my eyes reading with candles after bedtime and I even tried to read and walk from school at the same time! I am also passionate about transmitting this love of literature to my students. In my research, I am passionate about bringing to light authors that are sometimes ignored and marginalised, hence my interest in female authors of African origin.