Although born with cerebral palsy, Masingita Masunga never took no for an answer. Against all odds, she passed matric (after failing twice because her handwriting was so poor), got her driver’s licence after eight years of trying, started her own TV show and, in June 2018, summited Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak.
Flow was proud to host Masunga in our Johannesburg office recently and to hear her story.
“I have done things the way they were never meant to be done," she told Flowstars, explaining how she had been born with cerebral palsy, a coordination disability, after being breached at birth and not receiving enough oxygen.
Born to loving parents in Limpopo, Masunga went to a “normal” primary school (though she disputes the term “normal”, explaining it is contextual, according to your circumstances), but failed Sub B (Grade 2) after struggling to write legibly.
She provoked laughter by saying that, after she went to a “special” school for high school, she was made to use a typewriter because her handwriting was so poor. “Now I was ‘special’ in a ‘special school’.” She said she refused to use the typewriter because it tied her to a desk, near a plug, and she didn't want to be physically confined.
After failing matric twice, she went to the premier’s office in Limpopo and refused to leave until a senior education official had come to meet with her. He told her she would be able to do her matric “orally”; she told him it was impossible to do Science and Maths exams orally, but if he was able to pass these matric subjects orally himself, she would be prepared to try. Eventually, an allowance was made for her and she passed her matric by writing the exams again and explaining to an examiner afterwards what she had written, to prove she knew the work but just couldn’t write legibly.
“I was taught to never say 'I can't do it.' My parents would always tell me to find a way to do it,” she said.
Masunga started a beauty pageant for people with disabilities and said she would go to the South African Broadcasting Corporation premises and when she spotted celebrities, would approach them and insist that they perform at the pageant, refusing to take no for an answer. “I started a beauty pageant called Miss Confidence SA – a beauty pageant for women with physical disabilities.”
She also started a TV show on DStv called Masingita With Confidence, and delivered a five-minute TED Talk in 2016 titled “Defying cerebral palsy, every single day”.
She encouraged people to be the best they could be, no matter their circumstances. “Life has no formula. You can do all the right steps but end up with different results. Whatever result you get, learn to live with it.”
Although she looks much younger, Masunga will be turning 40 this year. "I came up with the ‘40 for 40’ initiative to celebrate my 40th birthday,” she told Flow's staff. “One of those initiatives was to climb Mount Kilimanjaro and I was able to do it. Nothing is too impossible!"
Despite all she has done for others, particularly those with disabilities, Masunga said it is essential to look after yourself. “The best way to take care of other people is to take care of yourself first ... Selflessness is not thinking any less of yourself.”
She also told the audience, “Everyone is a celebrity to someone. It doesn't matter who you are, there is always someone celebrating your existence.”
To end, Masunga read the moving essay Welcome to Holland by Emily Perl Kingsley, about having a child with a disability, which compares disability with a person who has always dreamed of going Italy, going to Holland instead, against her will, and then noticing the beauty of windmills and tulips. The essay ends, “If you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn't get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things ... about Holland.”
Masunga made a deep impression on the Flowstars who heard her speak, as the reflections below reveal.
“Masingita's message really stayed with me over the weekend and I'm really appreciative that we had the opportunity to hear her story. The key things that resonated were when she discussed the notion of what constitutes 'normal' – that really made me pause and think. Also, about disabled people feeling confined and how, all her life, she has had to break out of confinements. Her bravery and incredible resilience are inspiring.” – Janet Berger, creative strategist
“She was inspirational and down to earth, such a 'real' person!” – Ros Caboz, project manager
“I am in awe of her no-nonsense attitude to life; the conviction that she doesn't have to stand back or shy away from any challenge. My main takeaway from her talk was that nothing is impossible – you may not be able to do it the ordinary way, but with courage and hard work, you can do it your way. Oh, and that every one of us is a celebrity!” – Edwina van der Burg, content team manager
“After listening to Masingita speak about her life, I realised: the world doesn't owe any of us anything – but we ALL have a lot to give to the world. This adjustment in perception will change lives for the better.
“Masingita chooses to focus more on the goals she wishes to accomplish, and less on the obstacles in her way. Life is short and comes with no guarantees about its duration, but Masingita reminded me that there are so many great challenges to take on while we are here.” – Roy Barford, business development executive
“She was very inspiring and has taught me that where there is a will one can surmount any obstacle.” – Mercy Moyo, accountant
“I think Masingita is an incredibly brave woman who really puts my life into perspective. I'm really grateful to have met her and heard her speak and have no doubt she'll strive to conquer many more things in the future.” – Kerry Robertson, executive assistant
“I thought she was amazing. I thought, too, that her talk could easily have been cut down by 50% – it was that much too long for me. But truly, a great gal. Look, she doesn't have a severe disability, and working with persons with disabilities (as I do), I am concerned about positioning her as a prime example of what persons with disabilities can do if they only put their minds to it (and their stilettos on). It's a bit perilous, that ... Honestly, I was not impressed. But I do admire her.” – Allison MacDonald, public relations account manager
“Jaribu (this should perhaps be the name of her website. Swahili word for try ... but if you break it down means try, no matter the odds). And that is what resonated with me because that is the word my late mom often used. Keep trying, never give up, no matter the odds. She is a remarkable woman who, according to doctors, scientists or whoever judged her, should never have succeeded, achieved and accomplished the things she already has in her life. She has a ‘True Grit’ and jaribu spirit that makes me want to aspire to and I think to myself: ‘What is wrong we me – she can do it, what was my excuse?’” – Brett Dovey, social media specialist
“It was incredibly inspiring to listen to someone who hasn't allowed herself to be, in her own words, ‘confined’, or defined by what others might perceive as limitations. She is determined to walk her own, self-determined path, on her own terms. It made me think of all the things I tell myself I don't have the time or the ability to do, and here is someone who refuses to take ‘no’ for an answer – even from herself. Powerful stuff.” – Christina Kennedy, writer
“I think Masingita's story is a remarkable one, which she told with humour and passion. There's nothing like hearing how others have overcome their challenges to make you realise that your own are also surmountable.” – Willem Steenkamp, subeditor
“Masingita's story was inspiring, hilarious and captivating. Her journey up until this point sounds like a true example of 'turning lemons into lemonade'.” – Tumelo Buthelezi, writer
“I think she is a fearless and brave woman. What I learnt from her is bravery gets you everywhere – you just need to have a heart for it. Also, that disability is how you view and how you respond to the world.” – Tondani Luvhengo, business development executive