All we need is some patience

A young man sitting in an indoor public place, smiling for the camera

Karabo Ntjana tells us about growing up fearful of talking, learning to speak freely with a stammer, and appreciating the kindness of others.

I have always felt the pain of my stammer can never be understood, especially by my family. That no one can truly meet me at the deepest levels of my insecurity. It has affected my confidence and made me more hesitant to speak. But now I'm almost 20, I'm learning how to live with my stammer.

My earliest memory of stammering was way back when I was 6. I remember sitting in class, here in South Africa, when my teacher passed a book around and asked each of us to read a line. I quietly faded to the back of the room, hoping the teacher would stop midway because there were lots of us in class. Something happened and our assistant teacher fainted. The class stopped immediately. I wondered if they were okay, but some part of me was relieved. 

Two words haunted me throughout my childhood at school and even from within my own home: "Speak properly". They would come every time I read aloud or tried to talk. My teachers meant well, and I understood that my siblings probably did not understand what was happening with me. To me, these words were reminders that I could not speak fluently no matter how hard I tried. My stammer led me to write more than I spoke and I developed a love for poetry, reading and writing. It was the only way I could express myself.

Two words haunted me throughout my childhood at school and even from within my own home: "Speak properly".

Growing up, I felt the need to be heard; to talk and have one listen with pure intention. Many a time I've felt that my stammer denied me that. When I finally found someone who listened to me speak, patiently absorbing all my pauses without finishing my sentences, I could not help feeling guilty that I was wasting their precious time.

I had deep levels of insecurity. I couldn't make a joke because if someone laughed I wondered if they were laughing at the joke or my stammer. Whenever I felt that I was about to stammer, I stopped speaking and responded with "Never mind". I chose to stay quiet in social gatherings and I disliked phone conversations. Sometimes my response to a simple "Hi" took five working days and I'd be labelled rude or unfriendly. That still happens sometimes. 

Stammering was a prison that kept me from speaking my mind. It felt like a dam wall which prevented my opinions from flowing. As I climbed the ladder of life, I had hoped to leave my stammering behind. 


When I learned that my childhood favourite, Rowan Atkinson, also stammers, it gave me the hope I needed that perhaps not speaking fluently does not mean failure.

One of the healthiest things I've done for myself was to grow out of the idea — one I was told at a young age — that I would 'grow out of it'. I am learning how to accept and love being me, and to speak without fear.

Some of the proudest moments in my life are the times I've spoken freely, even if I stammered. Times when I was afraid to speak, but I spoke anyway. When I was afraid my pauses would be filled with peals of laughter that would pierce my heart, but I spoke anyway. When I was afraid of being rejected, but I spoke anyway. All the times I spoke with courage, confidence, clarity and conviction, overcoming my fear and frustrations. I am currently studying Actuarial Sciences at University and last year I had to present in front of a large number of people. I did so without being mindful of my stammer and it was one of my proudest moments. 

I am learning how to accept and love being me, and to speak without fear.

Now, every time I speak to someone patient enough to listen, the stammering child within me is healed. There's a surge of relief and gratitude. The 4-year-old who learned to pen all his emotions is healed. The 7-year-old who struggled to make friends at school is healed. The 9-year-old who could not help but take in the sounds of laughter echoing in the classroom as he struggled to read in front of everyone is healed. The 12-year-old who stammered pronouncing a word at a spelling bee competition is healed. 

I wish…

I wish we appreciated more in our everyday interactions with people that kind words and actions go far beyond what the ear can hear, and eyes can perceive. 

I wish the world understood that my stammer is not a plea for sympathy, a flaw to be fixed or a burden to bear. All I ever needed was the gift of time to unravel my thoughts.

I wish the world understood that behind each stuttered syllable lies an unseen battlefield. The effort it takes to express myself, yet I persist.

I wish the world understood that my stammer is not my weakness. It is courage. Each time I open my mouth I step onto a tightrope suspended between fear and determination.

I wish I was reminded that my voice mattered, even when it stumbled, by the people who mattered most to me.

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