Umfazi Olesizotha – Strong Woman

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Abafazi - some of my strong women

Abafazi – some of my strong women

Simon often called me a strong woman – usually when I was bemoaning the distance between us, how much I missed him, how hard it was to sustain a long-distance relationship, the British immigration system, I could go on…He had a particular mix of traditional African values and an awareness of the changing status of women and the different way of life in Europe; he respected the fact that I could never be a traditional African wife but still went through the motions of introducing me in the traditional way to his much older brother and his wife, who brought him up, advising me to wear a long dress rather than jeans – not because of the formality of the occasion but because modesty for an African woman means draping the bottom half of her anatomy in long skirts or dresses.

In the days following his sudden death I felt anything but strong, going through the motions of booking a flight and getting myself to Bulawayo, sitting on the floor of the house with the women, insisting on seeing his body and then somehow getting through the funeral, singing a song I’d learned on the flight and getting through it before collapsing in the heat. I took advice on what to wear and covered my head with a scarf, which apparently went down really well with the family. I was treated very much as Simon’s wife, riding in the funeral car with the coffin and being given a central seat by the graveside.

Ormmie and me at the funeral

Ormmie and me at the funeral

Strong women in Zimbabwe range from young girls from the countryside functioning as maids to earn their keep, through grandmothers raising children because their mothers are either working away or have passed over, to those struggling to forge a career for themselves.

Simon's daughter Ormmie with her daughter Ashley, who is looked after by her grandmother while Ormmie works in South Africa

Simon’s daughter Ormmie with her daughter Ashley, who is looked after by her grandmother while Ormmie works in South Africa

It's not just rich people who have maids - relatives from the countryside often fulfil this role and traditionally eat on the kitchen floor

It’s not just rich people who have maids – relatives from the countryside often fulfil this role and traditionally eat on the kitchen floor

When I returned to make the album, I asked Charlie to find me some women – it felt important that I be not the only female voice on the album. There are many female artists in Bulawayo but most are dancers rather than singers. One excellent female imbube group, Nobuntu, had just returned from a European tour and were spending time with their families, so we didn’t feel we could ask them.

Two neighbours of Charlie’s in Magwegwe often came to watch our rehearsals and always had interesting things to say about our performance. I came to regard Nonsie and Annabel as friends and slowly Charlie and I formed the idea that perhaps they, along with his sister Ormmie, could perhaps do a song with me. They were very keen and came along to the house one evening with their friend Gamue where we workshopped some ideas about strong women and what that meant for them. I strummed some chords and we soon came up with a chorus – “umfaz’olesizotha, sitsh’umfaz’olesimilo” – strong woman, a woman with dignity. Each of us then wrote her own verse and we ended up with a mix of Ndebele, Shona and English, also mixing sung and spoken words.

Gamue and Annabel writing verses for our song

Gamue and Annabel writing verses for our song

Nonsie enjoying time in the studio

Nonsie enjoying time in the studio

The song has worked a treat with my choirs. When I first came home there was an exhibition in the gallery in the building where I work called “Brilliant Women.” The Quirky Choir made up their own verses about brilliant women in their lives, and came up with a second chorus that was an English translation of the Ndebele. Sheffield Socialist Choir did a version for International Women’s Day in March 2013, celebrating Malala Yousafzai the Pakistani woman shot by the Taliban for campaigning for girls’ education, the less well-known Hina Kahn, and a Palestinian poet. More recently Retford Community Singers have celebrated Jayne Tomlinson, Mother Theresa, Camilla Batmangelidjh and loved ones closer to home.

A quiet moment before a concert in Mpopoma, wearing Simon's shirt

A quiet moment before a concert in Mpopoma, wearing Simon’s shirt

Simon and I both had a history of several past relationships and really wanted this one to work. Although it was sadly untested in the cold light of the everyday, I like to think that we, as two creative thinkers, could have worked something out, and that the strong woman he so admired would have thrived alongside him.

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