Telling the story…


Since what happened happened, I have been so touched by many people who have contributed towards this project, and, by default, to my healing process. One such person is film-maker and photographer Graeme Oxby, who gave me this wonderful gift.

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.

Kicking up a storm…

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I knew early on in planning this project that there would have to be a song about football. Simon loved the game, both as player and spectator; Charlie played professionally for a while until he decided to follow his father’s legacy as a singer, as did his brother Tonny, and his youngest sister Amanda is goalkeeper for the national women’s team The Mighty Warriors and during my stay participated in a decisive win against Lesotho in the Unity Day Cup. Click on the link for a pre-match photo of Amanda, looking incredibly like her father!

Along with thousands in and around Bulawayo and its diaspora, Simon was passionate about the city’s team Highlanders and rarely missed a match. I was often left to my own devices, or put in the care of family or friends, whilst he went off to Barbourfields Stadium. He was over the moon when I bought him a Newcastle United shirt which sports the same black and white stripes as the Highlanders home strip.

(Click on the YouTube icon to play this clip)

We already had a song of Simon’s that we could work on – Amahlolamyama (one of many nicknames for the team meaning a type of black and white bird)was written for the show Matata and is still very popular. Charlie took the chorus and added new elements to the song including the sound of the vuvuzela, the ubiquitous plastic horn which endeared itself to the world in the 2010 South African World Cup.

Other nicknames for the team – Siyinqaba (we are victorious), Tshilamoya (we turn spirits around), Bosso (the boss)and Bossolona – appear in the song.

So what could my contribution be? The lonely cry of a football widow – “please excuse my jealousy, but did he love you more than me?” – and a rap over some commendable beat boxing from the guys, telling the story of a weekend trip to the wonderful Victoria Falls, quite early on in our relationship. Our idyllic stay in one of the most beautiful and romantic spots in Africa, if not the world, had to be cut short – painfully so, as it necessitated getting up at two in the morning to get the bus – so that Simon could be back in Bulawayo for the match on Sunday afternoon.

Our version of the song is proving immensely popular with children in the workshop I have devised for primary schools based on this project. They enjoy singing parts of the song, trying to get a sound out of the vuvuzelas, and joining in the final chant – Bosso! clap clap clap…

Matata, matata…problems, problems!

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a moment of concentration in the studio

a moment of concentration in the studio

Matata is perhaps the song of Simon’s that we re-interpreted in the most straightforward way. He wrote it as the title song for the theatre production of the same name. “Matata” is a Swahili word meaning “problem”, perhaps best known to non-Africans in the phrase “Hakuna matata” – “no problem” which was famously used in The Lion King.

It was the first song I chose when looking for songs to adapt for the album, as it is quite simple and affords a lot of opportunities for new material to be inserted over the top of the bass ostinato: “There is a big, big problem.” I wrote a section about the big problem being Simon’s sudden and untimely demise and us all having to carry on without him. Charlie wrote a couple of new bits too, necessitating some fast and (for me)tongue-twisting Ndebele phrases which he insisted I had to learn: “Ukhon’uhlupho lukholu kunzima kumatata!” gave me a few problems!Like all such things, it’s easy once you master it, and I’m glad Charlie pushed me to get it right as audiences were impressed that I managed it.

It sounds like a miserable subject for a song, but it is fast and spirited and quite uplifting. I’m hoping to sort out the video of the Eziko performance to put on here soon.

Zimbabweans live with problems on a daily basis, but never get down about them. I’m not going to go into the political causes of those problems here – I want to go back, and there are plenty of more informed sources. But life is generally quite hard, and has been for some time. I have seen some improvements since my first visit in 2009, when there was little food in the shops, refuse was piled high on the streets (including wads of worthless Zim dollars)and schools were closed as the teachers were not being paid. Now that people are used to using US dollars and South African rands, things are much better for those who are lucky enough to have jobs. Still, however, things that we take for granted over here continue to be issues for Zimbabweans.

Electricity, for example, is at a premium – there just isn’t enough. To address this there is what is called load-shedding – different areas are scheduled for power cuts at pre-arranged times – although sometimes when I was there it seemed pretty random. The family keeps stocks of candles and alternative ways of cooking – gas rings or open fires outside. One of the reasons I failed to keep up a regular blog while I was there was that the times I could do it never matched the times that we had power.

More crucially, water is also rationed. There was no water to be had from the taps during the day – it would typically come on around nine in the evening, when every receptacle in the house would be filled, and we would use water during the day from large plastic bins allocated for each purpose. The first person up in the morning would put on water to heat for bathing – which was done in a small plastic bath placed in the old defunct bath in the bathroom – I got used to these strip washes, with hot water in the plastic bath, a smaller container of cold water to modify the temperature, and a plastic cup for washing my hair. Then I would flush the toilet with the water I’d used – I became much more mindful of not wasting water. Laundry of course is all done by hand – here is Simon’s youngest daughter Amanda doing some washing:

Amanda doing the laundry

But it is money that is in really short supply with unimaginably high unemployment levels – many Zimbabweans rely on support from relatives outside the country and the culture within it is very much that of helping each other – I am amazed how people cope, and not only that but remain so cheerful – it’s a cliche but it’s true. People grow their own vegetables, there are food co-operatives, and a general sense of family and social responsibility that extends beyond blood ties.

All of which gives me even more respect for artists in Zimbabwe, who pursue their passions with such infrequent and insufficient reward, and gratitude that I was given the chance not only to honour Simon but also to offer paid work to those who were involved in this project.

Diving in at the deep end

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After just one day’s rehearsal we set off on Sunday for the first day’s recording session with Tswarelo of 10th District Music at Ingwe Studios in Hillside, one of the leafier suburbs of Bulawayo. The early start is due to Tswarelo having to be away for much of the next two weeks.

Getting everyone there on time – and Tswarelo is meticulous about timing, belying his country’s stereotype – is no mean feat. Charlie, Tonny and I use the car that Simon and I bought in Swaziland when he worked there for a while, but there are another eight Sunduza members to pick up from various meeting points in the townships. We have to stop in the city centre to buy gas for a stove, as we need to feed everyone at lunchtime and have brought stew cooked at home the previous evening. Add the state of the Zimbabwean road network and the prevalence of road blocks into the mix, and I at least arrive feeling more than a little on edge.

We soon settle into the pleasant surroundings at Ingwe, however. After a warm-up we rehearse our first song. Tswarelo’s procedure is to record what he calls a pilot, which will serve as a guide track, in the main part of the studio, and then to record each individual voice or instrument in the sound booth. This ensures the best possible results as each voice can be perfectly balanced in the final mix, which will be done back in the UK with Keith Angel at Wavelength Studios in Doncaster.

After a trip to the local supermarket for some sadza, or, more accurately, isitshwala as we are in Matabeleland, to accompany our stew, we have a relaxing lunch outside before a few more hours’ recording, establishing what is to become a normal pattern of laying down an average of two tracks per day. Things are shaping up.

Relaxing during a break in recording.

Relaxing during a break in recording.

Leon recording

Leon recording

Beyond panic…

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Simon on our last day together

Simon on our last day together

So the day has arrived – I could easily spend another week getting ready, and still not feel fully prepared. In an hour I’ll be leaving for the station, travelling by train to Heathrow to catch an evening flight to Johannesburg, the last place I saw Simon in August 2012. He would have been relaxed and laidback as always, whilst I am half-frozen in a snowstorm of panic and self-doubt.

On from Johannesburg to Bulawayo, by air this time, eschewing the uncomfortable bus which takes hours and includes an extended stay at immigration control at Beitbridge on the South Africa-Zimbabwe border, especially long at this time of year. On one memorable journey the other way, our bus broke down in the middle of nowhere on the Zim side. While Simon chatted happily to other passengers,  I wandered into the bush for a pee and got bitten by a spider. My ankle swelled up almost immediately and when we finally reached Jo’burg I had to be attended to at a clinic. So the plane is, I hope, a relatively luxurious alternative.

Beyond that is my reunion with Charlie and the rest of the family, an afternoon and evening of rest before rehearsals with Sunduza on Saturday and our first recording sessions on Sunday and Monday at 10th District Recording Studios. We’d have preferred a longer rehearsal period, but Tswarelo our engineer has already delayed a trip to South Africa for us, and is keen to get as much down as possible before he leaves.

So I’ll be writing lyrics on the train and plane, listening to the Sunduza clips that Charlie has sent me and beginning to craft in my response. I’m looking forward to having just one project to concentrate on for the next month.

But for now, a strange feeling of calm envelops me as I realise there is nothing more I can do, and that this is really going to happen…