We met, I think, in 1999. I was working for darts, Doncaster Community Arts, in our brand new building The Point. He did a week’s residency for us with Sunduza. I was drawn to him for his talent and his easy, friendly manner; I was greatly impressed by his workshop skills, but it was a full ten years of him coming and going before I dared to think that we could be together. For most of those years, we were colleagues and friends. He was never around for long periods – he was always based in Sheffield when he came to the UK – but he worked with us as much as he could. My fondest memory, looking back now, is of the two of us sitting on the floor of the Studio as he taught me a southern African lullaby – I was doing a project called Lullabies with parents and babies and wanted an African one. I think of that day every time I hear it:
On a much sadder occasion, driving with Simon’s dear friend Albert Nyathi from Harare to Bulawayo for Simon’s funeral, Albert played a version of the song in the car and we both wept. He said he and Simon had listened to it just a week before and Simon had said how much he liked it.
In 2009 I planned a sabbatical from work and decided to go to Zimbabwe. I’d met and worked with a group called Umdumo Wesizwe and they offered to host my stay. Prompted by my good friend Godfrey Pambalipe, a close friend of Simon’s then living in Doncaster and working regularly for darts, I got in touch with Simon, having not seen him for well over a year, and we met up in Bulawayo. A relationship developed, surprising us both. In between rehearsing and performing with Umdumo, I began to fall in love with this man, fourteen years my junior, and embarked on a roller coaster ride. We visited the Matopos and Victoria Falls, two of Zimbabwe’s beauty spots, and then left Zimbabwe to meet Godfrey and Shuna, another friend who worked for darts, in South Africa. We had an amazing time full of stories, laughter and inevitably a few tears – we were testing each other out and it was not always plain sailing. But by the time I flew back from Johannesburg at the end of the trip we were both convinced that we had something worth working on.
Fast forward to two years later through ups and downs, falling apart and coming back together. We met at Oliver Tambo airport, briefly met Simon’s daughter Ormmie and her new baby Ashley, and then travelled to Swaziland where Simon had been working for some months. From there we went on to Zimbabwe where Simon introduced me to his family – two of his children Charlie and Amanda, his older brother Claudius and his wife who had brought him up since the death of his mother, and some of his mother’s relatives in the countryside. It all felt hugely significant.
As with all my trips to Africa, it was a stay never devoid of incident. Returning to Jo’burg for a night before catching the bus to Bulawayo, we again met up with Godfrey who insisted we meet members of his family in a Zimbabwean pub before going on to a birthday party. Simon was really reluctant to go and his discomfort increased when we saw a demonstration by Congolese nationals going on in the square opposite the pub. However, we went inside and I chatted happily with members of Godfrey’s family, until Simon came over and said there was gunfire outside and we should leave. I readily agreed and Simon went to fetch Godfrey. Suddenly police swarmed into the pub and lined the walls. Simon and Godfrey came through, waving me over to follow them to the door, but at that point the police swung into action, shouting and pulling at Simon and Godfrey, barring the door and attacking Simon with a whip. The officer in charge yelled at everyone to crouch down, and it was all very ugly and disturbing, until the officer seemed to clock me, the one white woman in the place, and said to everyone, “Do not go outside, it is dangerous.” Why could he not have said that before, I wonder? And then just as quickly, the police melted away, the pub returned to normal, and an enraged Simon called a taxi and took me back to the hotel.
Back in Jo’burg at the end of my stay, in the same very basic little hotel in Yeovil, Simon, rarely known for his romantic tendencies, took a necklace from his neck and put it around mine. “Hold our love, sweetheart,” he said.
It has rarely been off my neck since. For the album, I translated that phrase into Ndebele and put the story into a song – Bamba Uthando Lwethu.
Now our love has been tested by borders and miles,
And the ultimate parting, but still it survives
Until I find asylum in Spirit with you for eternity
Bamba, bamba, bamba uthando lwethu, sizesibonane njalo