Bamba Uthando Lwethu

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Johannesburg, 2009

Johannesburg, 2009

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.

Godfrey and Simon in Knysna

Godfrey and Simon in Knysna

My favourite photo of us in Knysna

My favourite photo of us in Knysna

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.

Simon in Swaziland

Simon in Swaziland

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.

Buying food for the family in the rural areas

Buying food for the family in the rural areas

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.

The necklace Simon gave me

The necklace Simon gave me

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

Rules Are Rules…

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Charlie, Annabel and William at the Bulawayo office of the National Arts Council

Charlie, Annabel and William at the Bulawayo office of the National Arts Council

There were several theories. Some said they had seen advance publicity of the launch event we were planning. Some said they were alerted by my putting “musician” on my immigration form. Some favoured a conspiracy and sabotage theory. Some pointed to the uneasy relationship between our respective governments. Whatever it was, they – immigration that is – were not going to budge. The officer at Bulawayo airport and, later, the chief officer in town, both insisted that I could not perform in public without a temporary work permit costing $500, the same as it would for much longer than the period I was staying.

I explained in full the context in which I was wanting to perform – the second anniversary of Simon’s passing, the tribute album we had recorded last year, and the planned launch. I emphasised that I would not be paid for this performance or indeed any other occasion that I might be invited to sing during my stay. The chief officer, although kind and professional, was firm and unmoving. “Rules are rules,” she said.

And so began a long trail of paperwork and visits to offices – endless walks along drab and dreary corridors past doors marked with impenetrable job titles, endless repetitions of the same information, endless frustration at time wasted, endless waiting around for people to show up or to do what they had promised.

Many people helped – my old friend Mbazo Phiri of Sabela Music Projects, who runs the Ibumba Festival, explained in detail what we had to do, gave us office space to write letters, made phone calls to Harare on our behalf, introduced me to a government minister and generally gave a lot of moral support. Annabel, one of my strong women, helped with a lot of the paperwork and lent her laptop. Desmond Ntini, another old friend who put a lot of energy into the launch project, accompanied me and Charlie on several of our immigration visits, and found me a hotel where I could get a drink after a particularly bad day. William Nyandoro at the Bulawayo office of the National Arts Council was very supportive and although he was off work in the second week did not turn us away when in desperation we turned up at his home late one evening.

We produced a contract, a budget indicating how much of my own money was going into the project, and a letter to the main Arts Council office in Harare. Everyone we spoke to, apart from immigration of course, said we should not have to pay. On the Tuesday of the second week, endorsed by the head of the Arts Council as permission was in process, I performed at the opening of the Ibumba Festival.

Days dragged on – not one without a trip into town related to this and other snatched errands to do with the launch concert. Every day we would swear that we would return from town in time to rehearse, and almost every day we failed to do so. The rest of Sunduza, bless them, were understanding and sympathetic.

On the Thursday of the second week we finally received, via the Bulawayo office, the official letter from the Arts Council in Harare giving me permission to play at Ibumba on the Friday and the launch on the Saturday. After another long wait at immigration for an answer from their Harare office, during which Charlie’s cousin Leroy was sent to an internet cafe, at my expense, to scan and email a document because they didn’t have a scanner, I was told to come back on the Friday morning to pay for the work permit.

Rules are rules, indeed, and in hindsight we should have dealt with this a long way in advance. Mbazo has intimated before that I have been lucky to escape the scrutiny of the authorities, and earlier this year a South African gospel singer he had engaged was turned back at the airport, so I guess they’re tightening up. Artists in Zimbabwe operate under a lot of stresses too – when we went for the required police permission for the concert, for example, we were asked for a copy of the CD so that it could be screened for any political content. Even diverting from the standard version of the national anthem can invite censure apparently. So on the whole I guess I got off lightly.

The experience bruised me however, dominated the short duration of my stay, and only just failed to totally spoil the launch concert. I’m not going to say, “Never again,” but I do feel that a break from my regular visits is indicated.

More positive blogs to follow, I promise!

Counting down to take-off

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Simon Banda in Gri-Eshe, Harare 2012

Simon Banda in Gri-Eshe, Harare 2012

Hi, welcome to my brand new – and first ever – blog which will document my adventure in Zimbabwe. I’m going to stay in Bulawayo with Charlie, my partner Simon Banda’s eldest son, and other members of the family. It’s almost a year since Simon’s sudden death and this trip is about commemorating his life and work, creating new music with Charlie and members of his group Sunduza and other musicians he used to work with, like Jeys Marabini, Willis Wataffi and the performance poet Albert Nyathi.  My flights are booked and I’m leaving on Thursday 5th December and returning on 1st January – celebrating New Year in the air then.