It had been more than a day travelling. My body slumped against the chair at the transit area in Doha airport while I struggled to keep my eyes from shutting and dozing off. It was three am and there were a few more hours to go. My heart fluttered in excitement as I reminisced the first time I saw her.
Almost five years ago, I met this vibrant African lady during the Delphic Games in South Korea. We were both representing our countries in the lingual arts competition and as we recited our poems on stage, we both felt connected through our stories and thus, a friendship developed. Through the years we kept in touch and one day, she invited me to South Africa to perform in a musical play and be part of a cultural exchange.
I had heard numerous stories about Africa but I had never been there. I did not know what to expect but I trust whatever happened will be a good adventure. My stomach stirred like busy butterflies and I felt like a teenager having a crush for the first time as I boarded the plane to Johannesburg. I clasped my hands tightly dragging my luggage as I looked out for that familiar face that I had not seen in years. She spotted me first and gave me a big, tight hug. All nervousness dissolved as soon as I met those sparkling eyes that lit up with smiles.
A warm welcome awaited me as some of the cast greeted me with cheerful glees. My heart melted further as the little girl whom I was supposed to stay with allowed me to hold her in my arms. My curiosity had ventured into random questions about what my hostess was going to be like and all questions vanished into thin air as her sweet aura made me felt instantly at home. That was the beginning of a wonderful one month stay with them.
Waking up to the lively chirping of birds, I was all ready for my first day of rehearsal. As I crossed Mandela Bridge, I saw the iconic legend’s face on a poster with a big smile plastered across his face and I sensed his soul beaming down at me from heaven. To my amazement, Constitution Hill would be where I would spend the rest of my two weeks practicing. This historical heritage was where Mandela and other freedom fighters were jailed and tortured. I knew this had to be a good start as my morning was showered with the vigour and charisma of Mandela’s determined spirits.
The cast captivated me from the first moment they started singing and swaying their hips to lively African music roaring from the talented band. Everyone was bursting with energy and I wondered if I would fit in. After all, I was not much of a singer apart from echoing melodies in church choir. I assured myself I was there as a storyteller so it would not be a problem. Little did I know I would also need to sing and dance. My eyes glanced up to the wall facing me with words written ‘Conversations We Do Not Have’ and immediately, images of prisoners chained with loneliness flashed before my eyes. My throat choked with emotions as voices soared to the tunes of “open the floodgates of heaven, let it rain…” How ‘coincidental’ it is that this ‘dungeon’ was chosen as our meeting venue to have conversations about women issues which was the main purpose of the musical play.
Basadi Balefatshe meaning ‘World Women’ was the title of the theatre play. As South Africa celebrated Women’s Month, this show was staged in conjunction with International World Women’s Day in March 2014. It showcased an international journey of a woman as she walked and danced through various phases of her life encountering many other women. She connected with them in various ways even though each was different from her in terms of culture, background, belief and race.
All the women in the play each conveyed tales either of their very own or inspired by people they knew. It was manifested through poetry, storytelling, acting, songs, music and dances. I was humbled to be part of this enriching process of getting to know one another through the weaving of experiences. A refreshing approach that opened my eyes for I had never been in a performance where each wrote their own piece and all was intricately knitted to form a story of its own.
I was moved to tears by the passionate dance from a physically challenged dancer. The powerful and soulful voice of one singer kept me enchanted and I found myself giggling with happy grins to the vivacious expressions of a poet telling us about how the play was birthed through a conversation between her and a dear friend. My fingers tapped with delight as I heard the umakhweyana, an indigenous African instrument being played during a storytelling session where kids gathered around. My heart cringed at the expressions of depression and anger where one woman was very hurt by her own mother. My mind was blown away by the exquisite recollection of an Eritrean woman’s experience as a soldier defending her country where women had to carry guns and waged on war. I had to clutch my stomach aching from laughter by the comedic acting of one poet who enthusiastically put on a sophisticated accent while communicating a serious message across to the audience about getting laid and paid. I equally enjoyed bringing forth an Asian perspective to the Africans.
The highlight of the presentation was the conversation we put across about women issues. Oppression and discrimination due to gender, cultural expression and beliefs with increasing underpayment were among some of the concerns addressed and brought to light. As we lifted the rain sticks to let its soothing sounds take flight, a male performer joined us and spoke out in support of women to raise awareness on the plights of human trafficking and prostitution. The stage brightened up with a colourful concoction of multiculturalism. That was when the bonding formed with an invisible hand holding us all together to rise up for unity.
As we invited all women to come together as one through a very uplifting track, we heartily moved to the beats set aflame by the band and engaged the audience to the catchy rhythm. I still could not believe my own ears as I heard myself singing along in African. I guess I did not have to worry about fitting in at all. What a priceless moment in celebrating the beauty and purpose of women through arts, culture and music!
The three days performance ended but the messages and the people kept a glow burning in the recesses of my heart. I had a week left to chill with my newfound friends. It was an amazing cultural exchange. Waking up to sweet innocent cries of the little baby girl with long eyelashes blinking at me, singing lullabies to her, savouring exotic and scrumptious food specially prepared by my hostess, watching South African sitcoms, walking on the streets with an African princess donning a myriad of fabrics and beads with her rain stick by my side, being asked all the time whether I know kung fu, listening to storytellers in Freedom Park, giving impromptu drawing workshops, relaxing with Rastafarians, trying vegan food while laughing at each other’s jokes, dropping by Mandela’s house, visiting townships, drinking coffee served by traditional healers in their hut adorned with animal skins and hearing wise words from a young spirit-filled pastor were just a few of the little perks I got to try. Not forgetting taking the taxi-vans known as combis almost every other day with all eyes on me every time I climbed into them. Not surprising at all considering I was practically the only Asian looking person boarding them. It was fun.
The time finally arrived to bid farewell to the loving souls that I had met. Parting at the airport was sad but I knew somehow we would meet again. Reaching home made the trip felt surreal.
Months passed but that memory relived itself from time to time. It is with much hope that this little baby of creative genius, Nolwazi Mkhathini also known as Nomkhubulwane will continue to grow and flourish. This idea of bridging the gap while crossing cultures by having a dialogue between women from all parts of the world to stand united in embracing each other’s identity and diversity working towards promoting peace and humanity is a noble one.
I believe the little glow that had started should be passed around the globe and set a spark to get the conversation going. A toast to more of Basadi Balefatshe!