North East theatre director Amy Golding went to South Africa’s Eastern Cape in search of women’s stories and found happiness and heartbreak and all points in between.
The stories became a show, Mamela (‘listen’ in Xhosa), which won an award at South Africa’s National Arts Festival in Grahamstown where it was premiered last year.
Now it is to be performed at Newcastle’s Live Theatre as part of Afrovibes, a national festival of theatre, dance, film and music from post-apartheid South Africa.
Sitting with Amy and some of the South African cast in a busy cafe beside the Tyne, I get the gist of a show that will arouse strong emotions.
Amy tells me how the idea was planted in 2009 when she travelled to Eastern Cape as part of an artist exchange programme, Swallows, set up to forge cultural links between the province and the North East.
She met theatre director Zamuxolo Mgoduka and writer Ziphozakhe Hlobo. Together with Gez Casey, from Live Theatre, they embarked on a road trip from Port Elizabeth to Mthatha (near where Nelson Mandela grew up).
“I wanted to make a piece of theatre that was about young women in the Eastern Cape,” says Amy.
“We set up some workshops and invited women to come. In some places we would get 30 to 40 women, in others just eight or nine, but we had some really interesting sessions.”
She recalls, on one occasion, an influx of women in traditional costume and anklets with bells made from metal bottle tops and stones.
“They had come from miles around because they’d heard we had a dance competition. At the same workshop we had lots of kids turn up, all under 12. Again, not right for the project but we didn’t want to turn them away.”
A dance competition was duly staged and games organised for the kids.
Nandipha Gush, who is sitting with us in the cafe, turned up for one of the workshops “by mistake”.
She had gone to the arts centre to see if there was a space for teaching children to dance. The workshop was being set up in one of the rooms. She went in and got talking.
“It was about finding out about each other,” says Amy. “We were looking for women who were open to talking about their lives. We had a storytelling session and a big discussion. Lots of interesting things came up around problems with men and traditional beliefs against more modern beliefs. They talked about South Africa and what it should be like.”
A group started and one day Amy asked them to bring in an item with some meaning attached to it that could spark a story.
Along with a Bible, a poem, earrings, photographs and even some medication came Nandipha’s song, written by a woman who had lost a baby.
“I could relate to it because I had lost twins,” she says. “This lady lost a baby because she was in an abusive relationship.
“My story was that I was six months’ pregnant and sitting at home one night watching the TV. It was a very violent neighbourhood where people fight every day.
“My house was on a corner close to a pub – we call it a tavern. This guy came running from the tavern to my house, trying to hide.
“The guys who were chasing him got to the house but didn’t come in. I was trying to get him out of the house and he started fighting with me. In the process he kicked me in the stomach.
“At first I didn’t think anything was wrong but in the morning I started bleeding and they took me to hospital. I had an operation and they took the babies out.”
That was in 2008. Subsequently Nandipha lost another set of twins. “I guess my womb was not strong enough to carry them. But now I have a nine-month-old boy (Thandolwethu, meaning ‘Our Love’).”
Understandably, Nandipha has a jaundiced view of the police. “They don’t really care,” she says.
Summary justice was meted out. The intruder, she recalls, “was beaten to a pulp. I felt bad because it didn’t bring back my kids.”
“We had a lot of stories,” says Amy. “This was a shocking story. Nandipha hadn’t talked about it before but we created a space where women could talk openly.”
In South Africa, says Nandipha, “they raise us in a way that we have to be strong”.
The women’s mettle was tested the day they took Mamela into a men’s prison for a special performance. Amy recalls: “I didn’t know how it would go down because there’s a bit where the women talk about the the initiation young men undergo (circumcision being part of the process, as detailed in Nelson Mandela’s book). The men actually found it really funny. I think they found it refreshing to hear women being so straight and honest. One prisoner got up and said, ‘I want to say thank you. We’re going to perform a song now’. They ended up performing for us.”
Nandipha, on her first trip outside Africa, says of the Mamela experience: “It has been life-changing. I’ve never talked about these things to anyone. It was something that was haunting me. I had this weight on my shoulders. But this has been a kind of therapy. It has been really helpful to talk about it. At Grahamstown there were women who came up to me and said, ‘I’ve got a story to tell’. In South Africa, in the black community, we don’t really go to therapy and talk about problems. We keep things to ourselves.”
Hear more stories in Mamela at Live Theatre from November 4-6. (Tickets: www.live.org.uk or 0191 2321232). Afrovibes attractions at Northern Stage include Rainbow Scars, a play by Mike Van Graan (Nov 11), and Biko’s Quest, reflecting on the life and death of anti-apartheid campaigner Steve Biko through dance and storytelling (Nov 7 and 8). Book via 0191 230 5151 or www.northernstage.co.uk . The Township Cafe, venue for free events, music, street food and discussion, will be open at Northern Stage from Nov 6-8, 11am until late.