Across town… (Richard Darbourne)
Imagine the scene from “Titanic”. The well-to-do are enjoying a very up market meal in the posh restaurant, conversing of times past and how their stocks are doing. This is like Mick, Matt, Pete, Mark, Jenny and John enjoying a high-class dinner in the Bulawayo Club. Their meal is a replica of the original menu eaten by van Ryneveld and Brand on their visit to the city in 1920. A lot has changed since that time – there are 1.2 million people there now – but the memories are still vivid.
Meanwhile we, like Rose (back to “Titanic”) have slipped away to join Jack in the everyday workers’ bar for frolicking time of dancing and good traditional food. This was the educational team’s assignment, and what a tremendous time we all had.
Then on to the “Titanic” re-enactment. The Sunduza Dance group welcomed us to the concert hall. As soon as we arrived it was like meeting old friends. The sunlight had faded and I was slightly apprehensive being one of few Europeans in a foreign environment. My fears were unfounded. Reminders of the terrible political situation were scattered around Bulawayo but is most evident in the economy. Speaking to Bill Sykes, who lives in Harare, I learnt that in one fell swoop to save the government from losing power, President Mugabe bought off the demands of the veterans, spending five billion. They were demanding payments and pensions, and were perhaps a barometer of the political atmosphere in the country. The national reserve only contained four billion so overnight the country that had a relatively strong currency was now in financial turmoil.
Bhekizulu Masuku, our calm, educated guide ushered us into the grounds and introduced us to the group. There were all sorts of people in the hall. A women’s group, an African choir, The Councillor of Bopoma (A borough in Bulawayo) and the Chairman of Residence who ran the society.
There was a hive of activity both in and out the hall. A barbecue was being prepared from the Sunduza Dance Group. Dennis took up a drum and joined one of the group in some light entertainment. Miriam overlooked the barbecue whilst Anton and I chatted with the lads and rode around in a truck finding various items of cutlery for the meal. It was a very relaxed atmosphere. There were no nerves, just the will to share creativity and entertain – and entertain they did.
We were shown the front row and were overawaed with the professionalism, the quality and the happiness that each act evoked. This was genuine, no-worries, happiness that a developed society finds so difficult to retain. It was even absent from the Bulawayo centre.
The first group was a powerful vocal display from the Shashi Classic choir. These ladies and one man were presented in purple, green and dark blue shawls with black and purple chiffon head scarfs, creating a very motherly atmosphere. The name means ‘We Carry All That is Good’ and this objective was evident in the content and musical magic that they produced throughout the ten minute slot. Arranged in a semi-circle around the conductor, their wailing songs seem to come from deeper in the throat, undulating like waves in the sea. Low muted bass tones ebb and flow under the sopranos, not in chords so much as altogether, moving together. Through their songs the Shashi Classic choir run a number of programmes in schools and in the adult community. Through the use of the voice they educate the community on economic and development issues as well as telling school children on the problems of an unplanned marriage and HIV though it is subtle, not a hard-selling message. They also sing to represent their culture.
The Councillor was a grey-haired black man who was well dressed and took a calm posture. He spoke openly to the people and addressed us as individuals. He invited Miriam to introduce us all to the audience. She remained composed and remembered our names. This introduction by Miriam was followed by a speech from the Chairman. There was such appreciation for the four of us from them all. To see four international students working as team together in deepest Africa impressed them greatly. They were very thankful for our being there, when really the pleasure was all ours. He was intensely interested in the plane, the project and our educational programme.
It was then my turn to talk about the project that we were doing. I think my English was understood as they smiled and laughed in the right places, though you never can tell. It amazed me yet again just how much an influence the Vimy can be. None of these people except the Sunduza group had seen the plane but they all asked questions about it and listened intently to the talk. It was very easy to talk to such a group. They were all smiles and happy to be in our company. This mutual appreciation and respect was the overtone of the evening.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, The senior crew were being confused as to which fork to use for what and enjoying Fish with Vimy sauce.
Our night was just hotting up as the Sunduza prepared their electric entrance to their routine. They appeared in tribal costume, with leopardskin around the waist (you could see their underpants), sheepskin ‘shinguards’, with bells and sandbags on their ankles, headbands, and a large leaopardskin sash across their chests. They launched themselves into a fiery display of cultural music, hunched over in a circle, stamping their feet and singing, grunting and yelping. They did not have any other instruments besides the voice and hands but the whole hall was filled with tuneful noise. The audience was as much a part of the performance as the group, singing and yelping with them. The lyrics did not need to be understood as the tune and sound was emotional and powerful and at the same time was upbeat and cheerful. Despite the freeform atmosphere, they performed with vigour and style and were tight and polished. They are a full time, professional company who have toured extensively in Britain and around Europe, which was great to hear. They are also a successful dance group as well. There is hope for entertainment yet!