LEGENDARY storyteller, playwright, author and poet Gcina Mhlope grew up listening to the magical tales of Africa spun by her grandmother. This shaped her life and she now entrances audiences worldwide with her stories and music.
Today, sadly very few grannies tell their grandchildren stories. Children aren’t interested in hearing stories from theirg randparent’s past. They prefer granny Google. She’s stolen the place of the real grandmother. When I visit schools I tell them that granny Google doesn’t know who they are, doesn’t love and value them. Kids should take time to be with their grandparents — just chill with them.
If parents spend their free time in front of the television watching soapies, the kids will follow suit. Children need to know the thrill of walking into a book shop to choose a book. When I was small we didn’t have libraries, so for me there’s nothing to beat standing in a library looking at books.
Travel opens doors and the mind. My grandmother ’s nickname was Mthwalo, which means “luggage”. This was because she loved to travel. She would call me “her little overcoat”. She’d say, “come, my little overcoat, we’re off”. And we’d go to such exotic places as Ngome, Dundee, Port Shepstone . . . In fact I thought I was one of the best travelled children anywhere! I would come back on a Monday and hold court with the other children. But my gogo would say, “t h e re ’s a bigger world out there. Hammarsdale, where I grew up, is a small place. South Africa is a small place — there ’s a big world out there.” Twent y-eight years later I can echo her words: “There’s a big world out there — and I’ve seen much of it now.”
I play to audiences around the globe. And although they vary in colour and culture, their reactions are generally the same. I played to an entire audience of top businessmen. I walked in and checked them out — wow, I thought — what facial expressions, they have no idea what they’re about to see. I mean, seriously, storytelling at their age! But I soon had them laughing and getting lost in the stories.
At the end they were shocked that they’d actually enjoyed the show. They weren’t used to listening to someone who didn’t have a string of degrees after their name. And in Greenland, at a festival of song and hope, accompanied by a four-piece a-cappella group, we were asked to stay on and create a brand-new show with music and soundscapes in a joint South African/Greenlandic performance. The people were so warm and friendly — even though it was a dark, cold country.
There ’s an old saying, “friends are the family you choose for yourself”. Friendships are a connection with people you didn’t know you would meet. I used to panic
when I felt a friendship was ending. But now I see that the journey was still good.
Mentors should be treasured. For so many of us in the theatre world, we have a lot to thank the late Barney Simon for. He was so selfless, so giving and so empowering. He gave us confidence and belief that saw us standing on world stages with
something to say.
It’s so easy to pass on stories. It takes just two steps. One is white-people’s witchcraft — the tape recorder. Get a digital tape or any recorder, chill and speak. The next step is to gather your family together. Have a family reunion, grandparents, brothers, sisters, aunties, uncles, cousins — some of whom your kids possibly have never met before. My family does this regularly and, with someone filming the occasion, we shout out our names and our praise names.
This will be a record of our family in time to come. My great grandmother’s name was Nozincwadi, which meant, amazingly enough — mother of books. She couldn’t read or write, but somehow collected books or anything with words in it and kept them in a suitcase. That’s why I started “Nozincwadi — Mother of Books Literary Campaign”. I take it into schools where there are no libraries.
I didn’t start out life as I am today, having what I have now. I knew poverty. I recognise poverty — their scuffed, badly fitting shoes, their washed-out shirts. That
Books can change their lives, just like they changed mine.