Gcina Mhlophe has many talents. She has won awards as a performer, a director and a playwright, and built the foundations of her career doing those things. But her true gift is storytelling.
She realised this in the late 1980s, just as her career as a performer was peaking. The calling to change direction and become a fulltime storyteller concerned those close to her. “People got worried about me – they thought something was going wrong,” she says. “I wanted to listen to that voice, to answer that calling. And I’ve never been happier. I’m very grateful that I listened to that voice.”
Her career as a storyteller has brought with it a focus on preserving culture and educating both adults and children in South Africa and across the world. The term ‘storyteller’ is a broad one, but it’s the best description of what Mhlophe does. She hasn’t left performing behind, drawing on her background in theatre to perfect the art of oral storytelling. She also writes, producing short stories and poetry. Much of her work is directed at children, ensuring that the crucial tradition of oral storytelling is transferred into print and that the wisdom of generations is passed on to the youth.
One of the first short stories that Mhlophe published, My Dear Madam, was based on her experiences working for an Irish employer in Johannesburg. Forced to find work as a maid because of the threat posed by the pass laws, Mhlophe tolerated 37 days. She was locked out when her distrustful employer left the house, forcing her to wait out in the Melville sun. Working in those conditions was not something that Mhlophe was prepared to do, and she set out to strike her own path.
It’s a move that paid off. Her stories have seen her achieve international acclaim, which has meant that she has been on the move for the last 31 years, travelling to spread her stories to audiences across the globe. All of that time abroad hasn’t dented her love for South Africa, only reinforced it. “Again and again, when that airplane is going to land, I praise the almighty, thank God that I was born in Africa – I’m so lucky,” she says.
As a teenager Mhlophe was anxious about her voice, embarrassed by its depth and fullness. Worried that she sounded like a man, she was slow to speak up. Then a teacher told her that she had the voice of a poet, and everything changed. Mhlophe embraced the talent that she had, and took to the stage. She honed the natural gift she possessed in her voice, and learnt the art and craft behind storytelling: tone and timing, pace and tension. “You can’t be a good storyteller until you love what you do – to feel good and passionate about the story no matter how scary or exciting or totally unbelievable it is,” she says. “The moment it leaves your lips, it’s gospel truth.”
The beauty of Mhlophe’s art form is that it uses the basic impulse that connects people to each other: narrative. It’s the link between everything, from the spark between individuals to the way that a nation defines itself. Mhlophe’s recognition of this is why she changed her path in the late eighties, and why she tells stories with relevance to both children and adults.
It’s important that South Africans connect with the story of the country as a whole as well as those of the individuals who live here. They need to hear these stories, and live them with pride. Mhlophe is intent on making that happen. “Our story as South Africans is as weak or as powerful as the stories we choose,” she says.
Born in 1958, to a Xhosa mother and a Zulu father, Mhlophe has built her career on embracing all aspects of South African culture. She uses four of the country’s languages – English, Afrikaans, Xhosa and Zulu – in her work, and has collaborated with Ladysmith Black Mambazo on a children’s CD. Her career has brought her international acclaim – in the form of five honorary doctorates – and has seen her perform in venues as distinctive as the Royal Albert Hall in London and the Kennedy Centre in New York.
A perfectionist, Mhlophe looks back on herself 20 years ago, and says that she wishes she had learnt more skills. It’s an odd statement to make, given the range of her abilities and the extent of her success, but she wouldn’t have achieved what she has if she weren’t driven by a constant need to improve.
That attitude also means that she always looks for ways to help others, and so Mhlophe runs a literacy programme called Nozincwadi, which she started in 2001. She travels all over South Africa, promoting the pleasure of reading through a reading road show, hoping to inspire children to read – and to read South African authors.
Her full name is Nokugcina, meaning ‘the last girl’; because of the work she does, however, people often assume that it is Gcinamasiko, which means ‘preserver of heritage’. She has taken to the new name, saying “I wear it with pride. My own people have renamed me ‘Gcinamasiko’. So when I wake up in the morning, I’ve got a challenge – a reason to wake up, work to do.”
Asked to relate her favourite story, Mhlophe hesitates before settling on one that her grandmother told her as a child. It’s the story of a prince who spent his youth silent, without speaking. After going into the mountains to shed his childhood, the prince came back and knelt in front of his father, and spoke for the first time. The words were “Baba, Baba, I want the skin of nana bulele.” Nana bulele was a rare and dangerous creature, and nobody else was willing to hunt it. The prince had to go out on his own and claim his prize.
“It’s an amazing story for me, and even though my grandmother did not sit around and explain it, the older I got, the more I realised why that story stayed with me,” she says. It’s a story about finding one’s voice, and about showing the courage to reach a goal that no-one else feels is obtainable. Little wonder that it resonates with Mhlophe, one of South Africa’s most courageous, unique and determined voices. She has set out in pursuit of goals that nobody else thought wise, and came through in spectacular fashion. From humble beginnings she has risen as one of the guardians of South Africa’s heritage, recognised and celebrated across the world. You couldn’t tell a better story if you made it up.