The story of Umoja
“An Inspiration for Ghanaian Theatre”
“…every time I see you, you are stronger than before! Like the tree, the baobab, always growing and getting stronger even though it grows in the toughest soil…”
The creators of UMOJA, Todd Twala and Thembi Nyandeni began in a small way. During their breaks, while performing in the worldwide smash hit musical Ipi Tombi in the late 70s, they used their spare time to Choreograph their own dance pieces, which they performed in front of small audiences. They put back the money they made when performing into costumes and recruiting more members, while working other jobs like back up singing, film and television work in the 80s.
Initially, South African law prevented Black artistes performing in shows for White audiences. In the early 70s restrictions were relaxed so that Black artistes could now perform to White and sometimes mixed audiences. A number of Black “tribal” musicals were produced such as Ipi Tomgi, Meropa (then called Kwa Zulu) and uMabatha (also known as “the Black Macbeth”), which were hugely successful both at home and abroad. Todd and Thembi’s dance troupe, Pals of Africa grew, and he group began to perform internationally. They changed the name to Baobab, after inspiration from longtime friend and fellow artiste Hugh Masakela. They took Southern Africa and neighboring Swaziland by storm.
The inspiration fro Baobab’s performances grew out of the grim circumstance of life for Blacks in apartheid South Africa. In 1950 the apartheid government passed The Group Areas Act into law. The Act allowed the government to determine who would live where. There were force removals and the relocation of Black people who occupied valuable land considered too close to White settlements. This was to ensure that Blacks remained in “reserves” and only came to the White areas when needed for work. Over the years, tens of thousands of Black people were forcibly removed, not compensated, and dumped, often in the middle of nowhere. Lack of food, improper housing and little sanitation resulted in incredible poverty, malnutrition and suffering by Blacks, living in the most prosperous country in Africa.
Todd Twala grew up in a township outside Johannesburg, called George Goch. In 1968, Todd and her family woke up to a bulldozer at their front door. They were forced to leave. Todd’s family then settled in Soweto (an acronym for South WEstern TOwnship) on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Or Egoli (City of Gold). The housing was in the form of box-like juts with no electricity or running water. There was limited access in and out of the township, and barbed wire surrounded the area with bannesbrug. Thembi, who had grown up in Soweto, attended the Vuka Ibambe Higher Primary School in Soweto, where she first met Todd. It is against this background that Todd and Thembi’s ambitions for a better life took shape. The show they created told the stories, in music, dance and drama, of the different aspects of life in the townships and for Black folk under apartheid.
Though Baobab was doing well, Todd and Thembi decided to rename their new creation. They wanted to give it a name that represented what they were all about. The word ‘UMOJA’ meaning ‘THE SPIRIT OF TOGETHERNESS’ came quickly to mind. They wanted to unite and empower as any underprivileged kids the opportunities they had not had. UMOJA became a powerful stage musical, performed with great passion and skill, which went on to tour worldwide to acclaimed reviews. The group received excellent reviews from across the world. For instance the South China Morning Post said Africa UMOJA is full of “…well-choreographed dances, excellent footwork and … breathtakingly harmonious acapella numbers. The vocals, especially the solos, were to die for. This pulsating musical odyssey leaves you breathless and your heart pounding for more. “Great reviews were garnered from theatre critics in England, who are very hard to impress. The Daily Telegraph, England, said of the Umoja crew, “They dance like demons, sing like angels, and drum like magicians possessed.” This sentiment was echoed by the “Metro”, Netherlands that said, “…the prolonged applause was entirely justified.”
This much acclaimed South African stage musical, Africa Umoja, hit Ghana last May, and thrilled audiences at the National Theatre, just as much as it had thrilled theatre goers worldwide, what was particularly notable was that each cast member, though part of an ensemble, could also carry part of their individual skits with great power and stage presence, as each performer chronicled the history of South African music and life in the apartheid era; and the energy and versatility of the whole cast together was simply amazing.
One review that has stood out came from the township Talk, South Africa. It described UMOJA as one of South Africa’s biggest exports. Its reviewer said: “I had never seen anything like Umoja; whose stunning performance could only be described as indescribable. ‘ The shows in Ghana were likewise stunning, exhilarating, incredible and uplifting. Looking at the breathtaking spectacle presented at the National Theatre, the Ghanaian host made a heartfelt plea for more government support for the Arts and Culture in Ghana, so that they could contribute to our national wealth, as Umoja is dong for South Africa.
The story was adapted from http://www.africaumoja.com together with our correspondent’s experiences of the Umoja performances at the National Theatre of Ghana
Ghana Culture Magazine Issue No. 3/2010