In January 2015, while running a workshop in Botswana, I mentioned to a young participant that I was planning to visit Soweto en route back to the UK. She responded “You have to go to Soweto Theatre!”
Back then, I had no idea that I would fall in love with Soweto and it would become my second home.
Yesterday, during my sixth visit to that wonderful, unique community, I finally visited Soweto Theatre, with my husband Alan and our friend and host Lindi, to see a show entitled “But Here We Are, Yet Here We Are”.
The show featured children and young people from a remarkable performing arts company called Impophoma Youth Production. It was a showcase for talented young dancers and actors living in Soweto; a feast of passion, commitment, colour and emotion through dance and social comment. Its theme was the continuing problem of HIV/AIDS among South African youth, the challenge of living with the disease and the responsibility to avoid passing it on. This emotive message was delivered with a profound simplicity that could not fail to move those watching.
Today, Lindi introduced me to the show’s creator, and Impophoma’s guiding light, 38-year-old Sthembile Shoba. Her story of vision, dedication and the overcoming of challenges to bring the Arts to disadvantaged children in the townships inspired me to write this post.
Sthembile grew up in a small village in far-away Kwa Zulu Natal, living traditionally in accordance with its Zulu culture. She left at age 16 to get a better education in Johannesburg, and soon settled in Soweto, where she has remained. She told me that her father had a great influence on her; a forward-thinker who, unusually, encouraged his daughter to travel to the Big City. Normally, girls would be expected to get married and live a traditional lifestyle, but Sthembile’s parents knew this would be a hard life for her and her two younger sisters. Sthembile explained that as a girl grows through adolescence “when a man likes you he will just take you”. It is normal for boys to go to the city, but she was the first girl from her village to do so.
Sthembile believes her parents hoped she would quickly make money to support them, as is expected in the traditional South African cultures, but she chose to follow her heart, and has always felt guilty that she did not fulfil their wish.
Education in Johannesburg was very difficult for Sthembile, as lessons were mostly in English, which she did not speak (her first language is Zulu). She struggled to adjust to city life, and learned English by reading and watching TV.
After a while, due to personal difficulties, Sthembile dropped out of school, instead getting involved with a community drama group. However, she told me, her father “wasn’t having it”. She must get her matric (the basic standard of education required in South Africa) or go home to get married.
In 2000, at the age of 21, Sthembile gained her matric and began a national diploma in Public Relations, but she soon gave it up to go to art school instead, following a calling to the Performing Arts. She travelled as an actress to many places, including Botswana and Sweden, before realising that acting was not for her. “I did not get goose bumps while on stage” she explained.
Sthembile got a job working with an adults’ Performing Arts organisation as an administrator. She was able to attend workshops there, through which she began to learn the trade that would eventually deliver the goose-bumps she had longed for. She worked for other organisations, but had no idea how to run one.
Then in 2010 an organisation she was working for sent her to Phaphama, the NGO that Lindi now heads.
By this time Sthembile was regularly adjudicating for arts competitions at multi-racial schools outside Soweto. The quality of work was excellent, she said, but she felt ashamed that similar programmes did not exist for disadvantaged children in schools within the townships where she lived, and that she was going outside Soweto to earn money when the need was so great closer to home.
Impophoma Youth Production had been registered in 2004, and Sthembile had developed it with a work partner, but when he passed away she did not feel equipped to continue. Now she was motivated to resurrect this inspirational organisation, in order to serve the youth of Soweto. She did this by introducing the Arts in a schools project, Zibanjwa Zisemaphuphu (Teach Them While They’re Still Young).
At first Sthembile received no income for her work, but she told me that money can only take you so far, and she can live on very little. “While we need money to survive” she continued, “we also need to build communities”. Her partner George and colleague Cynthia worked with her, and Lindi and Phaphama supported them by doing their printing and allowing them to use their office space and internet connection at no cost.
In 2012, Impophoma began providing Performing Arts classes in schools and the local community. They now work with four primary schools around Soweto, and many students continue to attend classes after graduating to high school. Classes start at the beginning of the year and are showcased at the end in schools across the townships. The theme of their performances is acceptance, respect and appreciation of different cultures. Soweto is extraordinary in its cultural diversity, and division can become a problem. Every school has an official language (Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho etc.), and Impophoma’s method is to present a traditional dance for that language, and also a different dance representing a second culture.
Since 2010, the Impophoma team has been applying for grants to fund its work. They have been successful in some cases, and have attended workshops on bid-writing to improve their chances. In 2013 they put on their first show at a community centre. There happened to be an empty office there, which they were able to secure at an affordable rent.
Sthembile found that some of the children who attended her classes were struggling to read the scripts, and so she started to provide lessons in basic literacy at the community centre. She was given a rehearsal space and the centre also provided transport when needed. When she began to use scripts to open dialogue on controversial yet vital subjects such as HIV, she found that young people were eager to explore these, and some would confide in her that they were HIV Positive, relieved to have found a sympathetic adult who would listen, discuss the complex issues they face, advise and signpost them to other agencies that can support them.
Impophoma eventually received funding for a three-year project from the National Arts Council. It is not enough to meet all their needs, but they are grateful. Sthembile makes all the costumes for the group’s productions herself as funds will not stretch that far. She learned to sew for this purpose, and purchased a sewing machine. The variety of costumes in the show I saw yesterday were of a very high quality. This woman is remarkable in her versatility, talent and commitment!
Four years ago, Sthembile went back to university to finish her diploma in Public Relations, and she graduated this year. Her father is delighted that she has fulfilled the potential that he saw in her all those years ago. In June, Sthembile registered to do a PGCE. She intends to teach full-time and offer her dance projects after school.
Sthembile told me that, throughout the challenges she has faced, it has been her love of children and belief that artists in Soweto have a responsibility to support and educate them that has given her hope and pushed her through. She feels that, as a woman, loving yourself is very important, and that it’s essential to be a positive role model and practice what you preach when working with young people.
It is very difficult, Sthembile explained, for a woman to be taken seriously within the Arts in South Africa, and this has added to her challenges. Her decision not to have children of her own has also met with harsh judgement in a culture where marriage and children are the expected norm for women.
But Sthembile assured me that she will continue to strive for excellence in what she does, dedicating her life to using the Arts to keep young people away from drugs and HIV, giving them opportunities and choices they might not otherwise encounter, and modelling the qualities that can engender success and fulfilment, whatever challenges may arise.