By Elinor Sisulu
5 October 2018

“Thank you for including me in this auspicious event. You unknowingly helped me to park my burdens at the door and get lost amongst beautiful talented selfless individuals”  Odette Claudine Ward’s Facebook comment on the Nozincwadi Festival pretty much sums up my feelings about the event. I was truly inspired by the overflowing of love and creativity swirling around me during the sessions of the Nozincwadi Festival that I attended at the Durban Music School (from Thursday 27 to Saturday 29, September) .

The Gcinamasiko Arts and Heritage Trust must be congratulated for this very special 10th edition of the Nozincwadi Book and Storytelling Festival.  Gcina Mhlophe, the Executive Director of Gcinamasiko is an acclaimed storyteller, author, poet, playwright, director and actress whose talent has been taken around the world to far flung places that few of us would imagine visiting. She has performed at the world’s major storytelling festivals and in the process she has interacted with and formed friendships with extraordinary storytellers, musicians and performers. Gcina Mhlophe is not only a collector of stories, she is also a collector of friends. In this the year in which she celebrates her sixtieth birthday, she drew on her extensive networks to bring together a remarkable collection of artists and performers.

The international storytellers included Valerie Tutson, a founder member of the Rhode Island Black Storytellers who also specializes in historical stories with an emphasis on black traditions. Also at the festival were the UK-based South African percussionist, poet, composer and animator Eugene Skeef and the Zimbabwean storyteller Bevin Magama – who plies his art in Wales and says his mission in life is to spread unconditional love. Academic Philippa Namutabi Kabali Kagwa from Uganda and storyteller Mshai Mwangola from Kenya were on the list of acclaimed artist/performers, as well as actor, author, musician and curator from Lesotho, Mpho Molikeng.

The South African contingent included Mpumy Ndlovu, Mala Gounden, Zanele Ndlovu, Nomsa Mdlalose, Sanelisiwe Ntuli, Gomolemo Moagi, Nompucuko Zakaza, Nokuthula Mgomani, Bongiswa Kotta Ramushwana and the three-woman drumming ensemble, Women Unite.  And before anyone complains about female domination, the male contingent included Madoda Ndlakuse from Nal’ibali and our own Akhona ‘Bhodl’ingqaka’ Mfani and Bongani Godide.

Photo: Storyteller, author and festival founder, Gcina Mhlophe, with author and children’s literacy activist, Elinor Sisulu at the Nozincwadi Book and Storytelling Festival.

I was honoured that part of Friday evening’s programme was dedicated to honouring MaSisulu and that I was able to talk about the abridged biography, Albertina Sisulu. My only regret was that my co-author Sindiwe Magona was not present to hear the appreciation of the work she put into abridging the huge book Walter and Albertina Sisulu: In Our Lifetime to make it accessible to young audiences.

Among her many talents, Gcina is an accomplished curator who has the ability to put together a seamless programme that flows like a river of creativity. With the combination of talent that she brought together, extraordinary things happened. Storytellers performed individually then combined and improvised to create a dynamic, energetic, interactive experience of the highest quality. Women Unite were sensational. Their drumming pulled all the elements together, making the audience part of the performance. Even the photographer had to throw aside his camera to focus on his highly energetic dance!

I particularly enjoyed Valerie Tutson’s story about the abolitionist John Brown and Mary Ellen Pleasant, the black woman who funded his ill-fated military expedition to fight against slavery. I remembered marching in the field of my primary school singing at the top of our voices “John Brown’s body lies a moldering in his grave, John Brown’s body lies a moldering in his grave, but his soul goes marching on.”

What would it have meant for us if our teachers had known and told us why and how John Brown died and about Mary Ellen Pleasant, the black woman who was a real estate magnate who spent a considerable fortune on the struggle for the abolition of slavery. Now the John Brown words have been supplanted by Valerie Tutson singing “Mary Ellen Pleasant, I will tell you what they did. Your truth goes marching on.” This is what is called decolonising education.

Photo: Storyteller, Valerie Tutson, founder member of the Rhode Island Black Storytellers.

The Saturday morning programme continued in the same vein.

The Durban Music School band delivered a beautiful performance ably assisted by Eugene Skeef whose energy seems to be boundless.

A special guest was Mrs Bavikile Ngema popularly known as Gogo MaBhengu who, Gcina explained, manufactures and plays indigenous musical instruments like umakhweyana and umbeleza as well as the guitar and mouth organ.  People travel far and wide to her rural home to learn from her. It was therefore a huge privilege to listen to her playing the umakhweyana.

Gcina Mhlophe has often stated that she is an artist of the spoken word and of the written word, which is why Nozincwadi is a festival that combines both.

The festival featured a display of Gcina’s own collection of most-loved books and the sale of books by Adams Books, a Durban institution. Book sales were managed by veteran bookseller, Cedric Sissing, now retired but still driven by the love of books to continue serving events like Nozincwadi. He deserves an accolade for his unswerving support to the reading public.

The Nozincwadi Festival left me uplifted and inspired but at the same time somewhat saddened that this profoundly meaningful and authentic creative serving was seen by so few. The Gcinamasiko Arts and Heritage Trust is a small organisation that punches far above its weight and does not have the marketing budget to draw large audiences. The sponsors of Nozincwadi must be commended for their support but I believe that it is a pity that there is not more support from the Durban business community, especially the tourism sector of eThekwini.

There are hundreds of annual storytelling festivals, especially in the US and Europe that started small and grew into internationally-renowned destination festivals, drawing iconic storytellers and spoken word artists from around the world. Children’s literary festivals are also becoming a big literary tourism drawcard. The Bologna Book Fair in Spain and the Montreuil Book Fair in France are two examples of just how big children’s literary festivals are. Surely it is time the business community realised that there is more than an educational, cultural or heritage imperative for investing in a festival such as Nozincwadi. There is also an economic imperative. Literary tourism is big in the world today and Durban is a UNESCO City of Literature. There is no reason why, with the right support and investment, Nozincwadi cannot join the ranks of one of the world’s major children’s festivals, a truly African experience.

Photo: Puku’s Elinor Sisulu with Bevin Magama and Akhona Mfani celebrating their work.




Photo: Storyteller Gomolemo Moagi and artist/writer/motivational speaker Musa Zulu – bound with their wheelchairs but with boundless imagination and ambition to do great things.