By Jessica Werb
March 29, 2007
To hear Stephen Lewis tell it, Africa is a nation devastated by AIDS, poverty, and war. Follow Angelina Jolie’s jaunts into the refugee camps of Darfur or tune into any broadcasted fundraising effort headed by Bono and his ilk, and you’d be forgiven for thinking the birthplace of humankind is headed toward extinction.
All of which has Thembisa Khuzwayo feeling a little peeved. The 27-year-old dancer and singer with the Soweto Gospel Choir says western perceptions of her homeland are skewed by sensationalist reporting.
“When I watch the television here [in the West], the picture I see of Africa is when soldiers are marching in and shooting, and hungry children, and dead bodies all over,” Khuzwayo tells the Straight in a phone call from a tour bus headed to Cleveland. When the choir gives children’s performances outside of her country, she adds, the group is asked questions that show a narrow understanding of modern Africa.
“They [Western children] are just not educated enough about Africa,” she declares. “They want to know what we eat. I think sometimes they think we eat grass or–I don’t know–they think we have animals roving all over the place. Sometimes they see you standing there wearing jeans, but they’ll still ask, ‘What do you wear in Africa?'”
Which isn’t to say that the continent, and Khuzwayo’s homeland of South Africa in particular, hasn’t seen some rough times. Asked to elaborate on the importance of music to South African culture and history, Khuzwayo paints a dark picture of her country’s history of apartheid.
“South Africa has gone through a period when people were oppressed and not able to express their views as they would have liked,” she observes. “It was tragic. People lost their lives during that period. Mandela was taken away and many other people were taken away to Robben Island. People couldn’t assemble in places to get together and say, ‘We are not okay, this is not right, we are not going to let this happen to us.'”
Protesters, she says, would be taken away to prisons, beaten, or tortured. But music helped keep the cause alive. “Music was always there to express their anger, to express their pain, to express their frustration….Music has gotten people through difficult times in our country.”
As for the Grammy award–winning choir’s music, it consists largely of traditional African songs, although the group also tackles other genres. Its new CD, African Spirit, includes tunes by Bob Dylan and U2–arranged in quintessential African harmonies. Ultimately, Khuzwayo says the choir’s goal for its energetic, jubilant performances give an accurate reflection of what South Africa is about.
“South Africans are very positive people,” she insists. “Africa is not poverty. Africa is not starvation and war. Africa has got much more to offer.”