BY GABRIEL MUNYARADZI NYANDORO
SUCH is life.
I had come to accept people likening me to the late Cont Mhlanga.
He was my look alike.
I got to know Cont Mhlanga when he and his family were living at Sotshangane flats before they moved to house number 488 in Nguboyenja, Bulawayo.
This was next to Happy Valley Tavern, the then Happy Valley Hotel.
It was the only hotel for blacks back then during the colonial era and was owned by a prominent businessman, Mr Vera whose first name have forgotten.
He was the father of the late former ZBC TV news reader Tsitsi Vera, who was reportedly fired from the State broadcaster for laughing after a certain scene was shown on national television.
Tsitsi used to hang around with his childhood friends who were twins Irvin and Chris Moyo. The twins were my uncles (my mother’s little brothers).
Growing up, Mhlanga and his friends from school joined this culture that every Saturday people would dress up and go to Happy Valley Tavern.
This became a culture that continued from generation to generation in the early 70s to late 80s.
From the late 70s, Mhlanga, however, started to shift and slowly change the way of doing some things.
Mhlanga changed his way of dressing and no one could really tell what was inspiring his new dress code.
He would no longer be seen donning the popular spot lights, as he had shifted to Chinese shoes and tracksuits or baggy trousers with no pattern, I mean fashion and style.
I remember the other day at school (Losikeyi Primary) ground, there was a big crowd which included school caretaker Mdawini and there was a loud noise.
In the crowd there was also this bully who was very troublesome, a tsotsi who was feared by many. His name was Gilbert from Nguboyenja.
In the crowd I saw Mhlanga and Gilbert, with a bandaged head, who had apparently come for revenge for a previous street fight with Mhlanga. He was shouting: “You can’t beat me, yesterday you caught me unaware.”
Mhlanga defended himself with an amazing karate skill. I was much inspired when he knocked down Gilbert using kicks and heavy punches.
It was the end of this bully who had terrorised the Nguboyenja area after the slim and unassuming Mhlanga beat him to a pulp.
This is the day I was really inspired by Mhlanga as I told my friends that I was going to start karate training since I had found a mentor.
After a year or two, that was around 1978 and 79, Mhlanga opened a karate club at Mthwakazi youth club in Nguboyenja.
He trained us briefly and then stopped for a while. Mhlanga later revived the karate training around 1980 or 81 with few members who included his two young brothers Nkosilathi and Mgenke (who are also late).
He convinced his young brothers to continue training with us, but his other little brother Styx never joined us. I have never seen him (Styx) do any sport, but he is a creative in the arts industry.
This is Mhlanga’s early days before he ventured into theatre, playwriting and film. I am talking of the formation of a karate club with very few members before he wrote two Ndebele novels.
At the club, Mhlanga was the instructor, trainer and master. We also called him the teacher. We would conduct our training at Stanley Hall on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
He was very inspirational. There was no money involved, but we did it for love, passion and discipline.
We were inspired by Bruce Lee (a Hong Kong and American martial artist, martial arts instructor, actor, director, screenwriter, producer and philosopher), So, Mhlanga was our own Bruce Lee.
Mhlanga motivated and would make you visualise the future and beyond.
This is exactly what people are now seeing, the fruits of his radio initiative, an idea from way back in 1981, which came into reality in 2016.
It was all about patience and discipline, this was Mhlanga’s character.
Around 1981 or 82, Mhlanga decided to form Amakhosi theatre from the Dragons Karate Club that still has a few members.
Mhlanga was that kind of guy who would not say a yes for a no, he would tell you what you would probably not want to hear.
As a man of his word who used to stand his ground, Mhlanga one day clashed with people who were funding and scouting for film playwrights and theatre after they booked the same time we were supposed to be
Having been booked at the same time we used to train, the caretaker asked us to come at an alternative slot or the following day since they had booked the foreign visitors.
He insisted that we could come any time since we were locals, but Mhlanga rejected that and told the caretaker that instead it was the foreigners who had to come on another day since they had not booked in time.
Mhlanga stood by his word which benefited all artists.
Such talk also helped to mould me into the person I am today. I am also a yes for yes and no for no man.
One of our memorable moments with the legendary Mhlanga was on the music side.
In 1992 I recorded a song with a late colleague and a girl from our neighbourhood, but I needed sponsorship. By that time, I had stopped coming for rehearsals for Mhlanga’s film plays, theatre drama and dance because I thought, I did not have much talent in those disciplines.
So I started doing music and playing instruments. Mhlanga would sometimes see me and we would just greet each other and there was not much talk.
One day I played him my track called Lovely Thing that was on a TDK C90 cassette. I remember he loved the song as it played from the first key to the last one.
He asked me who had composed the song and I told him I was the composer.
Mhlanga appreciated my talent and told me that he thought when I stopped coming to Amakhosi I was maybe busy smoking herbs or abusing alcohol.
He said he thought my talent had gone to waste. When I told him that I neither smoked nor drank, Mhlanga was impressed.
His last words to me that day were: “Do you know sometimes, if somebody brings a good idea I can snip it.”
It so happened that I had to briefly travel and interestingly, when I came back home, it was the same week Amakhosi Cultural Centre was launched and Mhlanga had incorporated music as one of its productions.
I later became one of the first acts presented by Zwa and Lawrence Friday Live at Amakhosi Culture Centre as keyboard player for Motsiuruka and many other major events.
On Skyz Metro, Mhlanga created a reggae show for me that I am currently producer and presenter and also on a slot on Keyona TV, the vision he did not see take-off.
Mhlanga was Moses in our life stories, who did not reach the promised land, but helped many. That is his story, my story, your story and our story.