I wear alot of jewellery, probably to defend myself, partly because I was given it, or it’s very sentimental, and been badly fixed by me somewhere along the way…. and each bit has a micro-story and without it I feel a bit lost. A bit undressed.
My name is Zulu and Xhosa, and yes, it’s mine, on my birth certificate, and it means trustworthy. Hopeful, patient… those words mean a lot depending on context.
I grew up in London. South East London, near London Bridge. Before it was gentrified into an unrecogniseable blur of Kath Kitson and porsches. At 15 I started being a youth worker. In Pimlico School, and then the Montifiore Centre in Whitechapel, London E1. Behind Brick Lane, and it was largely Syhletti and there were loads of fantastic small cafes, but very few places that me and mum could get food and not get stared at: it was very male. There was not a hipster in sight. Or on site. And the beards were hennaed, and the bikes were proper ones with gears, scratches and baskets.
I like listening to stories. I remember my history teacher when I was 16, who worked as a go-go dancer in Malaga in the holidays, saying “It’s all basically about stories” and I thought, everyone has their story. I wonder who’s listening though? The other history teacher, Mr Cornish, wore small round Lennon spectacles and made us think about global issues and inequality and trade deficits and dumping crappy pharmaceuticals on countries that couldn’t argue….
And then at home: lots of African music (mostly King Kong, set in Soweto, and penny whistle, and the greats of African jazz, ) and dad shouting at the tv, and granny translating West African authors (like Nawal El Sadawi into English, from French) and mum making Bobotie (an Afrikaans dish) and giving me Bell Hooks and Toni Morrison to read. So I actually thought the word ‘intellectual’ meant African writer until quite late in the day.
Childhood. South African exiles and other political refugees round the dinner table. Kaftans and bare feet and absolutely no meals without chilli or spices…. although all I desperately wanted at the time was tinned food, plain easy English meals. And to be called Katy or Elizabeth, and to feel English, which I didn’t. And to not have a house full of books and strange folk who laughed loudly, talked about Marxism, pan Africanism, nuclear power, social justice, shitty English class prejudices, where music played ALL THE TIME.
Where’s this going I wonder? It took me not very long at all to find my way back to Africa- I knew that Nyrere (the president of Tanzania) had offered my parents refuge and exile in Tanzania, before they came to the UK in 1963, so it seemed like an obvious place to go, aged 20… and by the time I’d worked up the courage to go to South Africa, and we were unbanned (where my parents grew up, but are not really from, tribally) I had started my love affair with Tanzania.
I think my own journey of working out who I am and were we come from has informed my desire and empathy to work on telling the stories of present day refugees. Or people booted off their land.
I don’t have a tribe. I’ve always been caught between several, (Jews, Irish, Scots), always been uncertain about power, and not always had the language or concepts to explain what this is like. I’ve always been aware that my dad’s first language was Zulu, he grew up in an Afrikaans part of South Africa (near Pietermaritzberg) whilst my mother is from an illustrious clan of Jews. I’ve just found out I’m related to the UK’s chief rabbi, Sir Israel Brody, which might explain my imperious attitude and incredible confidence at times. More to the point the relatives seem to have a fine line in hatwear:
I’ve never been entirely sure what home is, always gravitated towards the outsiders, the excluded, struggled to know where my real place is. That’s who we are, children of those that move, out of choice or force. Listening is good….My suspicion is that most people’s lives are fairly complex, as is their lineage. Farage et al wouldn’t have much of a purchase if we were honest, and imaginative about our own lives.
I can’t write the celebratory narrative “I’m so blessed and lucky because…” it is what it is.
I have always written- from the age of 6 kept diaries, and I am delighted and grateful that some people pay me for this, and that I can write in many different styles: academic, broadcast, reports. For the Feminist Review, Diva, Think Africa, Al Jazeera, International Labour Organisation, Marie Claire, Theartsdesk, a PhD or for the Independent travel section. But mostly I still really like stories. Along the way I have met incredible and wonderous mentors, readers, friends. Really special.
The other stuff: I was a journalist for various bits of the BBC (TV and radio) from 1990: I started at the World Service (African Service) and hit lucky- this was the time I got paid to make features about Angelique Kidjo, travel to Burkina Faso to talk to beermakers on the side of the road or school teachers explaining the myths of the dragons of the Niger. I’ve worked for the BBC as a reporter all around the world: Timbuktu, Cambodia, Palestine, West Bank, South Africa, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Cuba, France…Brixton, Kensington. Documentaries are my thing; slow winding explorations that take months to research, with solid narratives at the core, where we’re left to work it out, and the characters and people are three/four dimensional and contradictory.
The most famous person I’ve ever interviewed was Nelson Mandela. And then Kylie – or maybe Paul Weller. The most fun I’ve had was a piece made for the Telegraph writing about falconry where I tried hang gliding on devon cliffs, whilst a falcon circled above. Or maybe it was New York, writing for Diva.The most gruesome stuff I’ve done was in Rwanda, and then working in Ethiopia for a year (for the UN) which was soul-destroying and killed my hope and idealism. I am most proud of the work I’ve done anonymously for various agencies, media and organisations, exposing some fairly shitty doings. The most interesting work I did was in South Africa, on self-policing and gangs in Mannenburg, and a week living with a Muslim family who were members of PAGAD for radio 4.
I’m writing a novel. And turning my PhD (about mobile phones, sex and women on Zanzibar, from SOAS, 2015) into a book. I’m very interested in land grabs, resources extraction, gender and LBGTQ, African arts, and less lofty things like Bridget Christie, crime novels and how to sync my phone and laptop. If it wasn’t so dire and twee, I really would think it’s funny that I honestly do prefer writing in pen an ink and miss landlines. I love teaching (at universities)… and open to offers of work. But not from the Huffington Post, who can stick their unpaid offers of work where the sun don’t shine. Love is the answer, but I do get really grumpy about a lot of things.
Thank you for reading this far. If you want to find me now I’m at Thembi.Mutch@gmail.com