Interview with Thembi Nyandeni

Teleica Kirkland

Umoja is the scintilatting show about South African culture packed full of vibrant costumes, music and dance it is a pure feast for the eyes and ears and a joyful delight for the soul.

Here I speak with Thembi Nyandeni co creator and costume designer about the designs, meaninings and craftmansship behind these impactful creations.


What was the inspiration for creating the costumes for Umoja?

I saw the people around me start to change, the beauty of our culture and our costume was disappearing so I saw the need for me to bring back [knowledge of] the costume so that the kids who are coming after us can know where we’re coming from, because right now they don’t know where they’re coming from, they just think that these clothes that they’re wearing right now are cool but if they knew their culture they would know the beauty and historic legacy of their traditional costume. Yes they can improve it or modernise it but we don’t have to lose the beauty of our African culture.


Ok so is their much of an interest in traditional costume and costume making methods amongst young people in South Africa beyond being a tourist attraction?

Yes there is because when someone gets married or when somebody goes to initiation school they still go back to the costume. I have a shop in Johannesburg where they come to have their outfits made, they don’t want to just buy it [off the rack], and they don’t know where to buy them because you can’t just buy these outfits anywhere, so you have to come to a special shop where they can make it for you. When someone comes of age there is a certain kind of dress that they have to wear. We still do those cultural things so they come to me and say “Thembi I have a problem, I’m coming of age, I’ll be 14 and at home they are having a celebration for me what must I wear?” So I tell them OK a girl coming of age must wear certain attire, what culture are you, and whether they are Zulu or Xhosa I make the costume for them.


So you still have the traditional ceremonies that people take very seriously?

Well some people don’t, they want to change and I always say the changes are good but we don’t have to forget where we’re coming from. It’s not that you have to wear them every day but once in a while you have to, it makes you feel good!

When the companies are closing in December people are going on holidays there is an Africa day and everybody dresses in their African attire but you cannot go to any shop and buy it so that’s when they come and we make the outfits for them. They might come to me and say “I’ve married into a Zulu culture and I don’t know how to dress in their cultural attire and I want to please my in-laws” so I say ok I will come to you and dress you in the headdress and the skirt or whatever and you will be a brilliant bridegroom your mother- in-law will love you! [laughs]

So since creating this piece have you noticed an increased interest in traditional African clothing in South Africa and do you think Umoja played a big part in helping to popularise traditional dress?

Oh a big, big, big part. When people come to see Umoja they would come up to me afterwards and ask if I could make them this outfit or that outfit because in Umoja we play different cultures we’ve got; Zulu, Xhosa, Venda, Pedi, Shangaan, Ndebele, they see the outfit there on stage and they want those costumes so Umoja has played a very big role.


As you’ve mentioned some of the ethnic groups could you tell me whether the costumes have any historical or political significance to any of the different cultures in South Africa?

Not political but cultural. Some of the male dancers wear what we call mashoba on their arms, shoulders and legs it is sheep’s skin and they are warriors, when they go to war I can identify that they are Zulu tribe, this one is the Sutu tribe, the Xhosa tribe, the Swazi tribe, you would be able to differentiate between them and identify them by the way they are dressed.
Then you can also see the difference between one who is a warrior and one who is say a Soothsayer, someone who is a bride and someone who is just dressed in cultural wear.


So it would seem that a lot of skill and expertise has gone into producing the costumes were local crafts people involved in the manufacture of the costumes, as I can see that there is a lot of beading work?

Yea this is why I’m wearing glasses right now cos I never used to wear glasses [laughs]! You see I have some beads here.


Wow, so you do all the beading yourself!

I do everything! But now I’m training the dancers so that they know how to mend their costumes if they break, but not all of them some of them think it’s difficult but some of the girls who want to take this to the next level they are enjoying it and show me “Mma I’ve done up to here where shall I go now?” So then I show what to do next and how to do it. I have one of the girls who is helping me a bit with the making now.


So all of these costumes you’ve made yourself? That’s incredible!

Well when you don’t have money y’know you start to get creative! I didn’t have money when I started this. I went to a function and spoke to a friend who was working there for a very big company and I said “you know I could dress up all of the waitresses here” they said “’Thembi how can you dress all of the waitresses up?” I said allow me to dress the waitresses, they said “yea, please” because the waitress were dressed like Europeans waitresses and I was looking at them thinking It’s boring. This was an African thing but I didn’t see it being represented so I said whether there are 12 or 24 I will dress each pair from each tribe in South Africa. Then when the people saw they said “Wow! You know I’m having a function next week” and that’s how my business started. Then after the function I would take my outfits for another function and then people started knowing me and asking for my contact details and asking me to come and dress the waitresses at their events so it grew like that.

So now when I came to do my show I didn’t have to worry. My mind was buzzing because I knew exactly what to do, because I had been dressing other people up I decided now I’m not going to dress other people I’m going to dress my own kids (dancers).

You mentioned how the waitresses were dressed in a European style and in the clip I saw a lot of westernised style fashions from the 1950’s through to the 1980’s. How much has western fashions influenced the costume and attire of South Africa?

We were becoming very Americanised, even now people want to become American, so during those times when you’ve got money or even when you don’t have money you want to be accepted so you have to dress in a western way. That’s why you see people dressed in a suit and tie and hat because if you don’t dress this way you will be seen as a thug and nobody will want to deal with you so you would have to be smartly dressed. In the 50’s when you were going out to enjoy yourself in order for you to be accepted as a black person you had to be smartly dressed.


The clip showed that some female dancers perform bare breasted when conceptualising this aspect of the performance did you have any concerns about adhering to or reigniting old westernised stereotypes of Africans or the African female body?

Well those girls are maidens; they are young girls who have never been touched. So when you haven’t been touched in Africa we use to dress like this, even though we don’t do it now, but when there is a celebration this is the only time you will see the girls dressed up like this, for a certain kind of celebration but those girls you know exactly that they haven’t been touched, they don’t have children, they don’t even know about boyfriends.
I definitely had concerns but I wanted to do it the right way. People mustn’t look at us and say “oh these people are animals, they dance naked” there is a certain reason why we dress like that, otherwise most of the time we would dress like [ordinary] Africans but when it’s a special celebration we dress like this otherwise nobody would know.

In the olden days boys would come to choose a girl for marriage and they would choose you because they see your body, that’s when you dress up like that because you want to be chosen as a wife, nobody would want to marry you before they know what they are marrying. So you dress like that, the breasts are perfect the body is perfect because they don’t want to marry somebody who has got 3 children. So there are specific reasons why we dressed like that and it was important that I portrayed it the right way.


In that same scene there are some girls who are not bare breasted and whose chests are covered with a bra top and beads, why are they different?

They are no longer “girls”. We have different stages of girl and there are certain stages where you can no longer be showing off. When you haven’t been touched you can show because you don’t see anything and there is nothing wrong, but when a girl has gone through puberty she is becoming a woman and she has to cover up, but the others they are children. Otherwise I would take all of their bras y’know [laughs] and say go naked all of you, but the kids, the maidens, the young girls they go to the river they’re still cute, they’re giggling, they’re playing games its nice for them, but when you are reaching a certain stage you are not allowed to be dressed up like that.


What’s been the response to the performance in South Africa?

It’s been great a very positive response. When you don’t know you it and dressing this way when they do their ceremonies and rituals. But I’ve done my research and the dancers go and do their own research and now people understand where I’m coming from. In Umoja there are tall dancers, small, thin, fat because in Africa we are like that I want to represent everyone and how we really are.r culture you could think ‘what is Thembi doing?’ but now people have started to learn about where we’re coming from because Umoja is telling a story of who we are where we’ve been and where we are going and they’ve started to accept it. Many people have gone home and asked their fathers and mothers, who have become Americanised or Europeanised and they have started to explain “yes we dressed up like this when we were younger, before 13 we used to dress like this but after 13 you’re reaching another stage. Now they’ve started acceptingSo are you training people to know the techniques of making and producing these types of costumes?Yes I’m training people up to make the costumes, but when I started they didn’t even want to wear these things, they were like [clears throat] ‘people will think I’m primitive’, they were looking at me like this woman is crazy! “Mommy should I wear this [look of disdain]” and I say yea, you’re gonna wear it, you’re going to perform in it and you’re gonna feel it, you’re gonna enjoy it and be proud of wearing it. But now believe me whenever anybody is getting married the father of the bride will always want to be in his cultural traditional outfit, so now they’re proud of it, because I bought it back. If we can do this and take [the show] all over the world then why can’t I wear this is South Africa


Umoja – the Spirit of Togetherness is playing at the Peacock Theatre, Holborn, London WC2 until 19th February 2012.