Ingonyama are masters of animal impressions such as the baboon
One night at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe we had dinner at the InDaBelly Restaurant (a pun on 'Ndebele') and entertainment was provided by a group called Ingonyama.
One night at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe we had dinner at the InDaBelly Restaurant (a pun on 'Ndebele') and entertainment was provided by a group called Ingonyama. It was soon apparent they were in a different league to the typical 'touristy' singing group. Not only could they sing in close harmony and dance dramatically all at the same time – quite a physical feat – but they also used physical theatre, becoming naughty baboons, lazy lions, elegant giraffe, and a towering elephant, in amazing transformations. We were impressed, and asked to spend more time with them. And so, next morning, we were on our way to Dete near the Hwange National Park.
The Dete compound – what South Africans would call a 'township' – is a friendly and vibrant place, but like all of Zimbabwe it has been hit very hard by the hyper-inflation that wrecked Zimbabwe's economy. A group of friends at the Dete high school in 2001 became well known for their excellent performance of traditional songs and dances. The Ndebele tradition is akin to the close harmony acapella made famous by Ladysmith Black Mambaza. These friends created a singing and dance group called Ingonyama, which means, 'Lion, King of the Beasts'. At first they found regular work at the lodges that border nearby Hwange Park, and they would regularly travel the 6 hours by train up to Victoria Falls to perform for tourists. But the sorry tale of Zimbabwe's decline into economic and political ruin inevitably struck at the heart of tourism. The crowds one saw at Victoria Falls in the 1990s have gone. Most lodges are in mothballs.
It is a testament to their resolve, that in these hard times, Ingonyama have remained totally committed and all the members are still in the troupe. It is also impressive to see how they have responded to the crises facing Zimbabwe. Whereas most performers stick to traditional songs and dances, Ingonyama is innovative. In addition to economic hardship, HIV/ AIDS has spread, and the group performs songs warning about the pandemic. They are also deeply concerned about wildlife: 'Keep Nature, nature is life ... if you destroy nature, you destroy life' they told to me. Dete borders the famous Hwange National Park, which has suffered neglect, and poaching has risen dramatically as poverty has become widespread. In response to poaching they have created their brilliant animal mimes, and developed plays to encourage conservation.
Whilst Ingonyama have performed elsewhere in Zimbabwe and in Namibia and Botswana, and they are eager to perform in South Africa, they have been deeply committed to their local community. They work with the Painted Dog Conservation project to spread the conservation message to children at the Painted Dog youth camps, and they also visit schools with their message about HIV, conservation and lifeskills, which they communicate through their songs, stories and drama.
Ingonyama communicate their message of conservation through their drama
Supporting the group has been Wendy Blakeley from California. Since 2003 she has worked with the Painted Dog Conservation arts and crafts project, Iganyana, in Dete. With a lifetime in drama (she performed at Woodstock) Wendy has helped the group in their performance and management. We came away from the remote community of Dete deeply impressed by Ingonyana and wishing that this troupe, which has so much to offer, will one day gain the exposure and credit they deserve at the festivals they aspire to attend, at Grahamstown or Edinburgh, and on theatre boards elsewhere.
Watch Ingonyama singing and performing animal mimes in our videos, and listen to the audio recordings of them singing three songs and telling their story.
To contact the group try emailling jelealex at yahoo.com
Author: Roddy Bray
Date: 30 Aug 2010
Location: Southern Africa | Zimbabwe
Themes: the arts, society | performer, music, drama and dance, social development