I am a girl – Yaayaa

“I wasn’t really into singing. I will sing along when someone is singing.” Bertha speaking about how she got into music. In 2012, her voice captivates the hearts of thousands of music lovers all over the world on a daily basis as her music, works of her own creative genius, is on replay on the major radio station across the country.

Born Bertha Bridgette Kankam, she says her showbiz name is now ‘Yaayaa’. For now, let’s just say, that is another story for another part of this piece. She is from ‘Oseikrom’ aka Kumasi (she smiles at this point) and specifically from Kokoben due to her matrilineal heritage. School started in the Martyrs’ of Uganda then to St Louis and now the University of Ghana where she is studying theatre arts and music. She is from a family of 7; made of parents, 3 girls and 2 boys with her inclusive.

For someone who now plays the guitar and piano, it’s unnerving to hear that the point where she realized she wanted to be a singer was when “I was 6 or 7. I heard one of Celine Dion’s songs and I was like wow, someone can sing like that then I have to learn other people’s songs.”

With a dream to impress her friends in class with her abilities, she tuned herself to the works of Whitney Houston who “was the only artiste I was listening to” till she later discovered “Alicia Keys, Beyoncé, and Aretha Franklin.” She however is adamant that “my mom loved music and I think she was the one who inspired me to do what I am doing now.”

Armed without a vocal coach, she says “the only thing I did was to rehearse alongside the music that was played and I challenged myself. So if Whitney hit this kind of note, I will rehearse on and on till I am able to hit that particular note or probably do it better than she did… I didn’t really know I could sing because people used to make fun of me. When I was a kid I used to have a very deep voice. It was bad”.

Just like all other teenagers, things changed when she went to Secondary School. “It looked like people wanted me to sing most of the time so it built some confidence in me. I decided to better myself every day because i realized that people wanted more of me”. And people have been wanting more of her since then.

Track photo for Am I

In came Stars of the Future which she won at the age of 19 after nursing the ambition to contest for three years. This presented a whole new mountain of challenges for the budding singing sensation and she tells me “it’s not been easy, trust me. I was supposed to work with a particular sound engineer but I don’t know, things went wrong. It made me feel down.” At this point she says she realized it was time to fully commit to the path she had chosen, music. “I know who what I am looking for, I know what I want to be and nobody in the world will probably see my vision the way I see it.”

“I decided to record on my own”. Teaming up with her brother, she did some sessions in Kumasi and finally ended up at the front door of ‘Kawa’, the “I don’t know what I go talk” sound engineer. “We did ‘Am I’. So ‘Am I’ was the first song I ever dropped song I ever dropped after Stars of the Future”. The promotion of the song however was not as she expected it to be but giving up was not an option.

“There are a lot of songs I have recorded but I am taking my time to release them. It’s not easy at all. People come to me saying they want to manage me but it is about finding someone you share the same goal with or probably someone who shares the same vision as you do and someone who is not going to divert your ideas or change the way you see yourself”

Like all ‘celebrities’, she shies away from talking about her love life and sings a line from a gospel song, “falling I love with Jesus is the best thing I ever done”. But she says of her future “I definitely would want to complete school before taking up music, like, full time. But am still building myself. I go to guitar school, I go piano school. Am doing music in school. Am doing theatre, Am doing directing. All these things am doing is to become a better artiste.”

She is recording a video, building her image and staying out of trouble for now. At the end of it all she reminds me “I am still a girl.”

“I wanted to change the world”

Straight out of her mouth the words came pouring out. There was no question about the firmness and conviction in her submission about why she had chosen to pursue a career in journalism.

“I wanted to change the world”, Nicky Hlanze said to me when we sat down to talk about her aspirations for the years ahead. She however pointed out, “so far it is work in progress… I want, some way somehow, to touch people and to change the way people see things, and the way they see the people that they live with. Change the way you see the guy in the street, someone you see every day but you don’t really know them, type of thing.”

Her name is Nicky which comes from ‘Siniketiwe’ i.e. Swati for ‘we have been given’. This is complemented by the surname Hlanze which means ‘bush’. She is from Nelspruit in Mpumalanga in the North Eastern Province of South Africa. A final year student pursuing a Bachelor of Journalism in Rhodes University in Grahamstown who says to me as we plan what the afternoon will look like, “a lot of the times when I do the work I do, I want it to have an impact.”

She is one of those people you are not too sure about when, as a guy, you meet at a dinner. You are not sure what question to ask and ponder over what sort of response you will get. I however asked her, in a deep baritone voice, “What is the state of the journalist in South Africa” (cool huh?)

She smiles and answers “I can tell you that I have been told a lot of times that this profession doesn’t pay and that a lot of the people that are in the industry are not in it for the money, they are in it for the cause, you know… I think there is a lot of chance for you to break ground in the sort of work that you do. But also there is the people that are controlling the media, so you try to do the best that you can with what you have and the best you can control.”

“It frustrates me but then it also gives me more reason to want to get into it. It gives me the energy to go out there and do it. But it also means that, in terms of being frustrated, I have people who are ahead of me that I can tap into as resources for advice”.

It hit me there. This lady is being real with herself. A little idealistic, considering she is yet to get into the field to ‘practice’ in its realest sense, but she has a plan B at every corner. She knows the field does not pay much (and it’s true) but she is willing to work at it. She is not sitting back demanding of the system. She is not expecting to graduate and gain automatic access to a job where she can do ‘some’!

She continues “I think there is a lot of spaces that we haven’t infiltrated yet and that’s what I want to do… there is something about you, even though you are different from me, but there is something valuable that I could learn from you and that’s what I mean by infiltrating these spaces. I think there is a lot we can learn from each other and take from each other.”

How much are we willing to learn from each other as countrymen, as colleagues, as compatriots, as competitors? How much are we willing to share in order to realize our greater good? How much are we willing to risk, despite knowing full well the implications, to make things happen? Those are my questions.

Nicky says to me “that’s what I will like to use as foundation for my character to build on; so that the work that I do, that’s where its resources are from.”

There is a spark in her eye when I ask her about the future of the profession she had chosen to immerse herself in for the rest of her life and she says, “I am so excited. When I just think of the things people are doing already… I find that journalists in disadvantaged countries in Africa are doing much more with the little they have and that is so inspiring, it’s so exciting. The possibilities are endless.”

She wants to learn and see as much as she can in three years after her graduation. She would like to open her own production house for both TV and radio in ten years.

Contrasts and Comparisons

Making ends meet in Grahamstown is never easy, especially when it gets cold

I could almost see a tear in her eye as she spoke to me. The passion in her voice made it quiver and her constant slapping of her hands to emphasize a point didn’t help either. Her natural hair, her slim physique, her gestures and brown slippers gave nothing away of the strong views about how much she wanted to change her country.

I met her in the streets of Grahamstown while searching for food. She had two friends with her (I will come to them later) and I guess the talkative part off me took over immediately. It was her response when I shared a joke with the group that got me to ask my first question when we were seated in the lush sitting area at Hill Street manor.

She said “As South Africans, we think that the struggle is over. In terms of history, I think our history will always be relevant for today because it is informing the present. But at the same time I think that, especially with black people, I don’t think we have maintained an eye for the main chance. I think now we feel we are in a democracy now, we can go to school, now we are fine; I don’t think we are hungry.”

She is 21 years old. I did not know this at this point so pardon me. I just sat there and wondered to myself, “what an amazing mind”.

We were speaking about Grahamstown and Rhodes University and drawing parallels were there were some to be drawn and understanding why when she walked through the streets the people felt she belonged to another world.

She told me the people in the town, which is a street from the university, felt like the school was in a bubble. A sacred sanctuary for a privileged few who were very different from them.

Made me think about my city of Accra. A town, more metropolitan, more chic, with many lights than Grahamstown but with much the same contrasts. The poverty and rich living side by side, the literate and illiterate side by side, the filthy and clean side by side, the cheap and expensive… yes side by side.

Here words hit me: “I think it’s because we have forgotten what hunger feels like that we’ve become like this. That whole sense of entitlement.” Like someone owes us something. Like I have been living here for 20 years after my great grandfather lived here with his great great grandfather who acquired the property from his ancestors.

Anny (the only other guy who walked with us that afternoon) has said to me earlier that day, “South Africa will have been worse than Grahamstown if the black people had ruled South Africa”. Much like what I hear a lot of Ghanaians say a lot of time; “why did Nkrumah rush our independence”, “why did he have to say self-governance now?”

Nomonde Ndwalaza’s (that was her name) words explained it to a point “It’s important, the context, and it is important to understand why people see things the way they see them”. So why do we see things that way then? Why do we feel like we deserve something and yet never work to keep it or maintain it? We felt we deserved independence. We fought and bled for independence.

So what, now we don’t deserve good roads? We don’t deserve clean water? We deserve malaria and cholera to exchange batons in and out of season? We deserve over crowded city centers and deserted towns and villages where the production of the fuel for the powering of the nation happens?

A woman with a great mind worthy of exploring

Nomonde again “we need to keep trying and we need to be aware that intentions don’t translate into actions. We have a lot good intentions but at the end of everything we need to be doing stuff… We need to be moving because if we are not moving then there is no point. We are wasting money. It’s important that we say “what are we trying to achieve”, and at the end we look back and say “did we achieve it or not?”

Truth. Wish I could say it better but then, can i? When we leave the office knowing full well the script is poorly written. When we refuse to properly clean the fish the client will be coming in for at lunch time. When we throw the bag out of the window!

“Intentions don’t translate into actions”.

She went on “I think that we need to be critical of ourselves all the time. I feel like people find it hard to criticize each other. As people, do what you can when you can, don’t wait for people, don’t wait for that moment and don’t wait for yourself.”

I could have ended here but then I knew i won’t forgive myself so I asked her about her people and their government. I asked her because it seems everywhere the people blame the government for all their woes. The government this and the government that.

“Does the government of South Africa know its people?”

“I think the people think that the government knows them especially with voting patterns; I think people will rather vote for a black man rather than a white man. It’s more instinctive and intuitive more than it is rational”, she started off.

Then she said “I think our leaders are generally desensitized. They are leading from a distance. This thing of saying that I have to be poor to understand poverty, it’s very problematic…  The values that informed the struggle for freedom in South Africa are not shared anymore or they have been lost. Where they are living the good life and keeping everything to themselves and are not sharing anymore.”

She did not cry, but I did. Not there, of course not. But when I sat and wrote this piece. When I thought about how in Obuasi it was ok for the ‘white people’ to be on the hill while the ‘black people’ were at the bottom. How they had their break time 30 minutes before ours. How the swimming pool had to be cleaned out when the ‘black people’ had used it so the ‘white people’ could use it. How it always felt weird my ‘black friends’ gave me messages to pass on to my ‘white friends’.

It might have been amusing as a child, but now it just makes me cry.