Mpopoma High Room 37, the class that birthed Iyasa
By Bongani Ndlovu
Room 37 is a classroom at Mpopoma High School in Bulawayo that when one passes, is seemingly no different than any other in the school.
There is nothing spectacular, eye-catching or exhilarating when one looks at it besides a maroon steel door that Nkululeko Dube used to enter.
Inside the classroom, there are a bunch of chairs and desks gathering dust as its occupants (pupils) are not at school because of the lockdown.
Looking around the room, Dube, a former teacher at the school says: “This room brings back a lot of memories. It’s been years since I’ve been here.”
As he remembers, Dube says outside the classroom is where there were women who used to cook for the school children during holidays as they would hold rehearsals for the drama club.
While rejigging his memory, Dube explains to Saturday Leisure that it was in room 37 that he, in 1996, met five young boys, Nkosana “DJ Prince” Lunga, Obert Mushure, Romeo Sibanda, Crispen Mukube and Vusa Sibanda who were making a racket. They were singing what Dube said he could not remember. All he remembers is that they were disturbing other pupils that he was teaching English and IsiNdebele next door.
The boys were part of a five-member drama group called RONVIC, which was into drama and singing dancehall and hip hop.
After asking what they were doing, he got interested in this group as they evoked his high school passion at Umzingwane High School of drama clubs that he was very much into.
Dube was young as he had just finished his A’level and was a temporary teacher at Mpopoma High School.
His encounter with the RONVIC boys is what started the dream of establishing a Mpopoma High School drama club which ultimately birthed Inkululeko Yabatsha School of Arts (Iyasa).
The room is quite significant to Dube and the history of Iyasa and revisiting it earlier this week saw Dube remembering how he wanted to do things right by balancing school work and having a thriving drama club that the pupils, parents and teachers would be proud of.
“It became a condition that to be part of the Mpopoma High School drama club, you had to do well on the academic side. I’d follow up with teachers who were my colleagues and they’d give me reports as to how the pupils were performing.
“So, the idea ballooned to the city level, national and before we knew it, the drama club had gone international. In 1999, we had some Americans who came to the school and said they wanted to invite us to their country to perform there. We’d taken them around the city and performed for them and they were impressed.
“We had a performance called Welcome to Africa which was actually coined for them. It was a musical that brought together dances with music and we worked together with Umkhathi Theatre Works, Savuka and Siyaya on this project,” said Dube.
Before he knew it, Mpopoma High School became the talk of the city and at that point, stars such as Sandra “Sandy” Ndebele, Future Sibanda, Tsungai Tsikirai, the late Sibonisiwe “Bonnie” Sithole, the Magonya twins Pepsie and Silethemba and Nomathamsanqa “Nkwali” Mkhwananzi had joined the group.
Travelling to America as a group was part of their dream, but they had no money and this brought a new challenge.
“We wanted to go to America, but there was no money. There was totally nothing in the savings as this was a school drama club. Me being a dreamer and the club also dreaming big, we started doing some small projects in the school trying to raise money. With the school authorities’ blessings, we started selling eggs with the likes of Sandy who were the founders of the drama club,” said Dube.
Their efforts did not go unnoticed as the then Minister of Information, Professor Jonathan Moyo made their trip possible.
“We attracted the attention of the then Minister of Information, Professor Jonathan Moyo who contributed for us to fly to the States. We were naturally nervous and most of the young artistes were leaving school, but they wanted to continue with the group. Going to Seattle, America at that age for most of them was a turning point as they realised that they could make something out of this art career.
“So when they came back, they pushed for us to come up with a professional entity that was called Iyasa,” said Dube.
Iyasa is a group that rose to fame with the rendition of Solomon Skuza’s hit song Banolila where they featured Chase Skuza and Jaiva Sibancane.
But, not much is known about Dube, the man who is behind this intriguing group. However, to know him means one has to pick up from his philosophy about arts as they have been part and parcel of his life.
He said coming up with the name Iyasa, which ironically has his name in it, was from his roots.
Born on October 25, 1975, at a place called Engulubeni in Plumtree, the Ramokgwebana border of Botswana and son to an educationist Paul Randa “PR” Dube and Pauline Tshuma, Dube is the firstborn out of seven children, five boys and two girls.
He had a brother Elvis (who died last year) and sisters Bakani and Sibonginkosi with Thembinkosi, Emmanuel and Banele completing his siblings.
He said his father was a headmaster at his former school, Umzingwane and described him as a strict man who wanted him to be educated first before pursuing the world of the arts.
“He was a very strict man and at the same time, a very understanding man who knew what it meant for someone to follow their dream. I think he’s a person who’s been pivotal in creating me and the person I’ve become. He set standards for me that were to go through my education and afterwards, be free to choose who I wanted to be,” said Dube.
He revealed that he had a great, great grandfather by the name of Ngotshiwa who played the guitar and left present-day Zimbabwe for Johannesburg and Zambia. There he would play at train stations and perhaps this is where he thinks he gets his knack for the arts.
For a person who has immersed himself in the arts for all these years, Dube shockingly says he cannot dance to save his life.
“I can’t dance, to be honest. That’s something that I can’t do and, ironically, people think that I’ve been doing the arts for all these years and I can’t dance,” Dube chuckles, as he continues to explain how the name Iyasa came about.
“Some people say, ‘How is your name in it?’. To be honest, when I asked my father how I became Nkululeko (Freedom) yet our country’s independence came five years later, he was clear that he was trying to say we really needed freedom and we wanted to be free hence they named me Nkululeko.
“Thinking of it, as Inkululeko Yabatsha, we got a lot of resistance, especially because these were young people who were coming into a sector that already had a lot of myths about morals; and whether young people should be thinking about being musicians. It was also about a lot of groups looking to create talent, but not looking to train or inspire talent.”
Dube said their ethos at Iyasa from the beginning was that they do not audition talent, they let people be.
“So that’s where the name Inkululeko Yabatsha came from, freedom for young people. I was thinking about a space where we don’t audition members. I always hear people say we’re doing auditions. At Iyasa we don’t do auditions, we give every young person who thinks and believes that they have that special thing in them an opportunity. Some come as musicians and they discover that they are also actors, some as dancers and discover that they can sing also.
“So, it’s (Iyasa) space for the young to come up with their own ideas. A lot of times, as adults we pour our thoughts on how things should be done and we don’t guide as we actually direct. So, this was a platform where we’d throw them into one pot and they come up with their own ideas and then we guide them. A lot of art that was created by Iyasa was created by the young people. I don’t take all the credit, it’s them.
It’s all about the collective,” said Dube.
At a certain point, Dube said he had to make a sacrifice and leave teaching to take up running Iyasa on a full-time basis.
He believes this was his darkest moment in his career.
“I did have a dark moment in my career when I decided to leave the education sector and move into the arts. I looked at it as my darkest moment then but now, I look at it as my God, ancestors, or any other force out there who helped push me to be what I am. To be honest, I could still be at this school teaching, directing young people at a drama club that took me out of my comfort zone as I had to survive.
“This meant that everything that I thought was just a dream, I had to come up with ideas to make it real. It was certainly a turning point in my life,” said Dube.
Building a family was very difficult for Dube as well as he would be away from home touring with Iyasa for six months on end.
Interestingly, as Dube who has been with Mercy Kayumba, Iyasa administrator since 2009 speaks, it is evident that Iyasa or the arts are part and parcel of his personal life.
“It’s very difficult to be away from home. I remember the first time we went to Europe for our first tour (people should remember that this was the time there was no WhatsApp calling and all), there was a day where we’d make a beeline at a telephone booth and everyone would phone back home. For me it was quite strenuous,” said Dube whose first-born son, Mbongeni was born in 2003. The second-born Vuyolwethu was born 13 years later in 2016.
“The fortunate part is that the mother (Nkwali) of my firstborn would travel with us. Later on (with Mercy), what I would do is either come back home during the tour or the family would come and spend some time with me.”
Dube had help along the way and attributes his success to people like Albert Nyathi, South Africa’s Mbongeni Ngema, Umkhathi Theatre Works, Raisedon Baya, Styx Mhlanga and Amakhosi Cultural Centre.
“People like Albert Nyathi were always there to lend their help even at the peak of his career. He initiated the Isiphiwo Sami (annual school’s talent search) programme that we still run up to today. He’d also invite Iyasa to Harare and train members on various skills on Imbongi, on his and our resources.
“People like Mbongeni Ngema, who as far as they were, actually when I reached out, were very welcoming to me to guide and give ideas.
Even when he came to Zimbabwe, he came to watch us perform. He inspired the young people and gave them ideas.
“Umkhathi Theatre who now are our partners have always been in this school and Savuka who worked with Iyasa a lot and even took us to Swaziland. Raisedon Baya, I didn’t miss the Sunday News reading his columns when I was at Umzingwane High School. People like Styx Mhlanga and Amakhosi’s Umkhosi Wabatsha and people like Babongile Sikhonjwa all worked together with us,” said Dube.
At the end of the interview, Dube took the crew around the school showing the places where Iyasa used to rehearse, perform for parents and the public.
He believes that the legacy of Iyasa must continue even long after he has left this world. The Chronicle