Magic, Now with Melanin

Superbalist 100 winner Buhle Ngaba did it for the ones with moonlight in their skin

Words: Dylan Muhlenberg | Photography: Nick Gordon

Storytelling can change the world. It certainly did for Buhle Ngaba, an actress by trade turned author by happy accident. Or, more specifically, by a lack of funds, while desperately in need of a gift for her aunt’s birthday. This was the same aunt who gave Buhle her first book of verse when Buhle was aged six, and so she decided to write a short story for her, based on their relationship, in order to continue with their literary legacy.

With just R45 in her pocket Buhle went to the printing shop and at the last minute decided to title the volume, The Girl Without a Sound, then post a photograph on social media with the hashtag #BooksForBlackGirls.

The response was epic, and when people started asking Buhle where they could buy the book, instead of saying, “What book?” she said, “Gimme three months.”

Pulling together a team that included illustrator Thozama Mputa and photographer Neo Baepi, Buhle set up a website offering a free pdf download of Girl Without a Sound.

45 minutes after its go-live at 4pm on the 24 February, the the site had crashed, Dropbox suspended the link, and Facebook complained about the overwhelming traffic.

Buhle’s book for black girls had broken the internet.

Clearly, there was a market here: readers who, like Buhle, had grown up with characters who never looked like them. They felt unseen. Unheard. And so Buhle’s response was an answer to the issue of representation, in which her goal was to create a world in which black women could see themselves as protagonists in narratives written for them, by them.

After all, Buhle explains, if people of colour can’t imagine themselves in imagined worlds, how can they ever imagine themselves as doctors, lawyers, actors, and singers? Her mission now is to create worlds where kids can imagine themselves taking over this one.

Having always been big on imagination – perhaps the most important resource for any storyteller – Buhle has always liked to make literal wish lists. This year’s included ending the year with 50 grand in the bank and to be on the cover of a magazine.

Well, winning the Superbalist 100 saw Buhle double her monetary goals and then when it came to finding someone for the cover of our first magazine (free with the first 3000 Superbalist orders placed from 2 December), Buhle was the obvious choice. And all thanks to a story…

“I didn’t anticipate I’d write something that would become the catalyst for so much more. I have worked relentlessly from a very young age and I was always clear about the fact that I wanted to be an actress. That’s extended itself to my not only wanting to tell the stories, but to also write some of my own and encourage people to write their own.”

Not only is Buhle a celebrated author, but the accomplished actress was spending a month at the Royal Shakespeare Company on a Brett Goldin Scholarship at the time of our first interview – a huge honour that she explains as such:

“I never got the opportunity to meet Brett but I did spend time with his mother Denise, who is so wonderful, and I don’t think she will ever quite comprehend how grateful I am for this opportunity. I asked her to tell me what Brett was like and she described him as an impish soul with the most generous disposition. Always willing to give to others selflessly. I'm so thankful and there wasn’t a day at the RSC that we didn’t think about him. Through the bursary, I've been lucky enough to receive the opportunity of a lifetime.”

Buhle’s RSC training included workshops with voice director Cicely Berry, who has worked with the likes of Judi Dench, Clare Danes and Ian McKellen, voice and text classes with a woman who worked with Benedict Cumberbatch, singing technique, text analysis classes, stage combat and the opportunity to sit in on the King Lear rehearsals under the direction of Gregory Doran, with Sir Anthony Sher in the title role.

“The opportunity to perform on the Swan Theatre Stage was nothing short of magical. I also gained an understanding of how important it is that we as Africans begin to write, perform and embrace our own narratives, so that they too may become classics. By us and for us.”

For this story, TWoU photographer Nick Gordon met with Buhle at Straford-upon-Avon and shot her outside of William Shakespeare’s home and the theatres surrounding it: places with meaning to any storyteller, but with Buhle seeing a bigger picture.

“I felt like I wasn’t there to continue the dialogue of admiration, but rather to embrace how far I had come as a young woman of colour from Africa and to acknowledge the narratives to come. Our own.”

However much love or respect we hold for the work of old masters, it's clear that there's room on every bookshelf for new narratives. Which is ultimately what Buhle is about: doing it quite literally for the culture.

“I suspect that my win was because we are all in formation," she says of the rallying effort by her supporters as the competition heated up in the Superbalist 100 voting. "That we understand my winning wasn’t just for me, but for a far greater movement. A much bigger movement has got a little bit of an upstart now. It’s the start of something. I think that’s what’s important to be aware of, how it’s not just about me, which was clear the very next day after I won, where everyone was saying ‘we did it’.”

Inspired by people like Lady Skollie, Dope Saint Jude, NeoNoHetero, Jabu Newman, Andy Mkosi, Lidudumalingani Mqombothi, Beyoncé and Rihanna, Buhle feels that it’s really exciting to be a youth in 2016, where even though we find ourselves in trying times, a scary and incredible time…

“It’s been beautiful to watch us forced to find a purpose beyond ourselves. A bigger future that we can’t even begin to imagine.”

Daring to dream while in search for her own sound, Buhle Ngaba has made a lot of noise and inspired others to aspire to things much bigger than their initial imaginings. Listen up.