Her highly anticipated debut book, ‘And Then Mama Said’, officially hit the shelves on 8 October and is the voice of Tumi in private – a behind-the-scenes perspective of a pioneering South African star who has been deeply loved and viciously hated by her audiences.
Read the extract below
Mama used to say that she would happily live on bread and water as long as Vonani and I were educated. She held educated women in very high regard, and I wanted to be that: Mama’s graduate daughter of whom she could be proud.
In January I received a letter from Wits: I was two points short because of my maths grade. Go figure. Maths had stopped being my friend in Grade 8, when I discovered that boys could be more than just friends. I had to travel to Johannesburg to write an entrance exam to be admitted for first year. Again, a glimmer of hope in the grey cloud forming overhead.
Before, Mama had managed to get me to Johannesburg, but this time I was on my own. I arrived at Park Station in downtown Johannesburg and had to figure out my way to Wits from there. Now, Park Station is a meeting point for travellers coming from all corners of South Africa and surrounding borders via train, taxi and bus.
It is an overwhelming bustle of people and the Tower of Babel of African languages. It is also a feeding ground for petty thieves. I was just a small-town girl trying to make her way to a university somewhere near this place.
Park Station is where God showed me that I have never walked alone,and never will. As I made my way out of the bus terminal with much trepidation, I bumped into Kwaku, a former senior from high school, whom we had lovingly called ‘Chief ’. He had just seen somebody off, and get this: he was heading back to Wits! I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.
We walked to the campus together, and he literally stayed with me until I was settled in my residence. Kwaku was one of the undergraduates assisting new students who were coming to campus for various rewrites. I sorted out my accommodation and found a friend to guide me to the exams hall the next day.
I cried tears of relief and sent Mama a very happy SMS to tell her I was safe. That night I couldn’t sleep and stayed up playing Snake on my Nokia. In the morning, I wrote my entrance test – it was such a breeze – and made my way back to Park Station, safely escorted by Chief. His girlfriend, who was in my year, had already been accepted into Wits and he had every confidence that I would be too. If his being sent to me as a guide was anything to go by, I had this one in the bag. A couple of weeks later I received my welcome letter. I. Was. Ecstatic. Mama and I cried and prayed. All she had asked me for was a matric certificate, and here I was, upgrading that to a degree.
I told her I would ask my father for funding, as he had promised to help me with my tuition when I finished matric. She told me not to hold my breath. Either way, I had already applied for a bursary and had no reason to believe I wouldn’t get it. Mama promised to go on early retirement so that I would have the money I needed, but I said no. My little sister still needed support, and with my brains, there was no way I would not get that bursary. When the news arrived, however, the wind was knocked out of my sails: the bursary would pay only 50 per cent of my fees. Mama would have to come up with the rest. Worse still, when I arrived at Wits, I was told I had to pay for the room that had been reserved for me, because the bursary did not cover my accommodation. Then another angel came to my rescue.
My schoolmate, the same one who was dating Chief at the time, allowed me to squat in her room for a while. Her roommate was quite accommodating, and for a week, while trying to figure things out, I had a place to stay. Mama was already drowning in debt, but she took on more and got me into that residence. And that, ladies and gentlemen, was the tricky beginning of a journey that would bring me closer to my dreams. I became a Wits student.
Wits University was a bit of a culture shock for me. It was the first time I was surrounded by openly gay folk who weren’t camp and colourful. There were more white people than I was accustomed to being around, and the Indian students were way less conservative than what I was used to back in Mafikeng.
Everything moved at a dizzying speed, and I did not have a mama to go back to every day. The amount of partying as well –my goodness. I like a good time, but once in a blue moon. I felt like I had arrived at party central. I made friends easily, but mostly with people in my class. I made a friend for life when I met Solanche Aaron, a strong girl I nicknamed Pocahontas. Her mother, Lynn, is a beautiful coloured woman, and her father an understated Indian guy.
Solanche speaks like a posh white lady. She’s a typical South African, with all kinds of idiosyncrasies that turn stereotypes on their head. When I met her, I started to think what a headache racial classification must have been in the bad old days of apartheid. South Africans are such a wonderful mixed bag of goodies that classifying and separating must have been like sorting rice grains by brand.
I met an Afrikaans girl who confessed to having a crush on a black guy but being afraid to do anything about it because our pubic hair freaked her out. Those tiny tight curls on the chest were too much for her, and she didn’t think she could cope with seeing them on intimate areas.
I loved the openness and honesty of drama school. Nobody was afraid of their truth, or at least that’s how it looked from where I stood. Being in drama school felt like a calling, and I began to find freedom in my own truth. I had had a brief sexual encounter with a girl in high school, and for the first time I was unafraid to share the story and speak to lesbians about what it meant to them to navigate this world as openly gay.
I had never been around ‘out’ lesbians before. That kind of acceptance meant a lot to me. I had spent so much of my life trying to fit in, with family, at school, in society, and here I was in a space that encouraged otherness and freedom.
Ironically, it was a nightmare to try to fit in anywhere in the entertainment industry. My accent was too black or not black enough. I was not fat enough to be Mama Themba, but not thin enough to be Thembi. And my favourite: not township enough, but then again, too rural. I stopped trying. Whoever wanted what I was offering would have to come and get it. The big difference, I found, is that, at drama school, we were not a group of insecure people with something to lose.
Drama school was a group of invincible artists who loved their craft, and we knew no one could take that away from us. We all knew why we were there. In contrast, the entertainment industry is a mixture of people, some of whom know that they have longevity, others who do not know when their luck will run out, and those who know their meal tickets have expiry dates because they aren’t the best.
In my first year, I studied performance, design, television and writing. Over time, I realised my passion was for writing and performance. University allowed me to discover an artistic scope within me that I had no idea existed.
Wits was also where the comedy bug bit. During orientation week, John Vlismas had rolled in with some comedians at lunch time, and a few friends and I decided to check it out. I had never laughed so hard in my life. The stand-up-comedy format was one I was not familiar with at all, and I was fascinated. After the show I went up to David Kau and told him that one day I would do what he did up there. Cocky. He said, sure, do it. He didn’t even maintain eye contact with me, and I felt dismissed.
Later, I reminded him of that day, but of course he didn’t remember me. Why would he? Besides, I wasn’t fawning over him like the other girls; I just wanted to know how I could get into comedy.
It would, however, be another two years before I actually got onto a stage and took a stab at it. For the moment, I stayed focused on drama school.
The book is published through Penguin Random House and is now available at Exclusive Books, Bargain Books, Loot, Takealot and Reader’s Warehouse.
Join Tumi Morake in conversation, share your #AndThenMamaSaid moment:
- Facebook: @TumiMorakeSA
- Twitter: @tumi_morake
- Instagram: @tumi_morake
About: Tumi Morake is an award-winning South African stand-up comedian, television host and actress. She also wears the hats of TV producer and writer; wife and mother of 3. Morake cut her teeth as a writer on SABC’s flagship sitcoms and broke into television acting through those channels. She is dubbed as one of South Africa’s queens of comedy, headlining on local and international stages. Morake has dabbled in radio and remains one of South Africa’s most sought-after acts. She also sits on the board of directors at Summat Training Institute and St. Aquinas College.