Mbangeni: mistress of her own destiny

THE economic slump coupled with the lure of city lights have seen many a woman migrating from the rural areas around the country to try their hand at the elusive pot of gold snugly nestled at the end of the rainbow that is the dazzling city of Johannesburg.

Jessica Mbangeni, one of the most articulate female praise poets in the country, was no exception. After realising that rural life had nothing to offer her, she packed her bags and headed for the golden city.

On her arrival, the rose-coloured glasses were soon shattered, replaced by the stark reality of either sinking or swimming.

Quick on the uptake, she soon joined the Soweto Gospel Choir, where she sang on three of the songs in their debut album as well as offering vibrant praise poetry in between.

"It was a different world, one I had never envisaged in my wildest dreams. It took me all over the world, and I learned to appreciate the different cultures we came in contact with as well as the appreciation we elicited from our audiences.

"Although I enjoyed the adulation for a while, the idea of living in a suitcase and all the glamour that goes with it - never mind the challenges because nobody wants to know about those - I realised that I would have to come up with something more tangible to keep the wolves at bay," she recalls that stern talking she gave to herself.

As luck would have it, Mbangeni found herself sharing the stage with Gabriel and Beyoncé at Nelson Mandela's 46664 concerts. "The turning point though was meeting Chris Gardener Rich - who wrote The Pursuit Of Happiness.

In 2005 she decided to follow her poetry calling.

Her calling led her to the KwaNtu Entertainment Designs in Newtown. Here she opened a shop that designed various ethnic and indigenous South African clothing, cooperate clothing, traditional wedding clothes and wedding clothing. The shop grew to accommodate those who wanted to hire clothing for special occasions.

"We also opened a casting agency, Ejective Agency, that took off the ground with a bang. We were chaffed to be the agency that cast the leading lady for that Jill Scott series that was shot in Botswana."

As for praise poetry, the majestic Mbangeni says her talent was inspired by the birth of her son, Njongo, in 2000. "He was a source of inspiration in spite of the fact that he cried continuously. A wise, mature woman suggested I praise him with his family name and history. It was like a revelation. When I passionately recited for him, he quietened down ... but I also woke up from my slumber to discover that I was good at it. I chose to explore it and it has taken me to the cities of the world, corridors of power and the appreciation of my being and that of the wisdom that make our people and forefathers who told stories and passed messages in those emotive, lively utterances," she says.

While she has made inroads into praise poetry, she concedes that it has not been easy. She says most people still consider it a male domain though in the rural areas both men and women do it spontaneously.

Crediting Gardener Rich with her success, she says: "If I had not met him or read ThePursuit Of Happiness, I would never have had the guts to break out on my own. He inspired and motivated me because he was already walking the talk. A lot of people have been supportive in terms of teaching me to be proactive rather than sit by the phone waiting for calls from potential clients that may never come. It was also a lesson in professionalism - doing my research and listening to what the clients want."

Later in the year, Mbangeni is going to exhibit her ethnic dolls wearing different ethnic costumes. "It's a dream that is slowly crystalising into reality. It has made me realise that the sky is the limit," she says with a smile.

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