I sit down with a very heavy heart, to do something I never imagined myself, or anyone else for that matter, doing during the course of this year . . . an obituary for my good friend and colleague in the arts, Pretty Xaba.
Sadly, she succumbed to cancer of the oesophagus at the BLK Super Sp`eciality Hospital in New Delhi, India, where she had gone to seek treatment. Hers was a battle well–fought. I doubt anyone expected things to turn out this way, and I am sure I am not the only one who was so looking forward to welcoming Pretty back home early next year, alive and healthy but Alas, this was not to be! God’s plans and ours are not always in tandem, and we find solace in knowing that Pretty is now in a better place.
I first met Pretty in 2002 when she came for auditions for the part that made her the household name that she was up to the end, Mai Muwengwa in Studio 263. I sat on the panel of the casting crew as I worked for PSI-Zimbabwe, the then sponsors of the soapie. I remember her vividly walking into that boardroom and lighting up the room with her infectious smile. She delivered her lines so naturally and in a way that put all the other would-be Mai Muwengwas to shame! I kept wondering where I knew that face from, and it was not long before it was revealed to me that she was a seasoned actress. Quite by chance I found myself on the Studio 263 cast in my first ever cameo TV role as Aunty Mandy Huni, and a friendship was born.
The cast and crew of studio 263 were made of many veterans in TV and film, and as amateurs some of us felt intimidated acting alongside them. It did not take long before Pretty and I became close, because she was very accommodating. I remember that our call days consisted of long, whole days spent basking in the sun at Production Services along Mazowe Street, which was the first base of the soapie. Initially it was a lot of fun being picked up from home or work on that blue bus for a shoot, and we absolutely didn’t mind the long hours of waiting! After all Studio 263 was all the rage those days! I would always sit in my little corner behind the hedge, waiting for my scenes either learning my lines or reading a magazine or a novel. There were a lot of youngsters among the cast, so full of energy and naturally doing what youngsters do . . . seeking attention.
I would always sit and watch in fascination as they walked back and forth, the bickering, the gossiping, the cat-fights, and soon my corner became the grown-ups, boring corner as the likes of Pretty, Grace Chiweshe (Mai Jari), Charmaine Mangwende (Mai Huni), Evelyn Gambe and so on, joined me there.
Soon we began to get tired of the long waits which, some days, would actually end up with no shoot done at all. I am naturally a very impatient person, and I remember getting assurance from Pretty that this, indeed, was how things worked in the film industry. Our boring old women’s corner soon shifted to the back room which was also the wardrobe and make-up room, because we simply could not keep up with the goings on outside! It also soon became the counselling room, where a lot of these youngsters would come for advice and to get issues resolved among them.
On the bus to and from shoots, the two back rows were always reserved for us the old mamas, and because of the respect these ladies had from everyone else on the team, I absolutely didn’t mind being one of them! After all I had earned my place there! I remember, too, when I lost my mum in December of 2002 and even though the whole cast and crew came to offer their condolences, Pretty and her on-screen husband, the late Muwengwa, were the only two who came to attend the church service before we left for our rural home, and Pretty apologised for not making the burial in Mhondoro. That was Pretty, a true friend in times of need!
A year down the line, a lot of the things had changed for the worse and many promises had been reneged on. A committee was then set up to meet with the executive producers and the sponsors and Pretty and I found ourselves on that committee. Her passion for the improvement of working conditions in the arts industry rubbed off onto me, and that is the one thing I will remember her most for
It is my hope and prayer that we continue to fight for a better industry in her memory! She had a vision of how things should be done, and was unapologetic about making her demands and concerns heard! I am sure those of you who attended Muwengwa’s funeral service at the College of Music will remember her emotional attack and passionate outburst on the producer of the soap, the late Godwin Mawuru, (bless his soul) right there in his face, in front of everyone about how he had contributed to Muwengwa’s demise! It got pretty hectic, but we all cheered her on and saluted her for her bravery in taking on Godwin and telling him things some people could only dream of doing. That was Pretty Xaba, her love for the arts and her wish to see better working conditions for artists was unquestionable.
The one incident that brings a smile to my face right now is once when the team came to pick me up from home. By then, as I mentioned, things had changed, and we were getting picked up in a pick-up truck, a far cry from the luxurious bus we initially had. The drivers knew to reserve the front seat for me when they picked me up because I would absolutely refuse to sit at the back of the truck. On this particular day I think Pretty had also learnt that as a “celebrity” there are some things you just do not do, and there she was, sitting with the driver in front.
So as always I refused to sit in the back, and Pretty refused too, and after trying unsuccessfully to negotiate with me, Pretty then shouted, “but Tendayi, you can drive, right? So you drive!” The puzzled driver was asked to go to the back where everybody else was seated. A very shocked Godwin called the driver, me, and later Pretty aside demanding to know how I had ended up driving the cast and crew? He was not amused and we got away with a serious warning. That was Pretty!
I was the first one to leave Studio 263 when I felt it had lost the plot. I remember, too, that Pretty was one of the few people I spoke to about my intention to leave. She tried to talk me into soldiering on, but soon realised once I made up my mind, it was difficult to change me. We kept in contact and we even pushed for a formation of a union for artists, and Pretty was one of the people at the helm. In 2007 we met on the set of The Small House Saga, where Pretty played a strictly “behind-the-scenes” role as she was in charge of the wardrobe and make up. I am sure you will agree with me that the cast of that soapie was one of the best dressed ever! That was Pretty!
We became even closer during this production because by then our shared vision of what we wanted of the industry was very clear. We kept contact throughout the years, and always supported each other when either of us was in a theatre performance. We would meet for tea and cake or drinks once in a while. The one other thing I will remember her for was that she would always call me whenever we lost an artist to ensure that we attend the funeral together. I remember when Muwengwa died, Allan Muwani, Lilian Chidavaenzi, Herbert Mhlanga, Walter Mparutsa, George Machona . . . Pretty would ensure that I had heard about all these deaths and we would go together. Such great love! And now who will I attend her funeral with?
Fast forward to April 2014, I sat at home one afternoon and had an idea. I took pen and paper, jotted down my ideas of what I wanted to do. The first person I sent a message to was Pretty because I wanted us to meet the very next day to discuss my idea. Sadly she responded that she was in Bulawayo attending her sister’s funeral, who ironically, had also succumbed to cancer. We agreed to meet when she returned but when she did, she told me she wasn’t too well.
I assumed it was the pressure and trauma of what she had gone through. Today, I go through our chats on WhatsApp from that time until now, and I cannot believe this is where we are today! I kept checking with her and she told me her ulcers, which she had for a while, were giving her problems. Again, I attributed it to the stress she went through when she lost her sister. The next thing, in July she was in Mutare, admitted in hospital for an operation. I kept checking on her, and after a while, my messages and calls went unanswered.
On August 5, I then got a response that said “she is getting better, but the pain from the operation is still there”. I called immediately to find out more, and why she could not respond herself. The phone was answered by Noma, Pretty’s niece, who was later to travel with her to India on her last leg. Then, Noma didn’t say much, except that Pretty was in hospital, recovering from an operation which she had to insert a feeding tube since her ulcers were making it difficult for her to swallow. She promised Pretty would get in touch when she was well enough to talk.
September 9: I eventually got a message from Pretty saying she was now back in Harare. The next day she texted and said she wanted to share something with me, but that “she was unwell”. I could not go to see her as I was attending a funeral. I then went on September 12, and up to this day, the shock I got when I walked into the bedroom she was in is still fresh in my mind. I couldn’t contain my emotions, I broke down and cried as I struggled to understand how the Pretty I knew had shrunk so dramatically!
It was a shocking sight but nothing could have prepared me for what was yet to come! In my mind I thought “HIV/Aids” and that, for me, was not even an issue. Having worked for PSI Zimbabwe and counselled many an HIV-Positive people to accept their condition, I was quite up to the task. Then she broke the news to me . . . that she had been diagnosed of cancer of the oesophagus about a month earlier. Both of us wept uncontrollably, I didn’t know how to console her, but thus, our last journey, which brought us closer even together, begun.
I would drop in every often to check up on her, and one thing that was evident was her fighting spirit. She had her good and bad days. Sometimes I would go and we would sit and chat and laugh, other days she would be in so much pain she that could not even open her eyes. She could still recognise my voice though even on those days, and the one thing she would say, without fail, was “please pray for me before you go Tendayi”.
On October 13 she left for India and I went to see her on the morning before she left. In that month or so I saw her after learning of the cancer, she had never worn a more radiant smile than the one she wore when I walked into her room that morning! The smile of victory, the smile of relief, that smile that said “finally, I am going to be well again!” little did I know it would be the last day I would see her alive!
On November 14 she turned 49, and we even got pictures of her receiving flowers and a cake from the team of Indian doctors, she looked fabulous and happy! You can imagine our shock and horror when at 15:14hrs on Saturday December 6, we got a message that Pretty had been on life support since Thursday, and at exactly 15:44hrs, the news that crushed our worlds came through, Pretty had lost the battle!
I was driving from Mhondoro with my father that day, and I think I was in denial initially and insisted I was well enough to continue driving. It somehow then just hit me, and I completely broke down. I had so many questions, why? How? But the truth of the matter was, Pretty was gone.
Our arts industry is definitely poorer with her loss. I learned the ropes of this industry from this amazing woman, from the basics of mastering and delivering lines, to the resilience that is required for one to survive in this industry that Pretty was so passionate about! Pretty Xaba, so vibrant, so full of life, so real in a world where too many people struggle to be themselves, and so full of love for other people that loved her back, and for the arts. May your soul rest peacefully Pretty. Lala ngoxolo ntombi endala iNkosi yenze intando yayo, you ran a good race, and fought fiercely to the end my friend. Love you always.