Once upon a time, I wasn’t always the eloquent writer and public speaking guy.
At some point, I was a breathtaking dribbling wizard on the football field. Coming to think of it, that was my claim to fifteen minutes of fame ekasi. In high school, that’s what gave me a bit of some useless cool; others sang melodically in the choir, some girls played netball and other peoples’ faces beamed when an opportunity sprang up to enact a character in front of their classmates in drama and acting.
Everyone had their thing.
Oh, yes. Lest I forget . . . others rolled dice in the school premises, and, some knifed fellow students when an occasional fight broke out and thus came to be feared. I remember a friend who used to be a dancer during those days – in Grade eleven, specifically. He, Steven Mayisa, specialised in the Pantsula dance, was passionate and impressive at it.
Ahhhh! The good ol’ days.
Anyway, it would seem that I’m getting carried away somewhat – being pulled in all sorts of directions while strolling down Memory Avenue. Let me walk back.
During the year 2006, while doing Grade ten at one Thetha Secondary School in the southern tip of Johannesburg, in a township called Orange Farm, I had a profile on the now defunct social media platform called MXit. And as anyone who ever had a profile on there can attest – it was humongous! Almost every high school kid was on it, thumping their phone screens furiously when night fell.
Of course, the point is . . .
There, I created my first online profile. Under the username: thembaonline. Others had funkier names – sweetlips (guys mostly, no joke!); beautyqueen; vivacious; hotchick; et cetera. It was a melting pot of almost every teenager with a cellphone that was wap-enabled.
Fast forward to a few years later, I followed football less and less by the day. My passion dwindled hysterically. In Grade nine by the way, year 2005, the writing bug bit me and I relented – sought no help whatsoever to be cured of it. I was writing what I today classify as lame poetry . . . did it undercover, while my ball juggling skills took centre position.
By then, I owned a small black book in which I poured my heart about all things I went through and felt. Because I was not much of a talker, I confided in those pages. As I scribbled more, I fell deeper into writing love. I was not working toward any specific literary goal, such as publishing a book in years to come. Apart from my nascent love for words, I was merely writing because I had access to a pocket sized book and a “press button” (what we called a pen whose ink tip you could click in and out, especially one made by BiC).
Time travel swiftly to one bright April morning, in Grade twelve, in one English class, where we were asked to write on pieces of paper what careers we wanted to pursue. My classmates ranged from science, law, medicine, teaching, air travel and other sectors. I noticed the teacher smiling contemptuously as he glanced at my piece of paper and read out, “Themba Ndlangamandla: Radio Presenter”. He raised his head then, looked at me, amused, and asked, “Radio presenting, wena Ndlangamandla?” I simply nodded affirmatively.
The reason he was being facetious, I knew. I was timid in high school. So much so that I was often intimidated, had my throat and tongue run dry at the prospect of raising my hand and have the entire class whirl around to watch me give an eloquent and correct answer. I almost always had answers to Mr. Kgoase’s questions, in the English period, but never had the guts to spit them out.
Nonetheless, I felt a strong urge that I wanted to do work connected with communicating with, and impacting other people emotionally. And disseminate knowledge while at it. I figured that because I wanted that badly, I would find a way to work through my being shy. I set out to reinvent myself – shuffle things, drop what I had become good at, although no longer passionate, and completely turn around what I sucked at.
The more I walked off the football pitch, the more I was dragged and flung into communication, media, writing, oratory and English. I attended a media college, albeit not until graduation; financial constraints. I had made up my mind. I was Themba Jay and I wanted to be one of the world’s best at communication.
During all of that two-and-a-half years of college training, I was tentatively building an online presence around my ‘new’ self.
History lesson . . .
“Themba Jay” came to be because one February morning, while walking to a radio broadcasting lecture with friends, we noticed a poster emblazoned on the students’ notice board about an upcoming Valentine’s Day party at some near by club.
But that was not the highlight of it all. We were not to attend the gig. The names of the disc jockeys on the line up stood out hilariously. “DJ Killer” (sometimes spelled, Killah – a popular nickname ekasi bestowed upon those named Lukcy); DJ Chocolate; DJ Shorty, and such silly names. I said, “But gents, these names are funny. Sadly funny even. Reading this poster, I don’t take seriously the people listed there – because of their names”.
We went on to point out that most young people think small as they go about building their careers. We pointed out how the name Black Coffee is simple, crisp, easily pronounceable and universal. So is DJ Fresh, DJ Kent, and Louie Vega. On our freshman year, that’s the level we were thinking at. We chuckled, “I wonder how you’d be received in China, Mumbai, Brazil, etc., with the name Killer?”
There and then, we thought we needed to start thinking about the names we were going to choose to signify our broadcasting careers. During one of the evenings that followed, I scribbled on paper various names to get a visual feel of them. TJ; Themba; JT; Themba J; shit! I need a name that goes with a full surname. It could be said that this is a stage name. I was brainstorming furiously. I had to find the perfect name. Themba . . . what do I possibly add to the name to make it crisp and global in its sound? How do I use the name James here? Themba James? I wondered. Sounds cool. I wrote it down, looked at it, squinted sharply, so as to see it more clearly, although I didn’t have an eye problem. Think Themba, think more creatively.
My mind darted around aggressively. I put myself under pressure to have the name before I went to sleep, before school the following day.
I made a cup of tea, and went back to my paper, which was now littered by futile ideas by then. I scribbled some more. I thought more. Just how can I possibly add spunk, magic to James? Uhm . . . although I could always leave the name to be the letter “J” – perhaps. No?
The more I looked at the paper, the more senseless all the numerous names already scribbled made non sense. They became blurry before my eyes. I was getting tired, and sleepy and I had a Communication lecture bright and early in not more than ten hours. “Jay,” I wrote down. Okay, this seems cool. How I do marry them then? “Jay Themba”? It doesn’t look great to the eye. @JayThemba – it would totally suck as a Twitter username!
“Themba Jay”? Looks okay. Better. Uhmmm . . . @ThembaJay . . .
I smiled quaintly at it.
Themba Jay. I was acquainting myself. I still wasn’t totally sold on it. Themba Jay.
Finally, after what seemed to be an eternity, did I feel a rush of excitement at what I was reading and re-reading to no end.
A week later, I was only happy to change my Facebook username from Themba Ndlangamandla; the changes swept across my other online media platforms, too. And, it felt right.
Today, I am often referred to colloquially as, Jay.
I often look back with admiration at what I’ve been able to pull off. From a young person with overflowing potential he never unleashed at school because he was annoyingly shy, recoiled at the prospect of having a voice and using it, to an individual who is happy to write himself senseless, publish for the world to read and is even happier to take the stage to share his knowledge and perspective. It has been a hell-of-a-ride!
And as if to put the final nail to the coffin of this Themba Jay Storyteller person I have become, I watched a 2017 Russia Confederations Cup game recently. But, I chuckled at the fact that I was not paying much attention to the match as much as I was attentively listening to the British commentator. I was in awe of his command of words and enunciation. I suppose that makes it official; with all my being, I am a communicator. A Wordsmith.
One last thing. To round off the tale of my re-invention, my MXit username has since made a rather cool comeback in my life – firstname.lastname@example.org .