The Mother of All Tears

Johnson immediately after his graduation performance in Erin Hall March 2012

There are so many reasons people want to learn how to tell their personal life stories well: to pass on some of their family history, to entertain people, to give utterance to some of the most profound moments of their lives. But there are times when we want to tell somone else’s life story too. One of the most daunting deeds is to speak the eulogy at someone’s funeral. Only after someone’s death, when we at last have the whole picture, can we look back and try to catch the elusive essence of their being but how to speak in a way which honours the person in all their complexity and humanity?

In January 2021, one of my former storytelling students in South Africa died. Johnson Mlambo was small in stature but a giant of a man. I can still hear his distinctive voice, speaking so very slowly and with great gravitas. I have many photos of him with his mischievious smile, his one eye twinkling as he laughed at a joke. Johnson was a freedom fighter during Apartheid, imprisoned on Robben Island for many years. Later in life, after he was released and returned from exile abroad, he became a husband and father. I first met him through his wife, Nomsa, who had taken a five week storytelling course in Cape Town in 2009. He and their two children flew down from Johannesburg to Nomsa’s public Graduation performance in Erin Hall. A couple of years later, Johnson was asked to speak about his life to teenagers in schools, to help them understand about Apartheid and the long road that led to Nelson Mandela becoming President of South Africa in 1994. He had no idea how to speak about what he had gone through or give an idea about what it was like to grow up in Apartheid South Africa. Nomsa phoned me and asked if I thought coming on a Personal Storytelling course would help and that’s how, in 2012, Johnson arrived back in Erin Hall again but this time as a student. I remember he had his 70th birthday during the course and the out pouring of  warmth and affection from everyone at that celebration.

During the course he shaped and crafted a story he called, “The Mother of All Tears”. As a boy he had been told by his parents that a man never cried and so, during his freedom fighting days, his subsequent imprisonment and torture on Robben Island, he never shed a tear. Until one day, after many years, a prisoner who was also a poet, spoke at a farewell ceremony in the prison for some men who were to be released. Listening to this poet, Johnson felt tears welling up. He left the hall and went back to his cell but he couldn’t stop the tears. He didn’t stop crying for days and after that was a different and, he felt, better man. It was an immensely moving story and at the final, public, performance where some of his fellow inmates and activists attended to support him, he was given a standing ovation by us all.

Storyteller Maria Serrano, who has mixed Spanish / Finnish ancestry, was on that course with Johnson in 2012. During that time, along with others from the group, she went back to Robben Island with Johnson for a private tour of the prison and heard some of his other stories. Before Maria returned to Europe, she asked Johnson for permission to tell his story back home and he granted it. Over the following decade, Maria not only told Johnson’s story but regularly visited him, Nomsa and the family in South Africa. I remember attending a storytelling performance Maria and Johnson did together in Cape Town and loving the warmth of the connection between them.

Many people were devastated when Johnson died. As a friend and bearer of an important story about Johnson’s life, Maria wondered how best to honour him. Maria, Nomsa, their children and I spoke about how The Mother of All Tears could be developed to honour the storytelling part of Johnson’s life. Eventually Maria and I collaborated to film the enlarged version of The Mother of All Tears” which will premiere on YouTube on September 9th. I will be issuing an invitation to hear Maria’s final telling for Johnson soon. If you would like to bear witness to a story told in honour of Johnson’s life, you are very warmly invited.