The voice He gave me

I was born in Zambia, Africa. My maternal grandfather’s name was Kafuti, and my grandmother was Kasongo Mwelwa. I do not know their birthdays, nor their places of birth. I know that my grandfather was born in 1900, and was initiated as Chief Mwata Kalumbu in 1930 or thereabouts, a position he held until he died at 100 years of age.

My mother had leprosy, though it was kept well under control with medication, so she did not suffer the disfigurement and loss of limbs often associated with the condition. She married, but my father left her before she knew that I was on the way. We were the poorest of the poor, and the only home we could find stood in the grounds of a graveyard in the Congo.

Strong winds would beat against the house, and the whistling of those winds often sounded like drowning people calling for help. There were strange visitors in the night, and dreadful beatings for me. But I was an innocent child. Why were these things happening?

I was 7 years old when we returned to Zambia. To give you some idea how poor we were, I have to tell you about the cassava tuber. It can weigh 10 kilograms, and inside is a root that would spoil the cassava flour if not removed. This root is used for smearing on the floors of houses, or burned on the fire to get rid of mosquitoes. It has no food value at all, but that is what we ate, and, through the mercy of God, survived on!

I attended a Roman Catholic school, but the stress of never having enough to eat, and no proper bedding or clothes, left me in poor health. I was asthmatic, yet I loved to sing. I even belonged to a male choir at school, and often sang in the Adventist church to which I belonged. But a severe asthma attack brought me to my knees one day. Friends came and prayed around my bed, while I cried out: “Lord! Either take the asthma and leave me the voice, or take the voice and leave the asthma!”

Suddenly it was as if someone had poured ice-cold water over me. Within minutes I was running the two miles to church. I had a singing appointment that I wasn’t going to miss! The Lord took away the asthma that day, and it has never returned. In thanking Him, I said, “Lord, I dedicate my voice to praising your name!”

Six years after my baptism in July 1974, however, my spiritual life was at an all-time low. I had no work, marriage to my girlfriend had not happened, and I was desperate. Then I received a letter explaining that the writer had heard about my voice, and as they needed a bass singer, would I join their church-based quartet? Would I?! My faith came trickling back to me.

In my new location I was given help to work as a cab driver, but after a serious knifing in the driving seat of my own taxi, I felt a change of direction was needed once more. I decided to go to South Africa to pursue my dream as a singer. For a poverty-stricken young man, this was lunacy of the highest order, but with God’s direct intervention, on occasions too numerous to mention here, I eventually found myself in Cape Town, South Africa. I had no money, no means of support, and very little clothing, but I was on my way to seeing my dream fulfilled.

As we drove from the station to Helderberg College, I was fascinated by the sheer beauty of the place. For once I forgot all about the fear nurtured throughout my long trip. All would be well. I closed my eyes and thanked the Lord who had brought me to this place.

As I entered the office of the lady who was to be my tutor, she sprang from her chair, exclaiming, “I don’t believe it! After hearing your voice on tape I was expecting a very tall man! Does that strong voice really come from this tiny skeleton?” The tape Mrs. Dunbar referred to had been sent to her by my friend Darryl, and as we talked about my long journey to the college, who should walk in but Darryl himself! He just wrapped his long arms round my thin frame and squeezed me to his chest, all the while telling me how happy he was that I had made it.

As the next day would bring my first singing lesson with my tutor, my excitement knew no bounds—and didn’t ensure me a good night’s sleep! That first lesson is so deeply etched in my mind that I could give you every detail from the moment she asked me to say, “Ah!” through all the objectives of singing, the purpose of voice training, commitment and discipline, all the way to how singing widens culture through providing insight into the thoughts and feelings of other people, how it enriches the imagination, strengthens health through deep breathing, develops self-confidence, and gives pleasure to one’s self and friends—and, oh, so many more things that I can’t tell here! Suffice to say that that first 30-minute class opened up such a window on the world of singing that my head was spinning as I left. I wondered if I would be able to live up to the expectations placed on me, but calmed myself with: “This is the teacher I came all that way to learn from. Everything she tells me, I will do.”

I had arrived at Helderberg as the college was preparing for a singing tour of the country from Cape Town to Pretoria and back, and Mrs. Dunbar decided that I should be included in the tour group. But first I had to face an audition. There was a great sense of expectation as I stood before a professor and a very select audience, and my tutor admitted later that her hands had been sweating because she had not known how well I would perform! After the performance, the old professor wiped his eyes and told me, “Since Paul Robeson died in 1976 I have not heard a voice of such quality.” Mrs. Dunbar was delighted. We drove back to college lit up with the impact I had made, not only on the professor, but on all who had been present.

The tour started with a performance at the George Town City Hall to a full house. Then we headed inland. Pretoria was the highlight of the trip, but as we headed back to Helderberg, Mrs. Dunbar knew she would have a fight on her hands persuading the college authorities to let this penniless singer stay on as a student. My willingness to do any work, down to cleaning toilets if necessary, and my tutor’s persistence paid off. The committee vote went in my favor. I could stay at college and work on the farm to pay for my tuition and lodging.

I owe Helderberg College so much. It still holds a very special place in my heart. Not only did it set me on the road to a singing career, but it was where I found my wife—though something of my earlier troubles returned just before our wedding when, in 1994, I had to have a serious operation. A broken bone was pinching the nerve to my kidneys. If the condition had not been righted, I would not have lived for more than three months.

In September 1996, my wife and I stepped onto English soil. We had come to stay. In 2004, I came first in the very popular television song competition, “Stars in Their Eyes,” singing the Paul Robeson song “Ole Man River.” I was left wondering how I could thank the Lord enough for all that He had done for me.

As to the future, who can tell what might happen? “With God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26, KJV).

Anita Marshall’s brief glimpse into the life of Charles Ngandwe (the“g” is silent) is based on excerpts from the book, The Voice He Gave Me (Grantham, England: Autumn House, 2004), with additional material from her interviews. Anita lives in Grantham, Lincolnshire, England. She loves writing and gardening. Her email address: