Zim's creatives are haunted by fearful self-censorship

31 May 2015 - 02:00 By Niren Tolsi
Salif Keita serenades Zimbabwe on the final night of the Harare International Festival of the Arts.
Salif Keita serenades Zimbabwe on the final night of the Harare International Festival of the Arts.
Image: KB Mpofu

Niren Tolsi went to Harare's biggest arts festival, and heard murmurs of creative resistance through a fog of fear

Harare treads softly. In the central business district, vehicles, even taxis, rarely hoot. Not even during rush-hour traffic jams. Street hawkers do not shout out their wares, shops do not blast out music, and conversations are held in murmurs. The city pads about its daily grind. The sound of footsteps falling on Harare's broken pavements is distinct, subdued.

Young men race to hang on to the outsides of taxis weaving through a quiet flow of people: touts, government workers, informal traders, the hustling unemployed. People are making plans - for water, because what comes out of the tap is undrinkable; for jobs, because you need one; for ways to move up, or to get out.

As if holding printed peacock tails, vendors splay newspapers with headlines about supernatural pregnancies, or about Zimbabweans suing the South African government over xenophobic attacks.

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But the pavement freezes when sirens approach Kwame Nkrumah Avenue. People stare at the VIP cavalcade, immobile. As tomorrow's headlines will reveal, it carries Botswana's president, Ian Khama, who had just "stormed out" of the Southern African Development Community summit. Khama had apparently chastised his host, President Robert Mugabe, blaming his running of his economy for the influx of migrants into Botswana and South Africa, and telling him to assume some responsibility for the xenophobic attacks in SA.

A few hours earlier, at Chelsea's Burger Bar off Kwame Nkrumah Avenue, a broke regular pesters the staff for a beer on account, before serenading a couple from Iceland with a rendition of I Did It My Way. The punter's voice veers towards Hugh Masekela's gravelly expressionism, his shiny eyes at midday suggesting an early start on the path towards daily amnesia.

The Icelanders order meat with sadza and chicken wings with chips. Three wings cost $5 (R60). Money in Zimbabwe is dirty: one-dollar bills move around with a frequency that makes them thick with grime. The millions circulating among the elite are dirtier still, such as the Chinese government funding meant for refurbishing water plants, but used instead, according to whispers on the streets and confirmed by an internal inquiry, to buy SUVs for the connected.

The Icelanders are here because the Harare International Festival of the Arts (Hifa) is on at the nearby Harare Gardens. The festival is presented as a space of free expression in a country where citizens, wary of who is listening, still lower their voices when they pass on a juicy bit of gossip about Mugabe or his wife, Grace. Where critics of the government "disappear", like Itai Dzamara - reportedly abducted from a Harare barbershop on March 9 2015 by men driving an unmarked vehicle.

Last year, the politically innocuous South African pop group Freshlyground, scheduled to close Hifa, were turned away at the airport - apparently because of their song Chicken to Change.

This year, the theme for the 16th edition of Hifa was "Articulate". A call to expression that seems vital in a place that possesses a quietness and a violence. Where a local, bemoaning the absence of protest at the unavailability of clean drinking water in a country rich with water sources, remarks, "We are a nation defeated."

What do Zimbabweans "articulate" - in art, and in their everyday?

It is a question made acute during a performance of The Taking at the Standard Theatre on Samora Machel Avenue.

A deft theatre piece from Bulawayo that combines elements of song, dance, mime and storytelling, The Taking explores land ownership and restitution in Zimbabwe. It opens in a prison, where a warder remarks, "Our country only has one story. A story told by foreigners, sons of the soil, by many people... The most-told story of our country is about our president."

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The dominant narrative about Mugabe, he says, is as a "black dictator" who during more than 30 years in charge has run Zimbabwe "into the ground".

The warder also acknowledges another, more recent, Mugabe narrative: that of the champion of the black African. A man who recognised the trauma and impoverishment inflicted upon generations by the dispossession of land, and who sought to remedy it.

block_quotes_start The Harare International Festival of the Arts is presented as a space of free expression in a country where citizens still lower their voices when they pass on gossip about Mugabe block_quotes_end

The Taking is written by Raisedon Baya and directed by Memory Kumbota. Baya, together with Christopher Mlalazi, staged a political satire, The Crocodile on the Zambezi, in May 2008. On the second night of its debut run, the play was stopped by police.

Production manager Lionel Nkosi was tortured by four men who picked him up in an unmarked car outside Bulawayo City Hall, taking him to a "deserted hillside dam". On African Writing Online, Nkosi described how he was asked whether he was trying to make fun of the president. He remembered a sack being placed on his head, blows "raining" down on him, and death threats.

"Blood. Darkness. Searing pain. I was soaking and almost drowning in my own blood. A medical check up confirmed a fractured ankle, bruised ribs, bruised gums and a shaking tooth. A message had been sent."

The crocodile is the totem for the Gushungo people - Mugabe's clan. It also appears in The Taking: one of the inmates, "Sixpence" - a name given by white farmers to black labourers - describes how he fell foul of the nightmarishly complex censorship laws.

Sixpence is a storyteller. He is in prison for a story that starts with albino hippos on a cross-continental trek from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. They stumble, instead, onto a large river much to their liking, and settle there. The albino hippos begin ruling with an "iron fist" and oppressing other animals who had always lived there - until the crocodiles lead an uprising. And begin a new reign that soon mimics the previous regime.

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The Amandla Freedom Ensemble from Joburg blow the heads off Harare's bohemian-hip set with a jazz hotbox at Njelele, a low-ceilinged space for creatives on crater-riven Kaguvi Street, named after Sekuru Kaguvi, a fighter from Zimbabwe's First Chimurenga in the 1890s. The place is rife with artists, writers, photographers, drunkards and wannabes - many floating around a handful of gap-year-type European girls, others on the liquor and tunes. The local girls are largely ignored.

The beer price increases from $1 to $1.50 during the gig. "Zimbabwean inflation," sighs a local. Dwayne Innocent Kapula, from Harare but based in Joburg, is spinning vinyl ranging from reggae to Chimurenga music. Bob Marley segues neatly into Thomas Mapfumo, the iconoclastic purveyor of the mbira-infected "Zimbabwe blues".

Mapfumo's Chimurenga classic, Zimbabwe-Mozambique, sends the crowd into a frenzy. His mournful incantations find a voluble echo on the dance floor: "Woh-ai-yeh-yeh! Wo-ai-yeh-yeh!" People are throwing themselves around. Some are mimicking the horns section with their limbs, others finding a voice they otherwise can't, or will not, raise above an internal whisper or a low bitch into a confidante's ear. It's about what can't be said without metaphor or folk song. It's about how fucked up and claustrophobic living in Harare can be. It's dancing and singing to one's own blues.

An artist who has been chatting about censorship and self-censorship turns to me and says: "There are some things that can't be said, but other ways of saying things that can't be said."

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What is rendered "speakable" in Zimbabwe becomes obvious at the National Art Gallery adjoining the Harare Gardens. It is slightly dishevelled and uncared for, despite a recent facelift. Hanging upstairs is a new exhibition, Prominent Personalities: Portraits of Zimbabweans.

Some of the artists are technically bereft, but it's the content that is most revealing: there are three portraits of Mugabe, including a massive ceiling-to-floor close-up, and two portraits of Grace. The text reads: "She participates widely in philanthropic activities and is the patron of the Grace Mugabe Orphanage in Mazone and has recently been elected to the ruling party's Politburo as secretary of women's affairs."

There is a hyper-real painting of the commander of the armed forces, General Constantine Chiwenga, glowering from the wall, various Zanu-PF bigwigs, businesspeople, athletes like swimmer Kirsty Coventry, religious leaders.

There are no Zimbabwean dissidents who provide a view other than the ruling class's myopia: no Mapfumo, whose 1989 album, Corruption, proved a harbinger for the years ahead, no Chenjerai Hove whose novel, Bones, continues to prove prescient.

block_quotes_start  There are some things that can't be said, but other ways of saying things that can't be said block_quotes_end

The enfant terrible of Zimbabwean literature, Dambudzo Marechera, does get a nod; as a badly drawn boy who somehow manages to lift himself above an awful representation to smirk knowingly in an exiled corner of the gallery between "financial leader" Bernard Chidzero, who pushed the economy towards neo-liberalism in the 1990s, and Zapu politician Jason Moyo, killed by a letter-bomb in the '70s in Lusaka.

This is patriotic portraiture; sycophancy on canvas.

But the exhibition downstairs is perhaps more disturbing. The Born Free: A Whole New World presents artists born after independence in 1980. In the main, the works seem disengaged from Zimbabwean reality - save for a few pieces, such as Admire Kamudzengere's silk-screen triptych entitled Speech, Independence and 1980, which uses images of unravelling fences to raise questions about migration, the frontiers of political imagination and the socioeconomic perversities of "(un)freedom".

The rest suggest a moribund creativity shackled by an unwillingness to interrogate, or a willingness to be co-opted for financial reasons, to the point that even the traditional weapons of Zimbabwean art - metaphor and the sub-textual - are discarded.

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Three lines of shower curtains run across a makeshift stage in a boma at the Zimbabwe German Society offices in a leafier part of Harare. German director Jens Vilela Neumann oversees a final run-through of Water Games before the next day's performance.

The play, by Mlalazi, is based on Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, but deals with a water crisis in a fictitious city that could easily be Harare. Two brothers - one a water expert, the other the minister of infrastructure, about to launch a bottled water business - prove that "water is thicker than blood". The water expert's tests establish toxicity at a city water source. The minister wants to hush up the findings, and the fact that people are falling ill across the city. His brother will not, and, despite being initially stymied by a capricious journalist, the expert arranges a protest to inform and mobilise the public.

"Can you imagine - in a free society it is wrong to have right on your side," the water expert thinks out loud during one of his battles to out the truth.

After the run-through, a spirited discussion about water in Harare ensues between the actors, director and various onlookers. Anecdotes abound: the Chinese have a company selling bottled water and scam artists are buying caps which appear unopened to sell bottles of tap water to the unsuspecting. Harare tap water, it seems, turns a sickly green if you store it for three days.

Neumann wants to push the actors towards a more overt politics in their performances. They are reticent. "Do you want us to get taken out?" one asks.

On the way back to Hifa, an LGBT activist bemoans the level of politicisation among Zimbabwe's youth: "Even those actors who know what's wrong aren't activists," she says. "They don't want to be too controversial. We're educated that way. There is too much schooling."

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Across town at the Standard Theatre, I caught a Zane E Lucas-directed performance of Fugard's Master Harold and the Boys. In it, Harold, the tearoom owner's son, remarks: "Life's a fuck-up and it's never going to change". An observation that feels particularly heavy on a sultry Harare afternoon.

Sam Brakarsh's petulant Harold slowly regresses into a violent racist space constructed by a bigoted, alcoholic father, while the tearoom servants, Sam (Act Muronzi) and Willie (Tanaka Vengere), clean around him and practise for an upcoming dance competition.

Sam's utopian observation that dancing "is a dream where there are no collisions", providing respite from a world of too many crashes, is countered by Harold's brutal response that people are merely "a bunch of broken spiders trying to do the quickstep".

For the latter, Harare is no different from any other city: filled with "broken spiders", lacking the legs to challenge, protest and demand better governance. Or to raise hope and redemption into the air, like the kite that Harold remembers Sam making years previously, to lift his spirits after a brutally demeaning experience with Harold's father.

Towards the end, Harold sees rain beyond the tearoom window, before turning to Sam and reminding him that you "can't fly kites on rainy days".

"So what do we do," asks Sam, "wait for better weather tomorrow?" It's a question that echoes through the waiting room outside the intensive care unit hosting the 91-year-old Mugabe and his democracy. It echoes through a nation biding its time.

There are many things rendered unspeakable, a secret, in Zimbabwe. Yet, as Cass, in James Baldwin's Another Country observed: "Perhaps such secrets, the secrets of everyone, were only expressed when the person laboriously dragged them into the light of the world, imposed them on the world, and made them a part of the world's experience. Without this effort, the secret place was merely a dungeon in which the person perished; without this effort, indeed, the entire world would be an uninhabitable darkness; and she saw, with a dreadful reluctance, why this effort was so rare."

Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist. His forthcoming book is tentatively titled 'A People's History of Marikana'.