Against all odds The Harare International Arts Festival turns 10

The Weekender, May 9-10 2009

By Sean Christie


‘No change yet,’ said Harare-born Paradzai, clearly tired of reporting the news to newcomers.

‘No change at all, anywhere?’

‘No, nothing.’

‘Ah shamwari, that is very bad. What can we do about it?’

‘I don’t know, really.’

Variations of this conversation are being reproduced all over Zimbabwe at the moment. When is change coming? Is any change coming at all? Walk the streets, and you hear people begging for it, others demanding it. It was especially so last week, within the grounds of the 2009 Harare International Arts Festival, where I observed fists being pounded on tables, heads buried in hands, over this issue of change.

After ignoring me for a few hopeful minutes, Paradzai, his name written in Koki on a card on his maroon waistcoat, approached with an ingenious suggestion.

‘What if you buy two more Bohlingers and a single Fanta? That will bring your order to ten dollars, in which case, there will be no need for change.’

The joke is a little obvious, perhaps, but by no means a hyperbole—issues around monetary change have, since the economy dollarized, temporarily eclipsed the more important debate about political reform, which seems as distant now as it was before the formation of the Government of National Unity (GNU) late last year. Breaking a US$100 note is the critical new skill in Harare—one must coax, nurture, massage potential sources. If they oblige, one must be satisfied with change in at least two separate currencies, the main other being the rand, which Zimbabweans have pegged at ten to the Dollar (the real exchange rate is closer to 8:1—but this fact is ignored, and the loss is absorbed by retailers for sanity’s sake).

These moods—exuberance following from economic liberalisation, and deep scepticism following from the failures and betrayals of the GNU—came together at the tenth Harare international arts Festival, known to locals simply as Hifa. Always they seemed to overlap in some way. The unfailingly good-natured Hifa car guards, for example, were blind drunk most of the time. To them, the temporary income stream was just that—temporary. The sickly stink of cheap vodka also emanated from a number of local artists and poets in Harare last week, for much the same reasons, I suspect. At the first press conference, Manuel Bagorro, Hifa founder and Creative Director, expressed hope that the media would look beyond the context in which the festival was taking place, to the future possibilities for Zimbabwe which the festival’s many collaborations embodied. This was all very well, but only hours earlier the festival media liaison officer had denied festival press accreditation to several foreign journalists, explaining that, ‘The green wrist band will quickly identify you to the CIO agents (Central Intelligence Organization, know to locals as ‘Charlie 10’), who patrol the festival grounds undercover. They may demand to see that you have been officially accredited by the Minister of Communications. I presume that most of you have not been accredited. You are probably aware that Zanu-PF have stolen back the Department of Information from the MDC, in defiance of the GNU agreement.’

So instead of the receiving an access-all-areas wrist band, we were asked to select the shows we wanted to see, and tickets were issued for us just as if we were regular attendees. This short-notice listing made for a surprising, if somewhat prejudiced, journey through the festival week—I overheard one journalist ruling out a Netherlands band because their group photo reminded him, ‘of a bunch of smacked bottoms’. The approach did, however, deprive us of the ability to be reactive, i.e. to hear what others enjoyed, and then to seek tickets for the next showing.
All because of the political context we were being asked to look beyond.

A more general upswell of discontent followed from the announcement that all journalists would have to pay to see the opening play by South African Director Brett Bailey, called Out of Darkness, A rite of Passage. This backhand slap particularly stung those who find it impossible to concentrate on several things taking place at the same time, for the action was spread out between two stages and a big screen, flanked by muscular drummers from the Zimbabwean Air Force (hailed as a coup for the festival, though there is every chance their inclusion could have dire personal consequences). For a while I thought that this fragmented approach was possibly a very clever way of distracting attention from the satire on the central stage, but subsequent interviews clarified that this was not the Director’s intention. I would have to see the play re-imagined spatially before I could decide whether it is any good or not. Small horseshoe bats chasing hawk moths in the spotlights made the greater impression on me that night.

Of all the treasures Hifa spread around the city (the festival has extended beyond the wonderful Harare Park site to city centre street corners), good art, whether carved, painted, chalked or constructed, was hardest to find. The National Gallery doubled as the primary ticket sales point, and reminded me more of the Tobacco Sales Floor on market day than a sanctum for the country’s most important visual documents. There was a marvel located outside the poetry tent, however—an Ark-like structure populated by tiny people in an assortment of quirky African scenes. Dexter, the artist-stroke-engineer, came over and began working winches which powered these dioramas of apostolic praying, women winching water from wells, men hoeing…. He explained that his machine was a ‘unifying device’, representing the story of modern Africa. ‘It is my gloabalizing machine,’ he said. ‘Over here, we have a man from Binga, catching a tiger fish. Over there a policeman in Senegal, taking a bribe. In this little toilet, a woman from Togo is removing a female condom after sex…’ and so on. His whole life, and all the stories he’d been told, were in this machine, which had taken him six years to construct.

Hifa newbies, like me, find the scale, quality and variety of the programme quite remarkable. Naturally one questions how such a thing is possible, given the unprecedented economic decline, violently repressive government, cholera epidemic, and so forth. It works, and works well, because festival founder Manuel Bagorro manages to convince the embassies and councils in Harare to bring out acts of his choosing. Most embassies have budgets for these sorts of interactions, and Hifa has proven itself a popular and measurable investment.

There was, as always, something for everyone—an opera gala (opened by Georgina Godwin, sister of author Peter Godwin), Korean hip hop dancers, a Chinese circus, a dubious Swedish song and dance act called ‘Big Ass BBQ’, South African satire…
As regards the latter, I was interested to hear respected Zimbabwean publisher Irene Staunton say that the satire in Mike van Graan’s Bafana Republic(a one women show about the prostitution of South African values in the run up to the 2010 world cup), and Janice Honeyman’s Beauty and the B.E.E.(‘a fly on the wall view of South Africa’s new black elite’), went down far better with Zimbabwean audiences than Zimbabwean satire ever does. ‘A kind of deferential fear has set in here,’ said Staunton, ‘which our playwrights are struggling to get beyond.’

My three favourite plays were all Zimbabwean, though—two of them products of a mentoring project set up by the Hifa organisers, in collaboration with the British Council. Disconnection, written by Musekiwa Samuriwo and Directed by Blessing Hungwe, closely examines the tragic effects of the Zimbabwe situation on a middle-class Harare family. The audience was amused to learn that most Zimbabweans who flee to London work for the BBC. The acronym, which stands for British Bottom Cleaners, ruled the festival floor until Jonathan Khumbulani Nkala, in his extraordinary one man show The Crossing, referred to white farmers as pandas (‘previously advantaged now disadvantaged’). Nkala had all his interviewees wondering if it could possibly be true—did his verbose but stuttering pal truly drown while illegally crossing the Limpopo River? Did he really survive in Johannesburg by picking mulberries? This story about making it to, and in, South Africa, circled wittily back on its audience, when Nkala explained, as part of his narrative, how he had ultimately done so well in South Africa that a Harare Festival had invited him back home, even putting him up in the ‘Mon-o-mo-ta-pa Hotel’ (just across the street from the venue). In Allegations, another local cracker—Playwright Mandisi Gobodi manages to successfully interweave the stories of a white farmer (Daniel Hargrove as Spud) and a rural youth (Everson Ndlovu as Reason), both of whom have become victims of violence perpetrated by the world infamous Zimbabwean war veterans. In giving official testimony, both characters are repeatedly told that their ‘allegations’, while serious, cannot be substantiated without witnesses. Through tense, even hostile dialogue, Spud, the white farmer, is forced to recognize that he is not alone in his loss and pain, and that both he and the young man whose experiences mirror his own must survive to bear witness, for only then can healing begin. It is significant, I think, that the play was directed by Patience Tawengwa, daughter of the deeply corrupt former Harare mayor, Solomon Tawengwa.

Attending Hifa means experiencing the city Solomon Tawengwa let down—a place of ferrous soils, pitted boulevards and exotic flowering trees (which are, according to a landscape architect I happened to meet, becoming senescent because the municipal water system has collapsed). In the absence of electricity, generators chunter all day in the suburbs, and street corners are heaped with sugar cane, mieleies, tomatoes, avocadoes, and sweet potatoes grown in alleys between houses, and in the vacant tracts of the city’s many marshlands. With both fuel for transport and food so scarce, the country has come to the city, as peak oil theorists imagined it would. The racial stratifications of yesteryear are alive and well, but at the top money mixes with money, regardless of colour. I had the singular misfortune of standing Zimbabwean Vice President Joyce Mujuru’s daughter and her friends a round at a private bar in Highlands, where an Irish song and dance troupe was performing outside of the festival programme. To my dismay, I later learned that Nyasha Mujuru is married to the illegal gold trader Pedro Del Campos, and is herself implicated in the flight of millions of dollars in gold from Zimbabwe.
The incestuous Harare social scene first intoxicates, then gradually begins to poison the system. It is possible to meet everyone who is anyone quite quickly, a kind of social bends that can bring on big emotions fast. Commuting back and forth from the festival only intensifies the experience. I was warned at the outset that Sunday the third of May would find me ‘Hifa’d out’. This was already the case by Friday, so I decided to escape with a friend to a place of granite batholiths just outside town. Ngomakarira was a wonderland of balanced rock and Bushman paintings. We should have tarried longer with a group of apostolic women, singing beneath an immense cliff. Instead we raced the sunset—South African Afro-pop group Malaika were due on in an hour.

In the end, Hifa was primarily about the music. Folk musician Oliver Mtukudzi did not make it this year, but his son Sam did, playing with saxophonist Max Wild, who is the son of Zimbabwean literature expert Flora Wild. Their attempt at a next generation Zimbabwean sound has, perhaps, been polished up a little too bright for the Manhattan scene, but they seem to return home as often as they can, and are hopefully forming collaborations which will lead them, and Zimbabwean music, to new pastures. The prize for most stirring set entailed a three way fight between Victoria Falls Tonga band Mokoomba, who are ready to be international stars, Malian musician Habib Koite, who has long been an international sensation, and Alick ‘Razorwire’ Macheso—the most popular resident Zimbabwean musician. With a vocal range the equal of Youssou Ndour’s, Mathias Muzaza from Mokoomba was looking hot for the crown, but a seven year old Pantsula dancer summarily upstaged him mid-gig, to wild cheer. Macheso’s hypnotic guitar loops stirred a large crowd in suffocating heat, while Habib Koite and Bamada enchanted the Saturday evening pull with their pop interpretations of a musical sound known in Mali simply as Guitar. Encores would have settled the matter, but the strict hour slot laid down by organizers was observed by superstars and debutantes alike. This is my only serious criticism of a most remarkable festival—let the dance take people where it will, because when it’s done, it’s back to Paradzai in the dirty marquee bar, and the ongoing struggle for change.