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Totems And The Art of Shona Praise Poetry – The Lost Language Of Our Ancestors

Rhesus_Macaque_Monkey_Sitting_On_A_Tree_600

Monkeys are amazing creatures, swinging our way with messages of intelligence, intensity and involvement. They are as playful as they are entertaining. Monkeys also have a strong capacity for compassion, understanding and bonding. Monkeys are also one of the many totem animals among the Shona people of Zimbabwe.

A bit of background…

In Shona culture, totems (mutupo) are usually names of animals which the individual is likened to in terms of character and personality. A totem originates from one individual (the ancestor) and is passed on to the descendants of the individual. Totems are often used to praise a person for their good deeds, to seek the favour from someone who is at higher position or to address kings and chiefs.

According to Alec J.C. Pongweni author of Shona Praise Poetry As Role Negotiation:

Shona praise poetry has its origins in the totemic system. In the totemic system a clan associates itself with an animal, for example, Shumba – Lion, Soko – Monkey, Mhofu – Beast, etc. This animal is chosen because of certain admirable characteristics of appearance, demeanour and hunting tactics or the manner in which it feeds.

The members of the clan are supposed to emulate these traits.

The praise poem (detembo) is derived from the characteristics of the totem animal as well as those presented by the clan. These could be their famous victories, failures which cast them to the ground, their struggles for recognition, their idiosyncrasies, favourite food, and many other traits.

The praise poem (detembo) is basically a song of flattery recited as a reward for socially commendable acts. Praise poems (detembo) serve to build confidence and self esteem for the individuals being praised, creating a sense of worth and identity in a person.

Totems and praise poems are two different things. A totem (mutupo)  is used to address its bearer. A praise poem (detembo) is used to thank the bearer of the totem. According to Pongweni, young children are not supposed to be thanked by their praise poems; they are thanked by their totems only. Praise poems are for grownups, especially those who are married. Girls are never thanked by their fathers praise poems; they are thanked only by their totems. If they grow up they will be thanked by their husbands praise poems, if they are married. The boys also will be thanked by their praise poems if they marry a wife.

Learning the praise poetry for my totem…

For the better part of this year I have been trying to get members of my extended family to teach me how to recite the Shona praise poetry (detembo) for my totem Soko, the monkey. Finding someone to teach me this detembo proved to be more difficult than I had initially anticipated.  For starters many members of my family are spread not only across Zimbabwe, but across the world. And despite the ubiquity of technology in our lives which has made it easier to stay in touch with my aunts and uncles both in the rural areas and in Diaspora I was still unable to make any headway. No one seemed to know the proper detembo for our totem Soko.

When I had initially taken my parents to task as part of the research for my book they confessed to only having a vague idea on how to recite the praise poetry for my totem Soko (the monkey). My parents and everyone else I asked kept referring to my late great aunt (my paternal grandfather’s sister) who from all accounts was a renowned reciter of the praise poetry of our clan. However, in a complete betray of the oral traditions that are deeply ingrained in our Shona culture no one I had access to had learned this most fascinating form of verbal artistry from her. This didn’t sit well with me. And the more I thought about this the more obsessed I became with learning the detembo for Soko, if only for posterity’s sake.  Surely someone in our clan who I might not be immediately related to would know. They had to.

To be fair, I did learn a thing or two that I hadn’t known before. One uncle shared with me an anecdote about how our totem, the monkey taught the white men how to sit on chairs. The white men he said to me, learned how to sit on chairs by watching and copying how the monkeys sat on branches. Because of this people who had the monkey as their totem were revered for their ingenuity amongst other traits. However, he couldn’t quite remember whether this anecdote was actually part of the detembo or if it was just a story he had been told when he was younger.

 

All this happened at the top of the year and between then and as recently as this past weekend I hardly made any further progress in my quest. In fact I had put the whole thing at the back of my mind.

That was until I finally caught a break from the most unlikely of sources, the ordination ceremony of a Catholic priest. My mother, a staunch catholic attended the ordination ceremony of a priest from our local parish. To those unfamiliar with ordination ceremonies (like I was), they are basically the Priesthoods equivalent of a marriage ceremony. In this case the priest is marrying the ‘church’. Anyway as part of the celebrations the parish women decided to recite the detembo for the priest in question. And as luck would have it this particular priest was a Soko.

Things got even better when the Priests father, in effort to make sure that the detembo was recited accurately gave each the women (my mother included) printed copies of the detembo to recite. And that is how I came to be in possession of a written copy of the detembo for my totem Soko.

But wait, it gets better …

There is more…

According to Shona oral traditions, the adoption of totemism is associated with the earliest known ancestor of the Shona people, Mambiri . He chose the Soko (Monkey) totem to guard against incestuous behaviour and also for the social identity of his followers. This took place in a mythical place called Guruuswa, which was located somewhere north of the Zambezi River in southern Tanganyika. As the early Shona grew in number and marriage became difficulty, due to the fact that they practiced the custom of exogamy (marrying only outside one’s clan), there was need to adopt a second totem. The Shava/Mhofu (Eland) totem was therefore adopted so as to enable intermarriage between members of the two totems to take place. In contemporary Shona society there are at least 25 identifiable totems (mitupo).

By that account, that actually makes my totem Soko, the monkey one of the originals.

This is also something that is detailed in the praise poetry for my totem which I have  shared below in both its original Shona form as well as an accompanying English version.

 

Soko

Ewoi Soko,

Vhudzijena, Mukanya

Hekanhi Mbereka

Makwiramiti, mahomu-homu

Vanopona nekuba

Vanamushamba negore

Makumbo mana muswe weshanu

Hekani Soko yangu yiyi

Vakaera mutupo umwe nashe

Vana VaPfumojena

Vakabva Guruuswa

Soko Mbire yaSvosve

Vanobva Hwedza

Vapfuri vemhangura

VekuMatonjeni vanaisi vemvura

Zvaitwa matarira vari mumabwe

Mhanimani tonodya, svosve tichobovera

Maita zvenyu rudzi rukuru

Matangakugara

Vakawana ushe neuchenjeri

Vakufamba hujeukidza kwandabva

Pagerwe rinongova jemedzanwa

Kugara hukwenya-kwenya

Vari mawere maramba kurimba

Vamazvikongonyadza kufamba hukanyaira

Zvibwezvitedza, zvinotedzera vari kure

Asi vari padyo vachitamba nazvo

Zvaitwa mukanya rudzi rusina chiramwa

Maita vari Makoromokwa, Mugarandaguta

Aiwa zvaonekwa Vhudzijena

 

Translated into English

Thank you Soko

White-hair, The Pompous one

Thank you Bearer of Children

The Tree-climber, one-who-always-barks

Those who survive by stealing

Those who bath only once in a year

Those who have four legs, the tail being the fifth

Thank you very much my dear Soko

Those who have the same totem as the chief

The descendants of Pfumojena

Those who came from Guruuswa

Soko Mbire of Svosve

Those who come from Hwedza

The iron-smelters

The rain-makers of Matojeni

A good service has been done the alert one, those in the rocks

We eat centipedes, we throw ants into our mouths

Thank you for the good service, great lineage

The original inhabitants

Those who obtained chieftainship through shrewdness and diplomacy

The one who constantly looks back when moving

Wherever they settle there is quarreling and crying

When seated you are constantly scratching your body

Those always on the cliffs, who refused to till the land

The pompous one who walks proudly

The Slippery-rocks that are slippery to those come from afar

But is friendly to those in the vicinity

It has been done, a lineage that does not refuse to perform a task no matter how it is treated

Those on the steep rocks and cliffs, one-who-rests-only-when-he-is-full

Indeed your kindness has been seen, White-hair

 

From the English version of the poem, the praises “White hair”, “Bearer of children”, “Those who have four legs, the tail being the fifth”, for instance, makes reference to the behaviour of the animal totem. However, praises like “Those who have the same totem as the chief”, “Those who come from Guruuswa”, “The descendants of Pfumojena”, “The rain-makers of Matonjeni”, “Those who come from Hwedza”, “The Iron-smelters”, refer to the history and the professions of the long departed ancestors of the clan.

And there you have it, I finally know the praise poetry for my totem. In the process I have learned a little bit more about the history of my ancestors. Something I am sure was always part of the motivation behind the use of praise poetry.

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Posted by on July 30, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Wise Words From A Decent Man: ‘Africa Rising: Africa telling her story’

Earlier this week Zimbabwean media mogul, the Chairman of Alpha Media Holdings, Trevor Ncube gave a speech at the launch of the company’s new media venture The Mail and Guardian Africa in Nairobi, Kenya. In his speech he discussed Africa’s economic growth and development prospects, the role and importance of Africans in dictating the African narrative and the myriad of challenges that the continent faces. He also shared his views on the ‘Africa Rising’ mantra. He encouraged us (Africans) to look back at Africa’s history particularly the wave of optimism (Uhuru) that was omnipresent in newly independent African countries in the 60’s as he said this would be instructive as to how the Africa Rising narrative might pan out. In drawing parallels between Uhuru and Africa Rising he was highlighting the fact this is not the first time that Africa has been engulfed by a collective sense of optimism about its future.

Africa_Rising620

As a young African, who is deeply passionate about the continent this particular speech resonated. In his speech Trevor Ncube made quite a few salient points which I would like to highlight below.

• The danger of talking about Africa as it if were one uniform entity, with the same risks and rewards. There will never be a single African story, just like there will never be a single European story. But when the African continent is aligned in the same way that Europe is aligned in terms of economic integration, seamless borders and having a connected infrastructure it is possible for it to speak with one voice.

• Entrepreneurs across the continent are laying the foundation for a truly irreversible economic turnaround for the continent particularly in the fields of telecoms, technology,agriculture,infrastructure, tourism, media, education and healthcare.( Africa’s growth and it’s prosperity is not limited to it exploiting its abundant natural resources)

• The importance of Africans telling the African story to the rest of the world. By telling our own stories we will bring dynamism to the African narrative so that it is not reduced to binaries, torn between those who truly believe that Africa indeed is rising and those who perceive this as fanciful thinking.

You can read the full transcript of speech below

Africa Rising: Africa telling her story

Colleagues and dear friends, I think you’ll all agree with me that there is a palpable excitement about Africa, about the economic opportunities the continent presents, perhaps more than at any other time.No wonder the catch-all phrase — Africa Rising — has struck such a deep chord. But perhaps it is important to glance back on Africa’s history and realise that in the early 1960s there was similar optimism.Then it was about the arrival of freedom, Uhuru, heralding the birth of the world’s newest nations. And it is instructive to look at what became of that wave of optimism. Because it has important lessons for how the “Africa Rising” narrative may pan out.

I think even the most hardened Uhuru optimist would agree that for most Africans, the returns on political optimism in the 60s was dismal. Even as new flags were gracing the renamed capitals, wars, coups and dictatorship quickly became the norm.The freedom dividend went to a tiny political elite and for the vast majority of the continent’s citizens, life was unbearably hard. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that total despair was replaced by flickering hope with the first defeat of liberation parties in elections starting with Zambia.The lesson for us from how quickly hope turned to despair is that it was the behaviour of Africa’s new rulers that dashed the hopes of millions.

Similarly, those of us who are genuinely excited about the opportunities that we see across a number of economic and social fronts must realise that it is how we respond and act on these opportunities that will determine the outcome.But I think that given the emergence of private sector investors who are independent of political leaders, there is a sense that Africa is going to seize the new opportunities and translate them into tangible returns for millions of its citizens.

Which brings me back to Africa Rising. Clearly, there are those who believe that Africa Rising is just one new sexy phrase about the continent, and that it bears little resemblance to reality. While I disagree with them, I think they do raise an important point, and one that is particularly important for organisations like ours. I think their main point is that it is dangerous to talk about Africa as if it is one uniform entity, with the same risks and the same rewards. And looking at the heartbreaking scenes playing out in the Central African Republic, South Sudan and other places, it is impossible to ignore their cautionary note.

But it is also true that there is a significant shift in economic fundamentals that goes beyond mere rhetoric. As I have travelled across the continent, from South Africa to Ethiopia, Rwanda, Kenya, Ghana and Zimbabwe, I have realised first hand that entrepreneurs are laying the foundation for a truly irreversible economic turn-around for our continent.
Jobs are being created in new sectors, and innovation and hard-nosed business acumen are combining to give credence to the overwhelming sense of optimism.
It is, of course, also interesting that this time around, the excitement about the economic prospects of our continent is not limited to natural resources, important as these still are.

Telecoms, technology, agriculture, infrastructure, tourism, media, fashion, education and healthcare are some of the sectors that are receiving attention.
Let me go through some of the most compelling indicators; these numbers underline the fact that ours is indeed a continent on the rise.

The sheer growth in the number of verifiably super rich Africans, Africa’s dollar billionaires who now number close to 60 far more than previously thought.

The incredible number of African professionals who have returned home from places like New York, London or Paris with key skills and capital in their pockets underlines the new opportunities back home.

Over the past decade, China has been the world’s economic powerhouse, but as its economic growth slows down, it is no accident that China’s key focus has been Africa. This surely says something about the economic prospects of our continent.

Given dismal growth elsewhere in the world, the International Monetary Fund and other bodies have identified sub-Saharan Africa’s growth at nearly 5% over the last six years — by comparison, the growth rate in the developed nations has been at a paltry 0,5% per year.

Investors are setting up offices across the continent and foreign investment is flowing into infrastructure projects, private equity players are rushing to stake their claim.
Africa’s richest entrepreneur, Nigeria’s Aliko Dangote — with a fortune of over $20,2 billion — is now one of the world’s richest individuals and the source of all his wealth is from Africa.

Urbanisation in Africa has resulted in huge opportunities in the retail and infrastructure sectors. Sadly, transport still lags behind, but I have no doubt entrepreneurs will seize these opportunities as well.

There has been a significant growth in philanthropy by wealthy Africans, with Dangote, donating more than $100m in one year to education, health and disaster relief in Nigeria.
Other entrepreneurs are South Africa’s Patrice Motsepe who donated a significant portion of his wealth to charity and Zimbabwe’s Strive Masiyiwa who donates significantly towards education and training.

Given all the optimism, the rosy indicators, and the widespread euphoria about the continent’s prospects, what then are some of the things that need to happen to make this sustainable?

Well, I strongly believe that the new generation of African leaders, be they entrepreneurs, technocrats, civil society or politicians have an important role to play.
Each of us has a responsibility to act boldly, but in ways that do not ignore the key social issues such as joblessness, poverty, poor education and neglected infrastructure.
I know it’s a big ask, but unless we think seriously about these problems, the vast majority of Africans will watch from the sidelines, condemned to poverty and despair. I think there is a greater chance of accountability right now because we live in a significantly more transparent world.

Where in the past the elite could act with impunity knowing they were accountable only to themselves, I think the new generation of Africans have little patience for leaders who are a law unto themselves.

But above all, I do think that a new breed of African leaders is rising to the challenge of redefining this continent that has for so long remained inexplicably poor and underdeveloped.
There is a rise in public sector and private sector partnerships, telecoms innovation has lowered the costs of banking, and Africa’s entrepreneurs are increasingly venturing beyond political borders to establish a new economic frontier. This can only bode well for government to government co-operation, showing that business and politics need not be at loggerheads.

But perhaps most importantly, as Africans we have to tell our own story.
I think nothing is more emblematic of how little influence Africa has wielded in world affairs than the fact that even Africans themselves rely on non-African media to know what is going on in their own backyard.

Even the Africa Rising Narrative is usually referenced using two cover stories by the Economist, one in 2003 and the other one in 2013. If you go to the lobbies of Africa’s best hotels, chances are the TV is tuned to CNN, the BBC or Sky. This is clearly untenable for a continent with serious ambitions.

So I do think that as we become masters of our own destiny as a continent, we have to invest in media that is independent, credible, visible and globally influential. In the past, government media was simply a mouthpiece for incumbent politicians, with little credibility.
Now we all know that there are, of course, significant investments required to operate at the level of Al Jazeera, but without it, Africa will continue to consume rather than produce the narrative that defines it.

I am encouraged to see the emergence of globally respected Africans across so many fronts, such as architect David Adjaye, novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, entrepreneurs like Dangote who can all become the backbone of a compelling narrative about the new Africa.

Many of the continent’s best stories are still told by foreigners and overseas and I think it is time that Africa became the home of its best stories.
This is vitally important also because it will lead to a much more dynamic telling of Africa’s story, so that it is not reduced to binaries, torn between those who believe that this continent is set for an irreversible boom, and those who think this is pie-in-the-sky.

There will never be a single Africa, just like there is no single Europe, but when the continent is aligned in the way that Europe is
aligned, with economic integration, seamless borders and a connected infrastructure, it is possible to speak with one voice. I would like to leave you with two thoughts on the power of framing. Instead of us Africans proving how smart we are by talking about Africa’s Narrative, the real test perhaps lies in how we grab the opportunities the new optimism presents us.

The real measure of how Africa has risen won’t be found in conference halls, but will be reflected in hard socio-economic achievements bedded down during this period.

We are launching M&GAfrica.com because we have faith in the continent’s future and we believe we have a role to play in Africa telling her own story.
Second, we believe that nobody, but us as Africans can tell our story better. Expecting foreigners to tell the African story is expecting too much as it has clearly not happened over the past 100 years.

Foreign media tell the African story with one agenda in mind mainly — to satisfy the prejudices and curiosities of their audiences in London, New York, New Delhi, Beijing etc.
We don’t change the African narrative by pleading with the Western media to stop the African stereotypes, but by behaving differently and telling our own stories. These are stories of how we live and not how we die. These are stories of how we triumph against all odds. These are stories that share the good and bad in Africa. Stories of hope and despair and stories that celebrate the tremendous strides that we are making as a people.

Thank you
Trevor Ncube’s speech in Nairobi at the launch of M&G Africa on Tuesday May 20 2014

 
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Posted by on May 23, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Wise Words from A Decent Man: ‘Africans need to travel, in Africa.’

The words below are some of the most inspiring words I have read all week. The author is Zimbabwean entrepreneur Dr Strive Masiyiwa, the Founder and CEO of The Econet Wireless Group. The Econet Wireless Group is a global telecommunications group with operations, investments and offices in more than 15 different countries (in Africa, Europe, USA, Latin America and Asia-Pacific). Over the last couple of months Dr Strive Masiyiwa has been sharing the story of how he came to be where is today over a series of Facebook posts. This has steadily become of my favourite things on my Facebook timeline. In his post he shares both spiritual and business advice to his followers and the post below is one of his latest post. After reading this I felt compelled to share to share this with readers of this blog who might not be on Facebook or who might not be following Dr Strive Masiyiwa.

IT’S TIME TO VISIT AFRICA by Dr Strive Masiyiwa

Africa _strive

Years ago, when I first visited Washington DC, I was amazed to see that the vast majority of the tourists wondering around the city, with such excitement, were actually Americans from other cities and states within America. It really made me to yearn to see the same in Africa.

I would love to see a day, and I know it will come, when Africa’s tourism is driven by Africans from other African countries. This is not to say, I do not want to see tourists from other parts of the world; I do, because tourism is great for any economy.

Africans need to travel, in Africa.

The Ghanian writer Kofi Opoku, says:

“Do not say that your mother’s stew is the best in the world, if you have never left your village”.

We need to see more and more Africans, of all ages, traveling in Africa, as tourists. I would like to see more exchange programs between African countries for students, at all levels.

Someone once asked me, if I would like to see a certain movie, and I said yes, but when he asked me to go to the cinema with him, I replied by saying, ” it is worth seeing, but not worth paying to see!” For many of us, visiting other parts of Africa, is something we do as part of our work, but to plan a voluntary visit to an African country using one’s own money? Well that is something that Europeans, Americans, and now increasingly Chinese and others do, because they have money… Right? Wrong!!!
………….I have met taxi drivers in London who visit Africa on holiday!

Almost every day of the week, I meet investors and business associates who are keen to invest in Africa. They are either looking for partners who know Africa, or to hire professionals who also know Africa.

The truth of the matter is such people are not as many as one might think. It is a really small pool for a continent as large and diverse as ours.

As a young African, your success and prosperity over the next few years, will depend to a great extent on how well, you know other African countries, other than your own country.

Such knowledge does not come embedded in your brain, it comes only through reading about African countries, listening to news about Africa, and traveling in Africa.

Seven of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world today, are African. If you want to be part of this growing prosperity, now is the time to really determine in your heart to become a true expert of Africa. Even if you do not have money yet to visit African countries, there are many things you can do every day to improve your knowledge. One of them is to read news from other African countries on the Internet. Everyday, I read Online news from different African countries.
Its time to visit Africa.
The End
The reason this resonated so much with me is because this is something that has been on my mind for a while now. I have long wanted get to know the continent better but I have always found one excuse and it hasn’t happened yet. So much for being a Pan Africanist. Reading this resuscitated that ambition for me again. Mostly because I have found more practical reasons to travel the continent than just tickling my fancy. One of my biggest qualms has been that flights between countries within Africa are prohibitively expensive as compared to flights say to Europe. It is more expensive to fly from Joburg to Mombasa than it is to fly from Joburg to Prague. (Even though I have never been to Prague) But in all honesty that is just an excuse because in all honesty I could probably take a bus to Mombasa if I wanted to. Yes, it would be a very long trip but I could never take the bus to Prague so… Even without looking as far afield as Mombasa they are places much closer to home than I can start with. For example my parents home is a 30 minute drive from the Mozambican border. Despite this I have never ever been to Mozambique. Ever. Maybe that is where I need to start my African safari.

 
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Posted by on May 10, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Switching off HIFA 2014 week: The BIG Write Up

 

All is well with my soul. HIFA week has come and gone and what a week it was. Six days of art, theatre, poetry, live music, laughter, drinking (shout out to the Pump Price Boys), joy, friendship and … one memorable night of unbelievable ratios. There are levels to this whole culture vulture shindig and the past week is right up there in the upper echelons of this culture vultures greatest hits. So much so that writing this I feel a quite sensation of satisfaction at the week that was the Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA). It was definitely worth the wait and it was full of pleasant surprises. Over 1600 artists from Indonesia, Ireland, Cote D’ivoire, Germany, USA, China, Malawi, Netherlands, Greece, South Africa, UK and DRC just to mention a few descended upon the Harare Gardens and the surrounding areas and served a gourmet feast of arts and culture for the thousands of revelers to gorge on. By the end of the week even the most gluttonous of culture vultures were satisfied.

Acrobats perform during HIFA opening ceremony. (Photo courtesy of Zimbo Jam)

Acrobats perform during HIFA opening ceremony. (Photo courtesy of Zimbo Jam)

 

Acrobats perform during HIFA opening ceremony. (Photo courtesy of Zimbo Jam)

Acrobats perform during HIFA opening ceremony. (Photo courtesy of Zimbo Jam)

Zimbabwean music legend Oliver 'Tuku' Mtukudzi performs during the HIFA opening ceremony with Ammara Brown Nad Cynthia Mare ( Photo courtesy of ZImbo Jam)

Zimbabwean music legend Oliver ‘Tuku’ Mtukudzi performs during the HIFA opening ceremony with Ammara Brown Nad Cynthia Mare ( Photo courtesy of ZImbo Jam)

My first HIFA experience last year was limited to taking in a handful of live performances over the course of weekend. This year I made a concerted effort to turn my HIFA experience into a weeklong event. And now armed with the benefit of hindsight I realize how much I shortchanged myself last year. This year I took in more of the theatre program than I did live music. I stepped out of the luscious green confines of the Harare Gardens and into the intimate spaces of the Reps, Standard and 7 Arts theatres, as well as The National Art Gallery Of Zimbabwe. My HIFA experience was so much richer for it.

 

'The Drinking Hole' The Pariah State bar  stand on the Coca Cola Green

‘The Watering Hole’ The Pariah State bar stand on the Coca Cola Green

Revelers having a jolly good time at HIFA ( Photo courtesy of HIFA)

Revelers having a jolly good time at HIFA ( Photo courtesy of HIFA)

Fesival goers enjoy the HIFA entertainment on the Coca Cola Green ( Photo courtesy of HIFA)

Festival goers enjoy the HIFA entertainment on the Coca Cola Green ( Photo courtesy of HIFA)

 

The highlight of the week for me was a play entitled ‘The Gods They Have Built For Us.’ It stands as probably the best, most engaging, thought provoking, enthralling and enlightening live theatre experiences I have had in the last couple of years. It reminded me of how much I loved and missed theatre. Other highlights included the opening ceremony which featured acrobats, b boy dancers, the legendary Oliver ‘Tuku’ Mtukudzi, The Cool Crooners and Steve Dyer. As the week progressed I was pleasantly surprised by Zimababwean Hip Hop artist Synik live set, UK based Malawian Standup comedian Daliso Chiponda, Belarusian solo guitarist Maneli Jamal, South African musician Toya Delazy and German reggae /jazz fusion band Jamarama. The week was not without its controversies as protesters and some parts of the media tried to get the play ‘Lovers in Time’ which re-imagines the spirit mediums trajectory if they had not been executed during the First Chimurenga struggle.

 

Mbuya Nehanda in the play "Lovers In Time". Photo credit: Fungai Tichawangana

Mbuya Nehanda in the play “Lovers In Time”. Photo credit: Fungai Tichawangana

 

Ivorian musician Dobet Gnahore leaps during her live performance at HIFA  Photo credit: Fungai Tichawangana

Ivorian musician Dobet Gnahore leaps during her live performance at HIFA Photo credit: Fungai Tichawangana

Belarusian Solo Guitarist Maneli Jamal performs on The Lays Global stage

Belarusian Solo Guitarist Maneli Jamal performs on The Lays Global stage

 

The controversy was focused on the portrayal of Mbuya Nehanda and Sekuru Kaguvi as transgender as well as white Zimbabweans in their reincarnations. Mbuya Nehanda and Sekuru Kaguvi were stalwarts of Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle and they inspired the generation of Zimbabweans who finally freed Zimbabwe from the shackles of colonialism. As such some sections of Zimbabwean society did not take to kindly or appreciate the artistic merit of the play. It did get the directors great publicity and it was only because of the controversy that I ended up attending the play.

One of my favourite spots during HIFA that I only discovered much later in the week was the Craft and Design Centre which was supported by the Royal Norwegian Embassy. The Craft and Design Centre provided a space for local artist and designers to showcase their work to HIFA goers. The Craft and Design Centre had some interesting events including live graffiti and painting. Environmentally sensitive artists who use recycled material including bottles, cans, plastics and even bottle tops were busy with their displays.

The Design and Craft Centre displays a ceiling made from discarded plastic bottles. (Photo credit :Farai Dauramanzi)

The Design and Craft Centre displays a ceiling made from discarded plastic bottles. (Photo credit: Farai Dauramazi)

he HIFA grafitti wall in the Desing and Craft Centre gives space for the expression of what is traditionally street art

he HIFA grafitti wall in the Design and Craft Centre gives space for the expression of what is traditionally street art Photo credit: Farai Dauramanzi

Mbira, Drums, Hosho and various other crafts on sale in Design and Craft Centre ( Photo courtesy of HIFA)

Mbira, Drums, Hosho and various other crafts on sale in Design and Craft Centre ( Photo courtesy of HIFA)

 

My only regret from this year’s HIFA experience is that aside from the opening ceremony I didn’t get a chance to take in some of the dance acts but that will be on the top of the agenda come HIFA next year.

The only blemish from this years festival was that the South African Afro-fusion musical group Freshlyground denied entry into Zimbabwe. HIFA organisers allegedly left it to the 11th hour to apply for work permits for the group. Subsequently the group was turned away at the Harare international airport when they arrived without the necessary documentation.

Overall though it was still a great week, and HIFA definitely stands among the best festivals I have been privileged to attend.

Below I have written reviews for some of the shows that moved me.

Show Reviews
Opening Ceremony: Lighting Up the Darkness – Telecel Main Stage
For the opening ceremony the stage was set against the iconic backdrop of the Cityscape and the leafy bamboo walls with the natural glow of flaming torches, lighting up the darkness. The opening ceremony provided a highlight reel of the performances that would take place during the week. It involved poetry reading, live music from legends such as Steve Dyer, Tuku & The Cool Crooners. The musical curation was matched by the dance that followed from acrobatics to b-boying intensity. And to end of the night the beautiful Harare skyline reflected the colour, passion and light that came from the Opening show: Light Up The Darkness as fireworks light up the Harare skyline.

HIFA 2014 Opening Ceremony : he show, titled ‘Light up the Darkness’ followed the story of two dung beetles fighting hard to get their precious cargo up a rock.

HIFA 2014 Opening Ceremony : The show, titled ‘Light up the Darkness’ followed the story of two dung beetles fighting hard to get their precious cargo up a rock. Photo credit :Verity Norman

The Gods You’ve Built – Reps Theatre

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This play was based on three unlikely characters, the founder of an anonymous online community (for people who question religion and the meaning of life) who happens to be a bored accountant pretending to be a policeman for most of the play, a pregnant nun and her philosophy professor lover who has lost faith in his own philosophies. The drama unfolds out in a dilapidated public toilet that is decorated with graffiti and used condoms on the floor. To quote one of the lines by the actors “It is classic in a sanitary kind of way.” The play explores the complexity of existence. It seeks to understand the purpose of life and poses questions such as whether there is a perfect way out of misery. It served up a theatrical journey that left me mulling on play long after I had left the theatre. I found the play full of witty, insightful dialogue and musings. Some of the memorable quotes from the play are “We are all trying to find order in randomness’, “We were all Catholic at one time” and “Prayer is like insurance. People take out insurance not because they think their house is going to burn down. They take out insurance just in case their house burns down.” One of the more thought provoking questions the play posed to the audience and deals succinctly with the thrust of the play was this: Imagine if one morning you woke up and God was standing at your door and he said to you, ‘There is no heaven and there is no hell. No reward for the good you have done. And no punishment for the evil you have done. But I am God. Love me and worship me.” Would you do it?

 

 The Reps Theatre - A scene from the play 'They God's You've Built For Us' ( Photo credit Ron Senderayi)

A scene from the play ‘They God’s You’ve Built For Us’ (Photo credit: Ron Senderayi)

This play was undoubtedly one of the top highlights of my HIFA experience.

Synik (Award winning Zimbo Hip Hop artist) – Coca Cola Green

Zimbabwean Hip Hop artist'Outspoken & Synik do a final soundcheck before Synik's Live set on The Coca Cola Green (Phot credit: Ron Senderai)

Zimbabwean Hip Hop artist’Outspoken & Synik do a final soundcheck before Synik’s Live set on The Coca Cola Green (Photo credit: Ron Senderayi)

 

Zimbabwean rapper Synik has a confident flow that immediately commands your attention from the get go. His energy was as infectious as it was organic with the audience vibing along to his crystal clear and at times poignant rhymes. For his live performance he was accompanied by a flawless live band that was reminiscent of American live Hip Hop band ‘The Roots’. Prior to his set I was not very familiar with most of his catalogue. I had only heard whispers on the Twitters streets but even that could not have prepared me for the musical vortex Synik sucked me into. I have not listened to a more authentic and talented Hip Hop musician live in a long time. Despite this being basically my first listen his cooly delivered lyrics resonated viscerally with m. His subject matter appealed both to the patriotic Zimbabwean in me as well the man still desperately trying to find my place in the world. His raps took me on a journey that transfixed me into a reflection of my past and future struggles to feeling like an outsider in my own country. In his own way Synik gave the soundtrack to my homecoming that I never had. A soundtrack I didn’t know I needed. Did I mention how organic his energy was on stage? There was a very Rock feel to his performance. And his interaction with the crowd revealed a humble and grounded young man. A rarity in Hip Hop circles. I am a fan. Over the course of this coming week I will be definitely marinating on his album with an eye on penning a full review at the end of the week.

Daliso Chiponda : Barely Legal (UK based Malawian Standup comedian)- 7 Arts Theatre

Daliso performs his stand up routine 'Barely Legal' at the & Arts Theatre ( Photo courtesy Of Zimbo Jam)

Daliso performs his stand up routine ‘Barely Legal’ at the & Arts Theatre ( Photo courtesy Of Zimbo Jam)

Daliso Chiponda’s stand up routine ‘Barely Legal’ had me and the rest of the audience laughing at our own collective idiosycransies. I have always admired how socially intelligent most comedians are and Daliso was no exception. During his set he made fun of Zimbabwe having a raunchy pole dancer/stripper Beverly Sibanda as a ‘celebrity’. He expressed shock on how Bev is considered a superstar in Zimbabwe saying in other parts of the world a stripper is on the lowest of the social ladder. Daliso also joked about Bev’s use of a beer bottle during her dancing routines by quizzing the audience how she discovered the “trick.”“Is it that Bev tripped and fell on a bottle that she discovered she could dance on top of it?.” “How does one discover such a talent of dancing on a bottle,” he quizzed.

He also went after Prophet Eubert Angel musing on whether he and his prophetess wife have arguments about things that haven’t happened yet. He alsojoked about the upcoming South African election featuring Julius Malema, the time he was almost arrested for ridiculing the government of Malawi, corrupt African leaders as well as bizarre sex laws in Europe. All in all he served up laughs galore.

Lovers In Time – The Standard Theatre 

The Standard Theatre - The Cast of the controversial play "Lovers In TIme" which was based on the reimaninging of the Mbuya Nehanda and Sekuru Kaguvi story

The Standard Theatre – The Cast of the controversial play “Lovers In TIme” which was based on the reimaninging of the Mbuya Nehanda and Sekuru Kaguvi story (Photo credit : Ron Senderayi)

This was one of the more controversial performances of this years HIFA week.I will admit I was only drawn to watch it after the catching wind of the inevitable publicity the controversy stirred. Conceptually I loved the premise of the play. The play aimed to retell the story of the spirit mediums Mbuya Nehanda and Sekuru Kaguvi, two of the most iconic figures in Zimbabwe’s fight for freedom. The play imagines what would have happened had they not be captured and hanged by the colonial regime.

How different would our history have been? How would they feel about the current state of affairs in a free Zimbabawe, that they died for? Those are some of the questions the play attempts to answer. To achieve this the writer’s and director of the play reincarnated Mbuya Nehanda and Sekuru Kaguvi and switched their bodies. The spirit of Mbuya Nehanda came back as a man and that of Sekuru Kaguvi as a transgender woman. Both spirits are reincarnated at different stages of Zimbabwe’s history including Zimbabawe’s independence in which they were in the form of the two Bob’s , Marley and Mugabe. at one stage the spirit mediums come back as two white Zimbabwean and it is this that seems to have been the trigger for all the controversy surrounding the play. Those protesting against it argued that it mocked the legacy of the two spirit mediums. Personally I loved the idea of having the opportunity to imagine the beautiful possibility of what their lives could have been like had they not been captured. What I did not like was the execution of that idea.  The acting and the dialogue itself left me underwhelmed. And despite the noble efforts of the directors to promote racial harmony I felt they missed the mark as some of the scenes especially towards the end felt contrived. Also leaving the play I felt the play itself had lacked a focus as well as a clear message.

 

That’s all for this years show folks.

Look at these two struggling culture vultures a.k.a. The 'Pump Price'boys a.k.a "The Usual Suspects' a.k.a "What you know about pi?" ...  We turnt all the way up this past HIFA week though.

Look at these two struggling culture vultures a.k.a. The ‘Pump Priceboys’ a.k.a “The Usual Suspects’ a.k.a “What you know about pi?” … We turnt all the way up this past HIFA week though.

 

Written by Tafadzwa Tichawangana

 
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Posted by on May 5, 2014 in Culture Vulture

 

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HIFA Week 2014 : ‘ Switch on’

HIFA

As one of the 140 characters on Twitter cheekily put it, it’s officially HIFA week a.k.a. “White people’s annual pilgrimage into the Harare CBD.” It’s a funny if not crude observation of part of the craziness that is HIFA week. Only on Twitter.

HIFA is so much more that just that though. The Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA ) is the premier arts and culture event on the Zimbabwean social calendar.

HIFA was recently listed by CNN as one of the top 7 festivals on the African continent. CNN refers to HIFA as the “Glastonbury” of African festivals. Other festivals on the list include the Cape Town International Jazz Festival (South Africa), Marrakesh Popular Festival of the Arts (Morocco), Sauti Za Busara Festival (Tanzania) and the Lake Of Stars Festival (Malawi) to mention a few.

CNN goes further to give this profile on HIFA

‘Established in 1999, the festival takes place each year in late April or early May in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. The week-long festival encompasses five principal disciplines: theater, music, dance, fine art, and poetry. Attendees can take djembe drumming lessons, take in a poetry session, fashion show or catch their favourite artists performing.
HIFA is probably the most innovative in terms of social media use; last year, the festival had a screen that showed attendees’ tweets. Another great thing about HIFA is that you pay per event, according to your interest, unlike other festivals where a standard price is paid for all events. (29 April – 4 May)’

CNN – 7 African Music Festivals You Really Have To See

According to the HIFA website, ‘HIFA has come to be seen as an important symbol of something positive about Zimbabwe, unifying socially and culturally disparate groups of Zimbabweans at a time of ideological conflict and political uncertainty bringing huge audiences together to celebrate something positive – the healing and constructive capacity of the arts.’

This year’s theme, ‘Switch On’ is inspired by the resilience of Zimbabwe’s artistic community, from their communal search for enlightenment, and from Doris Lessing’s short story, ‘The Sun Between Their Feet’ which tells of the repeated determined attempts of two dung beetles to scale the heights of a rock with their precarious cargo.

“HIFA is a call to ignite our potential for luminous transformation and this year, it highlights our capacities and aims to radiate our communal light around the world, the positive rays of HIFA 2014 will open eyes and open hearts,” read a statement from HIFA. Festival founding artistic director, Manuel Bagorro goes on to describe this year’s programme as ‘diverse, innovative, prestigious and adventurous. It demonstrates the broad range of our audiences.’International acts include Dobet Gnahore (Ivory Coast), Maneli Jamal (Canada), Tcheka (Cape Verde), Black Bazar (Congo), Njabulo Mdlala (SA) and Toya Delazy (SA)

Because I spent the last decade living in the Diaspora I never got an opportunity to attend HIFA. I had to contend to living vicariously through the experience of family and friends who were fortunate enough to be in Zimbabwe during HIFA. That all changed for me last year when I finally got a chance to attend a handful of shows at HIFA. All I can say is that it definitely lived up to its billing. What stood out for me was how organised everything was and my initial reaction to my first HIFA experience was it’s the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, The Cape Town International Jazz Festival and Infecting The City (Cape Town) all rolled up in one uniquely Zimbabwean setting. HIFA embodied all the things I loved about the festivals I had been privileged to attend before. This is something that Robert Grieg wrote about in South African newspaper Sunday Independent saying “The Harare International Festival of the Arts is probably the best organised festival in the sub continent and one of the most manageable diverse.”

My only regret was that I missed out on quite a few of the marquee shows because I didn’t get my tickets on time. Such is the popularity of HIFA that by the time the opening show starts tickets to a vast majority of the shows for the rest of the week would have already sold out at the box office. This is even more impressive when you take into account the economic struggles the vast majority of Zimbabweans having been facing over the last couple of years. This year is no different. Despite ‘Liquidity crunch’ being the buzz word even among financially illiterate Zimbo’s like myself it looks like the same trend will follow this year. This time though I am more prepared for shenanigans of HIFA week. HIFA week is going to my belated 30th birthday present to myself. I plan on attending as many shows as is practical. From the opening show on Tuesday to the closing ceremony on Sunday featuring Freshlyground an award winning South African group I am going to be living, breathing and eating all things HIFA. I have every intention of spoiling the struggling culture vulture in me rotten.

For most of this year I have been in a self imposed ‘turn up’ hibernation, with one eye on the madness and awesomeness that is HIFA.
There are also a few creative workshops that will be running during HIFA week, meaning even the ‘Intellectual Property Developer’ in me is going to get some action. So you can only imagine how amped up I am about it. An added bonus is that one of my good friends who recently returned home will be having his first HIFA experience so it is going to be amazing sharing that experience with him.

If you are in Harare this week, hopefully I will run into you at one of the many HIFA events. And for the rest who are not going to be in Harare see you all on the other side of HIFA … Boo yah!

Last but not least here are some  HIFA TIPS FROM A FESTIVAL GURU …

 
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Posted by on April 28, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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A Son Of The Soil

‘Mwana wevhu’ is a shona term that loosey translates to “Son of the soil.”(It can also be translated as “Daughter of the soil.”) There is something about that phrase that has always resonated strongly with me even though I have not always understood it entirely. All I knew is that it spoke of and to my heritage. How exactly? I wasn’t too sure, but I did know it was significant. It was a rallying cry to my often docile patriotism. There was a romanticism and pan Africanism that it stirred in me. I am not even sure when I first heard it either. But it feels like I have heard it all my life. And maybe I have, because after all I am Zimbabwean and amongst Zimbabweans “ Mwana wevhu’, son of the soil is a very revolutionary and nationalistic label. This label is an honorary label that can be used to refer to any indigenous Zimbabwean person. And that probably explains why I have heard it most of my life.

The term “Mwana wevhu” was commonly used in all the three phases of the Chimurenga and flourished in the third Chimurenga which was the last repossession of the land from the minority settler population. Chimurenga is a term that is used to describe the fight for liberation and independence of indigenous black Zimbabweans from white minority rule. The fight for the land was a key feature in all the three Chimurenga’s. The land issue singularly continues to define Zimbabwe’s past, present and future. The way in which Zimbabweans have handled the land issue in the past and present continues to define the social, political and economic character of the nation. Shona’s who make up the majority of the population are naturally an agrarian people. The land has therefore been an important part of the Shona economy. That much is obvious. What is less obvious is the link between the land and Shona spirituality and culture. And this link is best personified by that phrase “Mwana wevhu,” a son of the soil.

In this post I do not seek to look at the land issue in a political or economic context. As part of my journey to dissect my own indigenous culture I will instead on the social and cultural significance of the land issue. Similar to most African cultures the land in Zimbabwe’s ancestral ideology is considered a sacred and non commercial communal entity. Traditionally, the Shona people did not have a concept of personal land ownership. Among Shona land belonged to the community collectively. Land for cultivation was distributed by a village chief or headman to each family unit based on the size of the family, the number of wives in the family, and the availability of labour to make effective use of the land. Grazing land for cattle, sheep and goats was “owned” and used collectively. This was all in line with the guiding principles of hunhu/ubuntu.

In the first Chimurenga the spirit mediums of Mbuya Nehanda and Sekuru Kaguvi spread the message that their god, Mwari, called upon the people to resist the European invaders, who through their invasion spiritually desecrated the land. This chapter of history further adds to the narrative of the interconnectedness of the land and Shona spirituality. The first resistance against the occupation of the land by white settlers was not based on economic reasons. It had its foundation in the importance of the land to Shona spirituality.

Mbuya Nehanda and Sekuru Kaguvi’s warning to the people highlights the spiritual significance of land. The spiritual desecration of the land they warned, if left unchecked would result in increased suffering among the Shona peoples. So important were the spirit mediums to the first Chimurenga, that the resistance was not ended until the spirit mediums were arrested and hanged by the authorities.

Mbuya Nehand and Sekuru Kaguvi ... As  the spiritual leaders of the Shona, they provided inspiration the revolt against the British South Africa Company's colonisation of Mashonaland and Matabeleland (now Zimbabwe). Nehanda and her ally Kaguvi were eventually captured and executed by the British

1898 Sekuru Kaguvi and Mbuya Nehanda … As the spiritual leaders of the Shona, they provided inspiration the revolt against the British South Africa Company’s colonisation of Mashonaland and Matabeleland (now Zimbabwe). Nehanda and her ally Kaguvi were eventually captured and executed by the British

The land is also the terrestrial link that connects the ancestral, present and future generations. On it the ancestors were buried, the present generation lives upon it and the future generations will be born to play and thrive upon it. This whole idea is highlighted by a traditional ritual known as “Kuchera Rukuvhute”, which loosely translates to “burying the umbilical cord.”According to this ritual when a child is born tradition requires that part of their umbilical cord which falls of must be interred into the earth to connect the child to their ancestors. The symbolism of this ritual lies in the biological parallel in which the umbilical cord is vital connection between the child and its mother in the same spiritual way the interring of the same into the earth provides that ancestral link.

“Chinoziva ivhu kuti mwana wembeva anorwara” is a Shona proverb which translates: It is the soil/earth that knows when the offspring of the mice is sick. “ This is a proverb that illustrates the intimacy and proximity between the land and life? In this proverb the land is alive and in conscious relationship with life. This is very common in ancient Shona anthropology as is revealed by Shona folklore.

Looking at the history of the relationship of land to the Shona people’s culture and spirituality I feel I am in a better position to understand and fully embrace the whole ideology of being a son of the soil. It now makes sense why it has always resonated so strongly. The revolutionary and nationalistic undertones aside it makes for a beautiful and even poetic summation of Shona spirituality and culture. We are all sons and daughters of the soil. The land connects us to our past and it is our home now and when we pass on as well.

 
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Posted by on April 11, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Cultural Catholic

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I was raised in a very conservative Roman Catholic and African family. Catholicism has been a significant part of my family’s culture alongside my indigenous Shona culture. My family’s culture lies somewhere on the intersection of Shona culture and Catholicism. The Shona, like most Africans are very spiritual people. This I believe is the reason that even in the present day many of us have taken to religion and adopted Christianity in particular with such aplomb. Being naturally spiritual people we need to feed our souls. And Christianity has been the table we have chosen to sit at and feed our souls from. It is all most of us know when it comes to spirituality. Our colonisers made sure of that.

Our forefathers after being made to feel inferior were coerced into abandoning their own spirituality. Focusing on bad spirits and witchcraft they were told that their own traditional African religions were evil. They ignored the presence of good spirits that the Shona believed inspired individual talents associated with healing, music, or artistic ability. Christianity was all good and the practice of traditional religions was evil. Those were the only two options they were presented with in the newly introduced formal education system which was closely linked to the new Christian religion. The more people converted to Christianity often in pursuit of a formal education the more they neglected their own traditional religions.

My late great grandfather was one of the early African converts to Christianity from his clan. He eagerly took to Christianity playing a big role in building the first Catholic Church in our rural village. In honour of his role in building that church it has since been named after him and is known as St Edmund’s Parish. This church also happens to be one of the oldest Catholic churches in Zimbabwe. My great grandfather’s conversion to Christianity marked the first significant shift in our family culture into what is today, a fusion of both Catholicism and elements of traditional Shona culture such as Hunhu. It is under the influence of that hybrid culture that I was raised. Although if I am being entirely honest Catholicism played a much bigger part in my upbringing to the extent that until only recently I not in tune with most elements of my Shona culture.

As a child all the way into my early teens I was an Altar boy. Every Sunday I helped the Priest to serve Mass. For my high school I attended an all boys Catholic boarding school. Catholicism was further indoctrinated into me and all the while no conscious efforts were made by myself or anyone else to educate or enlighten me on Shona culture. When it came to my Shona heritage I was an ignoramus. By the time I left for university and began the quest to define myself for myself the influence of the Catholic Church on my individual culture fizzled. For a period of five years in my twenties I did not see the inside of a catholic church or any church for that matter. Like with anything that you inherit or grow up when you gain some independence you start question its role and influence in your life. And when I asked myself those questions I struggled to accept or agree with the doctrines I was supposed to follow.

During that period you would think that I would have made a greater effort to reconnect and educate myself on my Shona culture and try to see if it was more in line with the individual culture I was subconsciously building, but I didn’t. Instead I took to assimilating many other different cultures. It was the period in which my inner culture vulture was born. In fairness though for the majority of my twenties I was living an environment that I wasn’t exposed to Shona culture or even Catholicism. So it might be understandable that either’s influence faded quickly. Still, I considered myself a cultural Catholic if not a practising one. I understood and was familiar with catholic dogma and routine even though it didn’t influence my life as much. It was however a big part of my childhood and provided some cultural conectivedness with my family.

Catholicism for better or worse is ingrained in my culture. I can’t say the same for my own Shona culture. Unfortunately I was never indoctrinated in the ways of the Shona as much as I was the ways of the Roman Catholics. And that is what this part of my life is about. To indoctrinate myself in the ways of my ancestors so that I can also proudly call myself ‘Mwana wevhu” ,a son of the soil. The whole idea of being a son of the soil is something I will explore in my next post, in which I will look at how the land is so deeply associated with Shona spirituality. At the end of the day I am trying to decolonise my own individual culture and be true to the culture vulture in me. In the same way I don’t agree with all aspects of Catholic doctrine I am sure I might not agree with all aspects of Shona Culture. What I want to have though is a better understanding of it. In that way I will be able to incorporate it more consciously into my own life.

 
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Posted by on April 9, 2014 in Culture Vulture

 

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