In late April, the three creative leaders of FTH:K and Conspiracy of Clowns instigators, Rob Murray, Liezl de Kock, and Jayne Batzofin, visited the Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA) for the first time. Here be some impressions…
Harare is flat. Hot and fairly dry. Yet there exists within it an interesting, cracked, and broken beauty. Like it holds the memory & ghosts of a better life. Yet it survives, & this is the key – survival. Against the odds and despite being under the cosh, it survives. This is a strength & metaphor to take from this place.
Later in the week it rains. Thunderstorms like the best the Highveld can offer. The skies bruise, lightning rips open the belly of the clouds, and rain falls in torrents. The central green turns into a mudbath. The smell of wet grass and trees is heady as we go walking through the eco-protected Monovale Vlei near where we live. It’s unseasonal rain. It’s beautiful. It swirls around the crack in the taxi’s windshield that looks like caused from a stray rock. Or, fancifully, a bullet.
Later (or is it earlier?), we get treated to an aerial view of Harare. Top of the Crowne Plaza Hotel, 20 odd floors up, and Harare stretches around like a paradise. It’s so much greener from up here. You start to realise why so many people cling to this as home. Far from the litter and potholed streets and general shambles, this is a beautiful city. With a lot of banks. Which is confusing why they battle so much with small change for dollars.
Roads are wide. Jokingly, Erica says Zim is a much safer place than SA to drink and drive – roads are like 7 lanes wide, but in reality only a 2-way street, and often one is the only car on the road, especially at night. Roads are much busier during the day – people flock into Harare. Of course. There are markets, informal or otherwise, and entrepreneurs everywhere. Men stand almost at random along the road – holding a stick with what seems to be cards pegged to it. On closer inspection, he’s selling airtime. A car stops at one on a side road. The deal is done – he loads his airtime, waits for confirmation, gets it, it’s a thumbs-up to the salesman, and then he drives off.
A man sits under a tree. Bicycle wheels, twisted and rusty, hang from the branches and give a clue as to the nature of his business. Tyres and tubes also hang – aiding the picture, the advert. He has an ancient bicycle pump and an ice-cream box full of rubber and glue. He’s a puncture-fixer. And he sells airtime.
The verges are cluttered with long grass and rubbish. Coke and Sprite seem to be the beverage of choice and their empty cans popular with the sides of the road. Popular too are white polystyrene bakkies – discarded takeaway containers. Randomly: a cage full of cooldrink cans, as if there through a half-assed attempt at recycling. Only they’ve been there a looooong time.
In the market, an artist and his co-workers wire together flattened cooldrink cans together that they then hammer onto wooden frames. They are making recycled bus-stop shelters; it is a project of HIFA to give back to the city. Walls of Fanta Orange, Sprite, Coke. Their repetition and regularity would make Tink smile with pleasure.
There are no streetlights. Or, rather, there are, but they last saw globes in…oooh…1992? And that might be being optimistic. The grass on the verges hasn’t been cut for a long time. Nature is always wanting to return. Civilisation, society, is sometimes always such a human-made conceit.
The free market in Avondale. Knock-offs and black market DVDs, fong kong jeans and tekkies, and lingerie, and cell-phone accessories, fabric, craft (but these mainly for the tourists), sunglasses and t-shirts. And airtime. Salesmen. Their profession is strong – they inspect you in a nano-second, suss you out. These people are sharp and observant. Opportunistic. And, I guess, fairly desperate. Wellington befriends me to sell the cards he makes, and sell his story. John has been a taxi driver for just over a year. We have to direct him home. A security guard bemoans the fact that although he has a job, and patrols up and down all night, his family don’t have shoes. Everyone has a story and everyone will invariably sell it, or, failing that, at least share it. And no, we don’t want airtime thanks.
And people are friendly. Harare feels safe to walk around. This feels wonderful. Sure, we’re the only honkies on the street, and the subject of a fair amount of curiosity. We look like tourists, with daypacks, and bottled water, and walking shoes. (We do a lot of walking in Zim.) Or lost participants of “The Amazing Race”. We’re vigilant – we’ve been warned about pickpockets and the like. But other than twice catching people in the act, we don’t feel threatened. The ladies get slightly harassed, we get solicited for cigarettes and stuff. (And…say it together…airtime.) But we walk and it feels good to walk in a city. Erica tells us perhaps the worst is petty theft – break-ins to cars for clothing or bags left idly in view. And some car-jackings, but pretty much non-violent. She tells the story of a couple of honkies in Cape Town who get jacked, tied to a tree, and left there. Only, later, the carjackers return, put a blanket around them, and make sure they’re as comfy as they can be. Erica: “Yep – Zimbabwean hijackers.”
We are foreigners here, make no mistake. And there is polarity at the festival. We see a show at the 7 Arts Theatre in Avondale. If prior to that we’d been wondering where all the whites were, well here we find some – about 6-700 whites come to watch theatre. Later that night, at the free Coca-Cola music stage, that stat is reversed, with nary a white face to be seen, except maybe me. Later still, at the Main Stage open-air Grand Opening of HIFA, it appears more integrated – 2-3000 people of all cultures witness a musical pastiche morality play on the power and influence of greed for money. Slightly afro-versions of “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend” mingle with “Material Girl”, “Homeless”, “Shine on you crazy diamond” (yes, Pink Floyd in the bush city), culminating in the god-tinged saccharine cotton candy of “Peace in our time” and climaxing with “My African Dream” and a fireworks display peppering the night sky above the Crowne Plaza Hotel. This is Brett Baily-lite. Where balletic dancers mix it up with Afro-fusion and contemporary dance, pageant props, and the obligatory (though in this case gold)-painted character with suit and glasses. There is no great transformation, but a rosy, easily digested view of the evils of money and greed. It’s popcorn theatre. Caramel popcorn, maybe. But it’s a festival, and folk have come to party. 2-3000 people grokking on open air performance is not to be sniffed at.
It’s a fantastic festival! Everyone seems behind it – the city seems proud of it. It’s bright and vibrant and clean and proud. It attracts a lot of people, and they’re generally happy. There’s a good mix of international and local stuff. Particularly local and international being jammed together to create new synergies. And lots of free interesting music – we suppose that, being summer, it’s an ideal time to have outdoor tents. It’s a jol. We take part in a procession through town – a meeting between a Zim military marching band and a Slavic Soul band from the States: tubas, drums, uniforms, piercings, trumpets, sax, posters, and happy people.
The cops stop the traffic. Crowds cheer us on. Three guys on stilts do an impromptu performance. This is the meaning of “festival” in its truest sense. Grahamstown and Oudtshoorn could learn a lot from it.
We see some great stuff. It’s research for Benchmarks. We see a hard-hitting local play “Burn Mukwerekwere Burn” that manages to be surprisingly funny, intense, and enviably simply staged with two performers and three musicians on a blank stage. We learn a lot about the Zimbabwean perspective of Xenophobia.
We see “Hotel Paradiso” – a mask show from Germany…twice. In one day. It’s fantastic – the most incredible technique mixed with whimsical poetics and door-opening farce. (And demands its own post!) We do workshops – scriptwriting and mask with the Germans. We talk, we chat, we share stories, we get a guided backstage tour, we hang with them, we swap business cards, we give them a DVD of our work, we hear about a week-long residency in mask in Crete in September, and a longer one next year in Florence – this now is something to look forward to, plan for, dream about. We haven’t laughed like this, nor felt so inspired, in fucken ages. It feels good. Benchmarks has found its mojo up here in this place. This is work and holiday rolled into one – research and relaxation. It’s pretty fucking awesome.
And again, themes of survival. Hope. Rebirth. Apparently, people are flocking back to Harare as it starts to rebuild. Apparently it’s better living now and safer than Joburg. Hope and Blessing are popular names. There’s a cautious optimism around town about the future. Shops are surprisingly well-stocked and not just with basics or staples – goods that might be considered luxury (soya milk, organic products etc) are readily available. They’re expensive, but available. At a surprisingly well-run trattoria, they don’t give peppermints with the bill, they give fruit. Bananas were in today. Petrol seems pretty available, and the roads teem with Mercs and 4×4 bakkies and new SUVs. (Though someone must be making a fortune on the axel/suspension business.) And then there are also the delightful older cars – Morris Minors and Chevys and Renault 4s, and unknown makes…and, at the Belvedere Hospital, ambulances from the 50s.
So it’s a curious mix of affluence and poverty, rural and urban, white and black, order and chaos, optimism and cynicism. A heady mix that one could easily bestow on Africa as a whole. Our mad, bad, beautiful, and twisted continent. “Wild at heart, and weird on top”, as Lula says. And photos, albeit slightly aged and faded, of mad Bob in his prime. Everywhere.
He should sell airtime.