Harare International Festival of the Arts 2009

In spring 2009, I traveled to the Middle East, Zimbabwe and Uganda. The next 2 blogs will offer short pieces about two aspects of the Zimbabwe experience. By then I should have my approach to the origins of Every Country in the World Before I Die figured out—at least to the extent I’m not embarrassed to share what I’ve written.

Art Conquers All….. 

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The lawn before the stage is crowded with young families in all the lovely shades of Africa and a row of elegant elderly white ladies evocative of colonial Rhodesia!

All are enjoying the risqué jokes, roping and knife-throwing directed at two men gamely providing comic foil for the stars’ suggestive remarks. I am at the Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA) and it is fun…and art-filled…and a respite from the worries of life under Mugabe.

Traditional, contemporary, big, small, national, international art…all here

A rare Zimbabwean wild beast

Transportation has greatly improved under Mugabe. NOT.

Harare, Zimbabwe is not high on most travel wish lists what with Mugabe, typhoid and farm-confiscations. But think again! HIFA is a brilliantly-implemented festival managing to combine a richly programmed cultural celebration with a sense of community in a city that needs all it can get of both. The festival fills Harare Gardens, a place of luxurious shade trees, meandering paths, the spicy-sweet smells of the thatched-roof food stalls, idiosyncratic art installations and baskets, beads and wood carvings of traditional Zimbabwe side by side with hip fashion accessories in the green, yellow, red and black of the flag. Lively stages showcase artists from around the world. Professional dancers, actors and musicians mingle with comedians, pop stars and wannabe’s. Festivities begin early, end late. Audiences are local and international, black and white, young and old, rich and almost-poor. HIFA is a celebration where you take a blanket and stay awhile, snack on hot dogs and sweet potato biscuits, drink South African wine and Zimbabwean beer, let the kids play in the grass and ogle the clowns. It is all reminiscent of a county fair with all manner of arts instead of giant squash and Ferris wheels.

Where it’s all happening!

So…stop with the cell phone and laptop. Let the laid-back ambience of Harare Gardens take over. With mid-morning coffee sample a fine homemade lemon sponge cake. Meander over to traditional dance and drumming, then on to a folk musician/storyteller making gentle fun of the “the old man” (which is how Zimbabweans refer to Mugabe when they can’t use more direct language). Later a South African fusion of stand-up comedy and political theater will offer a much harsher assessment. Enjoy a wine and meat pie from an outdoor tent-café with white tablecloths and candles and then, best of all, an evening of drama in the Standard Theater. The venue is basic but the performances more than compensate. I see Disconnection (family disintegration and immigration in contemporary Zimbabwe); The Crossing (braving the Limpopo River for survival in South Africa) and Allegations (an exploration of the violence that overtook both white farmers and black rural workers during the confiscations). Here is a real intersection of art and politics with Zimbabwean theater stubbornly planted in the middle of this dangerous and noisy junction. And this is one crossroads Mugabe’s thugs just can’t keep closed.

Best venue at the festival

Art festival aficionados in general, and especially those who believe that art is the most effective way to speak truth to power, should put HIFA on their calendar but keep checking the newspapers to be aware of Mugabe’s latest shenanigans.

The sign says “Life goes on even when the lights go out.” That’s life in Mugabeland.

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