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« on: March 20 2009 »

The interface between the real and the imagined

Prespone Matawira (2009-03-19)

source: http://www.pambazuka.org/en/category/zimnotes/54965

As a reprieve from a world of entrenched hyper-inflation and political censorship, Prespone Matawira salutes the role of Harare’s Book Café as the cultural centre of the Zimbabwean capital and its appeal as a non-partisan hub of expression and debate.

For a new generation in Zimbabwe astronomical inflation, empty supermarket shelves, fuel queues, power cuts, HIV/AIDS, censorship and political violence have become the norm. But the Book Café is one of the places that make the capital city Harare so addictive, in spite of all the challenges.

I first visited the Book Café in 1997, not long after it opened. I saw a Tracy Chapman-style singer–songwriter and a stand-up comedian called Edgar Langeveldt who made jokes about the recent riots. I lost myself in the music of Chioniso Maraire and danced the night away to the sounds of Oliver Mtukudzi.

It was hard to imagine back then how significant this place would become.

Born when a ‘lefty’ bookshop called Grassroots Books was transformed into a cultural venue, with book launches, discussion nights and performances, the Café was the brainchild of Paul Brickhill. He needed a venue where his band Luck Street Blues could play. So he created one.

Today, 12 years later, an environment of tight radio and TV control means that popular culture has to happen live. And so the Café has become the epicentre of Harare’s alternative culture. Six nights a week an audience gathers here, which is as varied as the city itself. While the nightly events may be different, they have one thing in common: at the Book Café there is no censorship.

Comrade Fatso is a regular, a protest poet who is becoming something of a celebrity in Harare, mixing English with Shona. He features in the Café’s monthly poetry slam. ‘One thing with the Book Café is that if you’ve got the guts to say what you want and spit it out in a poem you can do it, but you don’t know what’s going to come next’, he says. ‘That’s the joke. In Zimbabwe you’ve got freedom of expression, but you don’t have freedom after expression.’

There has never been an attempt by the government to shut the Book Café down, but the artists and management are never entirely safe from run-ins with officials.

The venue also plays host to a range of musical styles, from the jazz band Too Open, through hip hop artists Unity Vibes, and The Spirit of the People with singer James Mujuru to Afro-jazz diva Dudu Mhanenga.

Besides creative innovation and entertainment, the venue, now managed by the Pamberi Trust, also provides an environment where performers and the audience can debate, challenge and confront. It’s not a venue that advocates a political stance, and it does not represent any political party or corporate interest. Although there is an energy of rebellion and freedom, it’s not a place of slogans or campaigning, it’s a place of open dialogue and expression.

For those huddled around the tables, at the bar or clustered over newspapers, books and computers, the talk is energetic, the laughter raucous and the philosophical pondering deep. A while back Paul Brickhill was quoted as saying ‘I don't think a revolution is going to start in the Book Café, but the person that starts it may very well frequent the place.’

In Zimbabwe, as the stresses of everyday life have intensified, Zimbabweans have come under increasing pressure to turn against each other. The Book Café is a reminder that sometimes simply getting along can be the most powerful form of protest.

Sitting there today, I am struck by the creative energy of the space. I speak to Bulawayo-based artist Rashid Jogee and immerse myself in his paintings ‘to the agents of democracy’ and ‘Window pain’, both studies in servitude and liberation. I listen to well-known writers Shimmer Chinodya and Tsitsi Dangarembga speak about writing as emotion and emotion as a weapon for change.

Today I’m inclined to think that perhaps the change we yearn for begins with compassion. There can be no compassion without feeling another’s pain, which is why artists, writers and actors are so difficult to replace and which is why they have a role and a voice.

Artists, writers and actors work at the interface between the real and the imagined. They coax us out of the numbness of the everyday and the harshness of the daily grind, where life passes in a blur and into a heightened space where we can inhabit other lives and find ourselves in other circumstances. The mind opens, stretches, takes in more than it knows, and returns again to the ordinary world, richer. This is not just relief, it’s revelation. If art has not that purpose, it is not art.

I don’t want to be high-minded, but during this ‘transition’ we need to be know where we stand, we need to know what matters. I for one want to live in a world that is humane, tolerant and just, open to question and free from oppression, whatever its guise.

There is great pain among us. We are damaged in different ways. If there is no human contact, if I don’t care about you and you don’t care about me, then no politics, no diplomacy, no rhetoric, no political party, will change a thing.

In Zimbabwe, I go to the theatre, to the galleries, I listen to local music and read Zimbabwe’s amazing array of authors. This is not escapism, it’s confrontation. I want clarity, and art is one way of getting it.

In times of crisis, or transition, art is not a luxury.

* Prespone Matawira is a Zimbabwean feminist and activist who contributes to the new Chii Chirikuita: What's up? blog.
* Please send comments to editor@pambazuka.org or comment online at http://www.pambazuka.org/.
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