Poets speak of hopes for a new Zimbabwe

Harare's youth are providing the soundtrack to their country's slow escape from poverty, writes Alex Duval Smith
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The Independent Online

"Grandpa, Grandpa, you let me down," chants Zola Badman, 22, to giggles of approval from the rowdy audience at the House of Hunger poetry slam. At the end of the recital, a sarcastic MC grabs the mic to assure the crowd that Badman "was of course referring to his own grandfather", but we all know Badman meant Robert Mugabe.

As Zimbabwe limps on, apparently with two governments and with uncertain signals as to whether the power of the 85-year-old President or the will of Prime Minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, will ultimately prevail, a boom in performance poetry is, intellectually and economically, seeing young urbanites through.

Performer Trymore Munyarari, 32, has come to the House of Hunger at Harare's Book Café for the third time. "For me the slam is as much a question of survival as expression," he said. "I used to recite poetry in schools but the education department has no funds now. Here, everyone pays US$1 [59 pence] to get in. If I win, I will make, say $25, and I will be given an anthology of poems by Chirikure Chirikure, who is my hero."

Materially, life has improved in the Zimbabwean capital in the six months since Mr Tsvangirai, formerly leader of the opposition, was sworn in as premier and the unity government adopted the South African Rand and US greenback instead of the hyper-inflationary Zimbabwe dollar. Civil servants are receiving salaries again – ranging from $100 a month for teachers to $300 for Mr Tsvangirai and Mr Mugabe. Hawkers sell 10 bananas for $1 but problems arise if you only want five; virtually no coins are in circulation.

Small employers have gone back to work. At the Feredays factory in Central Avenue, four tailors turn out high-quality canvas bags and ammunition belts made from Zimbabwean cotton. Its director, Nick Knill, said: "There is a sense of optimism now. We really think we have been through the worst of it. Having said that, we have a long way to go. We used to employ 23 tailors and now we are down to four. But the optimism is back and that makes a huge difference."

Other green shoots can be seen on the stock exchange, where trading is increasing. Two recent investor conferences were well attended. The Finance Minister Tendai Biti – who is also secretary general of Mr Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party – recently raised his growth forecast for this year from 2.8 per cent to 3.7 per cent.

Grain production is on the increase and last week, the Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board said seed sales were booming. By last Friday, about 44 million kilograms of tobacco had been sold, beating the 42 million target set for the season. However, as a comparison, a decade ago, Zimbabwe was producing 200 million kgs.

Western diplomats stress that the country cannot be rebuilt on optimism alone. "Politically we remain extremely cautious," said a senior European diplomat. "For every step forward, there seems to be a step back. Until that situation changes and there is real progress, we will be very careful where we put our money.

"Of course, investors are free to take risks, and some South Africans are returning. But you won't see any meaningful influx of investment until there are real signs of political stability, by which I mean minima which we demand of other countries in the region: freedom of expression, an independent judiciary, respect for human rights and a degree of transparency."

Twenty years ago, Zimbabwe was the breadbasket of the region. A white elite, some occupying farms the size of small countries, led an Out of Africa lifestyle.

The inbuilt injustices in the system, including racism and a vast white-black wealth gap, were tolerated by Mr Mugabe's government because Europe sent lashings of money to post-independence Rhodesia. In those days, Mr Mugabe, as the head of a friendly Southern African frontline state during the Cold War, was a necessary interlocutor who had to be kept sweet. But then, in 1991, Nelson Mandela was released and the world changed for Mr Mugabe as the West diverted the gravy train.

Needing to maintain the patronage system installed by the ruling Zanu-PF, Mr Mugabe turned his rhetoric against Britain and, in 1999, set in motion the now famous land invasions targeting 4,000 white farmers. Today, there are a few hundred commercial farmers left. None will return to farm on a large scale until a meaningful land reform programme – including workable tenure rights – is in place.

This is where the lack of political progress effectively condemns Zimbabwe, as an economy, to continuing to live hand-to-mouth. Last week, Mr Biti received a bullet and a death note through the post. Up to 12 MDC MPs are facing prosecutions or appeals on charges that they claim have been trumped up to have them convicted so that by-elections can be held and the slim parliamentary majority that the MDC won in violence-marred elections in March 2008 can be wiped out.

In the past week, Zimbabwe has served up two positive political developments. The BBC and CNN have been allowed back into the country and the first meeting has been held of the National Security Council, a body intended to replace the feared Joint Operations Command, made up of Mr Mugabe's top military men and often referred to as the "junta".

But sceptics say Mr Mugabe has made the concessions only because he fears being lambasted for obstructionism at a Southern African Development Community summit next month.

On Monday, Mr Tsvangirai took his concerns to Jacob Zuma, the South African President who is the chairman of the regional grouping. Afterwards, Mr Zuma admitted the problems facing Zimbabwe were "weighty" but insisted they could be resolved.

He will no doubt be pressed on the matter by the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, when she lands in Pretoria tomorrow. "[She] certainly intends to talk about Zimbabwe with the South African leadership," Johnnie Carson, the assistant Secretary for African Affairs, said ahead of the visit. "We'll encourage [them] to continue to press the government of Robert Mugabe to fully implement the global political agreement that he signed."

At the weekly House Of Hunger, the jury – selected from the audience and fuelled by sarcasm and humour – is still out on the latest concessions from "grandpa". This is a place where the audience likes its poetry to be as political as possible and where the highest accolade a performer can receive from the jury is "We know where you live".

In fact, in a country with no independent broadcasters and a struggling independent press, the ephemeral nature of slam appears so far to have protected the performers from a clampdown by the authorities.

One of the House of Hunger founders is a 28-year-old white dreadlocked poet, Samm Farai Monro, aka Comrade Fatso. "We started with open mic sessions in 2005," he said.

"Now the slam movement has spread to every city and township. It provides a space of truth for young people in a country where we are surrounded by censorship. It also ties in with a centuries-old tradition of oral expression. As long as people don't have bread, and probably beyond, there will be a need in Zimbabwe for performance poetry."

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