meat with bones
Early evening in Harare: just returned from a visit to Mhondoro, a rural area about two hours outside of the capital. This is my third day in Zimbabwe, not counting the first night when I arrived after twenty-four hours of travel from London, and I'm beginning to make some sense of it. But first a swirl of images, starting with the road from the airport, the sky spreading out at sunset in a way that makes the world, more than anything, feel flat and wide. Roads in bad shape; dollar bills (the going currency here) used so many times that they are brown and soft rather than green and crisp; jacaranda trees arching, gracefully, over one of the central avenues in Harare; roadsides everywhere lined with people selling bananas, airtime, and tomatoes; people walking, crammed into combis, hanging out; small patches of corn anywhere it can fit; dirt yards, carefully swept every morning; sadza with every meal.
I am staying, these first days, with Cosmas Magaya and his family: Cosmas is a master mbira player that I met in the States when he was an artist-in-residence at Williams College. Yesterday we went to visit Mhondoro, his home village and the site of Nhimbe for Progress, an aid project that he directs. The road to Mhondoro was great: flat African savannah rolling by, two baboons at the side of the road, fields and fields of corn and, as we got closer, round huts with conical thatched roofs—exactly what a tourist in Africa wants to see. Arriving at Nhimbe—a combination of a pre-school and a village health center, a cluster of round blue huts—about 80 children were playing in the yard with some old tires, homemade monkey bars under construction. A long series of introductions, which was fine if a little formal, and then the awesomeness began.
The children, ages three to six, gathered to sing Titambire vaenzi, a welcoming song that I'm excited to share once I get home, and then recited some adorable nursery rhymes. Twinkle, twinkle in a four year old's Shona-inflected English is, as the immortal Larry Gordon would say, "to die for". A few more songs and some wandering about, and then the marimba band started up. Three instruments had been set outside in the grass, between two of the huts, played by some young men in their 20s. Once they started rolling, children appeared from everywhere and started to dance. First a small group of 10 year old girls who could really tear it up and then a surging mass of pre-schoolers and then the adults and words can not describe how awesome this was. They played for at least half an hour, the children dancing the whole time. And for all of our advanced educational opportunities and technology in the U.S.—interactive white boards and computers in every classroom as opposed to Nhimbe, where the children learn to write and draw with chalk on the concrete floor because of a lack of blackboards—for all of this, I have never seen anything in an American school to rival the pure and sustained joy that I saw as these kids danced and danced. Nor the sophistication: 4 year olds clapping polyrhythms and dancing complicated steps.
Amidst all this awesomeness, Nhimbe is also a project in need of support. At the end of my time here, I'll be leaving a lot of the clothes that I brought (can't do it yet, because I need to wear them), some odds and ends, and a little money. If you are able, they can use much more support than that: they need more instruments, blackboards, and medicine as well as the ability to compensate their staff. More important than what they need is what they are doing, which is multiplying joy. These children, by any standard, are poor: but I can only think this strong foundation is not only what they need, but is what this country needs. You can find Nhimbe for Progress on the web at http://www.ancient-ways.org/help.html.
As if that wasn't enough for a day. . . when evening came, I found myself in the kitchen hut playing mbira with Cosmas, while chicken necks and sadza cooked over a wood fire, a candle flickering in the middle of the room, a woman breastfeeding her son. Moments where I was in the flow, hearing both parts and settling into the music: other moments where I thought that if I were ever to make a bucket list, those things one must do before dying, that this would be on the list, sitting in a candle-lit hut in a village in Zimbabwe playing the mbira.
Cosmas has spent a lot of time in the U.S., teaching and performing. We were talking about his time there and he said that one of the things he misses most when he is in America is meat with bones. When I arrived here, dinner that first night was chicken necks and sadza. I assumed that we were eating the necks because they were the cheapest. But everyone here prefers meat with a lot of bone because it tastes better, and there's a lesson to be found there.
Tsambakonzi inofanza nekukuchidzirwa.
Afternoon in Victoria Falls, and the heat has settled in. I saw the Falls this morning; more accurately I saw the thick sheet of mist thrown up by the Zambezi as it crashes over a ledge more than twice as high as Niagara, got drenched as I walked along the path, and played mbira while I sat upstream as my socks dried. The long bus ride from Harare left at 5.30 a.m., passed through Kwe Kwe and Gweru, stopped in Bulawayo for lunch and then rumbled along. I wouldn't have been able to claim an authentic travel experience in Africa if it hadn't included bus rides so long that they make your bones sore, and now I've ticked off that box. From Bulawayo to Hwange my seat mate was a really sweet fellow named Esau, interested in all sorts of details about America: what life is like, what the biggest parts of the economy are, how houses are built.
America is a hard place to describe: something that I've known before but was reminded of as I thought of how different life in Brattleboro is from, say, Los Angeles and how to give Esau some answers that encompassed that difference. There was wonderment when I described how much snow was on the ground when I left home and how the houses in the rural areas, as well as the cities, all have four corners. 'But how,' he asked, 'do you put on the thatched roof?'—Esau's only frame of reference being the circular huts that are seen everywhere here, walls built of brick with a cone of wooden rafters on top, thatched with reed. A family compound will have one hut that serves as kitchen, and different huts for sleeping, storage, etc. How to explain that we have one building for all of these functions, that the windows have two layers of glass to stay warm in the winter, that the walls are made of wood? And these are differences at the most basic level, not even beginning to address the differences in how we relate to one another or what we believe about the spirit world. My bus companions have been consistently great: on a combi in Harare the day before, Kudzi was proud to show me his backpack full of the stuffed monkeys he had made that day and to recite—loudly, and in a minibus full of people—his one poem, a Christian rap-like affair called "I'll Never Give Up". Finished, he asked excitedly, 'Poets make very much money in America, is it?' How I wish I could have left him believing that to be true. . .
Up to now, my main focus has been studying the mbira with Cosmas. I've learned a great deal, and not only the notes of new pieces. More important is a deeper sense of how people play together, of how the pieces interlock, of the role the music plays in bringing people together. This past Sunday, a rainy day in Harare with the electricity out, we went on an errand so that Cosmas' nephew could recharge his cell phone from the car charger. Just before we left, Cosmas figured it would be a good idea to bring some beers and some mbiras so that we could play in the car while we waited for the phone to charge. And so we drove over to Glenview, another high density suburbs, and drank beer and played mbira in the car while Atwell and his friend Itai sang and clapped in the back, the enduring strains of Nhemamusasa bringing together a couple of hip young Shona dudes who would probably be thumping it out in a night club later, a traditional player, and me. Before coming, I hoped for experiences as archetypal as what happened in Mhondoro—the round huts and candle light—but sitting in a car while a cell phone charged and the rain came down was equally as awesome.
Earlier that day, Cosmas had told me about a Shona proverb: Tsambakonzi inofanza nekukuchidzirwa. Tsambakonzi are the round pots that I saw in the kitchen huts in Mhondoro, decorated at the top in red and black and used for making sadza over an open fire. The saying means that these pots, these tsambakonzi, only get to the boiling point when you keep the fires stoked. Cosmas explained that this is what he has been trying to do for my playing—by playing together, by pushing the rhythm along, by insisting that I get the notes right, insisting that I listen for what he's doing and try to react, try to make our high lines 'speak to each other'—by doing these things he's stoking the fire so that the pot (that would be me in this metaphor) boils. Because without a strong fire, you aren't able to make a good sadza. I've always had a strong independent streak—my mother and girlfriend will both laugh at that understatement—so it's a new thing to let someone else be so directive, to be the clay pot rather than the fire. But the reward for laying aside some of that independence came in a rainy car when I was finally able to come in with the second part on Chipindura. I've been trying to come in at the right place all along, and then Cosmas will say, 'Do you hear that you are playing on the same beat?' Which, being on the same beat, has always been the goal in Irish music. But here you're supposed to come in a beat later so that those high lines can speak to each other, and it was pretty sweet to do that in the car, beers and mbiras in hand.
give forward the blessing
"When God blesses you, you should always give forward the blessing."
Night time in Chikore, a small mission settlement not far from the Mozambican border. I am here visiting Lindley and Andy, two women from New Hampshire who are spending a year in this remote place as volunteer teachers (and, in Andy's case, volunteer minister) at a local high school. Getting here was epic: I left Victoria Falls by bus at 11 p.m. on Thursday, arriving in Bulawayo sometime around 4 am; catching a bus from there to Masvingo, rolling into that flat and dusty town around 9; a side trip to Great Zimbabwe, an ancient and cool circular structure, tightly laid and precisely quarried granite blocks rising some twenty feet at the outside wall; Masvingo onto Birchenough Bridge, a town that, were Zimbabwe to have a tradition of cowboy westerns, would be the site of many a shoot-out; and from there to Chipinge in the back of a pick-up, getting in about 6.30 p.m.. All this in a day, and I was feeling that I'd make it to Chikore no problem, confident in my ability to navigate transportation in this new place. Chipinge is a small town though, and combis (the small passenger vans that only leave when they're full) only leave for Chikore once or twice a day; the long red road I traveled today—bumpy and dusty—made it clear why. But it's an incredible spot, high up in mountains that used to shelter freedom fighters, quiet but for the insect chorus of night, the stars thick and thick and thick in the sky.
Before this I was at Victoria Falls, justifiably one of the seven wonders of the world, and took a day trip to Chobe National Park in Botswana, where I saw more than thirty species of animals including elephants, giraffes, black hornbills, zebras, baboons, fish eagles, African darters, a sounder of warthogs, hippos, blue-tipped bee-eaters, a giant eagle owl, crocodiles, impala, a black-backed jackal, kudu and more. And lots of white people with very expensive cameras. Last Sunday I met with Sheasby and we decided that this coming week would be the best time to focus on our song project. I'll return to Harare on Monday to focus on that part of the project. Once we laid out those plans, I realized that my only chance to do any traveling outside of Harare was this week, so I hit the road. In Victoria Falls, I stayed with Paul Muranda, one of Cosmas' cousins, and also met Joshua Magaya, son of Cosmas' brother Leonard. An employee of the National Parks, Joshua is training to be a professional hunter. We had a fascinating conversation about the hunting program in the parks: maintaining target populations of major species, turning the money from the meat and hides of culled animals back into the park budget, trouble with Zambian poachers, and the impact of sanctions on anti-poacher patrols—the World Bank used to fund 4wd vehicles for those patrols but no longer does. From there, the conversation turned to what Joshua wants to do with his life. "I learned a lot," he said, "from my grandparents." Namesake and grandfather, Joshua Magaya was a n'anga, a traditional Shona healer. What this Joshua has taken from his ancestor's example is the need to give to others and to support your community. There is a saying, Joshua told me: "When God blesses you, you should always give the blessing forward." In Shona: Kaana mwari vakuropafadza ipawo vamwe.
Joshua is concerned about rural people outside of Victoria Falls, people whose fields get trampled by elephants as soon as the crops ripen, whose chickens are eaten by leopards, and who have little opportunity for employment. Brainstorming together, we thought about a model of cultural tourism: a place where travelers could sleep in a round hut and eat sadza made in a clay pot, where local Ndebele music and craft traditions were emphasized, someplace where Joshua could be nearby and patrol the bush before the crops ripened, killing a few problem animals and giving the meat to the villagers. He figures he would need a used Land Cruiser ($5000-9000) and help with marketing. I figure that if the political situation stays stable and if Mugabe is finally deposed, that more tourists will come and a venture like that could be successful.
What was so wonderful to hear, apart from Joshua's abundant sweetness, was his passion to do something for other folks. And this in a place where there are ample reasons to feel the problems are insurmountable: the highest inflation in recorded human history, the lowest quality of living worldwide for five years in a row (from the UNDC), a life expectancy that's dropped one year for every year that Mugabe has been in power, teacher's salaries of $170 a month (something Scott Walker and ALEC must dream about). But in spite of all that, there is resilience and optimism, apparent in how a combi will stop for yet another person along the road, in how the cashier at the grocery market adjusts your bill so that it comes out even because there is no change in the till, and in how someone like Joshua thinks they can make life better here. If life were a fairy tale, he would be the third son, the one who is pure of heart and succeeds where his brothers failed because he was polite to the old woman he met along the way and helped the injured animals in the forest. And if I had had $5000 in my pocket when we were talking, I would have given it to him right then. When he's got his project up and running, we should all go stay in a little round hut and listen to mbira music by candlelight. Even better would be to stay in those huts and then to return home with a sense of what we might to do to improve our own communities: just think, if people in one of the world's poorest nations can maintain such optimism and resilience, what can those of us who live in one of the world's richest nations not do? Many of us are already doing good work, but I am inspired by how it seems like everyone I meet here in Zimbabwe is in it together.
so i could sing and pray
I went, in the words of Lyle Lovett, to church last Sunday, and it was an incredible experience. I was in Chikore, a small mission settlement in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe, not more than twenty miles from the border with Mozambique. As I've said, I was a long time traveling to get there, making it on the first day to Chipinge, that last bit of the voyage in the back of a pick-up truck whose other riders—two old men who sure liked their snuff—were amazed when I took out my mbira and started to play. I got into Chipinge at 6.30 that evening only to find there was no more transport headed to Chikore that day. Luckily I had met a nice young fellow named Innocent in the back of that truck, and he invited me home to stay with his family. Not the first time in my life I've felt like a stray puppy, and the Vhumbunus were gracious and wonderful hosts. Also, in the course of just a few days I had met three guys named Innocent, Evidence and Sanity; surely the beginnings of a great law firm. Though my favorite Shona name of all is Welshman. Because he's not, you know, actually Welsh.
The next morning I made my way back to the bus stop and waited. And waited some more—buses and combis here only leave when they're full. In Harare, this means there's never a long wait, but when you're headed someplace small it's more of an issue. There's also some jostling as people try to figure which vehicle will leave first. After waiting around for four hours, I finally headed out in a pick-up loaded down with an oven, mealie meal, and a vast amount of beer bumping over the red clay roads to Chikore. Had a great, and eminently quotable, conversation with the driver of the truck, a guy who used to be a brick-layer but gave it up during the worst of the economic freefall in '08. It was too hard, he said, to be able to charge for your work, or buy more bricks, when the value of money degraded so rapidly. This was the time when banks had no cash and when the grocery stores were empty, when people had to travel by bus to Mozambique or Zambia or Botswana just to buy cooking oil and soap. "We were in a scenario," he said, "where we could not practice a fair life." Talk turned then to politics: through South African and French television channels, people are keeping abreast of the many revolts in northern Africa, particularly Libya. I have heard many oblique criticisms of Mugabe in conversations about these other places: "Ah, Gaddafi has been in power for too long. After so many years, he cannot have any new or good ideas." It doesn't take too much to read between those lines, but there's still little direct criticism. And understandably so—Munyaradzi Gwisai was arrested recently for treason after suggesting that what happened in Egypt could happen in Zim, the campus of the University of Zimbabwe (where I am sitting now) has guards at every gate and you have to show ID to be admitted, and the state house is heavily guarded, soldiers with assault rifles posted every 100'. But my truck driver was a straight talker, so I asked him if what is happening in the Arab world could ever happen here. His response: "But here they kill".
After that first quiet night in Chikore, I was excited to go to church on Sunday. Chikore is a UCC mission, and the UCC in Zimbabwe has strong ties to UCC churches in New Hampshire, which explains Lindley and Andy's connection. In New England, I think of UCC churches as being fairly middle of the road—places that are welcoming and comfortable for people from a variety of backgrounds, smallish congregations of mostly older people, quiet, solid. My experience in Chikore could not have been more different: walking up the hill, I could hear the drumming from far off. At the church, one entire side was filled with youth drumming and singing and swaying in their pews, at least 150 of them, and this was just in anticipation of the service, spontaneous. When the service started, it was mostly singing. Singing at the beginning, singing to welcome the visitors (it was "Big Sunday" and so there were people visiting from all of the other congregations in the district), singing during the offering, singing at the end. The offering was incredible: in New England churches, of course, this is a reserved and quiet thing, the collection plate passing quietly along the pews. Here, a table is set in front of the pulpit with a collection bowl, and each group in turn—the different visiting congregations, the men, the women, the youth group, sunday school—go up in turn, each with a different song, and dance around the collection table, putting in their tattered bills and few coins, one woman blowing a samba whistle, dancing around the table long after they had put in those bills and finally heading back to their pews so that the next group could do the same. The collection took 45 minutes and was like a party the whole time. This, I remind you, was at a UCC service. Later that afternoon, the teens had their Vespers service—self-led, this was another two hours of singing and drumming, each song having a small group that would go up front with specific dance steps. The leader of a service, a girl with short hair, would have to make a time-out signal with her hands to stop one song so that they could move on to the next. Throughout the afternoon, this girl called up small groups of singers—quartets, duets, even soloists—to perform for their peers. Teenagers anxious to perform for their peers at church: I guess we're not in New England anymore. This coming Sunday I'll be going to a Catholic service in Harare with the Matiures. Sheasby just apologized that the singing won't be as good as usual because, you see, it's Lent, and Catholics here give up drumming for Lent. Now there's a statement with a wealth of cultural information. Giving up drumming for Lent. In Ireland, my cousins might give up sweets, or drink. I don't think giving up drumming in church has crossed their minds.
Yesterday I taught a singing workshop in Harare, sponsored by the U.S. Embassy. 100 college students were there from 3 different teacher education programs and we had a great time. I taught a smattering of different gospel songs—I'll Be Rested When the Roll is Called, Hush, and Brother Moses—and had a blast hearing Shona pronunciation in an American song. Shona vowels are all pure, you see, and American vowels are anything but (ukulele being a great example of how one vowel can be pronounced in many different ways). My goals for doing this workshop were to give create an image of American culture that went beyond Hollywood and hip-hop and to have a lot of fun. We achieved both in style, and the group was a lot of fun. At the end of the workshop, after the teaching was done, all of the students burst into song by way of thank-you, dancing around and mobbing me with cell phone cameras. I felt like a rock star. And as Sheasby and I thanked the principal in his upstairs office, we heard the students singing in their busas they left the parking lot, rocking their new songs. "If you can talk, you can sing." That's a Shona proverb, and one that's used in America as consolation or encouragement. Here it's simply a statement of fact.
It's an overcast morning here in Harare and one of my last in Zimbabwe before heading home on Monday. I've spent the last three days doing some intensive song collecting, working with a choir at Seke Teacher's College in Chitungwiza and students at the Zimbabwe College of Music. The range of songs has been fantastic—from a post-independence campaign song about the importance of education to church choruses, songs from rain-making ceremonies and funerals, and a love song ("I even love you when you wake up in the morning and are ugly"). Cataloging the recordings and transcribing the parts will be a pile of work when I get home, but I am so excited to share these songs with you all. I feel like I'm going home with a bag full of treasure, in the form of one very packed flash drive.
Less of a narrative today than a list of some of my favorite things:
With the tour in Scotland and England and my time here, I've been away from home for a long time and I'm looking forward to getting back. On Monday morning I'll start the journey, flying from Harare to Johannesburg and then on to Paris and London before finally boarding a plane for Boston. It will be a sweet thing to get home, but I feel so immensely privileged to be here. It's been an incredible voyage, and I'm grateful to all of you—for your support before the trip, and for sharing it with me now through these missives. I've learned how to say thank you in three different languages since coming here, so here they are: Tatenda, Siyabonga, Twalumba (Shona, Ndebele, and Tonga).
Thank you all.
only the honeycomb
They take all the honey and leave only the honeycomb: Politics, money, and race.
I'm some 30,000' above the sea and on the last leg of a journey that has meant flying from Harare to Johannesburg to Paris to London and, finally, home. And this airplane seems at a safe enough remove to start thinking about politics, money, and race in Zimbabwe.
Sunday afternoon, my last full day in Harare: I was staying again the Magayas in Glen Norah A, one of the high density suburbs that ring Harare. After a lesson with Cosmas I had gone for a walk, headed down Keti Lane towards one of the more open areas, when Cosmas called on the phone to say that I should come back to the house. ZANU-PF youth were holding a rally in the field nearby and it would be safest, he suggested, if I stayed inside for the afternoon. The kind of story to tell mothers and girlfriends only after you're safely back home, and, in truth, the only time in three weeks that politics or the implicit threat of violence (which, sadly, is part of politics in Zimbabwe) impacted me directly. But the political situation was a constant background, and while yet another Westerner's scathing condemnation of Mugabe won't achieve much, I do have some things to say.
Most immediately noticeable is the media: ZBC (both television and radio) and a number of newspapers are clearly controlled by ZANU-PF. For a moment I almost wrote that they were clearly controlled by the state, but that's not precisely true. After the elections in 2008—in which Mugabe and ZANU-PF lost in the first round but in which Tsvangarai and MDC-T were declared not to have received the 50% they needed to avoid a run-off (though this took some three weeks to be determined and a certain amount of fraud is suspected, not only in the recount but in the initial voting itself—imagine being such an inept despot that you lose even after rigging the election.) and then Tsvangarai dropped out of the second round of elections because so many MDC supporters were being tortured and killed—the GNU, or Government of National Unity, was formed, with Mugabe maintaining his role as president and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Tsvangarai being appointed Prime Minister, and Mutambarara (leader of a splinter faction of MDC) serving as Deputy Prime Minister. Given that, you might think that the state controlled media would reflect the views of multiple members of this coalition government, but they shill only for ZANU-PF. I arrived shortly before Mugabe's 87th birthday celebration (postponed slightly because he had been in Singapore for medical treatment): the telecast celebrations included Mugabe himself, resembling nothing so much as Jabba the Hutt, leading a chant of "Down with MDC, Down with the MDC!". On that final Sunday, I watched the news broadcast on ZBC instead of taking that walk. On the end-of-the-week news program on the nation's major television station two days after a disaster in Japan that is the most expensive natural disaster in history, which has claimed a death toll of at least 10,00o, and which has everyone worried about the impending calamity of a nuclear meltdown. . . on that day, the news broadcast mentioned the following, in this order: there had been an exhumation of guerrilla soldiers from the Chimurenga, Zimbabwe's war of independence, proving that Ian Smith's Rhodesian forces had committed atrocities; a new television antenna tower had been built in Beitbridge, on the South African border; and Prophet Angel, a Zimbabwean-born tele-evangelist who had been living in the UK, had returned to Harare. He is known for accurately predicting events such as the death of the President of Papua New Guinea. And then the news segment was over. While I understand why Mugabe would be interested in suppressing broadcasts about what has been happening, say, in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, I don't understand why you would suppress knowledge of the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan.
The rally on Sunday, the one that turned me back towards the safety of home, was yet another in Mugabe's 'Campaign against Illegal Sanctions". With an election coming up—later if the GNU holds together, sooner if Tsvangarai pulls out following the arrest of several MDC ministers on charges of treason (it is a crime to say anything critical of Mugabe, a bit of a damper on political debate) and rumors of political violence against MDC supporters—Mugabe has launched this campaign, pinning all of the country's problems on the sanctions imposed on it by Europe and US. Leaving aside the fact that sanctions aren't, technically, illegal—in the broad sense, sanctions may be immoral and they may be unjustified (as with U.S. sanctions against Cuba), but they are a legal tool of foreign policy—this new campaign is one of massive misinformation. In the Herald, a state newspaper, almost everything is being pinned on sanctions—the high cost of fertilizer and the unwillingness of foreign companies to invest in the agricultural sector, for example—when, according to the U.S. State Department, the sanctions that are in place are very limited, and only affect a small number of people (120, mostly top officials in ZANU-PF) who are on the sanctions list, keeping them from traveling or accessing their U.S.-based bank accounts. I suppose a benefit of suppressing this information (available to me because I was at the Embassy to collect my honorarium for the workshop I lead, but you have to go through a security check to get into the Embassy, and none of the papers are passing along U.S. State Department information) is that nobody can ask the awkward questions of just how these politicians got all that money into U.S. accounts.
ZANU's latest stroke of brilliance is the Indigenisation Act, mandating that the majority stake of any company operating in Zimbabwe be owned by indigenous people. It's not so much the principle: as with the Land Reforms, it's reasonable to believe that in post-colonial Africa the indigenous population deserves to have land and to be invested in a functioning economy. It's also reasonable to believe that achieving that goal, given the legacy of colonialism, requires government policy and support, since the majority of the population doesn't have the capital to invest in stocks or buy land. Unfortunately, what is counter-productive and, on some level, vile are the ways that ZANU-PF goes about achieving these goals. Because you can't threaten to seize the assets of Barclays Bank or force Coca-Cola to divest its stocks below market value on one hand and then expect/ demand that foreign investors pony up more money on the other. Vile because you can't spend time in Zimbabwe and not come to admire the people there who, in spite of having been dealt such a poor hand, are generous and resilient and full of joy. And who deserve so much more.
It's not to say that anyplace else is a paradise: one person, when I lamented the political beatings that have happened in Zimbabwe, said to me, 'Well, what about Guantanamo?" And it's true—the U.S. has things to answer for. But nothing—not even the Tea Party's most illogical rantings, not even the 'birther' business—comes close to all of this.
In the statistics of calamity, Zimbabwe ranks high. The lowest quality of life, according to the UNDC, for five years running; 80% unemployment; the lowest life expectancy (in 2006) in the world; the highest inflation (in 2008) in recorded human history. For one U.S. dollar I bought a 50,000,000,000 Zim dollar as a souvenir. In 2008, the worst of the worst, the grocery stores had literally nothing on the shelf; the Matiures, in Warren Park, had no running water for three months; people had to travel to Mozambique—over 6 hours by bus—to buy cooking oil and soap. I expected poverty, but the reality on the ground is more complex. I saw no tar-paper shacks: nothing like what you would see in India, or the permanent tar-paper settlement I saw in the middle of Managua last May. And, in a way, there are luxuries I would never be able to afford at home. Cosmas, for example, has several homes/ pieces of land—the house in Glen Norah where I stayed; two rural homes in Mhondoro—one vacant and set aside for his son Mudai to move into when he's older; a solid stretch of fields in Mhondoro; a maid in Harare and some hired help in Mhondoro. As a whitey visiting Zimbabwe, you bounce between these two poles: recognizing clearly that you are rich in comparison—Zimbabwe's teachers make $170 a month, for god's sake, and water comes out of my tap at home every time I turn it on; seeing, on the other hand, that there are certain comforts that I will never afford—far from hiring domestic help or inheriting 10 acres and a house in the country from my family, I get food stamps and heating assistance from the government. More pointedly, a lot of Zimbabweans in the diaspora—3 million in South Africa alone—send money back to help at home but don't have anything approaching the quality of life of the people I saw still in Zimbabwe. So it's hard to figure. What I can say is that—apart from the touts at Victoria Falls and the security guard at UZ who saw me as a stack of money with feet—people didn't try to take advantage of people. If anything, everybody was helpful and generous, one fellow walking eight blocks with me through Harare to make sure I got on the right combi.
The harder thing to figure was how to compensate the singers I worked this past week, doing the two recording sessions at Seke Teacher's College and spending a day at the College of Music. When I initially budgeted for this trip and raised money through Kickstarter, my working assumption was that I would be working with a group of 8 singers and that I would pay them each $20. It was important to me to pay the singers for their time: I will be benefiting from that work when I get home by incorporating these songs into the singing workshops that I lead and by putting together a book of transcriptions of the songs. But when I got to Seke, it turned out to be a group of 30+ singers with three different leaders. Budgetary problem number 1. I had also assumed that I would pay everybody equally, but Shona culture is hierarchical—if not in terms of power, then definitely in terms of respect. Which meant that the first thing to be done at Seke was paying a courtesy call to the principal and not, as I had hoped, setting up the microphones. And that the leaders of the choir were paid more than the individual members (I had also thought that there would be only one leader). Faced with a finite budget, by the time it got to the individual singers, I was only able to give each one $5. I felt bad that it was such a small amount, and they burst forth into jubilance, waving those five dollars above their hands and singing "God has made it beautiful" while they danced. At the College of Music, the two lecturers refused to take any money, which meant that I couldn't give any to the students either, because that would have been bypassing that hierarchy of respect. Instead, I made a donation to the college to support the program and talked to the librarian about what resources would be helpful. They have, he said, a degree in jazz, but very few resources. When I asked to see what they did have, to be sure not to replicate anything, he showed me a small section of a bookcase with about five books on jazz and not more than 10 cds. I won't have to worry much about duplication when I put together a package of jazz resources to send to the College of Music and which gives me a concrete and helpful way to contribute to their program.
I say all this, I suppose, to give a partial accounting to all of you who donated money to support this venture, but more because I think it's important to think about how to deal with money rightly in a foreign land, wanting to be neither stingy nor to act as if made of money, creating problems for future travelers.
What I haven't said explicitly yet is that everyone, every single person, in all of these stories has been black. Three weeks in Zimbabwe and I only saw other white people at Victoria Falls and on the day safari in Botswana, at the Mannenberg in Harare on Friday night, every once a while (but rarely) on the streets of the city centre, at a U.S. Embassy function, and a few in cars coming from the more affluent suburbs. I didn't have a single conversation with a white Zimbabwean, didn't see any whites on any form of public transportation. During the Rhodesian period, the white population peaked at 250,000. Today it's between 20,000 and 30,000 with the vast majority having left immediately after independence. So, in a way, there's hardly a white perspective to be had, even though the memoirs you can find at the bookstore—Don't Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight or When a Crocodile Eats the Sun—are from white Zimbabweans now living elsewhere. There are a select few white government ministers, MDC invariably. My thoughts about race in Zimbabwe are even more of a muddle than those about money: I think there's still an unresolved question of what it means to be a white African—obvious products of a colonial history, people who know no other home, and who are (with the exception of South Africa) hardly present in public life or our assumptions. Because when someone says 'Zimbabwean' to you, you don't think of a murungu.
Unresolved, these thoughts of money and race and politics. Which means, I suppose, that I'll have to go back again.
Almost home. Thanks for listening: writing has given me a way to focus my thoughts, to put all of these experiences into some kind of framework.
The funniest thing about being home is the way people greet each other: quickly or, if passing on the street, not at all. In such contrast to the protracted greetings in Zimbabwe: Mangawanani. Mangwanani. Mamukasei? Tamuka mamukawo. Tamuka. The way people savored the middle vowel in that last tamuka makes words here feel like dry leaves in my mouth, the vowels especially. Vowels were just more fun in Zimbabwe. I savored those greetings, the way that people spent a lot of time on something so simple but so meaningful. And there was always such delight when I knew how to respond in Shona, amazement that a foreigner would have learned some fragments of the language. One always needs to remember that your surroundings are only part of the travel experience: the other piece is personal. And being on a voyage makes it easier to create a privileged space in life, the space of being more present to the moment. So it was for me: for those three weeks I was able to put aside the push to find more work, to keep up with the administrative details of life, to lay aside uncertainties about the future and career choices and relationships and all of it. But even with that caveat, I think it's fair to say that the sense of time and the urgency with which you do things was different in Zimbabwe than here, and in a very sweet way. As I write this, I realize it may not be the most profound realization ever offered: white guy goes to Africa, realizes sense of time is different. . . Apologies for that, but it's a place to start as I try to bring together some final reflections on my trip.
Maybe more to the point, there is a greater acceptance of the things that happen. In the middle of my trip, on March 2, Mugabe and ZANU-PF were launching their campaign against "illegal" sanctions with a big rally in Harare. Cosmas made a passing remark that he might leave the city for Mhondoro that day, because sometimes a rally could be preceded by groups of young ZANU toughs driving around the high-density areas and rounding people up to go to the rally, the threat of violence implicit if someone wanted to stay home. Which is a terrible thing, but one that Cosmas accepted without any fuss, simply making plans to avoid the problem. Now this is a specifically political example, and I am more proud than ever that there is a democratic tradition in the U.S. that allows us to express our views and organize and demonstrate without fear of violence or other reprisals. And I say that aware that we don't have a perfect track record, but the times where we have failed to live up to those lofty standards pale in comparison to the 20,000 Ndebele who were killed during the Gukurahundi. That was an aside: the thing that I was impressed with, and which is so different, was the simple acceptance. It was the same when Jane Matiure described how they went without water for three months in 2008, how their son Taku had to travel by bus to Mozambique to get soap and cooking oil. Here we tend to rail against things, to demand of our workplace and our government and our partners and our gods that certain standards be met and that our needs be fulfilled. Which has a strong value, but can leave us dissatisfied when the world fails to meet those standards. This sense of acceptance, I think, is related to the different sense of time: when you take it all as it comes, there's less pressure to finish one thing and move on to the next or to have so many windows in your internet browser open at the same time.
At Quaker meeting yesterday I was thinking about the language we use to describe things and how I caught myself saying that in spite of the situation in Zimbabwe, there is still hope and joy and good music. Resilient is a word that comes up a lot, and justly so. But at some level I think this kind of description is missing the point and is too pat in its sense of causality. Fact A: the situation isn't great in Zimbabwe. Politics are bad, money is tight, HIV is high. Fact B: Shona music is some of the happiest stuff you'll hear, be it children dancing barefoot to the marimba band in Nhimbe or college students erupting in joyful song after a singing workshop. People are optimistic about the future, making plans to better their own lives and help those around them—like Joshua Magaya in Victoria Falls. There is a strong sense of community, and of people helping each other with the essentials of life. You can't stop by for a visit, Mai Matiure explained to me, and not go home with some maize. But Fact B doesn't exist because of Fact A: if the economy flourishes and true democracy takes hold, I don't think that the music will become less joyful or that people will stop helping each other. Which can be the hardest thing to understand: that something can be beautiful and sad at the same time, and that we hold both light and dark in our own hearts.
Since I've gotten home, some friends have asked what I'll do with this experience. On an immediate level, I'm still pecking away at organizing the recordings, videos and photos from the trip. Once I've gotten those in order, I'll begin transcribing the songs that I recorded, eventually putting together a book of Shona choral music. I'm playing the mbira every day, and looking forward to some opportunities to share all of this stuff: a house concert in Greenfield on April 10, singing workshops in Providence and Middlebury and Putney and Dallas and Minneapolis. On a deeper level, I can only hope to incorporate some of the better attributes of Shona culture—the sweet savoring of greeting someone, spontaneous joy in singing, a blanket acceptance of the things that happen.
I also want to say again how grateful I am for everybody's support. To make this trip possible, I received money through Kickstarter and private contributions as well as grant support from the Vermont Arts Council and the National Endowment of the Arts. If you've enjoyed these e-mails, please tell your senator that you value public funding of the arts. I remain humbled and honored by such an outpouring of support. Thank you. Some friends have asked if I need further support: I will be spending some time and money to put this book together but, to be honest, I don't have a clear sense of how much that will cost yet. What I would like to ask of you is your knowledge and recommendations: when I was at the College of Music in Zimbabwe, the librarian asked if I could help them build their library resources for their jazz degree. Given that the resources consist of the Rough Guide to Jazz and a small handful of cds, I don't need to worry about duplication and would like to assemble a package of essential jazz recordings and some text resources—both instructional and historical. Which is where I run into the limitations of my knowledge: I like jazz, and listen it to often, but don't know as much about as I do other genres. Do you have any favorite recordings or books? A book on playing jazz piano that you think is essential or an album that everyone needs to know? I would love to hear about it. Your recommendations are the most helpful thing: if you have extra copies of these things at home, I would happily include them in this package.
© Brendan Taaffe, 2011. All Rights Reserved.