A Bearded Poet Does Harare

by Segun Akinlolu

Deciding where to start this report was as tough as deciding to leave Harare. Do I start from my first tentative days under the tutelage of fire-spitting Billet, the urbane Zimbabwean with a deep understanding of the black African conundrum? Or do I pick on nasal Natsai who sought me out after a particularly moving performance and asked if I was real? I should perhaps take off with the way I feel as I write this piece…I miss Harare! I miss all the good and warm people I met at ZIBF2001, I miss the open love and naked appreciation of talent, the all-embracing feeling of brotherhood, the welcoming beauty of the streets…

My first impressions of Harare were those of shock. Gauging from the negative reports in international news media, I had expected to see ferocious men with fire in their nostrils brandishing revolvers and seeking out every white person in sight for violent expulsion. I had, perhaps, also expected the kind of palpable tension you feel immediately you enter a country on the verge of civil anarchy. I had braced myself for a torrid two weeks. So you can imagine my state of mind on entering Harare late at night with no one to receive me at the airport and no pre-arranged hotel accommodation.

Well, I found a good hotel at midnight, had a great sleep and woke up to behold a breath- taking, ordered city. Looking out from that hotel room window, with fresh air caressing my face, I knew I was going to have a great time…and didn’t I!

Fast-forward to August 5: I am at the bar at the Monomotapa with Carol (an elderly, American-born writer with fond memories of her sojourn in Northern Nigeria in the mid-eighties), Billet, Oba (another Nigerian ) and David, a Malawian.

Carol: We should be doing this more often, people of the world coming together to appreciate one another…

Billet: Yea, that’s if the almighty west will allow…it is only in divisive politics and evil diplomacy that their hypocrisy can thrive.

Oba: There you go again trying to blame all the problems of Africa on the west…

Billet: Where else do you wanna look, India?

It is amazing the kind of unity and camaraderie you find amongst people in the arts…we fight over ideologies and views just like the politicians but we do ours with the full understanding that your view doesn’t necessarily have to bow to mine and we can go to sleep having argued bitterly all night and wake up tomorrow still half drunk but still able to look each other in eye and share a joke. I guess part of the reason why it’s all so easy is because you were so drunk you couldn’t even remember what the whole brouhaha had been all about. Not that I am a great expert in this area (being more of a teetotaler than a devotee of great Bacchus). But I’ve been around writers, and artistes generally, long enough to realise that the night does not necessarily predict the morning.

Oh, no I didn’t spend all my nights with boozing, philosophizing friends. There was the night I took off alone just strolling the tranquil streets of Harare…and ended up making friends with a woman in a cardboard shelter…this homeless little lady huddling with her two small kids against the cold August evening. Here, I thought, was the other face of Zimbabwe I wouldn’t have seen if I was normal (normal people were too far away in dreamland to imagine this painful, pitiable sight). Such sights are common all over Africa, and you do want to ask if we should always blame the colonial masters for all our woes or look within and ask ourselves if our founding fathers laid a good foundation and if we, the young, have the heart to sponsor positive change in our environment. We talk of inflation, high cost of living but nobody mentions quality of life. Our leaders all over Africa must start to address themselves to this question: Don’t our people deserve to live a life better in quality than that of the disowned dog?

It is strange that, as I write, all the images that rush to my head about Harare are those of the night…at a bar with some budding Zimbabwean writers (and I, sounding off like the next best thing after Wole Soyinka); a quiet stroll in laid-back, scenic Hatfield with a delightful young lady who brought a new meaning to companionship and the brotherhood of man; sharing my poetry with a scattered audience at a place called the Book café and coaxing a young couple to share in my groove; jumping and frolicking in abandon to a vigorous healthy music built around marimbas at the ZIBF reception with James Gibbs’ very Ghanaian wife and praying he wasn’t the jealous type…

I ended up buying a marimba for myself at 400 Zimdollars (I really thought that was a good bargain) and, each time I play it, I remember the young, zesty Senegalese band that played all through the ZIBF calendar. I am such a poor imitation but to my friends in Nigeria, my marimba playing has become the special attraction.

Of course, my participation in ZIBF 2001 went beyond drinking binges, night walks and marimba-dancing. I took part in every possible event at the book fair…the long, dry (opinion, mine) discourses on the future of the book and publishing in Africa, the endless rages against the governments of Africa, the long drawn, often boring sessions dealing on writing for women, children, boys, girls, pets, atoms and gnomes and anything else you could imagine. I hurried up and down at these sessions hoping someone would call out and save me from the intellectual overload. I got some relief from August 7 when the live literature centre opened. The acceptance of my work right from my first performance there was highly encouraging. I was singing songs in a language most people in the audience couldn’t understand yet they showered their love on me.

From that first performance, the answer to a question which had long bothered me started to unfold. Zimbabwe’s Chirikure Chirikure spoke, Patience Agbabi (of Nigeria and England) rapped and from, day to day, performer to performer, I studied the audience-young and old, white and black- sitting enraptured, listening to and enjoying poetry. By the end of the book fair, I drew my conclusion: Performance is the key to the revival of the book in Africa.

In our literature, we must start to celebrate our ageless African values – this is the only way to counter the overwhelming wave from the West which some have described as a re-colonisation process. We must find pride again in our culture however crude it may seem in the face of the western education we have received, we must sieve from our past those things which are negative and re-introduce practices which set us apart as a glorious people set in the most fertile portion of the earth. We must find fun in our healthy games, magic in our stories, strength in our tight family bonds, joy in the midst of all the problems caused by the haste with which our societies were modernised. We must teach the children that ours is a rich heritage .I will continue to do this in my poetry and music and hope that I will be able to make a little difference.

Monday, August 13

Up early to catch my 7.15am flight, I am misty-eyed. I have really found love here and I am reluctant to leave. I relax in my window seat, looking down on the fleeing roofs of well laid-out Harare and praying that the political problems beleaguering this country will soon be over. I hope we can all start to look beyond face and colour; beyond faith and gender, to see only that which is divine-God’s love which we must share with all our neighbours no matter their nature or extraction. I hope, out of all the present confusing signals from different parts of Africa, a new dawn of regeneration will soon emerge. I sigh, tired but grateful to the good people I met at ZIBF2001 especially Fayah Tafari, Natsai, Jacob Nyausaru, Billet, Beverly, Carol, Siaan, The Gibbs, Martine, Frances and Evi Romarin…

I am sleepy, melancholic as usual – unhappy that I am leaving, happy to be going home. Home…home? Everywhere is home to the beloved poet.

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