Home » Arts & Culture » When Paymaster Calls Wrong Tune [opinion]

When outsiders try to apply their textbook “expertise” to local problems they do not fully understand, it is unlikely that they will produce a real solution. At best they will waste their own and everyone else’s time and at worst they will exacerbate the real problem, which is not the one they will have been trying to solve in the first place.

That is exactly what has happened at the latest edition of the Harare International Festival of the Arts where the play “Lovers in Time” has produced some very g reactions in diverse groups. Some Polish woman who is based in Europe has taken it upon herself to ensure that “the people of Zimbabwe live together in harmony” by producing a play that she argues “anyone interested in racial harmony to watch”.

“The Festival has been struggling to survive and it is only through the passion, compassion and determination of the HIFA team that it is still alive,” unequivocally states executive director Maria Wilson in her write up in the festivals 2014 official programme booklet.

It is sad, but understandable that when money talks, it is easy to overlook everything else. Dr Agnieszka Piotrowska is an academic at the University of Bedfordshire in the United Kingdom, and a theatre and production guru who has been to Zimbabwe previously for a short time for another HIFA production.

But there is nothing in her CV to qualify her as an expert on race relations or any other issue in Zimbabwe. One has to wonder what informs her views, but it sure does sound like she has listened to too many CNN and BBC indigenisation horror stories which have little to do with the situation on the ground, just like her own assumptions.

She wrote an open letter to the Editor of The Herald in which she was attacking the paper for airing the concerns of some Zimbabweans who felt that the play was in bad state. Her biggest bone of contention was that no one had the right to criticise the play before they had seen it.

But she goes on to say, “Ironically some white people who have watched the rehearsals do not even like it because they say it portrays them in bad light.”

So does that mean only white people got to watch the rehearsal or is it that the opinions of the blacks do not matter?

Like most neo-liberals, Dr Piotrowska seems to believe that everyone has the freedom to say what they like, as long as they agree with her. She brands The Herald article “extraordinarily unfortunate”. Then she goes on to cast aspersions on the characters of all people who did not like the play by implying that they are not interested in racial harmony.

And then she decides to distort history so as to teach us about harmony by highlighting an incident that is painful but that is not necessarily high on the psyche of most ordinary citizens.

Little does she realise that right now the chief concern of most Zimbabweans of all colours is not about race but on survival and prospering. We are worried about sanctions and the negative brand of racial disharmony that some people seem determined to stick on us, whether we like it or not!

She needs to take a tour around the country and see everyday scenes of people of all colours co-existing. Then maybe she can forget the Wilbur Smith imagery where all Shonas and Ndebeles would fight tooth and claw the moment they meet unless some benevolent white is around to keep them in check.

“Blessing Hungwe and myself developed the play together but it would not have been produced if not for the funding coming from my university, the University of Bedfordshire, in the UK. I was not picked to be the director — I initiated the whole project as the producer,” she brags.

Ironically she does not realise that in that statement lies the whole irony.

She was taking aantage of the prevailing harsh economic situation which has obviously impacted on the local corporate support. This left her free to produce a play in which Mbuya Nehanda returns as a man who bumps into her fellow spirit medium Sekuru Kaguvi.

The duo goes through a series of character changes as they travel through Zimbabwe in time. Then they are hanged by two drunken white men. Meanwhile Nehanda is talking to her ancestors who turned her into a man. Dr Piotrowska seems to have missed the nuance that the whole concept of mediums is based on the spirit of the dead joining and becoming one with the ancestors.

In a country where the majority of the people are unabashedly averse to homosexuality as demonstrated in the constitutional outreach programme the sex interchange was bound to be highly objectionable.

Having the hangings carried out by two drunken white men implicitly takes away the blame from the settler regime and its judiciary system that ‘tried’ and convicted Nehanda and Kaguvi (pictured) before sentencing them to death by hanging. It was not the work of two white drunks.

She trivialises the role of the spirit mediums in history to her they were so unimportant that their fate could be left to two drunks and that means the leadership was inherently innocent, naive rather than evil.

In her letter Dr Piotrowska says that being Polish she “knows more than most the pain and suffering a people can go through.” Perhaps she should have considered is she would get the joke if the victims of the pogroms were portrayed in a similarly ludicrous manner, all in the name of art.

On discovering that the full house at the opening night really did express serious aversion to the play, Dr Piotrowska rushed to defend herself:

“It’s not about factual things, it’s not about history, it’s not about scholarship either we just wanted to see if we could look at something traumatic, that is fixed and make it more fluid so that people can begin to think about race relations in a different way,” she claims in spite of the glaring backdrop of a picture of the hanged spirit mediums.

Dr Piotrowska is also quick to shift the blame to script writer Blessing Hungwe for “not highlighting sensitivities.” But the question that beggars asking is how much room Hungwe had to manoeuvre when he was working on a template provided by a person whose knowledge of our history, feelings and sensitivities is informed by biased historical and media accounts?

But Zimbabweans should not cry foul without taking their own share of the burden. As a nation we have allowed the burden of HIFA to rest on a few shoulders. In itself it remains one of the best initiatives to come out of Zimbabwe.

In criticising its shortcomings, it’s time that we put our money where our mouths are, for it is only by financial and moral commitment that we can turn the festival into a place where we showcase products that we will be proud to call truly Zimbabwean.

Just like the Africa’s problems persist year after year in spite of billions of funds being channelled through a civil society led by thousands of “experts”, HIFA and all our other offerings will never reflect our story until we decide to own it.


Source : The Herald