Monday 7 October 2013

Guest post: "What culture? Whose Culture?", by Farai Mpfunya (Zimbabwe)

I met Farai Mpfunya a year ago at the Kennedy Center and had the pleasure of sharing the seminar room, and some lunch breaks, with him in two consecutive summers. What I appreciated the most in our conversations or listening to Farai´s comments in class, was his solid knowledge of the cultural sector in Zimbabwe and abroad, as well as his well-thought and balanced opinions. Farai speaks when he has really something to say and I feel very fortunate to have met him. mv

Mai Musodzi Cinema Hall, Mbare (Photo: Farai Mpfunya)

Mbare, suburb in Harare, Zimbabwe. 

Most little boys and girls growing up in this neighbourhood in the 1970s were five minutes away from a cinema, library, sports centre, church and school. A rich educational and cultural environment for the little ones to grow up in, you would say. To top it up, it was one of the most cultural diverse multi-ethnic communities. Many from all over the country and from across the border wanted to live in the thriving capital city of a rich small country. While the local residents had brought these amazingly rich cultures and their arts, the city infrastructure imposed an urban Culture and encouraged certain types of Arts.
What Culture? Whose Culture? 

Before Zimbabwe’s independence from British rule in 1980, Mbare was an area where black people lived. No white people lived there, except the occasional Catholic parish priest. The white police officers and local authority superintendents only came in the morning to work and left in the evening. They lived in the white suburbs or neighbourhoods buffered by the industrial and commercial areas.

A couple of main roads connected the neighbourhood to the rest of the world and these roads could be sealed off by police when the little children’s parents started making noise about human rights and conditions of living in the area. Judging from the way the police carried themselves, the sporadic episodes of them chasing black people with dogs, motor bikes and anti-riot vehicles sometimes seemed like a big-people game to the children. It was all part of the urban cultural landscape. A small white community of European descent had ruled Zimbabwe since 1896 and had ‘built’ a new ‘nation’ called Rhodesia, culture included.
What Culture? Whose Culture? 

In the 70s, little ones in Mbare had fun at the cinemas. They watched James Bond’s Gold Finger and James Coburn in A Man Called Flint and played guns and spies after. They watched cowboys and Indians and hunted down Indians in the neighbourhood after the film. They watched Bruce Lee’s Enter The Dragon and fancied themselves martial arts experts.

In the local library, some read Shakespeare. At school they were recited Christopher Columbus and David Livingstone’s journeys of discovery of new worlds and cultures. At home they were told that Livingstone had discovered and named the mighty Victoria Falls in honour of his own queen. The same falls were their own heritage and known at home as Mosi-oa-Tunya (Tokaleya Tonga: the Smoke that Thunders). Black teachers taught new history and culture while parents and grandparents taught the old history and culture.

In the 70s, the little ones in Mbare had fun in the public swimming pool named after one of the early European settlers who had moved their ancestors off their land. In the chlorinated swimming pool they dreamt and trained to become the 1972 seven-times gold medalist and American, Mark Spitz,.... together with the Speedo swimming trunks! They played football and gave one another new names like Pele and Socrates after the football giants of Brazil. They embraced global culture before global became trendy.
What Culture? Whose Culture? 

Mbare Municipal Library (Photo: Farai Mpfunya)
Zimbabwe held harmonised elections in July 2013, as it does every five years or so. These elections were declared peaceful by the whole world. Many Zimbabweans had prayed for peace to prevail, partly because, the last time round, elections got violent in some areas and development stood still. Zimbabweans also have a genuine culture of peace. While the ruling party, ZANU (FP), was obviously over the moon with the results of the elections, because they won overwhelmingly, some were surprised and others angered. Nonetheless, the morning after, life in Zimbabwe continued as peaceful as it had started before electioneering. The will of the diverse people of Zimbabwe had been expressed. End of story, right?

Not so for my country. The result was dissected for its fairness and credibility. Internally, the major opposition party contested both the fairness and credibility of the process and result. African regional and continental political bodies that had sent monitoring observers on the ground were quick to endorse the results as a credible representation of the will of the people, while some powerful western countries, who had not been allowed to send official monitoring observers on the ground, were quick to hold their judgment on the credibility of the result as a true representation of the will of the people.....of Zimbabwe.
The culture of voting in Zimbabwe had not impressed them. 

National Gallery Visual Arts School, Mbare Department (Photo: farai Mpfunya)
The sitting President of Zimbabwe, a hero of the war of liberation against colonial rule, has had a decade of diplomatic fights with western countries. They put him under targeted sanctions together with about a hundred of his comrades, also heroes of the war of liberation against colonial rule. While all this was going on, the little ones in Mbare played their new games in not-so-looked after spaces. They blame the sanctions. While a new culture of poverty pervades the landscape, deep resilience reigns.

Undeterred by his critics, the President claimed victory in the harmonised elections, was inaugurated into power by the Chief Justice and proceeded to appoint a new cabinet and form a new government. Government ministries where reduced, a new Ministry of Sports, Arts and Culture was announced. Many in the Arts and Culture sector who had lobbied for a separate ministry for years were surprised. They got more than they had expected, though they have to figure out what to do with their sporty sisters.

The little boys and girls of Mbare are anxious that their run down facilities, following years of targeted sanctions, will be refurbished, their neighbourhood will be regenerated. New energy will certainly return in their cultures.....Facebook, Twitter............
What Culture? Whose Culture? 

Farai Mpfunya is the founding and executive Director of the Culture Fund of Zimbabwe Trust, the biggest local funding organisation in Zimbabwe’s Arts and Culture sector.  Farai Mpfunya served on the Arterial Network’s Cultural Policy Task Group that created a framework for enabling African governments in cultural policy making. Educated in Zimbabwe, France and England, he started his professional career in the public and then corporate sectors, having studied electronics engineering and then business administration (MBA) before career shifting to filmmaking and then arts and culture administration. Farai is a Chevening Scholar, a fellow of the Salzburg Global Seminar (Session 490) and DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center.

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