It was the summer of 2003 that I first met Zimbabwe. After working at the ‘Festival of the Dhow Countries’ — a cultural and film festival a.k.a Zanzibar International Film Festival — I took a plane from Dar es Salaam to Maputo via the northern Mozambican city of Pemba. I would attend some development-side meeting there with my old boss, Jeanne-Marie Col from a rather esoteric United Nations unit called the Global Programme for the Integration of Public Administration and the Science of Disasters where I was a graduate intern some years before after finishing the first half of an MPA programme at Rutgers University and before going with my ex-wife to Cameroon for the Peace Corps (the experience about which I wrote my Masters). The keynote speaker at the conference was the Chancellor of the University of Capetown, Graça Machel who was then the wife of Nelson Mandela and the widow of Mozambican president Samora Machel. It is rumored that all three men Machel, Mandela and Mugabe sought her affection. While I don’t know that to be true it was the rumor that brought Mugabe strongly to mind. But also I had met the Tanzanian cartoonist Nathan Mpangala (a.k.a. Kijasti) in Zanzibar and he offered to help out in any social struggle I could connect him to that required cartoons. A year later in 2004, Zvakwana (‘enough is enough’ in Shona), an underground movement that “clandestinely [distributed] resistance messages, graffiti, CDs of music, and condoms” arose and needed some cartoons such as the one pictured above for their work. Kijasti was a member of PACT, the Popular Association of Cartoonists of Tanzania. The correspondence that I relayed between the two groups was as follows :
(i) We were wondering if you could help us a bit quickly. We’re just about to publish a newsletter and we want to draw attention to mugabe importing money from Zimbabweans in exile. This is of course very unproductive and speaks volumes about how zanu pf has destroyed the economy. We were wanting mugabe’s face on that Lord Kitchener graphic: I Want Your Money but not You because I know you won’t vote for me. Could you do us a cartoon like that? Thanks! Solidarity, Zvakwana ! (ii) Hello Zvakwana member, I sent a Mugabe caricature to you as you requested. Please add resolution at least 200 so you will get a good image. If the drawing needs corrections please don’t hesitate to contact me, I will correct. I wish you a good day. Regards, Nathan Mpangala-cartoonist (iii) We copied you in on our thanks email to Nathan. We are so very happy and of course we like to have our supporters have creative freedom. It is also very amazing to have this sort of solidarity and assistance all effected by way of cyber communications with you (in New York) being a conduit of help. So we are elated. We will be publishing soon which is very good because we’ve been quiet for sometime after the chasings of the regime. Solidarity! Z (iv) Greetings from us at Zvakwana We are thanking you so much for your cartoon. In fact it was published in an advert of ours in the Mail and Guardian newspaper in South Africa on June 18. We were very pleased for this collaboration. Imagine this power of the internet linking New York, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. Solidarity! Zvakwana
In 2004 I was back in Southern Africa, attending a workshop in Pretoria, South Africa and then took a bus to Harare from Johannesburg to attend and offer a workshop (on film funding) at the Zimbabwe International Film Festival. I got to see the release of Kare Kare Zvako: Mother’s Day, a film by Tsitsi Dangarembga (the author of Nervous Conditions), which went on the next year to Sundance.
I love to meet people. Even if I have no context for walking up to someone after a talk or speech — or those more awkward times when it is on the street — if I am at all impressed with the person (or feeling any other strong emotion) I will attempt to engage that person. To learn something more from a one-to-one encounter, however brief. This freaks some people out, especially if I know more about them through observation than they know about me. When the admiration is strong however, it is hard not to boil over a bit with enthusiasm. I did that with Tsitsi after her film. I did it with Gadalla Gubara after seeing Tajouj for the first time in Khartoum. It’s my style and it is how I entered a space of neo-3rd Cinema in those years (2001–2005) when all I loved — besides my wife — was African movies. One day I’ll write up my encounters in Nollywood more extensively because those went on past the 2005 mark, which was when I made my first film festival in Rwanda with Eric Kabera and Kivu (a.k.a. Daddy) Ruhorahoza.
Tsitsi allowed me to curate Mother’s Day into Rooftop Films, where I was volunteering in NYC, and I met her again in 2005 at FESPACO … FESPACO (Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso) is a busy film market in addition to festival. We didn’t get to talk much, but I watched her navigate the ‘men’ … at that point the indusry was yet dominated by men at the level of ‘behind the scenes business’ during the festival, which played out in the courtyard of the now destroyed (burned down) Independence Hotel. I would love to run into her again.
Zimbabwe has not left my thoughts and concerns since the story began in 2003. Mugabe stepped down in November 2017 after decades of rule. Two evenings ago, I had the honor of attending a talk by Zimbabwean human rights activist, Jestina Mukoko and Michel Forst (UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders). Jestina was talking about her time at York’s Centre for Applied Human Rights (CAHR) and how it afforded her the time to write a book entitled, The Abduction and Trial of Jestina Mukoko. Afterwards I ‘rushed’ her … I couldn’t help myself. Do you know Tsitsi .. do you know Zvakwana. I wanted news from old friends. I wanted most to be in her presence to learn a little more than her talk had provided. My talk was the next morning, and I credited her from the dais for changing what I would say that morning as keynote (along with Professor Maggie O’Neill) for the opening of an Arts, Activism and Research Workshop that was a part of CAHR’s 10th anniversary that she kicked off the night before. I hope I see her again.
In 2015 Lanchonete.org offered a Biennial Prize at Bamako Encounters under the oversight of its curator, Bisi Silva, for a female artist (to be selected by jury) who would come to Brasil for a two-month artistic residency with us. The selected artist was Lucia Nhamo from Zimbabwe, who spent one month in Salvador and the next in São Paulo. I keep meeting her … Zimbabwe.