In about twenty days time, the six-day Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA) will be staged in Zimbabwe for the eleventh year in a row. That’s right, eleven years running: through the rise of political opposition in Zimbabwe to the brutal repression of it, as Mugabe continued to crackdown and Zimbabwe essentially cracked up, Harare has staged one of the world’s largest arts festivals. And this isn’t an amateurish production: every year, the bill impresses with a thoroughly modern mix of African and international song, dance, and theatre. This year Salif Keta is headlining, alongside Afro-Swedish dance, Zimbabwean theatre, Italian jazz and the London Festival Opera, to name just a few of the acts. Such a festival would be at home anywhere in the world; that it is taking place in Zimbabwe is something of a triumph.
Manuel Bagorro founded the festival in 1999 and continues to direct it today, with much of the same crew on board. Vision and determination are the kinds of words usually used to describe guys like this. But in this case, his sheer logistic nous must be greatly admired. Make no mistake, running a festival under these conditions is not easy.
In 2004 I staged a play, Pillow Talk, at the festival, and even then accomplishing the smallest task felt like cause for celebration. Petrol was difficult to source, so to ensure we didn’t run out we rationed trips to collect cast and supplies. With inflation spiralling, we carried bags of money from the bank to purchase the basic goods available. And the mood in Harare was grim, making an arts festival feel at times like a sideshow. Still, I saw how important it was for Zimbabweans to enjoy the festival: the feeling it provided, if only illusory, of some degree of normalcy.
For me, eleven years of HIFA is a reminder that all of those war zones and failed states we see on television that appear so broken down and bereft are actually more complex than that. That beyond the politicians posturing, people carry on, sometimes quite brilliantly, despite, if not because of, the conditions. There is a real imperative about life, and art is central to it. Indeed, through the arts supposedly underprivileged people come together in supposedly underprivileged places for the chance to be loud and proud and celebratory. They are given the chance to exercise silenced voices, to explore undiscovered creativity, to discuss topics considered taboo if not explored on stage, to simply laugh, to find themselves dancing next to someone whom their leaders would make them believe is their enemy.
And that chance that a festival like HIFA provides –the chance to feel ALIVE – isn’t just vital to a people’s survival. It’s essential to their ultimate rebirth.