The King and Zim

It’s 7.30pm, Tuesday April 29, four weeks after the Zimbabwean election. On an outdoor stage in Harare Gardens about 8 000 people have gathered to attend Dreamland, the opening event of the Harare International Festival of the Arts (Hifa).

Eighty musicians, singers and dancers in striped pyjamas are sprawled ‘asleep” on the stage. Then a giant king in a white leatherette military suit and an outsize bulbous red mask drags a cello down the ramp. As he tunes his strings a storyteller recounts how once, long ago, in a beautiful country far from here, this king stole the songs from his people and bewitched them into a deep sleep.

We watch as two Darth Vader helmeted ‘hyenas” in military uniforms use the distinctive plastic ballot bins of the recent elections to club the songs out of a choir and to silence another with a gift of a cardboard cut-out tractor. The crowd goes silent, many have tears in their eyes.

Then the king breaks into a booze-soaked rendition of What a Wonderful World.

‘Within three minutes of the beginning I told my friend ‘we are going to be beaten now’,” a spectator tells me afterwards. ‘We wondered which way to run.”

I’ve spent the past three weeks putting Dreamland together. I wrote the beginning some time ago and imagined that by the time I arrived in Zimbabwe I would know the ending: either the sleeping cast would awake and sweep the king away with the power of its voice, or the king would still be droning his monotonous dirge. But I walked into a narrative with no end in sight: the State of Limbo. The jubilation of just a few days earlier, when it looked like the MDC had cleaned up the elections, was over and a frustrated gloom defined the mood of Harareans. Within a short while this had settled into an angry depression.

There were the usual frustrations of bread queues, food shortages, escalating prices, water and power cuts, but added to this was a sense of powerlessness, of having been cheated out of hope. I have spent the past two Aprils here making the opening shows for this festival, but never have things been so tough. The cellphone lines are constantly jammed: it can take up to an hour to get through and several hours for an SMS to arrive. Finding transport to rehearsals can be impossible. But, more than this, people expend so much energy in merely holding their lives together that there is little surplus for anything else.

Finding the enthusiasm to create a dynamic piece of musical theatre is difficult for those whose expectation of profound change has just been snuffed, who awake every morning from dreams of fear and anxiety.

Suburban Harare feels like the still centre of a violent vortex. I lunch at a restaurant shaded by gracious old jacarandas. Journalists sit at quiet tables, their laptops tuned into Zimbabwe Online. Stories are coming in of torture and beatings. Trucks full of hyped-up uniformed militia spiral out across dirt roads to thrash obedience into fed-up peasants. A Chinese tanker packed with weapons slowly circles 2 000km to the south.

‘For several weeks now Zimbabweans have had nothing to cling to,” I tell the performers of Dreamland — school kids, dancers, poets, musos — ‘We have a platform in the city centre to raise our voices. We may not be able to change the situation, but we can give a voice to what people are feeling; we can give people some hope to take them through the next few days.”

Hifa, a miracle of an arts festival, like one of those desert flowers that appears briefly after rain, is nine years old. Headed by artistic director Manuel Bagorro and run by a passionate and courageous team of Zimbabweans, the festival somehow manages to bring together an extraordinary range of troupes and performers from across the world: opera singers from the United Kingdom, Mexican buffoons, dancers from Indonesia, the United States and Belgium, theatrical troupes from South Africa, Canada and Germany, pop stars from Spain, Uganda, Côte d’Ivoire — It’s one of the most exciting festivals in Africa and beats any South African festival for style and diversity.

Andrew Buckland, in Zimbabwe with TRC drama Truth in Translation, plays the king of Dreamland. The white suit he wears is fittingly the costume worn by Idi Amin in my play, BIG DADA.

As the king hauls his cello offstage the narrator tells that in the barren time of this story there were some songs that the king could not reach: ‘These were the people’s most precious songs, the songs that they sang in their dreams.” The performers awaken and a series of local stars lead the choir and musicians in a number of rousing anthems:

Toni Childs’s What you gonna do, Zimbabwe?, the Cranberries’ anti-war song, Zombie, and Zimbabwe — the liberation song written by Bob Marley in 1980: ‘So soon we’ll find out who are the real revolutionaries. And I don’t want my people to be tricked by mercenaries. We gonna fight — fighting for our rights.”

Swiss funding agency Pro-Helvetia sponsored two South Africans to help me create Dreamland: choreographer Sbonakaliso Ndaba and drama therapist Paula Kingwell. Kingwell’s task was to collect the dreams of Zimbabweans. She held dream workshops with Aids orphans, evicted farmers, torture victims, members of the gay and lesbian society and market vendors. Almost every dream in her harvest is drenched in anxiety and horror, with only an occasional glimpse of hope. Bytes of the dreams are projected on stage throughout Dreamland, revealing the tortured inner landscape of the nation.

Five days before the show, after several rehearsals, I receive an SMS from my narrator at 6am: ‘I’m pulling out of Dreamland. My family has strongly expressed fears that the piece is not politically safe. I’m a soft target as a British employee and my wife is with an independent newspaper. She was detained b4 and I’m diabetic.”

Photos of a man on BBC World, his back pocked with pink blotches: he was tortured with burning plastic for listening to the Voice of America. According to a doctor friend of mine, people are beaten so badly with metal bars that the tissue of their buttocks is destroyed. It has to be gouged away and replaced with grafts from their limbs.

On stage the singer of Lucky Dube’s hit, One People, Different Colours, is murdered by the baton-wielding hyenas and, to the opening strains of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the king of Dreamland is prancing on the boards to deliver a disco version of I Never Can Say Goodbye. National Gallery curator Heeten Bhagat’s pop-art video sequence of Operation Murambats­vina shows bulldozers ploughing into township houses in day glo colours behind him.

Walls in Harare are still plastered with election posters four weeks after the event. Morgan and Simba beam at passers-by. Uncle Bob looks out over our right shoulder, his face sour, his fist raised: ‘Our land. Our sovereignty.” Whenever I’m introduced as a South African people sneer about ‘No Crisis Mbeki”: ‘Listen, if you’re going to hold me accountable for the idiosyncrasies of my president, I’ll hold you accountable for yours,” I retort. But I shudder with shame every time I watch Thabo Mbeki’s grizzled face emitting smug drivel on the various DSTV news channels that Harareans huddle around hopefully, despondently every night.

‘In the dry valleys of Dreamland” intones my replacement storyteller, ‘the silent choirs sang their songs: the battered men in forgotten jails. The broken women on foreign soils. Families resting in unmarked graves. The hungry, the lost and the landless. And their songs rose like thunderclouds over the land.”

Ten children — aged five to 10 years — clutch their teddy bears and line up at front of the stage to sing Somewhere Over the Rainbow. The hyenas appear behind them and smother them one by one with red bags till only one little girl remains singing: ‘If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow why, oh why can’t I?”

German counter-tenor, Daniel Lager, sings Andrew Lloyd Webber’s haunting Pie Jesu as the projection screen fills with a pair of blood-soaked hands juxtaposed with horrific footage from Rwanda and the DRC, made for my African adaptation of Verdi’s Macbeth.

And then the mood changes. Zimbabwean star Chiwonisa Maraire takes the stage with mbira keys whirling and the dancers of Tumbuka Dance Company flying around her: ‘My spirit cries out against the injustices committed upon my people — in this world we continue to seek answers from the lying leaders and in this world we live for food and food alone.”

Thomas Mapfumo’s chimurenga song Mhondoro follows this: a call for power to the ancestral spirits of Zimbabwe, while flames leap on screen. Protest slam poets Outspoken and Comrade Fatso entreat the audience to ‘rise Zimbabwe rise!”

But Zimbabweans are another kind of people to South Africans and, though they weep and raise their fists, they are slow to stand, even to dance. ‘We are too dignified to fight,” a storyteller tells me. Bev Wheeler, who initiated healing circles for torture victims, reckons Zimbabweans are cowed into quietness. ‘Hundreds of thousands have been tortured,” she says. ‘You only need to beat two or three families in a village, rape the women and abduct the men and the village will be terrified.”

The final number in Dreamland is John Lennon’s Imagine, lead by Mararre surrounded by children with candles. A galaxy of candle flames and glowing cellphones is held aloft in the audience before fireworks light the sky and the musicians, choir and dancers slump down into sleep again on stage, still under the narcotic spell of their tyrant king.

For the rest of the festival the audience is wide-eyed about the show. ‘It had to be said,” is the most common response. Festival director Bagorro and I have human-rights lawyers’ numbers on our cells, just in case. Goons from the CIO (Central Intelligence Organisation)are always prowling around looking for a diversion.

By the weekend Harare feels like a changed city: thousands of Zimbabweans have been moved by beauty, music and theatre. They have risen up and danced to Freshly­ground, Oliver Mutukudzi and others. They have been reminded that beyond their bleakness more colourful realities exist. The otherwise ubiquitous talk of ‘the situation” has faded like a bad dream, if only for a few moments.

Quotes from the dreams

  • ‘I dreamed that there was war. I raised my son in my arms to cover him and protect him from all these cockroaches. People being torn to death, dying and being shot at.” — ‘Twister”(30), poet
  • ‘I dreamed that a girl drowned at the swimming competition. The coach said ‘forget about her’ and the swimming pool filled with blood.’”
    –Priska (13), orphan
  • ‘There was a maze in the living room. Tanks and bombs and those vine things that when you touch them your hands start bleeding until you can see your bones on your hands.” — Nyaradzo (10), schoolboy
  • ‘I was pushing a wheelbarrow with a dead body in it. I was being followed by soldiers. I started to dig a hole. It was so deep I couldn’t see the bottom. The ground started to crumble into the hole. Suddenly a branch appeared. I grabbed it.” — Rutendo (24), insurance broker
  • ”I dreamed a talking snake came from under my bed. He took me to the underworld of snakes and showed me the cruel things that humans are doing. He said the king of the snakes was dying.” — Lisa (13), orphan
  • ‘My house was being blown by fire and then there was nothing. I was crying ‘Oh! We are buried! We have nothing! Where will we stay?’ Later I became a bird and I saw there was blue water all around.” — Deborah (42), torture survivor
  • ”I had this animal and it had died. It was a prime beast. It had gone into a riverbed and died there. I used to sneak back and cut bits of biltong off it. It didn’t rot but it got progressively finished. Until there were just bones.” — Ben (55), evicted farmer
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