Conversing with Minister Kirsty Coventry on the arts Minister Coventry

David Mungoshi Shelling the Nuts
I grew up in Bulawayo at a time when “tea parties” where hardly any tea was drunk were the in-thing.

“Tea party” was a euphemism for something more potent – something like skokiaan, for example – the brew that inspired August Musarurwa’s hit of the same name.

Skokiaan was the equivalent of what latter-day AmaSwati in Swaziland (now Eswatini) were to call “Nkosi ngithathe” (Lord here I come), “isikiya semoshila” (key into a mortuary).

Whenever the police happened along, cups of tea would appear like magic.

Tea parties were rowdy affairs often accentuated by music from guitarists with loud voices and saucy lyrics.

Sometimes the lyrics were improvised to fit the melody of whatever Johannes Spokes Mashiyane hit was on the air waves at any given time.

Mashiyane was the first black man in South Africa to be paid royalties for his music. It was largely through his expertise on the penny whistle that Kwela developed into a distinct genre of music.

Mashiyane and Miriam Makeba with her Skylarks did a number of collaborations. In the collaborations, Mashiyane’s penny whistle weaves in and out of the harmonies in a uniquely mellifluous blend of voice and instrumentation.

Mashiyane was fresh, new and irresistible. Not even apartheid could suppress his appeal to listeners and audiences. He made it on the Rave label, a label aimed at white South African audiences.

My narration is aimed at showing why for most Zimbabweans, the interpretation of the word “arts” remains narrow and restricted.

Even at the annual National Arts Merit Awards (NAMA), the music people steal the show, but for the wrong reasons. Everyone else at the NAMA is treated like a poor relative at a wedding. This has to change, sooner rather later.

We knew Chinua Achebe long before we knew Davido of “Fall” fame. The literary arts made the world take note of Nigeria for reasons other than its size and the Biafra War in which poet Christopher Okigbo perished.

Oil came later as did Boko Haram. Nowhere is the tragedy of oil, in terms of how it kills rivers and the land, more graphically portrayed than in Nigeria.

In some ways, the story of oil in Nigeria is the story of Ken Saro Wiwa, that indefatigable writer and activist from Ogoniland, who paid the supreme price in pursuit of justice for his people.

In Kenya, James Ngugi or Ngugi Wa Thion’go, awakened the reading world to Kenyan writing with such gems as “The River Between”; “A Grain of Wheat”; “Petals of Blood” and “Matigari.”

Similarly, anyone serious about poetry in Africa cannot possibly ever ignore Okot P’Bitek’s “Song of Lawino.” In “Song of Lawino” P’Bitek’s Lawino is a living and breathing village beauty with sharp wits and humour.

Zimbabwe, over the years, carved herself into a world-recognised force in the area of sculpture and produced what is often referred to as Shona sculpture.

Without doubt, Zimbabwe’s sculpture has attained iconic levels and has a place in history. By and large, Zimbabwe’s Shona sculpture is characterised by its tactile fluidity, mysticism and fine finish. Despite this definitive generic aspect of Zimbabwe’s sculpture, it has still been possible to strike out in other directions, including the use of mixed media.

When it comes to adventure and innovation, Tapfuma Gutsa is outstanding. According to a write-up on Gutsa’s first solo exhibition mounted in the UK in 2007, Gutsa has transformed art practice in Zimbabwe and beyond through his keen interest in the physical and metaphorical possibilities of a range of natural materials, from granite and oak, to horn, egg shell, bone and clay.

Writers too have been instrumental in uplifting the quality of Zimbabwe’s creative impulses.

Thus, we find Ndabaningi Sithole coming up with a work that was seminal in terms of its content and intent.

Critically too, Sithole is credited with publishing the first novel in IsiNdebele in the year 1956.

“Umvukela WaMaNdebele,” a historical novel, was a revolutionary piece of writing that began a trend that others were to follow.

Motivated by Franz Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth”, Lindiwe Ndlovu, Beatrice Lantern and Faith Sibanda, lecturers at Great Zimbabwe University, did an analysis of Ndabaningi Sithole’s 60-page novel under the title: “History and memory as revolutionary tools: An analysis of the significance of Ndabaningi Sithole’s historical novel Umvukela WaMaNdebele (The Ndebele Revolution)’.

In its analysis of Sithole’s book, the trio was mindful of an utterance of Fanon in which he said:

“The colonised man who writes for his people ought to use the past with the intention of opening the future, as an invitation to action and a basis for hope”.(Fanon 1969: 187).

Ndlovu, Lantern and Sibanda observe that Sithole used history to re-awaken the spirit of resistance and prepare for the revolution that took place in later years.

When combating the views of those who pretend that history has no place in either the present or the future, it is essential to make reference to the considered opinions of significant others such as writers and intellectuals as well as conscious artists. In this regard, the pithy, but incisive observation made by the trend-setting reggae outfit Misty in Roots before a live audience at a Counter Eurovision concert in 1979 is instructive. Misty in Roots said:

“When we travel this land, we walk for one reason . . . to try to help another man think for himself. The music of our hearts is roots music, which recalls history, because without the knowledge of your history, you cannot determine your destiny. The music about the present, because if you are not conscious about the present, you’re like a cabbage in this society.”

While Ndabaningi Sithole’s “Umvukela WaMaNdebele” set the ball rolling for literature in IsiNdebele, we must observe that it was one of several nationalistic writings of a creative nature that found a place in the book shelves of Zimbabwean and other readers.

Among these we include Solomon Mutsvairo’s “Feso,” the book with the famous “Nehanda Nyakasikana” poem, Herbert Chitepo’s “Soko Risina Musoro” and Bernard Chidzero’s “Nzvengamutsvairo.” Stanlake Samkange, author, journalist and politician was the writer of the explicitly political historical novel, “On Trial for my Country.”

My hope, dear reader, is that I have by now successfully got you thinking about the skewed nature of arts appreciation in Zimbabwe and brought you on board the train carrying those of us who are concerned that our newly-appointed Minister of Youth, Sport, Arts and Recreation, Kirsty Coventry, is not overwhelmed by the country’s music community.

Furthermore, the minister must find ways of attending to sport and the arts without bias. Happily, an inherent task of her ministry is to overtly create happiness. Hers is a kind of Ministry of Happiness. That is what is intended in the “Recreation” department of her ministry.

It is important that people in the literary arts speedily organise themselves into a ubiquitous stakeholder constituency to cover the country’s literary genres to make informed presentations in the consultations that must surely come sooner rather than later.

In anticipation of the consultations, a panel described as being representative of arts stakeholders recently held a Press conference in Harare.

The panel had on it people whose credentials are impressive: Fred Zindi, a psychology professor, columnist, music critic and practitioner as well as Edith WeUtonga, a practising female artiste and chairperson of Zimbabwe Musicians Union. Lawyer, Gwinyai Mharapara was part of the five-member panel that also included Stephen Chigorimbo and arts administrator, Nyandoro. It is clear from the composition of this panel that its main concern was in the area of the performing arts. We need a more comprehensive representation and thrust.

In years gone by, representatives of interest groups in the book chain made submissions to the Presidential Commission on Education and Training (also known as the Nziramasanga Commission).

The representatives submitted, among other things, two major suggestions: that Literature be introduced as a discipline at primary school and that all secondary school pupils be required to do Literature in at least two languages from Form One up to Form Four.

Not only would Literature guarantee the existence of a critical mass of citizens who are sensitive in their critiquing and response to national issues, it would also make the book industry vibrant and viable in addition to encouraging more children’s writing and also address the issue of the country’s waning reading culture.

Where writers are concerned, these things are still relevant and can be resuscitated at inter-ministerial level.

Despite its sectional tone, the arts stakeholder Press conference made valuable observations on the matter of the contributions of the creative industries to Zimbabwe’s GDP.

The panel was also spot-on about the establishing of a fund to provide arts grants to grow the industry. This is a sound idea.

Tourism can, among other initiatives, provide travel scholarships and grants to writers and help create vibrant travel writing as a genre.

Since we are in the era of a listening Government, minister, can we talk?

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