"As artists we are confronted with awkward decisions"
Chirikure Chirikure was born in 1962, in Gutu, Zimbabwe . He is a performing poet, and has published several collections of poems in Shona, with his last volume of poetry available with English translations. He also recorded an album of his poetry and mbira music.
How did you become a poet?
I started off writing and performing poems in high school, especially for school functions and cultural programmes. In 1982, after finishing my A-level studies in Marondera, I took up university studies. It was then that I began to interact with seasoned artists, who gave me inspiration and a lot of support. I also began writing more mature and “serious” poetry. In fact most of the poems in my first collection are from those university days, although it was published after I left university.
What kind of writing?
Mainly poetry, but I also co-authored plays, wrote and published children's stories and educational books and also contributed articles in newspapers. I have also written lyrics for a number of local musicians.
Would you say that you in your writing are linked to the traditional, or rather to the urban, modern?
I think that the average Zimbabwean is a mixture of a lot of things. I draw a lot from the traditional, and I also write on traditional issues. But I mainly address contemporary issues, which may be urban or rural or even “universal.” Zimbabwe was a British colony, thus you find that the educational system is very Western. Shona is taught in schools and colleges as a language, and not as a cultural studies programme. Literature in Shona has mainly been studied from a Western perspective. Outside the educational system, Shona is evolving on a daily basis. I write mainly in Shona, but then you are also influenced by Victorian poetry that you have studied.
When you write you cannot thematically run away from contemporary issues. I often write poetry with performance in mind. I write in free verse typical of Shona traditional poetry. We have our own way of combining lines, which is not necessarily the so-called formal pattern. In fact my first book of poetry was rejected for use in schools by the School Examinations Board. They said it was not poetry. This happened in 1988. In time such attitudes started to change.
How do you view your own artistic development? Are there significant turning points?
You cannot radically change your individual set-up. But of course you also are influenced by exposure, by reading others, by seeing others perform. Then there is the daily environment, like now that we are going through hell as a country. You cannot avoid being emotional, for example when you see queues for bread, queues for fuel. There are a great number of artists in whom you can feel that emotion, that anger coming through.
But one way to
react and cope is to hide, to avoid saying anything that can be
interpreted as political. How common would you say this is in the
It is a complicated situation. The politicians certainly appreciate the power of art. In the run-up to the presidential elections most of us artists were wooed to perform, work or even campaign for them. Promises, sometimes money, and facilities were given. There were some artists who did believe in the politicians' cause, but a good number of them just performed for the money. Some of us refused. We do not believe in the chaos, and we try to communicate that, but we do it at a risk. There are artists who have been beaten up. But we continue. In a situation like this you, of course, also find some who sit on the fence and do not want to take a clear position. You also get into a lot of debate, like how far should we as writers be involved in the political game? Should we go in as activists? Should we support direct confrontation?
How would you describe the situation today?
It is complicated, a fraught mess. There is the land grab, the economy grinding down, and food is scarce. There is a lot of sickness, poor health, and the AIDS problem has crippled the country. As an artist you find yourself dealing with a lot of issues beyond your control. We have tried for example to arrange peace concerts to help avoid violence. And the following day you read that many people have been beaten up, some have been killed. You wonder whether you are making any progress at all. But then the main idea is to continue, to persevere.
Others do their part, and hopefully we come out for the better. For example, this Book Café does a very good job, but it is now not so well patronised. People do not have money to spend, they are afraid of moving in the dark, and so on. The Book Café has, as you know, been told to stop having political discussions. There is a policy of instilling fear. At the same time you find that some artistic events get a lot of popular support, people flock to them just to drown their sorrow.
As artists we are confronted with awkward decisions. For example, we were invited to perform at the inauguration of the non-smoking section of the airport here in Harare . You want to take advantage of the opportunity, and express what you think, but then you have these ministers there. Can we sing song 1 and 3?
What did you do?
We did self-censor ourselves. We never censure ourselves in an open-air performance, but here it was difficult. You are invited because they think you have something to give, but then they whisper in your ear, reminding you that minister so and so is here. Another time I performed during the run-up to the presidential election in a nightclub, and was followed in the toilet by some guys who asked why I perform the kind of poetry I perform. I said that I was doing my job, just like everyone else were doing their job, and that the poetry was published long before and why was it not stopped then. They let me free after convincing them that they were simply panicking because of the elections. It was not pleasant. I have had direct threats on three different occasions. Some artists get phone calls telling them that they should cancel the performance in this and that place. This is the situation, but it can also strengthen the relations between us as artists, and strengthen you as an individual artist.
Are there any organisations that can work on your behalf, for example in legal matters?
There are many organisations, but they do not help on a personal level. There are some which make a lot of noise, but that is all. They all have their own weaknesses. The government also has a strong tactic of destroying unions and creating their own. They are very cunning. During the present crisis with the teachers, the chairman of the teachers' union was locked up and beaten. You find also that some artists who say the wrong things against the majority of the people, their shows are not patronised. People isolate them.
Another question—what role does the foreign market play for you?
I have had many performances abroad. That is good. The broader the better, the bigger the constituency. As long as I am not compromised by agreements that exploit me—I have had two such experiences in the past two years—going abroad is an opportunity to break barriers, and also to demystify some notions about Africa . Through this exchange, we will hopefully arrive at a better world, a world where we understand each other better.