Ngugi J. Mirii

Ngugi J. Mirii. Photo by

"They have their calculated agenda"

Ngugi J. Mirii was born in Kenya . He is a founding member of the Zimbabwe Association Community Theatre, where he holds a position as executive artistic director.

We recently met at the conference on Cultural Diversity in Cape Town . There you stressed that one of the dangers in the cultural field is the dominance of the United States and to some extent Britain . Can you say something about how this affects the cultural life here in Zimbabwe?

This goes back to the history of the continent of Africa . I always say that Africa is the second largest continent, but today it is behind the other continents, both culturally and economically. The main reason is that its wealth and cultural heritage were taken away over five hundred years ago due to slavery, through colonialism and now through cultural imperialism. The leading cultural imperialists in the world are the United States and the European countries. They are the ones who have benefited from slavery and eventually from colonialism. They established economic institutions that they did not want to dismantle after African countries achieved political or flag independence. Whenever any African leader has tried to address these economic imbalances he has been shot down or killed.

You come to Zimbabwe , and you find how this country was demonised because they were allied with the Soviet Union, the former Soviet Union . Because of that historical relationship Zimbabwe has never been forgiven and when Mugabe decided he wanted to claim at least one small portion of the economic cake of his own country, the British, supported by the Americans, say no, we do not want African culture in Zimbabwe to reign superior or the people to reclaim their heritage.

I actually wanted to ask you to come down to the very ground here and so for example, in the rather vibrant scene with in music, in theatre, in literature. Where does the dominance come in here?
That is a good question. Given that scenario and that background there is the whole question of survival. How do the actors or the media people survive in such a scenario? The Government have their limitations and therefore they cannot support arts and culture, the culture industry. In Africa there are no budgets to support artists, or to support music, or to support filming, or to support media, unless they are means to supporting the Government of the day. So this creates a room or space for non-governmental organisations also sponsored from the North, from European countries. The Nordic countries are very good, and Sweden , Norway , Denmark have been quite good in funding artists at the grassroots level. However, the question is whether they are not also serving the interests of the countries providing the funds? They have their calculated agenda and you'll find them supporting projects related for example to HIV and AIDS, human rights and civic education, and gender related programmes like for example wife beating.

But are these not your interests?
They are not quite our interests. We have been forced to see myopically, to focus on things that have no long-term effects in terms of history or politics or for politics of change. We become like people who sell like shock absorbers. All our political opposition parties are no longer organic. They are sponsored and dominated by the middle class people who use the ordinary people, the working class, and the ordinary women. When I write a play that is anti-imperialism, although I think it is helping all our people in both short and long term, it is seen as if it like not correct music, since I am not talking about liberal things.

I think we are slipping away from the subject all the time. What you have said about culture so far is only that the Government does not afford supporting culture. But there must be something more? Are you not by implication saying that whatever happens in theatre, music, literature, is not really genuine? Are these artists just some kind of willing and unwitting conduits for colonial and neo-colonial thinking?
Many of them have been forced to be a conduit for delivering political messages which are in the interests of others, but genuinely they are artists, there is no doubt about that. What I'm trying to say is that the Government is weakened and has therefore no money to distribute to artists to be independent. The West is there, on the other hand, and gives us money for what benefits their interests. The question is whether there are any artists who are able to see this.

In Zimbabwe , there is no funding for theatre, but we have managed to carry out a national programme against political violence. We have trained over 120 community artists, ten artists per province on the average, and we were performing both before and after the presidential elections. This weekend we are having a competition called "The Crossroads". Young and upcoming musicians are being given an opportunity to come and show their talent and unless that kind of talent is then sponsored, it will never see the light of day. If we had genuinely our own industry then just like in China, like in other countries and even in the United States where they have their own industry, where the black communities, the minorities there, got their television stations, their own radio stations, their own studios. We do not have the prerequisites for determining our own destiny in terms of our cultural production and cultural recording.

But the money problem is always there. It seems to be universal.
It is true that artists all over the world have a problem of survival. However, in the capitalist world where there is money, in Broadway, the United States , West End in London , or in Helsinki , as you say, they have what is called the social welfare programme that they fall back on. In African countries there is not a single country that I know of where they have anything like an unemployment benefit.

Secondly, when it comes to provision of training we do not have training facilities. Our arts and culture are not integrated in the formal education system. They are not in the curriculum. And therefore our artists are hardly professionally recognised, neither in our own communities, nor at the national level, let alone at international level.

The question of marketing our work, again our audiences are already underprivileged, and they are not socialised to pay our creativity. They actually think it is part of their life so why should they pay. It is not packaged for sale. Let me illustrate what I just have said. When I train artists within the Zimbabwe Association of Community Theatre, I equip them with all the skills they need and then they go and perform their plays at theatres inspired by their own communities. When they are not working on HIV/AIDS, they do traditional dance, involving music and so on. And they are very well organised.

Now they go and perform in schools. To earn their livelihood, our artists have to resort to asking students to pay using bottles: Coca Cola bottles, beer bottles, or an empty Chibuku (local beer). The artists then have to carry these bottles and sell them in the bottle stores. When I realised this and found out that they were having a lot of problems carrying all these bottles in bags, carrying them on top of buses and so on, I conceived a project, a bicycle project. If you compare this with a community theatre in Europe or in the United States , it is not the same. Transport is accessible and smoother there. Here the buses come maybe once a week or once in the evening. If you have to move it's not easy. During rainy season all the roads are inaccessible because of rivers and so forth.

So that is the kind of struggle an artist goes through to make a living. As I already have said, the audience is not socialised to pay, and when they have to pay they have the problem of what to pay with, because until recently the best land was still in the hands of the white commercial farmer.

The culture of imperialism has affected even our creativity because when we create, even if it is good it is compared with what our people and our audience are consuming through the television and the DSTV. And as we change channels, what do we find? Live sex or pornography beamed to us from the West. That destroys not only our morality but also our culture and it is beamed to us willy-nilly through satellite.

The whole question of respecting cultural diversity and respecting other people's identity, their nationalities and so on, has to be discussed and measures which will safeguard not only our culture but also our morality and our destiny need to be introduced. Today, talking about freedom of expression and supporting that freedom of expression and human rights, the worst thing is the destroying of the freedom of expression.

I would like to hear more about this Theatre Against Violence Campaign. What was the thinking behind it?

What I did is that I looked at Zimbabwe , I noticed the trend of donor funding and what was going on. I have been here now for twenty years and for a long time I have been asking the Government for support. They have given us 10,000–20,000 Zimbabwean dollars a year through the National Art Council, but now they are not giving us anything, so we can neither pay for telephone nor for the rent for the offices, and we have to resort to donor funding.

New NGOs started getting more money as compared to the shock-absorber development programmes about cooperatives, about culture, about genuine development, about self-help projects, about roads, about infrastructure and so on. This is the scenario and I said: "Okay, the artists I have trained over the years, over the last 12–13 years, they are now being used by these new NGOs, they are being used to go and do their political propaganda, opposition and so forth, human rights and so on. So I should be bringing these artists closer because I do know how to train them for human rights education and how to use theatre for this." So I applied for the money. I brought a proposal for two years, which will end in 2003. But now, because of political violence we have no funding any more.

This “Theatre Against Political Violence” was very successful the way we did it. We included both the opposition and the Government in the process of training the artists. We brought in all the players and tried as much as possible to be neutral. We wrote the plays in the two-week training programme that I organised and we learnt about political violence, the political situation in the country, and the concrete situations of political violence in the communities of the participants, who came from various provinces. We had discussions in connection to every play, mostly about fear, which existed for one reason or another, depending on whether the community was for the opposition or for the ruling party. But now the funding has withdrawn and that is why we criticise donors for only looking myopically at their own agenda as opposed to seeing things from the point of view of the beneficiaries.

[Interview in Harare on the 23 rd October 2002]

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