Enter Zimbabwe

As I fly into Zimbabwe on the SA40 from Jo’Burg, I read a passage in this book called ‘Africa Trek’. which talks about border crossings. The author is saying that you can tell a lot about a country by the mood at the border. And if he had to categorise the mood at the border of South Africa and Zimbabwe, it would be ‘sad’.

I’m wishing I hadn’t opened this darn book. ‘Sad’ is not what I’m hoping for when I touch-down at Victoria Falls. If anything, I’ve been feeling optimistic. In Cape Town, South African after South African has been telling me how beautiful Zim is, and how things there aren’t as bad as they have been in recent years. But here’s this passage, and it reminds me how much trauma and breakage this place has seen.

The twist to and the reason for my ‘enter Zimbabwe’ tale is that my mum grew up here. Back in the late 1950s, my intrepid grandfather couldn’t resist the idea of journeying for weeks on end on a boat to this relatively unknown and vast continent, putting his engineering skills to the test on a new power station in the tiny village of Munyati, 270km from the nearest city of Bulawayo.

And so my mum and my uncle grew up with strange accents, their childhoods packed with giant animals and wild landscapes and running around barefoot until the soles of their feet were like leather, seemingly miles from the struggles over rights and justice playing out all across this epic land.

Those tales were told to my brother and I from our earliest days, and so, Zimbabwe has always existed in a kind of mythical stasis in my head. Over the years I’ve met many other children of that Rhodesian generation, and we’ve recognised in each other a similar heritage of both awe at our parents’ fantastical upbringings, and a kind of time-travelling shame at the wider political environment in which they lived.

And yet, as the plane touches down, I fill up with sensations of connection and nostalgia; the kind usually reserved for a long-overdue homecoming. I practically run to the tiny terminal, excitedly joining an ordered queue as we file into Victoria Falls’ passport office, commenting on the humidity of the middle day. My fellow travellers are from all over the world – China, Japan, Germany, Australia. I’m here alone, but I don’t feel alone. I see my name on a taxi board and soon drive off down a clean new tarmac road; lush green forest on either side and, above the tree-line, the billowing spray of the Falls, ‘the smoke that thunders’. Within an hour, I’m on the mighty Zambezi river, the sun setting behind palm trees as families of sleepy hippos bob around in mercury waters beneath a sky of fast flocking birds.

This journey into Zim felt professional and ordered, calm and warm. No doubt, we’re in a protected space here, a long way from Harare or Bulawayo, or any number of towns and villages beyond international view. But it is a better entry than I could have hoped for, and a more emotional one too.

So if I were to pick one one word to define this border crossing, I’m not exactly sure what I would choose. But ‘sad’? I don’t think that’s it. Not here, at least.

Mali: Please don’t stop the music

When world music super-group Tinariwen took the Barbican stage last November, typically dressed in traditional Sahara sand-shielding scarves and clutching electric guitars set to ‘blues’, the audience knew they were about to see something special. People shuffled forward on their seats, whooping and clapping. The lady in front of us leaned over to her friend’s ear, “you know, it really is amazing they’re here at all.” “Where else would they be?” came the reply, followed by a shared, knowing, eyebrow-raised half-laugh.

Of course, if you’re not into your world music, which to be fair most people probably aren’t, the name Tinariwen won’t mean much. I can’t say it meant too much to me at this point, even though Songlines had just announced them as their band of the year. What I had clocked however, which you might have too, is that just a few weeks before large parts of Tinariwen’s home nation, Mali, had fallen into mujahedeen control. The country’s new leaders enforced a strict form of Islamic law – which included a ban on music. Tinariwen, like the many other Malian musicians touring the world, were now in a kind of cultural exile.

For somewhere like Mali, it’s hard to imagine a more damaging law. This West African nation might be known for arid, desert landscapes and crippling poverty, but it’s also known for its music. Stalwarts like Armadou and Marium and Toumani Diabate have developed a global fanbase, while newcomer Rokia Traore was the first act announced at Glastonbury this year. Music is in Mali’s blood.

Toumani Diabate at Festival au Desert 2007. This year's festival has been cancelled.
Toumani Diabate at Festival au Desert 2007. This year’s festival has been cancelled.

So why ban music? It’s certainly true that in many authoritarian or dictatorial regimes, tight control on the arts – and on music in particular – seems to have been a common feature. During the cold war years for instance, live music performances were tightly licensed to the point of being banned across Eastern Europe; with popular musicians targetted by the secret police for being involved with something so ‘subversive’. In a recent – and brilliant – article on in Delayed Gratification magazine entitled “They feared us because in music you cannot cheat” – 70s Czech rock band Plastic People talk about the pressure to vet their lyrics, how fans were arrested on route to their gigs, of being tortured, imprisoned.

Indeed, it’s easy to see that if your goal is to control people and curtail freedom of expression, then music poses a genuine threat. There isn’t much that feels more freeing than singing a song or busting crazy moves in a packed dancefloor. And in Mali, the role of music seems to be as much about identity as it is about freedom. In a Time article this May by Aryn Baker, a Bamako-based music producer said, “the way music functions in Mali is to empower people by reminding them who they are and where they come from. You eliminate that, and it becomes easier to control them.”

That said, that doesn’t seem to be what’s going in here. Control and authoritarianism seem to have a place, yes, but there is a religious texture to this particular ban that doesn’t have the ring of a purely localised instrument of power.

Should we be worried? Should we do more to fight for and support local, traditional music – the kind you hear wafting from courtyards and dance to at weddings? And at the other end of the scale, should we think twice about the commodised globalised autotuned sameness that plays from so many radio stations, inspiring people to sing not for the joy of singing, but in the hope of one day ‘getting famous’?

In the words of Joni Mitchell, you don’t know what you got til it’s gone. Music is one of those things we take for granted; it’s only when it is banned that we perhaps realise just how important it is. As the beautiful Malian singer and musician Fatou Diawara said recently in an interview with NPR, “music, it’ a kind of hope for us. Even if we are not musicians, people need music.”

Photo credit: Flickr, The Queen’s Hall