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Tomas RTNS to Harare for Mindblast

The week had been hectic: I had consciously left many things till the last minute. Like packing. In the end there was only some clothes and my guitar and passport which were important, and when Regg came by to drop of some stuff of mine earlier in the week, my passport amongst this, I felt that destiny smiled on this particular adventure. I passed through Passing Clouds on my last night before the trip for a beer and a chat as I put off packing one last time. I was starting to comprehend it; I had not been to Harare for 4 years.

I had tried to take as few expectations back home with me to Zimbabwe as possible. What I knew for sure was that the country was still in the midst of events that would shape lives for some time. Last year's political violence had affected many. Inside the country thousands were either the victims or the perpetrators of terrible crimes committed in a failed attempt to scare the population into loyalty. Outside the country Zimbabweans were aghast as whispers emerged and we started being talked about in the same breath as major African problem spots. Rwanda. DRC. Truly we had been to the brink of an abyss. All now scarred with contorted low-res images of the country's turmoil.

But this news bulletin framed vision of home was not the Zimbabwe of my memories: The Zimbabwe of my childhood. Did that place still exist? I had to find out for myself.

I walked cheerily through Harare International Airport. It was the first time I'd flown since my mother bought me my first ipod last Christmas and I happened to be listening to the Bhundu Boys cover of 'Ring of Fire' as I came through to immigration. I completed my visa entry form and then encountered my first problem as the immigration officer only gave me one day on my visa. I was to report to Linkwenda House the following day to interviewed, a formality due to my performing at the festival but nevertheless a needless and annoying one. Apart from this small setback I had arrived with little adventure. Even the Swiss plane's lack of an in-flight entertainment system had scarcely registered with me. I was coming home. Outside the airport my dad waited by his faithful Isuzu pick-up to meet me. I was greeted with a familiar grin and a hug.

'How was the flight?'

'Fine, I slept a bit.'

Our first port of call was fittingly the Book Cafe on Fife Ave. I had mentally prepared myself with the idea of shops with empty shelves and a sense of menace on the streets which I gleaned over the last 12 months from friends and newspaper reports and rumours doing the circuit in Harare North - But things change fast in Harare and the recently 'Dollarization' (from the Inflation riddled Zimbabwe dollar to the stable US Dollar), had immediately normalised many facets of day to day life whilst of course introducing a host of new problems. Some people had cash. Some people had to queue outside the bank waiting to get cash. The shops were full of goods: a strange mix of products which seemed very expensive at US$5 and others which seemed cheap at US$10. The main problem was change. In Zimbabwe there has been none for some time. In the shop downstairs I attempted to buy a packet of cigarettes with a dollar and was introduced to the true concept of dollarization.

'Have you not got 5 Rand? I have no change... it's dollar for 2'

I paused for just a moment.

'I'll have two'

Everything is traded at it's value relative to 'US$1' at that is the smallest unit of currency people generally have. So:

50 cents is 'dollar for 2'
one dollar is 'dollar' - obviously the easiest unit to trade in
one dollar and fifty cents is '2 for 3'
66 cents which is not normally a convenient price becomes '3 for 2'

The following morning I woke up at my father's new house in Avondale. There was no curtain as he was still in the process of arranging to move his belongings back from Jo'burg. Penny from Book Cafe had popped round to lend me her spare duvet and pillow: a bright green number with Micky Mouse on it. I showered and we headed off to Book Cafe which was buzzing with festival preparations. I almost didn't notice as we drove past my old high school. The familiar hostel buildings and then the new 6th form study centre. My eyes went back to the road because even as a passenger in Harare it is important to watch where you are going to have some warning of when the driver might swerve to avoid a pot-hole; or be unable to avoid one.

Inside Book Cafe was a hive of activity. People drinking coffees and chatting to friends or maybe having a meeting - in Harare the line often seems blurred. I had people to see myself and consequently was soon in the company of old friends: Phillip, who was also home for the festival arrived shortly after I did. He had not been back in Zimbabwe for 7 years but he and I had maintained a friendship which started back when we were both vocalists for the Luck St Blues band. Amel, an Ethiopian journalist and writer who I had met the previous year on an adventure to the bushfire festival was busy on her laptop, but stopped briefly from her writing to say hello. And my dad, Steve, Penny, Ian and well everyone who worked there walked around looking like they had something of utmost importance to sort out immediately and would only stop now and then to say 'hello' and 'have you seen 'so-and-so'? I need to speak to them about...'

I was escorted to the immigration Head Office to speak with the official who was dealing with the whole festival. Why was I not included in the first group of names submitted for the festival group visa? Did I know it would cost US$500 if I had to get an individual working visa? No, working was not relative to whether or not you were getting paid. He wandered off with my passport and left us sitting in the office. Every 5 minutes or so someone would wander into the office looking for him and then either wander off again or float about in the hallway.

It's fine but you'll have to come back and collect the passport later.

Back at Book Cafe Penny was rounding up the young artists, musicians and journalists that were heading off to Kufunda village - Phillip, Amel and myself amongst them.

Kufunda is a place; a sanctuary on the edge of Harare, where people go to find peace and sometimes counsel away from the hubbub, away from the city. It was not always as off grid as we found it but the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (ZESA), was unable to repair the local transformer (which had blown cutting off supply to the area), and running water is a problem even in the heart of the city at present as tens of burst watermains throughout the city pump their precious flow onto Harare's pot-holed streets. As we left the city's tarred streets and drove along the dirt road following Penny's directions: over the crossroads, past the game park, lookout for a small sign on the left... the sun was setting and my mind lagged behind with so much new information to process.

When we arrived, Raphael whom I remembered from my early childhood days in Harare, and who now works at the village, mistook me briefly for my dad which amused him greatly and he told me several times as he hugged me warmly.

Dinner was sadza and chicken by candlelight and beers were '2 for 3'. I wandered outside for a cigarette and to speak to Raphael. He had been in Zipra, the Matebele contingent of the liberation guerrillas who had fought for democracy in what was then Rhodesia and as he spoke, I realised how painful it had been for him to see the cause he had fought for twisted and contorted into the brutal regime which Mugabe has since been administering. He had been back at his rural home last year and was harassed by former comrades who mistakenly believed he had come to join their unpopular 'pro-government' rallying. But Raphael has no time for politics unless it's singing the praises of the non-existent 'Try-Us' party which he and my dad and playwright Andrew Whaley, had formed one drunken evening at a party in Avondale.

'When Nkomo addressed us at the end of the liberation struggle,' he told me as we strolled down to the Kufunda meeting room the next day, 'he said to us: We are now going to form an army with ex-Zipra, ex-Zanla and the former Rhodesian army, and whilst I can't say anything except that we are sending you into the mud - I expect you to come out clean. But these guys are not clean, Tomas. They're covered from head to toe.'

The first session of 'mindblast' - deliberately named in honour of one of Zimbabwe's original cultural activists; Dambudzo Marechera - was a little awkward as we had to get through the 'getting to know everyone' stuff and there was a large group of us: Phillip, Rumbi and Ish who were appointed facilitators for the rest of us, musicians; Victor, Dudu and myself, journalists; Amel, and Joseph from Nairobi, and then there was Tswarelo, Ronald, Rudo, Zwangendaba, Andrew, Alan, Mandla, Linda, Fungai, Blessing... - it was too much to take it all in in one go. But there would be much time to speak to everyone and find out what they were all about.

Over the course of the 2 days we discussed identity, culture, masculinity and femininity, sexuality, tradition, and a host of other simple and yet immediately complex ideas in small groups dotted around on the rocks and sometimes in one large group. I doubt if anything particularly profound was said, but everyone had a chance to air their opinions and with conversations which often spilled over into further discussions over lunch or dinner, the important thing was that we came to realise that we generally thought pretty much the same about most things: we had a common ideology - even the non-Zimbabwean contingent; Amel, Joseph and Mba Mbizo from Cameroon (Mba Mbizo had mainly stories and contributions that re-enforced our general understanding of the world and our place in it.

I woke up on my second morning at Kufunda and headed off to the fire by the kitchen area with the bucket to get some hot water for a wash. I was in a great mood as it was my birthday and by breakfast time I had told almost everybody that didn't already know. Somehow it felt very significant because although I had been back in Zimbabwe often since I first ventured away to the shores of Unit K, it had generally been around Christmas time and consequently I had not had a birthday in Africa for 12 years.

I thought the highlight of these discussions happened when everybody said one after the other what 'Nguva Yedu-Tuba Lethu-Our Time' meant to them, and each of us used the moment to make some kind of proclamation towards this group understanding of our common purpose; our common ideology; our common being. It was entirely spontaneous and somehow escaped ever feeling contrived in any way which it easily could have. Afterwards, further mere statements seemed superfluous - we were finished with this stage.

In the evenings after we had eaten we generally congregated around the fire and Victor or I would play guitar (Victor playing little snippet of some of his songs which are quite popular and well know and me playing some vastly inferior afro-punk as is my want). We generally sung and drank and talked until the early hours when people slowly drifted off to bed. Tswarelo and I, who shared a room, had bizarrely formed an instant bond when we both wore almost exactly the same clothes on the first day. We tried not to wake each other up as we came to bed or crept off for our nightly ablutions and then laughed about our noisy neighbours as we made our beds the next morning. It turned out that we shared a passion for Tarantino movies and films in general which lead to several conversations about various films and scenes and 'have you seen that film?' 'No' 'What? It's amazing, you must see it.'

As we headed back to Harare I was really beginning to feel like I was home but one of our number warning Mba Mbizo, the Cameroonian journalist against filming too obviously out of the window reminded me that whilst everything indeed looks normal on the surface - the facade of normality is what Harare does best. I checked into the Bronte Hotel along with the other journalists and performers. By the pool, people sat around tables having afternoon tea or maybe a beer. The Bronte is clearly such an institution in Harare that it has not only maintained it's pristine grounds and reputation during recent crises but has actually expanded across the road. I heard one of the South African performers joking to a band mate over breakfast:

'imagine Cecil Rhodes' surprise when he came trekking up to look for gold and stumbled onto the Bronte Hotel: Hello, sir, do you have a reservation?'

- the breakfast was a little sad though.

Back at Book Cafe I was in the first panel of youth to go before the open floor discussions which were leading on from Kufunda. Rumbi had suggested that I opened the session by playing a song and so I played Bata Mwana (Tsike banana): Catch the child (they slipped on a banana) because it seemed oddly appropriate for a 'Youth Festival' discussion.

We spoke on identity and after I joked about being the token white guy on the panel Mba Mbizo caused a bit of a stir surrounding his praise for the French language: one of the important factors unifying the Cameroonians who incredibly have more than 200 languages spoken in their country, but his championing of French as their tool of national communication was taken as some kind of acceptance of colonialism or something by a loud minority of the audience who still do not yet realise how much the Zimbabwean Premier's rhetoric has coloured their own viewpoint on how the real world functions.

At the front table, Osama bin-madman and the kid who wasn't a kid waited for the earliest opportunity to throw their own bit of anarchy into the mix. Osama was a skinny, messy bearded Zimbabwean with a ridiculous Arab headdress and thick-rimmed one-armed spectacles which he often peered over comically before launching into some tirade as everyone chatted over breakfast.

'Fuck the whites and their fucking colonial bullshit!'

He would slam his token comedy 'big book' (whichever he happened to be carrying around that day) onto the table and if you didn't know him you might for a moment think he was some kind of rabid government spokesman; until the next outburst.

'Fuck Zanu PF, fuck MDC, fuck you!'

'I know that dude, I used to play basketball with him and some other guys after school, up by the university - now he's gone' an old school mate who I bumped into told me.

The 'kid who wasn't a kid' was actually apparently 18 or 19 years old but some inherent imbalance in his body meant that he still looked about 9. He played on it a little announcing that he would like to read something he had written in grade 6 before launching into an articulate poem about youth. He was popular with the crowd although not always contributing to the general flow of debate. That's the thing about a public open discussion, everyone has their bit to say which is not always relevant. Osama bin-madman was next to get the audience mic and proceeded to ask Mba Mbizo a ridiculous question about the relative price for a prostitute in Cameroon. The audience laughed nervously and everyone ignored him and moved on.

It seemed somewhat bizarre that such lunacy was generally ignored by everyone else but Osama generally slammed his big book on the table and stormed off before the bemused patrons he had latched onto had a chance to become irate with him and when he was confronted he would simply gather his things and storm off before shouting some last obscenities from a safe distance. He managed to get in a string of anatomical parts in Shona during an audience debate on whether it was culturally acceptable to speak directly about sex in Shona which I thought was almost clever, but generally he seemed to be pretty harmless and a bit of a nuisance.

The 'Zimbabwe-poets-for-human-rights' or something similar which I think may have a nondescript acronym which escapes me, also generally made a lot of noise during the debates with a mixture of provocative, cohesive, boring, intelligent, unrelated, emotive or sometimes silly contributions. And then there was Shapa, a poet with an unshakable focus on black woman's issues and every comment a triumfant statement of empassioned intent. Her daughter who she later introduced me to, apparently gave me a black eye when we were at school, although I have clearly erased this traumatic event from my memory.

On the Friday there was a Pamberi Trust shareholders meeting which I was invited to attend along with some of the Kufunda group and other Book Cafe associated performers and notably the Deputy Minister of Culture. I sat next to Dave Ndoro, the legendary Luck St Blues guitarist and Mandla, who I had been friends on facebook with for about 6 months before we actually met. When Steve Khoza the Financial director gave his report he made a point of a sum of tens of thousands of US dollars which had been seized by the reserve bank during last year's economic meltdown and appealed on the Minister to assist them in reclaiming the money. When the good humoured minister replied that he would look into it and try to assist in what way he could he seemed genuine but I felt that it seemed doubtful that this money would ever be recovered. The government has a job to do just performing it's basic civil functions at the moment and I warrant that Pamberi Trust's missing money is not high on their list of things to do: such is the length of the list.

Various rights have been taken away legislatively by the government and Mugabe is still very much at the helm, though decidedly less in control of the country. Right to assembly. Freedom of speech. These things have been controlled by oppressive laws ironically reinstated from colonial times which nevertheless are now part of the legal system and need to be undone. On top of this the basic council infrastructure has broken down and potholes have not been repaired for so long that voluntary workers now sit by the roadside in places filling in the potholes with rocks and dirt before standing by their handiwork to ask for donations from the obliging motorists. Metal street name signs are no more after the majority of them were recycled into funnels during the worst of the fuel shortages when funnels became the latest 'must-have' for the embattled Zimbabwean motorist. Even the avenue of street lamps and flagpoles that once lined the road from the airport into town with flags and pictures of Mugabe and the most recent visiting dignitary are bulb-less and rusting where they stand. Whilst the Youth Festival was taking place a Zimbabwean government and 'Stakeholders' conference was going down elsewhere in the country with no inclusion of any Cultural body, organisation or representative at all. Culture was clearly not high on the agenda.

However everywhere there seemed to be the smell on change on the horizon. Rumours, stories, anecdotes; news in Zimbabwe still travels like that. I heard that at the Zimbabwean Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC), there was a wave of imminent or happening redundancies of people who did not actually have any kind of job description as they had obtained various dubious and unnecessary jobs through bribes and favours. I heard that the police, who were frequently seen running in the early mornings in the streets around the barracks, had stopped singing pro-Zanu PF war songs and starting singing songs about 'unity' and 'teamwork' instead. Some of the party stalwarts higher up in the ranks had found out and tried to order the re-introduction of the 'old' songs but were ignored. And at the Book Cafe there was clearly a sense of a renewed freedom of expression but no-one was really sure whether we were actually being permitted to criticise our leaders, or they were now just too busy or pre-occupied to hassle us for it about it.

I performed a short acoustic set to kick off the Paw Paw Jam session before a selection of other poets and musicians took to the stage culminating in a rocking Sam Mtukudzi set which I missed most of because I had gone next door to watch the Victor Kunonga and Peace gig next door at the Mannenburg. Since I had played guitar with him by the fireside at Kufunda, I was keen to check out the stage performance and it was clear that big things are on the Horizon for this rising star. The band has a kind of afro-cool style to them; a minimalist drum kit with a calabash for a bass drum and an additional percussionist who also played some mbira. Victor was charasmatic and charming with the crowd and went for a funkier image than I was expecting with a shirt with one of the sleeves replacd with some netting.

It's hard not to mention Oliver Mtukudzi as there is definitely something similar about their song writing styles, but Victor has enough good tunes of his own to keep the crowd happy and his quirky afro-modern style suggests that he may simply be picking that as a starting point and seeing what it leads to. Regardless, the band delivered a cracking show and played non-stop for about 4 hours.

Afterwards, Lemmy, who had been on hand to deal with one of the poets that was giving Amel unwanted attention the night before, elected to walk us back to the hotel as although it was only a couple of blocks the alleyway which you had to pass on the way was known to harbor the odd gang of muggers.

Unfounded rumours that Amel and I were somehow an 'item' had spread as we already knew each other and frequently had lunch or coffee together during the course of the festival. This had lead to her being generally left alone by the ever-on-the-prowl Harare male; a development which obviously meant less hassle for her and an arrangement which I was happy going along with but which also presented a rather awkward expectancy immediately negating any mutual feelings which we might have had for each other in the first place. I didn't particularly mind as besides providing entertaining conversation and a cheap date as her religion prevents her from drinking, she is also quite stunning and if everyone thought she was with me that was also just fine.

I managed to snatch a sneaky moment to rope Victor into my ongoing guitar project where I'm trying to get various Zimbabwean musicians to play a song on my acoustic guitar and then sign it (a little ebay insurance project incase it all goes wrong, ha ha!).

But the final day of the grand event beckoned and Book Cafe was but an extra bar as the festival moved out into the marquee which had been erected in the car park outside. The poets who just needed a mic were on safe ground and I assure you performance poetry is growing and improving in Zimbabwe. The Likes of Comrade Fatso and Outspoken have become known enough that people refer to them as 'Fatso' and 'Out' and still form an integral part of the protest poetry movement although their revolutionary tunes still won't be aired on the radio.

Shapa with her long flowing dreads down to her ankles and the 'Poetic Angel' had definitely taken on a sense of the occasion and gave strong powerful performances. The 'kid who wasn't a kid' performed well too but I didn't much rate his choice of poem this time so I went off to get some food and got drawn into conversation with a couple of dodgy Harare boys, one of whom was Tony Capone formerly part of Zimbabwean rap group 'Peace of Ebony'. I told him that his reputation had preceded him and some friends had warned me that if you invited Tony Capone to a party he would still be there the next day.

'Ha ha. I'll still be there two days later!' he laughed. I believed him.

I got back in time to see a potentially banging Bongo Love set but for the sound which was still not quite right yet. The sound guys scratched their heads and fiddled some more and slowly it came together.

The highlight of the afternoon set was easily Dudu Manhenga's entrance at the beginning of her set with her band 'Colour Blu'. The band began playing and she began singing as she was carried across through the audience to the stage on a chair, by two extremely muscular young men in tight white vests. Flowing material trailed around her microphone and she had the most amazing head gear - part of her trademark image. She looked every bit the African queen with a performance to match and did not falter in spite of the odd glitch as the sound engineer finally got everything properly set up.

Everything went up a gear as the line-up continued with Victor Kunonga and the super polished South Africa outfit 'Gang of Instrumentals' who set the stage for the Ugandan 'Chameleon' to steal the show. The high-octane afro-hip hop fusion set was banging from the word 'go' and you never would have suspected from his performance that Chameleon was recovering from two broken legs as his limping to breakfast the following morning confirmed. Every tune had the crowd bouncing in unison which no doubt worried the folk that felt the rooftop car park we were on shaking beneath their feet, but I didn't care nor even notice because I was part of it. The crowd were eating out of the palm of his hand even before he performed one of his songs translated into Shona and he only risked losing some of his universal support that night when he grabbed a girl onto stage and performed gyrating suggestive dances on top of her - a bit risque for the generally conservative Zimbabwe crowd but luckily for him, most of the folk who would have considered this a step too far were themselves far enough away as not to have too clear a picture of what he was up to and the kids down the front lapped it up.

As the night plateaued beautifully, Mic-Inity came on for a heavy reggae finale and when he sang Bob Marley's song 'Zimbabwe' which has come to be more prophetic as time goes on, I was already buzzing on the straight vodka that had been passed to me by some good Samaritan as my beer ran out. I almost missed the climactic collaboration between Mic-Inity, Chameleon and Gang of Instrumentals which brought the show to a close.

There was virtually no trouble through the whole event apart from the occasional eviction of someone who was past their alcohol limit and had begun to harass to those around them. At the end of the night as people left one of the intoxicated poets tried to pick a fight with one of the other performers but was rapidly and firmly ejected by Lemmy who calmly but forcefully told him;

'No noise.'


'No... noise.'

The poet's friend quickly dragged him away to stop him causing any more aggravation.

The following morning at breakfast I overheard one of the foreign musicians relating his own comedy misadventure from the previous evening.

'So I offer to walk this girl over to where-ever she's meeting her boyfriend because I think maybe it's not safe for a girl to walk around the streets by herself. And then we're walking and we're starting to get quite far away from the place and I'm thinking: Man, this is really quite dodgy because there's hardly any streetlights. Next thing these cops who are standing by the corner of the road call us over and say they're arresting her for being a prostitute and me for soliciting a prostitute: apparently it's well known around here that a man shouldn't accompany a woman... unaccompanied.'

His friends all laugh.

'Anyway so then we were there trying to explain it to them and I thought maybe they want a bribe so I started with my usual routine but then the guy says to me - You know about this thing called corruption which is illegal? - and I think: Shit! maybe I've found the one straight cop in town so I back off. Eventually this girl's boyfriend pitches up who's this Chinese dude who tells the cops that he's working on a government construction project and she jumps into his car and I think shit, it looks like they're going to leave me to sort it out because these dudes are making me sweat. I think they really were fishing for a bribe but by now I'd forgotten about that idea and eventually when the squad car pitched up they just dropped me back at the festival...'

'...and when he walked back in he was a quivering wreck', one of the others continues and they all laugh again.

At the table I sat with both Andrew and Amel who were flying out that morning and already murmuring regrets about leaving too soon.

When the various cars and buses came to pick us up from the hotel there was one last bit of drama as one of the percussionists had fallen and potentially broken his hand which was very worrying - especially for a percussionist. You need to provide cash in US dollars before you are admitted to hospital in Harare these days, but luckily I still had my performance fee which duly I lent to the cause so that someone could take him to have the injury x-rayed. In the end luckily, it was just a sprain.

On my final morning in Harare I had just one last visit to make. I went to see my old nanny, Gogo Esi, to drop off some things from my mother and have tea with her while she told me news of what had been going on since last we spoke some years ago. During the worst of the food shortages caused by the worthless currency I had only managed to send her a shameful couple of food parcels as I was then freelancing and struggling to pay my rent in London, but even for this poor effort she was very grateful.

'There was nothing in the shops, Tomas, really nothing! Ooh! ...we were really hungry. Now things are a bit better; if you have US...'

I passed through Book Cafe one last time to bid farewell to friends, new and old. The place was buzzing as ever as the Internet connection was fully back up and running after it's rerouting for the live-streaming of the festival. I had one last cappuccino as Osama-bin-madman finally pushed my dad a step too far with some unprompted rant about evil homosexuals; he was unceremoniously bundled out with a 'Don't bring that bullshit in here!' before he knew what was happening, and as he trudged off everyone returned to their conversations once more. I chuckled to myself and finished my coffee before climbing into dad's Isuzu one last time for the trip back to the airport.

Even as the plane took off I felt I had left to soon; there were still things I had wanted to do and many, many people I had wanted to see... the Harare bug was biting once more and every bit as addictive as it once was: when was younger I would laugh at people who came there to stay for a couple of months and were still there 3 years later.

The Zimbabwe I found when I went looking for a place called home was different and run-down and struggling and yet... all at once it also seemed vibrant and familiarly charming and perhaps, just perhaps even a little optimistic once more. I could not tell how much the haze of the festival had coloured my impression of the place with rose-tinted loveliness, but it felt good to be home.

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