I went to a party in New York City and met some girlz they were dancing free/They seemed to me on a dancing spree/One, two, I counted three, I said hey girlz can I join you too/One came to me, said how do you do, We did all moves that we could do/Then came the time for me to go: I said girl, I’m out/She’s like “Man, where you from, anywhere?”/I said girl, let’s dance, not talk; but, for the record I’m from Afrika.
When I ask him what it feels like to be an African in New York City, Farai leans forward and in a low voice, coupled with a slight grin, offers me the verse above. Full of the heady imagery of a nightclub, of women dancing and a sleek protagonist with the right moves and the right exit line, it adds another layer to a serious, reflective man who in his other incarnations is a scholar (he has just graduated from NYU with a Ph.D. in Performance Studies), a teacher, a musician, and a committed artist. “Committed” is a word that Farai uses frequently, and by the end of the interview I begin to think of it as a term that divides people into those who engage meaningfully with the world and those who don’t.
Farai Wonderful Bere was born in 1969 in the Bikita District of the Mashinga Province in Rhodesia. Like many Africans growing up in a colonized country, he refused to define himself in foreign occupier terms, mainly by never calling himself “Rhodesian.” Instead he clung to the ethnic and cultural category of “Shona.” The nation of Zimbabwe and the identity of “Zimbabwean” was something that came later. Bere grew up in a town he describes as “placid, quiet and uneventful.” But his town’s placidity did not insulate it from the war of Independence in 1980.
Some of Farai’s most vivid childhood memories are of his family crowding around a radio and tuning into the underground station, “Voice of Zimbabwe,” broadcast on a Mozambican frequency. During a period marked by the struggle to convert colonial Rhodesia into independent Zimbabwe, the station had a devoted following—not just because of its accurate account of the losses and victories of the underground movement, but also because of the allure of its music. With its signature song adapted from Mao Tse-tung’s “Ten Points,” the broadcasters understood the seduction of combining Marxist rhetoric with popular entertainment. People’s imaginations were stirred by the notion of acquiring freedom, not just through armed struggled, but through the exchange and internalization of revolutionary ideas. For Bere, it was a formative lesson in the relationship between art and politics (or what he calls “committed art”), and one that continues to shape his own music, which he describes as a hybrid of urban American hip-hop and traditional Shona Mbira music.
Farai speaks wonderingly of a past era in which it was common practice for people who did not necessarily have access to higher or even secondary education to fill their homes, with difficult, jargon-filled texts that were often banned. Nowadays, he says, “kids no longer have that vibrant spirit.” But back then, “You could go around every home and there are just books, books everywhere, lying on the floor.” Inwardly, I smile because isn’t this the most persistent of inter-generational complaints? But as Farai speaks about Zimbabwe today I begin to understand that the dwindling faith in books, and the children’s lack of “vibrant spirit” is not about adopting a youthful posture of fashionable cynicism; it’s about the impossibility of imagining a future in which books actually matter.
Zimbabwe’s education system was once hailed as the most advanced and progressive in the region, but its promise has crumbled. A few years ago, President Robert Mugabe took his own son out of a Zimbabwean school and enrolled him at a private elite boys school in Cape Town. Of what may prove to be Zimbabwe’s greatest long-term casualty, Farai says, “We have always been amongst the best educated in Africa...We may not have had all the labs and equipment but we had a good education. Now, of even going to school, many people say, ‘what for?’”
“Let me show you something.” Farai reaches into his wallet and pulls out a red and cream bill. A fish leaps triumphantly from out of a dwarfed Victoria Falls towards the note’s value. Ten Million Zimbabwean Dollars. “This is worth about one American dollar,” he pauses, “and 5 cents.” Farai’s face is indecipherable; and he answers my question about its buying power with a wan smile, “Maybe about three loaves of bread.” Zimbabwe, a land of absurd contradictions, is now home to the world’s poorest millionaires. In Farai’s view, brutal dictatorship and its terrible bride, poverty, have turned his country into a landscape he barely recognizes.
The story of the men who created all this chaos is known well enough. In 1965, then-Prime Minister Ian Smith seceded from the commonwealth (there was too much muttering in the UK about the treatment of black Rhodesians for his liking), and campaigned, in his own words, for a “Whiter, Brighter Rhodesia.” A year earlier, Smith had Robert Mugabe arrested for “subversive speech.” Mugabe spent ten terrible years in one of Smith’s prisons, during which time he accumulated three university degrees and was not allowed to go to his four-year-old son’s funeral. Between 1974 and 1980 Mugabe assumed leadership of ZANU PF and masterminded a liberation war that would give Zimbabwe its independence at the cost of 30,000 lives. In 1980 he was elected to the position of president and under his rule, Mugabe seemed to have defined his government’s progress through an investment in and uplift of his people (except for homosexuals, who were vilified). Throughout Mugabe’s early years, Zimbabwe was hailed as one of Africa’s postcolonial success stories, refuting racist propaganda about African self-governance, and setting an international standard for racially integrated living.
But a history of colonialism and its twin legacies of land theft and racialized poverty are never easily rectifiable. The question of land, like the question of race, lies at the heart of the Pan-African struggle to assert independent and democratic governance. In 1979, the Lancaster House Agreement, which paved the way for Mugabe’s presidency, instituted a land reform principle into the fledgling constitution that effectively meant “willing buyer, willing seller.” In theory it allowed for the slow but eventual democratization of black ownership of land. In practice, most white farmers were vigorously opposed to selling and the new government lacked the financial recourses to purchase land for the landless. By 1992, when the government could afford to purchase land, corruption had set in; instead of the homeless and the landless being resettled, hundreds of expropriated white farms were occupied by cabinet ministers and rich black businessmen. In 2000, after a failed attempt to revise the constitution in order to further benefit his cronies, Mugabe’s supporters and veterans of the Liberation War began to march on white farms, claiming a total of 110, 000 square kilometers of land. The seized properties were handed over to people with little experience of how to run farms. The new farmers were not provided with any training or with the substantial bank loans that white farmers had enjoyed.
Within a few short years, the country known as “the bread-basket of Africa” became a poverty-stricken, violence-addled political basket-case. And Mugabe has become the world’s most recognizable African dictator.
Farai sums up his president’s trickery and treachery in one damning sentence, “Mugabe should be given another doctorate in evil and distribution.” Farai, of course, is utterly sympathetic to the desperate need for land redistribution in Zimbabwe. Land theft is an old story in Africa, and the impulse to redistribute to ensure a more equitable and just situation is one of moral, political, and practical necessity. But Mugabe’s chaotic, destructive and power-mongering method has ruined a once-functioning country and plunged it into economic and political hopelessness
I ask Farai about how Zimbabwe’s story has affected his own notions of a Pan-African identity; if the concept of a shared struggle and the promise of mutual recognition through the prism of ubuntu have been at all challenged. Ubuntu, a Southern African concept which can be summed up in the community-centric maxim “a person is a person because of other people,” is grounded in the understanding that human beings are mutually reliant and dependent on each other, and that such reliance and dependence is something to be nurtured, not neglected. Pan-Africanism has long been a rallying point for Africans seeking to eradicate arbitrary colonial national borders and foster a continental identity based on loyalty, mutual interests, and respect. In the case of Zimbabwe in the last ten years, most African countries have developed convenient conceptual amnesia around ubuntu and Pan Africanism, in the name of continental diplomacy.
In answering me, Farai begins with an act of kindness. He does not want to indict South Africa, whose moral debt to Zimbabwe is incalculable, specifically for abandoning Zimbabwe. He is acutely sensitive and gracious, and he does not “name names” when he says his belief in a pan-African identity has not been challenged, it has been shattered.
Farai remains connected to the turmoil in Zimbabwe, even as he continues to adapt to life in New York City. He returns to the theme of what it means to be outside of home, and what it means to go back home. He breaks into a long laugh when he thinks about how he prepared for his journey back for the first time in 2001. “Man, you should have seen how I was dressed; I am so embarrassed now. I thought I had to perform America for everyone at home so I bought these t-shirts, I couldn’t wear them here. Damn, I don’t even know who plays in the teams or what sport it was—a New York Yankees cap and t-shirt.” He warms to his subject and begins a riff on Africans and Americans, “For some black folks like me, you are forced to assume different personalities. There are some people who act American when they are here, they are all “Hey N—What’s up? They want to emulate, to perform, to be 50 Cent, but for me I am African, no doubt about that.”
I notice that his hair is shorter than normal, and Farai reaches up to massage his almost bald scalp. “Oh ja,” he laughs. “Every time I come back from Africa I shave my head completely. And then I grow it till I go back, even if it’s years. For some reason I need to measure it through my hair growth—the time I’ve been away from home. I’ve ritualized it, how long I’ve been away from the source of my being.”
Nadia Davids is a South African-born playwright who is currently based in Brooklyn. She was nominated for the Noma Award for her play At Her Feet.