POETRY IN SOLIDARITY
Worldwide poetry readings for democracy and media freedom in Zimbabwe were held on 9 September 2007. British poet Karen Margolis, who was born in Zimbabwe, attended the main reading at the Berlin International Literary Festival as correspondent for Poets Against War.
The power of poetry as a grassroots political medium was vividly demonstrated once again on 9 September 2007, when poets, human rights activists and audiences the world over took part in stage and radio readings for democracy and media freedom in Zimbabwe.
The events followed an appeal launched by Ulrich Schreiber, director of the Berlin International Literature Festival, and signed by over 170 writers in 56 countries, including Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer and many other leading South African authors, along with writers from Congo, China, Korea, Latin America, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, Palestine, India and Iran, as well as Europe and North America.
Zimbabwe has become a synonym for post-colonial corruption, in-fighting, economic mismanagement, endemic diseases (especially AIDS), persecution of dissidents, attacks on freedom of speech, and collective punishment of people who refuse to support the ruling ZANU PF party under Robert Mugabe. It is yet another case of a population suffering while democracy is trampled down and the world looks on, expressing shock or regret but doing nothing to help change the situation.
Schreiber explained that he hit on the idea for an international reading for democracy in Zimbabwe on a trip to Africa in 2006. Backed by Germany's Peter Weiss Foundation, he organised the central reading on 9 September at this year's Berlin Literature Festival (4-16 September 2007). Texts by Zimbabwean poets, some little known outside their own country, were circulated to literary organisations and media worldwide in the run-up to 9 September.
The Berlin organisers were particularly pleased that several African radio stations including SKY FM in Zambia and SW Radio Africa, the Goethe Centre in Windhoek (Namibia), PEN centres in Sydney and Slovakia and several university professors in South Africa also actively supported the appeal.
The reading in Berlin was held in English and German, with Olaf Schenk's sensitive German translations of the original English poems. Marianne Heuwagen, director of the German branch of Human Rights Watch, began by outlining present-day conditions. She explained how Zimbabwe has degenerated since liberation in 1980 from being the grain chest of Africa to a country where a quarter of the population is starving, 80% are unemployed and inflation is currently running at 7000%. Not only white people, but also the black population have been driven out of the cities to destroy centres of opposition. Three-quarters of a million people are homeless. The mass media are censored, journalists are intimidated or driven into exile, and Mugabe's political opponents are beaten up and imprisoned without trial, or forced to flee the country.
The great Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llhosa took the stage in Berlin with a passionate speech. "The Zimbabwean people are victims of one of the worst dictatorships of our days," he declared. He felt saddened that a country which liberated itself from colonialism over 25 years ago, and initially enjoyed the goodwill of the world, had descended into "crony capitalism" while "the majority of the population is deprived of the elementary tools for survival." But Llhosa urged us to fight pessimistic, fatalist attitudes. "Dictatorships are a human creation, not a natural accident," he concluded. "They can be defeated and replaced by decent, humane governments."
Then Zimbabwean poetry took centre stage, with an interlude between the poems for the reading of a recent essay by Elinor Sisulu, a writer and human rights activist living in South African exile since 1991. Her essay introduces a report on a terrible massacre of thousands of people in 1980 by North Korean-trained government troops in the central Zimbabwe provinces of Matabeleland and the Midlands. Murder and mayhem raged there until 1988. The report is called Breaking the Silence because the events it describes remain hidden to this day. Sisulu writes that "indifference, shame, denial, terror, bitter anger and deep trauma" are among the emotions still felt, "depending on whether one is a victim, perpetrator or one of the millions of citizens who remained silent."
The poems from Zimbabwe today reflect all this. Some of the poets are in political exile, while others are left desperately trying to feed and educate their children and keep daily life going. Their writings are often incredibly sad or angry, bitter or ironic. At the same time, they are songs of resistance, radiating an indestructible human spirit.
Poet/singer Chirikuré Chirikuré is one of Zimbabwe's most popular bards. His poem, "Let's Cry with Hope", read at the Berlin meeting by US poet Anne Waldman, ends with the words:
"We should definitely mourn
Waldman also gave a delightful rendering of Chirikuré's ironic poem about the shortage in Zimbabwe of one of life's basic needs:
Asking for salt doesn't mean I am poor
If the tuck-shop was still there
The sadza is ready
Don't think I am mad
Please help me with salt
Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje contributed to the Berlin event with a reading of Chenjerai Hove's moving poetic letter, "nights with ghosts". A strong critic of Mugabe, Hove has lived in exile since being forced to leave Zimbabwe in 2002.
This was the moment when my 11-year-old son David, sitting beside me, suddenly stopped fiddling with his i-Pod and leaned forward to listen intently. The poem is written as a message from a little boy after Operation Murambatsvina, in which the Zimbabwean government destroyed 700,000 houses.
nights with ghosts
dear samueri, my friend
now that i have written this letter,
or shall i say,
our little street,
i don't know your address,
you see, samueri,
even teacher mutawu,
i will continue writing this letter,
care of spca
tell teacher mutawu,
a broken brick, a broken heart
samueri, stay strong.
One of Zimbabwe's greatest contemporary writer/dramatists, Dambudzo Marechera, died in 1987, aged only 35. Anne Waldman closed the reading in Berlin with his militant call for poetry to shout out against oppression:
In jail the only telephone is the washbasin hole: blow and we'll hear!
Write the poem not from classroom lectures
Write the poem not from the rhyme & reason of England
Do not scream quietly
Note: The poems quoted above are included in the booklet WORLDWIDE READING for Democracy and Media Freedom in Zimbabwe, available from Internationales Literaturfestival Berlin, Chausseestrasse 5, D-10115 Berlin, Germany
Further information: http://www.literaturfestival.com