Zimbabwe gave me a whole new respect for dictators — and the power of the arts to overthrow them.
How, you may ask, can one person control an entire population? It’s actually quite simple. Once the violence and war have stopped, you simply cut out creativity. Give them no food for their brains. Prevent them from accessing education that will allow them to think critically for themselves. Give them only empty entertainment — beer, pop music, soap operas — to numb their minds.
For the children who are able to afford to go to school, the schools themselves are underfunded, with overcrowding and few supplies. And if your family can’t afford to send you to school, it will be equally as difficult to educate yourself. Books are overwhelming expensive — 38 USD for a new paperback book, when a plate of food is 2 USD. The government only allows two (controlled) television stations. It was only in the last year that private radio stations were allowed to broadcast, and those too are heavily monitored.
And so children who can’t afford school play outside with each other, just trying to pass the time. When I brought out a small box of colored pencils and paper for the children on the street where I stayed (photo above), they flocked like moths to a light. Their creativity is gnawingly hungry for stimulation.
Mugabe’s greatest crime has not been massacre or greedy power grabs or hungry bellies. His greatest crime has been allowing the sweeping stunting of an entire generation’s ability to think creatively and critically.
From Mugabe: Power, Plunder, and the Struggle for Zimbabwe’s Future by Martin Meredith (p.244):
The cost of this strategy [of destroying all opposition to his regime] has been enormous. Zimbabwe has been reduced to a bankrupt and impoverished state, threatened by economic collapse and catastrophic food shortages. But the impact goes even deeper. Looking to the future, Catholic bishops, in their pastoral letter at Easter 2007, warned of the effect of Mugabe’s regime on the next generation. ‘If our young people see their leaders habitually engaging in acts and words which are hateful, disrespectful, racist, corrupt, lawless, unjust, greedy, dishonest, and violent in order to cling to the privileges of power and wealth, it is highly likely that many of them will behave in exactly the same manner. The consequences of such overtly corrupt leadership as we are witnessing in Zimbabwe today will be with us for many years, perhaps decades, to come.’
So how are Zimbabwean artists ameliorating the current political situation? They are creating safe spaces for children to open their minds.
Gina Maxim and Misheck Masamvu created the studio/gallery space Village Unhu to give young artists a warm and welcoming space to create their artwork as well as to provide a central location for school children to attend free art-making workshops.
Art workshops are sometimes justified to government organizations and financial backers as glorified babysitting — a way to keep kids off the streets (where they are prone to reckless sexual experimentation and drug/alcohol abuse) for a few hours.
However art’s power lies much deeper: giving children the space and materials to experiment with their creativity teaches them they have the power to create, to take control of their perception of the world around them, and to be more than a passive sponge.
The creative and intellectual individuals in Zimbabwe are utterly devoted to helping solve their country’s problems. They fight a seemingly endless stream of corrupt skimmers to empower other Zimbabweans to make better lives for themselves and their children. There was no talk of a violent overthrow of the government. Most of our conversations mulled over whether to peacefully change the current diseased system or to allow it to completely crumble so that a new system can be built.
Using art to invigorate a generation of creative passionate youths is certain to be a vital component of that new system.
Because the current system is so corrupted, the international loans, food aid, and missionary organizations that pour into Zimbabwe only continue to line the government officials’ pockets. If you want to encourage Zimbabweans in their fight to develop a creative generation, please contact me for more information about how you can help these artists and educators directly.