Curled up inside a gazebo that has been overgrown with poorly-maintained park flora, I stare at the flaking ceiling and marvel at the intricately painted details. Brother Ali’s lyrical flow washes over me as I half-listen, half-doze in the filtering sunlight. My dog-eared copy of African Laughter is draped over my knee, which is also wrapped in the boldly printed shawl found by a dear friend at the “free store” in Finland.
What is this mismatched Finnish / Zimbabwean / Chinese / American cross-cultural being that sits here half-dozing? Does this being belong everywhere? Does this being belong nowhere?
[The m]ore culture shocks you go through, the easier it is for you to let go of your control, and accept your experience of “what is” as it truly is: your experience.
The events that preceded in this moment do not need to be reiterated. They have been documented on this blog aplenty. But perhaps for the first time, I realize that my creative freedom — the opportunity I had to switch up the format of this project and be vulnerable with you — came about because no one was watching over my shoulder.
No one else cares if I am in this gazebo. No one is watching. By flying under the radar, by being small and insignificant to these governments, I can assimilate astounding stories from artists around the globe, integrate them into a personal cross-cultural “what is,” and regurgitate new thoughts on how those stories relate to one another.
How artists in the Dominican Republic can expand on the experiments by artists in San Miguel de Allende who are training children to run their own artisan collectives. How the Zimbabwean artists’ reactions are paralleling those of the artists in China. And how each of us as individuals can use these stories to strengthen our own resolve to make changes within ourselves that emanate out into the world.
In the forefront of my thought — in the gazebo with the copy of African Laughter on my lap — rumbles the silencing censorship (tinged with violence) that happens in China (where artists have adopted the use of human bodies as an innocuous way of protesting an oppressive system) and also happens in Zimbabwe.
For instance, a novelist was planning at thriller about a country where a coup was being planned from the outside. He talked about his idea to a friend: a few days later the CIO [Central Intelligence Office] came around and warned him not to write the book; people would think he meant Zimbabwe. So he didn’t write it. It is easy to say he should have ignored them. If I lived in Britain I wouldn’t have taken notice either. But it’s no joke when those CIO men drop around for a chat. They know how to scare you. And don’t forget the best editor this country has ever had – The Chronicle in Bulawayo – got the sack. If there’s a tricky issue, just when you’re thinking, I’ve got a wife and children to look after, it’s funny how the CIO boys just happen to be around, ‘Let’s have a drink and talk things over.’
(p. 404 in African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe by Doris Lessing)
After the recent election (Mugabe “won,” surprise, surprise), Fundai, a passionate advocate for change still living in Harare, sent me a frustrated email. “There is just disbelief in the communities. Speculations of our isolation are also taking grip. But thank goodness it’s also peaceful here.”
As alone as Fundai may feel, passionate artists / thinkers / creative proponents for change are never alone. There are others fighting the same fight. Even when the government is watching threateningly, there is solidarity — somewhere, somehow.
To tap that solidarity, we can find a quiet place so that honest words about love, vulnerability, protest, and bravery can pour out. And then, once we leave that quiet place, we find some way, any way, to share those words with another human being — and then encourage them to share those words again. Regardless of cultural backgrounds or expectations, like-minded people will hear us and understand.
A poem by S. Kumbirai Rukuni
Strong strings tie my … my
Strong strings tie my tongue tight
Strong strings tie my taunting
tongue straight and silent,
With no might nor right or curling
and lick the doors of its cave-empire.
Tongues! Who thought even tongues
could be spiderwebbed silent?
During those days of blighting bullets
amid slogan chants
Those years of the bloody bayonet
to the lull and soothe of ‘honest’ promises
Who could ever have the thought –
– of those tight cutting strings to masses?