While they share a continent, Harare, Zimbabwe, feels a world apart from Zanzibar, Tanzania. Zanzibar feels relaxed and easygoing; Zimbabwe is torn by political strife. Issues of national governance infuse every discussion.
The country needs a great deal of investment, but money is extremely tight. Unlike other countries I visited on my tour, there is substantial physical infrastructure. But it is old and dilapidated. In one government building I visited, the home of the National Arts Council, lighting fixtures dangle from ceilings and floor coverings are disintegrating. This is a shame because the arts community is very accomplished and sophisticated. For example, the National Museum will have a space in the upcoming Venice Biennale. This is unusual for an African nation.
But the arts community is very frustrated. They believe the political problems of the nation hold them back. They are concerned that many foreign artists won't perform there as a result. And the unstable political situation makes it less likely that foreign corporations and foundations will support their work. To make matters worse, they have a neighbor, South Africa, who has moved light years ahead in arts infrastructure, arts management, developing a funding base and achieving attention from the world of the arts. The Market Theatre in Johannesburg, for example, has earned international acclaim and funding, and is invited to perform in major venues in Europe and the United States.
There is clearly no lack of creativity or interest in the arts community of Harare and the other provinces of Zimbabwe, simply a lack of resources. The country has suffered enormous economic problems (inflation reached over 89 sextillion percent in 2008!) and the arts community has had a difficult time creating a funding base. No wonder so many people wanted to come to this session.
Many people traveled for hours to attend. (This was something that amazed me throughout my visit to Africa; people were willing to travel four or five hours each way, by bus, to participate in a class on arts management.)
At a meeting before the class, I sat with the head of the arts councils of both Zimbabwe and Namibia (who had also traveled a great distance to come to the session). We discussed the need for role model organizations and arts managers who could demonstrate how to create a successful arts organization and that it could be done. The sense of all parties involved in my visit, both government officials and arts managers, was that they wanted to learn more and that they were committed to trying new approaches to running their arts organizations. Everyone spent time at the reception after class discussing ways to implement the things they learned in class.
I could not help feel that if the political situation in Zimbabwe could stabilize, the arts community would be in a position to soar. While things are currently extremely challenging, the many talented and smart people I met made me optimistic about the future of the arts in Zimbabwe.
It was a sobering but inspiring way to end my tour to Africa.