Young, hip Zimbabweans flock to rejuvenated arts fest

Young, fashion-conscious and eager for change, thousands of Zimbabweans spent this week partying at music concerts and open-air bars during a six-day festival hosted in the capital against all the odds.

The Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA), founded in 1999, was abandoned last year as Zimbabwe’s economy crumbled and left desperate locals unable to withdraw money from banks.

Despite many sponsors pulling out, festival organisers have revived an event widely seen as an expression of defiance against the country’s woes under 93-year-old President Robert Mugabe.

“Cash is everyone’s major problem,” Chidochemoyo Nemhara, 29, a festival-goer who works for a women’s business group, told AFP.

“But we know HIFA is a place to forget about troubles.”

At least 100 international musicians, singers, dancers and actors are performing alongside many local artists at a dozen venues across the city.

Mali-based star Habib Koite is due to headline the final night on Sunday in Harare’s central park, topping off a schedule ranging from US opera and Irish comedy to Turkish jazz, Dutch techno and Indian dance.

Tafadzwa Simba, HIFA’s executive director, said the festival this year lost the backing of several companies, funding bodies and embassies who believed it was “impossible” to hold the event given the nation’s economic difficulties.

“Technically speaking, as a country, we are broke. Yet it has happened, and here we are,” Simba said.

– ‘We must live our lives’ –

Dissent is risky in Zimbabwe, where Mugabe has ruled since 1980, but the festival’s slogan “Staging an Intervention” hints at rebellious undercurrents that erupted last year with large anti-government protests.

“Everyone knows what they mean,” said Chiedza Mahere, 27, a graphic designer and fashion blogger.

“We are ruled by a government that wants to take everything. We must live our lives anyway — liberal, free, and allowed to be who we want to be. That is what HIFA is about.”

Processing ticket sales has been just one major test for the festival as Zimbabwe suffers a drastic shortage of banknotes.

Hyperinflation killed off the national currency several years ago, forcing Zimbabwe to use scarce US dollar bills that the government now supplements by printing its own little-trusted “bond notes”.

Not far from the festival’s main gates, long queues stretch outside banks as customers stand in line for hours to try to collect the daily maximum withdrawal of just $50.

“I must often wait at a bank from 6am to 2pm,” said student Gamuchirai Gatawa, 20, as she arrived at the festival.

“The government says we must use bond notes, but the shops don’t want them. What should we do?

“Young people are not being heard, but if we do find our own person to do that, then (the government’s) time is up.”

– Business boost –

Some festival events are free, while tickets to the showcase performances on the main stage cost up to $20.

Organisers admit that fewer spectators are expected compared to the last festival two years ago — when total audience numbers hit a staggering 49,000 at 192 performances.

But they say the week has still brought a rare burst of business activity to Harare, with stage crew, taxi drivers, hotels and stall-holders among those benefiting.

“We are only back in action thanks to the sheer determination of those involved,” said Simba.

“Really, we see HIFA as a statement of intent of what might be possible in this country.”

Zimbabwe’s economic output has halved since 2000, according to economists, and unemployment stands over 90 percent, forcing millions of young people to seek work abroad.

Mugabe, who is often criticised for repression, corruption and destructive economic policies, is due to stand for re-election next year despite his increasingly frail health.

For many of the international performers, the festival has been an eye-opening insight into both Zimbabwe’s troubles and its strengths.

“I am staying in a spare room in Highfield, one of the rougher parts of towns, but I feel very safe and welcome,” said German solo tenor Jochen Kraus, 44.

“Many singers and performers in Europe have heard of this event, and this was an unmissable opportunity to be involved in a huge adventure.”

Kraus, who sings in the Munich Philharmonic Choir, was searching for a quick-learning pianist after his accompanist dropped out at the last minute.

“All part of the fun,” he said.

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