31 August 2008

Zimbabwe: Godwin looks at Mugabe Pt. 2

Peter Godwin, in Vanity Fair, September 2008

Not long after this conversation, back in Zimbabwe, I attended the Harare International Festival of the Arts—another of those jarring juxtapositions. It came as Zimbabwe awaited the results of the first round of voting in the presidential election—and as Mugabe’s militias were raining violence upon the land—but at the opening, men and women gathered in formalwear and sipped champagne.

The festival began with a musical revue called “Dreamland,” by the South African director Brett Bailey. It had a single scheduled performance, in a downtown park, and given the nature of the show, it would not have been granted a second. No amount of metaphorical distancing could disguise its meaning. It started with a gigantic figure, the tyrant king, wearing a bloated, blood-red mask and a white military uniform, who made his way out to the end of a lonely ramp that jutted into the audience. “A long time ago, in a beautiful land far from here,” the narrator began, “there lived a king who had bewitched his people.”

Onstage the members of a choir, dressed in striped pajamas, were beaten down by baton-wielding hyenas in military fatigues. The singers vomited votes into ballot boxes, then fell into a trance. “The king swallowed the songs of all his people,” the narrator continued. “And the only sound to be heard in that beautiful land was the drone of the king’s voice.”

The tyrant king remained on his lonely perch. The narrator went on: “But in that time there were songs that the king could not reach. These were the people’s most precious songs: the songs they sang in their dreams.… In the dry valleys of Dreamland the silent choirs sang their songs: The battered men in forgotten jails. The broken women on foreign soils. Families resting in unmarked graves. The hungry, the lost, the landless. And their songs rose like thunderclouds over the land.”

Then, suddenly, a choir of children began to sing “Over the Rainbow” in pure, piping voices. The prowling hyenas came up behind them and, one by one, pulled rough hoods over their heads and hauled them off, until at last there was only one little girl left onstage. She made it to the last line—“Why, oh why, can’t I?”—but before she could finish, she, too, was hooded by the hyenas and dragged away.

All around me in the packed arena Zimbabweans wept for their country. And so did I.

Native Zimbabwean Peter Godwin is the author of When a Crocodile Eats the Sun.

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