Ten Days That Shook My World

Donal O’Kelly and Sorcha Fox performing extracts from “The Cambria” at Afri’s 2009 Famine Walk in Louisburgh, County Mayo

Earlier this year we – Benbo Productions, Sorcha Fox and Donal O’Kelly – were invited to take our show The Cambria to the Harare International Festival of the Arts (called HIFA) in Zimbabwe, with the support of Culture Ireland, and in the International American School in Lusaka, at the invitation of the Irish Embassy, Zambia. The tour was also supported by Afri.


Day 1:

Monday 30 April

We meet our technical manager Ronan Fingleton at Dublin Airport and we pool luggage to get the combined weight under the limit. Our luggage includes the backdrop, floorcloth, costumes and props for our show The Cambria, about US anti-slavery leader Frederick Douglass’s journey to Ireland in 1845 on the steamer Cambria. We fly on Emirates Airline direct to Dubai, arriving there late evening. In the windowseat, I witness an incredible electric storm over the eastern Mediterranean, and a gigantic oil flare-off in the Arabian desert. Luckily, Sorcha has found a way to get us accommodated for free in a Dubai hotel, because we have a 9-hour wait before flying on to Harare.


Day 2.

Tuesday 1 May

The flight to Harare has quite a few musicians on board, trying to fit their instrument cases into the overhead lockers. The vertical camera facility on the video screen shows amazing images of East Africa from 50,000 feet. The airport at Harare has a 1970s feel, queues forming for immigration booths with early 1990s computers. We queue up with our $55 entry fees, and get our passports stamped. A HIFA minibus is outside to take us all to the Rainbow Towers Hotel, formerly the Sheraton who pulled out of Zimbabwe a few years ago. We meet the HIFA people and they give us HIFA brochures. HIFA is an enormous festival, with bands and acts from all over the world taking part. The theme this year is “A Show Of Spirit”. We’re glad to bring a little of Frederick Douglass’s resilient spirit to Africa, the homeland his ancestors were forcibly torn from by the slave trade.

Day 3.

Wednesday 2 May

We are brought in to Harare Gardens, where HIFA activities are centred. One of the HIFA staff conducts us through the entrance booths, and we walk through the maze of stalls until we’re asked to wait at the Youth Stage. As we sit there on bales of straw, a young mbira band are introduced. There are five, led by two girls who are visually impaired. They are helped into position behind their mics, and then they start their mesmeric music, big smiles on their faces. Beside them stands an 8-year-old vocalist wearing enormous shades and what looks like his First Communion suit. He is pure Puff Daddy, with mbira rhythms. Each song they sing, they bring a different energy to it, and they are obviously happy to be singing these songs. The audience, mainly people finding a place to sit down, are appreciative. We’re given our HIFA Accreditation cards, and we go off to explore the delights of the festival. Then Sorcha stumbles on a flowerbed verge, and falls. Her left ankle swells up immediately. It looks like it’s broken. People try to help her up, but getting up quickly isn’t a good idea. Two paramedics are present within minutes. They wrap the ankle in bandaging, and strap an icebag to it. Within a half-an-hour, Sorcha is sitting at a table with her foot up, eating a plate of curry, while a very neat band from Seattle play Zimbabwean rhythm and roots. We take stock. It’s now about 2pm. We’re due to do a technical rehearsal in the theatre from 7pm-9pm. Our first performance is next day at 2pm. Sorcha can’t put any weight on her ankle. Ronan and I help her to the exit. The journey, step by painful step, takes ages. We go back to the hotel, and she rests for a couple of hours. I get more ice bags. She tries standing on it again. The ankle can’t support any weight.

So now we enter Plan B territory. If Sorcha can’t walk freely, we have to change the way we do the show. There’s a quite a lot of movement, some of it fast and very specific. If Sorcha can’t walk, then she better stay still, preferably sitting. There’s no point in me swinging around the stage on my own, it wouldn’t look good to say the least, so I better sit as well. What if we both sit and speak everything straight out, as if to the other character in the scene. We do this for the Captain’s Table scene anyway. So why not do it for the whole show?

We decide Sorcha and I will spend the evening figuring out how we could adapt the show along these lines, while Ronan goes in on his own to hang the backdrop and place the floorcloth and do as much as he can in the two hours’ technical time we’ve been allotted in the theatre. We both go through the show scene by scene, and work out solutions to the difficult passages. We strip away any action we think is unnecessary. We hone in on the story. By 10pm, we think maybe we can get away with it. We text HIFA director Manuel Bagorro to tell him the situation. Ronan comes back, having accomplished tech miracles in the theatre – he reports everything is in place.


DAY 4.

Thursday 4 May.

At 8am I’m down at a little door at the back of the hotel just as it’s opened. It’s the Health Clinic. I ask the nurse, Lucy, if she’ll see Sorcha, who’s sitting at the top of a set of 30 steps. Lucy is amazingly helpful, puts painkiller ointment on the ankle and straps it again. We tell her about the flowerbed, and she says it’s Zimbabwe saying “welcome”. Zimbabweans have a sense of easy irony that feels familiar. Lucy organises the use of the hotel wheelchair so Sorcha can get to the venue. At breakfast, Manuel Bagorro discusses options with us – Sorcha prefers to wait until after the performance to have the ankle xrayed. We then have two clear days before the next performance. The show must go on ..

The Standard Theatre is adjacent to a Protestant chapel. It’s gorgeous, with 200 seats on a rake, and the stage on the flat. Sorcha gets into her costume and practises getting from the wings to the trunk she’ll sit on. The doors open and the buzz of conversation fills the space. The Front-of-house manager introduces us, says a few words about HIFA, the lights fade and we go on. We sit beside each other, the lights come up, and we start. After 10 minutes, we know they’re with us. By the time we get to the Captain’s Table scene, they’re loving it. At the end, we get a standing ovation – Sorcha just about manages to stand for the bow. As soon as it’s over, a paramedic team arrives to bring her for an xray in Avenues Clinic. Three hours later, she knows it’s not broken. HIFA production manager Caroline Tredgold magics a pair of crutches out of thin air, and Sorcha is suddenly mobile for the rest of the week.

We get a call from Manuel. Demand is so high for our performance on Sunday HIFA want to schedule an extra one at 6.30pm – great.

In the evening, Irish Honorary Consul Gary Killalea and his wife Diane whisk us off to the old-style Mousel Hotel, its faded grandeur still suffering a hangover from colonial days. Deirdre Ní Cheallaigh of Trocaire joins us and tells us about the Mashambanzhou HIV-Aids programme Trocaire support in Harare. A picture of explorer Henry Morton Stanley adorns the mantle, flanked by tusks. Stanley massacred thousands of Africans during his journeys through Central Africa. Another picture is an illustration captioned “The Battle of the Arruwimi”. It commemorates an event during Stanley’s descent of the Congo when he and his mercenaries annihilated hundreds of the Bangala tribe at the confluence of the Congo and Arruwimi rivers. The defeated Bangala later became the main recruitment tribe for the notorious Congo Free State Force Publique. Yet this picture, of Stanley’s habitual annihilation of Africans who stood in his way, is exhibited as if it’s something to celebrate. Maybe it’s exhibited on the mantelpiece because it’s something to remember lest anything similar be allowed to happen again.


DAY 5.

Friday 4 May.

We are picked up by Deirdre Ní Cheallaigh of Trocaire and driven to the Mashambanzou HIV-Aids project. On the way, we pull in to let President Robert Mugabe’s motorcade pass. It’s bristling with motorcycle outriders and armed security vehicles. He’s visiting a house in the poor suburb of Mbare where one of the heroes of the independence struggle is being waked. Mbare is one of the areas where, in 2005, many houses were bulldozed on the pretext that they had extensions built without planning permission. This ignored the fact that thousands of people made their living from home-based businesses such as hairdressing, shoe repairs and providing accommodation. Many felt it was a warning to a building opposition movement of what the government could inflict on those not numbered among its supporters.

Mashambanzou is a haven of peace and calm. Over 40 HIV and Aids sufferers receive medication and care on a residential basis. Many others are on homecare medication schemes. The name Mashambanzou means “place where the elephants wash”. As elephants always wash at dawn, it signifies a new dawn for HIV and Aids patients. One in seven Zimbabweans are infected with HIV, so it’s vital that the disease is dealt with through a combination of treatment and prevention. Trocaire is dependent on Irish Aid support to continue its work with Mashambanzou, and the umbrella group for Irish development organisations, Dóchas, has impressed on the Minister of State at Foreign Affairs, Joe Costello, the importance of Aids treatment and prevention programmes in Africa.

The outlying suburb of Glenview is a sprawling mass of tin shacks. There is no running water, and the electricity supply is either non-existent or intermittent. The residents pay rent for what are called “sites” – a landlord extracts rent from people who manage to construct a habitable tin shed. People grow cassava and peas beside their homes, and dig deep wells for water. We meet 8-year-old Eoin, who’s mother died of HIV, and who is looked after by his 19-year-old brother. There are five people living in the shack, one side of which is actually half the undercarriage panel of a luxury car. A mattress and a rudimentary grate are the only visible possessions. A 5-month-old baby lies on the mattress. A pot of corn porridge bubbles on the grate just inside the door. The baby’s mother speaks to us in Shona telling us she’s been there five years since they were run out of a slightly better compound when they couldn’t afford to pay a rent increase.

By nightfall, we are at HIFA in Harare Gardens again. There is a Norwegian Embassy area that includes artefacts stalls, including one that sells mbiras. The mbira is the main instrument of Zimbabwean traditional music. It consists of metal strips bound across a bar on a wooden block so that they can be twanged with thumb and index finger. This is inserted into a cut gourd for resonance. There is a wealth of history associated with mbira playing. It’s a spiritual as well as a musical experience. A mini-session develops as we’re at the stall, and soon a communal sing-and-sway-along is in full swing. Kuda, who manages the stall, is an mbira maker and player. It turns out he met our friends from trad band Kila who were at the festival last year, and was hanging out with them.

We take in an amazing concert by Zimbabwean band Mofongo. They are superb musicians, and have the crowd eating out of their hand. Their high-octane combination of musical craft and performance skills reminds me of Tinawara, the Malian band who have visited Dublin several times. The other half of the doublebill is a Dutch DJ who maybe tries to hyperinflate the feelgood atmosphere, it starts to feel artificial, and focus gradually wanes.


DAY 6.

Saturday 5 May.

In the morning, we stroll around the HIFA site, chatting to the stallholders and buying the odd present to bring home. At one stall, the woman asks where we’re from. We end up comparing myths and folk tales from Ireland and Zimbabwe. She talks of the magic mountain of Nwangwe, where strange things happen, such as a tree bearing more than one fruit, but you must not look at it or point it out, or you will disappear. When Robert Mugabe’s motorcade passes, it’s forbidden to point at it.

We catch a story-telling session in the adjacent National Gallery of Zimbabwe. We sit on mats on the floor and bowls of roasted nuts are handed around as we listen to the storyteller relate three stories to a multinational audience. They are clever, complex stories with more than one way of interpretation. The curator of the National Gallery, Raphael Chikukwa, tells us he lived for a couple of years in Ennis.

We bump into Adam McGuigan from Portrush. He’s based in Lusaka, where he is a director with Barefeet Theatre Company. Adam saw our show on Thursday, and has done an excellent advertising job for us since then.

We take it easy on Saturday evening, as we have two shows on Sunday.


DAY 7.

Sunday 6 May.

We perform at 11.45am to another full house. Many of the audience are from the Mashonaland Irish Association. Afterwards, they invite us to a garden party at the Crown Plaza Hotel. Among the guests is US Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Charles Ray. An African-American Vietnam War veteran, he’s familiar with Frederick Douglass’s story, and talks about Douglass’s influence on Martin Luther King’s oratory, in particular his “I have a dream” speech. It takes me a while to process the experience of getting a rave review from a US ambassador – I’d usually be protesting outside US embassies.

I go by bus to a HIFA concert happening in the 7 Arts Centre. This turns out to be a little like the old Eblana in Dublin, except it’s situated in a shopping centre rather than under the bus station. Chiwoniso Maraire is playing with John Pfuojena. It’s an amazing concert, combining American and African soul anthems with Zimbabwean mbira rhythms. Years ago, I came across a cd in an Oxfam shop in Dublin called The African Mbira: Music of the Shona People, originally recorded in 1971 by Dumi Maraire. I had been playing it almost daily for a long time, and Chiwoniso, who grew up and lived for a long time in Seattle, is the late Dumi’s daughter. She in turn introduced her two daughters, who play and sing in the concert. It reminds me of Irish trad musicians who pass their gift down through the generations. The emotional impact of mbira music is palpable. It’s a communal event between musicians and audience. You can’t help but let yourself be part of it. You can feel the layers of understanding and recognition and appreciation in the space. There is much more than music going on, or, to put it another way, the music is doing much more than it’s normally asked, or facilitated, to do.

I get back to the Standard Theatre for our second show of the day. It’s almost full, and again we receive a standing ovation. We pack up and nip around to Harare Gardens for the climactic concert of the festival, Oliver Mtukudzi, the Christy Moore of Zimbabwe. There’s such a crowd we can’t really make our way, what with Sorcha’s crutches. So we listen from the green room instead, drinking beer with the mbira man Kuda, who tipped me off about the Chiwoniso Maraire concert. The roars of approval from the audience for Oliver Mtukudzi are about the music and more. In Ireland, we have a historical appreciation of how to suggest things in many different ways, sometimes making a virtue of ambivalence, such as the aisling and the satirical ode. The same awareness is palpable in Zimbabwe. A fireworks display that seems to be almost about to drop on our heads – but doesn’t – marks the end of HIFA 2012, A Show Of Spirit.


DAY 8.

Monday 7 May.

We’re picked up at 8am by Emmanuel, the driver from the Irish Embassy in Lusaka, Zambia. We say goodbye to all our HIFA friends. Within a half-an-hour we’re on the flat road north-west towards Lusaka. People walk along the road in great numbers. There is a great air of activity in Zimbabwe. People busy doing things all the time. Women carry enormous loads of firewood on their heads, walking tall, straight and slender, often with a babe in a sling on their backs. Men cut the long grasses at the side of the road with machetes. Children walk to and from school. A herd of baboons cross the road ahead of us at one point, nonchalantly going about their business, barely giving us a look. As we draw near the Zambezi, we start to descend from the elevated plateau Harare and most of Zimbabwe rests on, and the views are spectacular. We cross the border at the Kariba Dam. The view of the River Zambezi a few hundred feet below is impressive.

Being in a car with diplomatic plates, we pass through both sides fairly quickly. Others, waiting around in the only spots of shade available in the glaring sunlight, are not so lucky, or so privileged.

On the Zambian side, the main road continues much the same as in Zimbabwe, one lane on each side, fairly level, with the odd gaping pothole. A bit like Ireland in the 1980s. Villages of straw-roofed round mud houses flourish just yards from the main road. It’s getting dark by the time we reach the outskirts of Lusaka. Emmanuel drops us to our hotel for our stay, the Southern Sun. It’s $300 a night, but we’re special guests and we’re staying gratis, the performance in Lusaka being supported in kind by the hotel. As travelling artistes, we often fall into the strange category of what Aidan Connolly of the Irish Arts Centre New York calls “the privileged poor”. We meet Marylee Wall of the Irish Embassy and discuss the schedule for the next two days.


DAY 9.

Tuesday 8 May.

We go to see the venue in the International American School. It’s about 20 minutes drive out past the embassy belt and a sprawling graveyard. The theatre space is a bit like Dublin’s Liberty Hall. It’s got basic equipment, and we figure out fairly quickly how we’ll present the show. The new sitdown version is even easier to light, and we were already pioneering a way of touring theatre we call “lightfoot”, with minimal technical set-up time. We then go to see the museum, which is an innovative mix of modern art and historical exhibits from the struggle for independence era of the 1960s. Founder of the state Kenneth Kaunda is still around, and since his party were returned to power last election, back in favour as granddad of the nation.

We visit a market and I manage to buy a brace of Congo child-masks for $40 plus 5000 qachas (about $2) plus the biro sticking out my pocket. Not a bad deal. I’ve become a bit of a collector since I got to know the Camerounian guy Tony who sells them outside MoMA in New York. I’m fascinated with them, and hope to do a theatre show using them sometime soon.

At 4pm, we give a workshop in the Playhouse Theatre, just around the corner from the hotel. It’s well attended, even though we only settled on the time at short notice. Many of the participants are members of Barefeet Theatre Company. Many of them had lived as streetkids previously. They are without doubt the most avid participants in a workshop I’ve ever come across. We do some scenes from The Cambria, to show the physical techniques we use for multi-role-play. Then we ask them to pair off and improvise conversations between characters on The Cambria. The response is amazing, not only for its enthusiasm, but for its total lack of inhibition. Men play women and women play men, pretending being taken for granted as the first thing you do. They pretend with complete confidence and gusto. It’s like a fresh breeze blowing through the room. Tobias Tembo, who is one of the people running Barefeet, invites me to accompany him the following day on a walking tour to Garden Compound, the disadvantaged area of Lusaka he comes from.

We then attend a small and enjoyable reception at the home of Ambassador Tony Cotter, and meet with some of the Irish community in Lusaka. Afterwards, we have a meal with them at the Marlin, a steak restaurant crowded with Zambians, and we argue the rights and wrongs of Ireland’s recession, whose fault it is and what should be done about it, late into the night. Feeling very much at home.


DAY 10.

Wednesday 9 May.

I go on the walking tour of Garden Compound. On the way there, we pick up three American women who are in Lusaka to see projects run by the charity they fundraise for in Seattle called Room To Read, dedicated to building extra rooms onto schools to serve as libraries. One of them is Michelle Duffy from Navan. Garden Compound used to be, in colonial days, a garden farm owned by a Portuguese family. Now, there is still the evidence of its garden origins in the preponderance of trees and bushes, but it’s a sprawling mass of high-density houses, with little in the way of running water, and pit latrines for sewage treatment.

There is a tangible air of commercial activity in the compound. It’s busy. Small shops of every kind abound. We go to the Happy Face Kids’ Art Club, a colourful shed with an enthusiastic following of local kids who make art, including hand-painted pencil-holders made from mineral cans, and homemade footballs made from discarded sponge and plastic. The mother of the founder of Happy Face shows us around proudly, as he’s away.

One of the guides with Tobias is Ireland, a tall Zambian of about 20 years of age. I never asked him how he got his name – hard to believe, I know. But I do know this:- when he was about six, Oprah Winfrey came to Garden Compound to inspect some projects she had raised funds for. She interviewed 6-year-old Ireland. He says she was very nice. The house where this interview happened is now covered in graffiti recalling the visit, and is somewhat of a shrine to “getting there and doing it” the Oprah way.

We visit a woman who runs a traditional fabrics business from the hand-operated Singer sewing machine in her kitchen. My mother had one like it before she got an electric one about 1963. The woman makes floral-design cotton duvet-covers and blankets and dresses and shoulderbags. The blaze of colour hanging on the clothesline outside her two-room home in a remote corner of Garden Compound is a sight to behold.

We’re brought into a shebeen and tempted to try Shakey-Shake, the local beer that comes in a carton, but I decline, as I’ve a show to do later. I’m more worried about my stomach than my head. Michelle tries it, and seems quite impressed.

I have to cut short my participation in the walking tour, as I need to get back to rehearse.

We arrive at the venue at about 6pm and get ready. Again, almost a full house turns up. There are refreshments out front courtesy of the Irish Embassy. We present the show as we did in Harare, and again, it goes down extremely well. The Barefeet people seem to get a particular kick out of it. Afterwards, I meet an old friend from thirty years ago in Dublin, John Murphy, who’s been an engineer in Zambia for the past 18 years. He’d come from celebrating Europe Day, and had chatted with Kenneth Kaunda there. China now dominates the lucrative copper industry in Zambia. There are quite a few Chinese business people staying in our hotel. One of them, a woman, is loud and superior with the African locals, with much the same tone as the European colonials used in their heyday.


DAY 11.

Thursday 10 May.

We catch the BA Lusaka-Heathrow early morning flight, Marylee in the embassy having worked miracles to get our luggage weight restriction relaxed a little. The privileged poor return home.

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