Festival Season in Harare: Youth Arise for Artistic Expression

By: Brooks Marmon, Accountability Architect, Accountability Lab.

shoko festivalIt’s summer in Zimbabwe and the jacarandas lining the streets of the city’s plush northern suburbs are approaching full bloom, splashing purple across Harare’s parched landscape. On a less pleasant note, major news headlines appear to have changed little over the past decade: Robert Mugabe continues to condemn the West at meetings of the UN General Assembly, illegal urban structures continue to be demolished, and white farmers continue to face evictions.

Against this backdrop of political competition, finger pointing, and a stagnating economy, Harare’s youth and other creative minds are seizing the onset of summer to push for greater social accountability, improved livelihoods, and space to freely express their views. Festival season is underway with a bang. In just the space of a few weeks in late September and early October, the city hosts a range of cultural events, displaying local and international talent in music, fashion, film, and dance.


Music in general remains a potent and inclusive force for social change in Zimbabwe. In the 1970s Chimurenga Music led by stars such as Thomas Mapfumo catalyzed dissent against Zimbabwe’s settler regime. Today, Mapfumo lives in exile in Oregon, but local activists continue to push for positive change.

The Magamba Network (which means ‘heroes’ in Shona) is leading the way in combining hip-hop, spoken word, and citizen journalism to empower Zimbabwean youth and strengthen creative space for accountability. The Shoko Festival, which ran from September 25 – 28, convened a series of dialogues and media trainings by day with comedy and musical performances at night. Bringing together activists and artists from Zimbabwe, Kenya, the UK, South Africa, Brazil, and France, the four-day event provided a platform for local youth and activists to“Reimagine and Reinspire”, as the festivals’ theme advocates. Performers like Ammara Brown, channeling Beyonce’s dance moves with an Afro twist, and Tehn Diamond, reminiscent of a hybrid of Drake and Dead Prez (combining sex appeal with references to revolutionary African leaders like Sanakara and Lumumba), brought the house down at night. In the afternoons, local and international media figures highlighted the lack of transparency in the country and offered tips for aspiring entrepreneurs and media practitioners to expand the scope of their work and ensure that their voices are heard.

In a country where political participation has often led to persecution, violence, and apathy, it is heartening to hear youth at Shoko voice comments such as “I believe that in a democratic society participation is one of the most fundamental principles.” Comrade Fatso, one of the co-founders of Magamba, is a white Zimbabwean, and Shoko attracted a much more interracial crowd than is usually found in Harare (visit the Tin Roof Bucket Bar in Chisipite and Club H20 in Borrowdale if you would like to observe this first-hand).

On a more commercial level, the Zimbabwe Music Awards on October 3 (since delayed) will provide attendees with a broad overview of Zimbabwe’s most popular urban musicians.


The end of September also brought dueling fashion weeks: Southern African Designers Community (SADC) and Zimbabwe Fashion Week (ZFW). SADC convened models and designers from across the region for a series of shows highlighting local work. ZFW was hosted at the Harare City Library, which was recently renovated with support from the Swedish government and also recently received a posthumous bequest from the estate of celebrated author Doris Lessing.

While fashion may not be typically associated with social change – Zimbabwe’s First Lady is often referred to as the country’s First Shopper and once attacked a photographer while on a shopping spree in Hong Kong – fashion weeks showcase local talent, promote grassroots innovation and entrepreneurship, and require transparent participation of designers to be successful.

film festivalFilm

For cinema goers, the Zimbabwe International Film kicked off on October 3. An annual event since the late 1990s that combines capacity-building workshops with screenings, the event is run by a local trust and seeks to showcase work from across the continent and the diaspora.


The next day, Harare Gardens hosts dueling dance competitions – Jibilika Dance Troupe’s socially conscious b-boys will show off hip-hop inspired moves while a dancehall show incorporates a competition using the popular “Clarks Dance.” One of the Zimbabwean’s selected to the recent Mandela Washington Fellowship Program for Young African Leaders is a dancer who runs a troupe empowering disadvantaged youth.

Zimbabwe has suffered greatly over the past 14 years. While the adoption of US currency has ended hyperinflation, the economy continues to flounder and many civil servants live below the poverty line. Much attention is paid to the large number of young Zimbabweans who have fled the country. However, those that have stayed behind are showing that they have the talent and the will to shine a positive spotlight on their country and solidify its contributions to urban African culture. The arts have tremendous potential to motivate and inspire the country’s next generation to stand up and demand an end to the status quo.

Once a tourist haven, many international visitors now avoid a country that remains one of Africa’s best educated and most advanced infrastructurally. Zimbabwe’s arts scene vividly shows the potential the country has to quickly bounce back and can play a role in hastening that transformation.

About Accountability Lab

Making power-holders accountable in the developing world

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