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Review of Women as Artists in Contemporary Zimbabwe / Performance and Politics in Tanzania / Ngoma


By Jane Plastow

Women as Artists in Contemporary Zimbabwe. Kerstin Bolzt. Bayreuth African Studies, Bayreuth, 2007, pp. 318. ISBN 9 783939 66105. 29.95 Euros.

Performance and Politics in Tanzania: The Nation on Stage. Laura Edmondson. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2007, pp. 175. ISBN 978 0 253 21912 1 (pb.) $24.95

Ngoma: Approaches to arts education in Southern Africa. Ed. Robert Mshengu Kavanagh, Zimbabwe Academy of Arts Education for Development, Harare, 2006, pp. 216. ISBN 87 7865 600 1

These three books are loosely linked in that both Edmondson and Bolzt are concerned with the relationship of culture to the expression of the nation; in Tanzania and Zimbabwe respectively, while Kavanagh is looking at arts education practices and polices across the whole Southern African region, including both Zimbabwe and Tanzania. However, while Laura Edmondson has produced a gem of engaged scholarly research, readable, informed and highly entertaining, that brings to mind the work of African popular theatre writer supreme, Karin Barber, the two Zimbabwe-based publications are tendentious, poorly researched, and in the case of Holzt, poorly written.

Laura Edmondson is studying Tanzanian popular professional theatre. A plethora of popular theatre groups emerged after Tanzanian independence, most supported by parastatal companies, and in the 1980s when I lived in the country one could regularly choose between a dozen or so performances on any given weekend. By the time Edmondson undertook her research, predominantly in 1996 and 1997, the field had been reduced to three groups, Muungano, Mandela and TOT. What Edmondson accomplishes with a real sense of dramatic tension in her writing is to explore the particular appeal and philosophy of each group as they battle for artistic and financial supremacy. She does this within a framework which sees each group as expressive of a particular attitude towards the post-one-party and newly capitalist state that emerged in the 1990s.

Traditionally the popular theatre groups put on variety style concerts, lasting for several hours, most commonly in bars. The shows usually consisted of a mixture of ngoma (commercialised traditional dance), sarakasi (acrobatics), vichekesho (comic skits), muziki wa dansi (modern dance music), taarab (a music and song form originally from Zanzibar) and maigizo (plays) - to which is added an increasing dominance of soukous music from the Congo during the period of Edmondson’s study. The book is fascinating on the origin of each of these forms, and discusses how each expressed particular nationalist moments. Sarakasi, for example, emerged after Tanzania’s first president, Julius Nyerere, sent a group of Tanzanians to study the discipline in China in 1965 as part of his socialist strategy of resisting dependence on any one nation - and particularly any Western capitalist nation.

In the new capitalist era the only company supported by the state is TOT, which is handsomely provisioned and equipped by the ruling CCM party, and its final victory in the culture wars seems inevitable given the financial resources thrown at the group which enable it to lure the best performers from other companies and to have a far superior sound system to either Muungano or Mandela. However there is a real culture war going on, culminating in an annual competition between the two leading groups, Muungano and TOT. Edmondson chronicles the 1997 competition which was held in three rounds - each in a different town - where victory was by popular acclaim. The story is too good to give away here, and deserves the discretion by a reviewer accorded to any good cliff-hanger of a novel.

Edmondson has obviously spent considerable time with each group. She discusses the highly influential personalities and political positioning of each of the troupe leaders and compares the slick but possibly slightly bland accomplishment of TOT with its concentration on increasingly dominant modern music forms, with the more traditionalist celebration of ngoma and the interrogative drama of Muungano and Mandela Cultural Troupes. My only wish is that we could sometimes have heard directly from the theatre makers themselves; but this is a significant contribution to the study of Tanzanian and African popular theatre with a sensitive awareness of the political and social background informing the dynamics of an ever changing artistic form.

In contrast Kerstin Bolzt’s study of five Zimbabwean women musicians, novelists and film makers appears to have been written without the author ever travelling to Zimbabwe or seeking to interview any of her subjects. The writer looks at the work of musicians Stella Chiweshe and Virginia Mukwesha, novelists Tsitsi Dangerembga and Yvonne Vera and at Dangeremebga as film maker alongside Ingrid Sinclair. There is an attempt to look at these artists as challenging a patriarchally oppressive society and in the context of a female challenge to male inscriptions of the nation, but this is crude work. There is little appreciation of how Zimbabwe has changed over the years of its independence, or of differences between rural and urban environments, and you could read the whole book without realising that the country has any inhabitants other than the Shona people.

Regrettably it is also poorly written, with minor errors of English on too many pages to mention, and occasionally, as when Bolzt claims that the character Lucia in Dangerembga’s Nervous Conditions is brought to the homestead to be a second wife to Jeremiah (p 154) or when she argues that Maiguru makes no attempt to challenge her husband’s dominance (p 155), she is quite simply wrong.

Finally Kavanagh’s study of arts education in Southern Africa is disappointingly superficial and dogmatic. The book, which comes out of a workshop of arts educators from the region, seeks to chart activities in various countries and then to make suggestions as to ways forward to raise the profile and opportunities for arts training. Ideologically I agree with many of the points made about the need for more arts work in schools, for opportunities outside the academic sphere and for the need for cooperation across the region. However there is very little analysis of different approaches and because many of the essays are adaptations of presentations from people running the various centres some are blandly self-congratulatory - see the entries on Bagamoyo College of Arts in Tanzania which Edmondson discusses in a much more nuanced fashion. I was distinctly troubled by the fact that Kavanagh never acknowledges that he is also the Robert Mclaren referred to on numerous occasions in the text. Overall the projects are presented without objectivity and without sufficient detailed analysis to be very useful to readers hoping to understand and build on the admirable work of many of those represented in the book.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 70 (2008), pp. 81-84]

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