Friday, August 6, 2010

Dancing and Liberation in Zimbabwe

Brian Chikwava, Zimababwean writer of Harare North, has a fantastic piece in Granta on iskokotsha, a dance style former combatants of the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) in the early 1980s popularized as they re-integrated into civilian life looms large in the early days of independent Zimbabwe. I like the way his memories of newly independent Zimbabwe have so many elements feeding into it -- the dancing, sexuality, politics -- and how such apparently disparate narratives form such a cohesive whole in his memory.

In 1980, when Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, the country woke to the full impact of the cultural tremors that had flattened much of sub-Saharan Africa: the boys and girls from the bhundu (the bush), as the guerrillas were called, brought iskokotsha from their training grounds in Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique. A new way of being had arrived. They emerged from the bhundu hot-stepping to the Zambian copper-belt sounds of Dr N. P. Kazembe & his Super Mazembe, Tanzania’s Orchestra Super Mazembe and others – all of them mutations of Cuban rumba-inspired sounds from the Congos.

These ex-combatants revelled in being strangers among their own people: on the street, at the beer garden or in the shebeen. Here they were, with a glint of danger, revolution and a new exoticism from north of the Zambezi. The way they moved on the dance floor made people sit up – they had to decipher this language, to learn new ways. You are one thing today and then, in this new tomorrow, as old notions of the self fall away like masks of mud-cake and turn to dust, you are something else, someone else. At least that seemed to be the case. Iskokotsha arrived and people found, to their amazement, that they too could do it; it seemed inconceivable that beyond pantomime, words would be necessary. With iskokotsha, faces would light up with recognition, yet no one could actually name what it was that they recognized. Then again maybe, with hindsight, people left unmentioned what they recognized here because, as the girls walking past us and the guerrillas by that fig tree had made clear: whatever had the shadow of death behind it, we pretended not to see. We could not be witnesses. We had, in Zimbabwe, found a way of acting out our sexual urges but not a way of talking about the more difficult questions around sex, my mother would say a few years later. By then the dance had taken on a life of its own and was now a far cry from its freedom-fighter origins.

I couldn't find a video of the dance, sadly. Oh well.

Read all of it.

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