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Zimbabwe festival diary

In the midst of the electoral crisis that has engulfed Zimbabwe, one man has been trying to do something different for the country's people - setting up an arts festival in Harare.

These are extracts from the diary of Western-based Zimbabwean Manuel Bagorro, the founder and co-ordinator of the Harare International Festival of the Arts, also known as Hifa.

29 JANUARY 2008

Manuel Bagorro
Manuel Bagorro established Hifa in 2001

I've been in Zimbabwe for about a week, which has been something of an emotional rollercoaster.

I arrived and it created all the sense of familiarity - all the childhood associations, the smells, the feel of the place that I remember very well, and that I associate with Zimbabwe.

But at the same time, there is a very strong new feeling of desperation.

There is a sense of panic about the disintegrating infrastructure, and there is a real sense of fear.

There is a sense of "what if" of a million different kinds.

One of the things that worries me about the festival is that it's difficult to know, arriving in a place like this, how an international arts festival can benefit people who are struggling with so many everyday necessities.

It's something that worries me each time I come back - but I am reassured by people's response.

When I start talking to people about the festival, I realise what a groundswell of support there is for a festival of this kind - an optimistic, forward-looking initiative at a time that's very challenging for a lot of Zimbabweans.

I've met up with several people and what is clear is that the Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA) is seen as a focus for their whole year.

That's both exciting for a festival director, but also terrifying - when the expectations of what a festival can give to the artistic community are so high, and when we're working in an environment that is so difficult in so many ways.

The inflation rate is now officially about 100,000%, which makes budgeting impossible, and any sort of forward planning incredibly difficult.

To set ticket prices, for example, is incredibly difficult because everything changes. A quote for paper for the festival programme came in at 10am - by 2pm it had changed radically as the US dollar black market rate changed.

1 FEBRUARY 2008

At the HIFA office - the house my parents lived in - we have had no running water for several of the days I have been here, and constant power cuts.

It's amazing how this affects you. It isn't the inconvenience - that seems the least important aspect of this - what is much more distressing is the sense of decline, of things not working, and the worry created by people just accepting it.

Zimbabwean man sits under election posters
The festival is based around 'The Art of Determination'

The truth is things are falling apart, the wheels are coming off, and that is becoming more and more apparent as time goes by. For me, having had a break and coming back to Zimbabwe, it's very striking.

I love being here though, I love the feeling of the place and working with an artistic community for who everything is fresh and exciting.

But one of the things that has been frustrating over the last few days is that we're getting a lot of cancellations as the situation in Kenya [post-election violence] gets worse and people begin to wonder whether Zimbabwe is going to go the same way, particularly with an election pending.

This is hugely worrying for me. What do we do? There is a limit to the amount of reassurance one can give to the artists.

One thing we have realised is we're going to have to run everything off generators because the power supply is so seriously disrupted. This means we have to find fuel, which is another challenge because our fuel sponsor has pulled out.

6 FEBRUARY 2008

Today is a really exciting day for the Zimbabwe political situation - a new presidential candidate has thrown his hat into the ring, Dr Simba Makoni.

By coincidence, Dr Makoni is a trustee of the festival, so that is quite exciting for us. He wrote a letter to the board of trustees asking for a leave of absence while he pursues his campaign.

We thought that was a reasonable excuse.

17 FEBRUARY 2008

I had a rather unpleasant experience today.

I was driving along down a road that I particularly like - one of these colonial roads across town - and at the intersection close to the president's house I broke down.

This is a terrifying thing, because so many people have been shot at that intersection, and beaten as a result of looking suspicious in that area.

Crowd at Hifa 2006
I love the feeling of the place and working with an artistic community for who everything is fresh and exciting
I was with my assistant Joanna and she immediately said: "Jump out of the car and start pushing."

A guy with a rifle came over and started screaming at us, so I continued to push, dressed in my suit - looking ridiculous and slipping all over the place.

What was terrifying was the illogical, unreasonable response of someone on the military side.

It struck me because suddenly I felt the type of fear that I'm trying to reassure international artists that they will not feel in this country.

9 MARCH 2008

I've spent the day being reminded why this is such a difficult place to be single.

It's the lack of social options. It's quite scary, and I had forgotten just how that feels - where it's difficult to go out because you have to get through gates and locks, and there's nowhere to go because of the power cuts.

It just seems to be terribly shut down and bleak. But I still feel lucky to be here and involved in the festival, and doing something positive.

Meanwhile, I'm losing my sanity waiting for downloads on my computer - the internet speeds here are so incredibly slow. I just can't quite cope.

12 MARCH 2008

I've spent the day doing programming with my assistant Jojo, who's a young Zimbabwean.

She's been in this country for most of her life, and talks about the future of this country in such a positive way that you can't help but be affected by it.

Hifa stage at 2006
Musicians are the highlight, including SA band Freshlyground

She's so excited about the election - and so many people are.

The sauna at the gym has become my new way of getting views - mostly from the black middle class who go there - and it's interesting to hear them talk about the election and what it means.

It's much more about what it means for Zimbabwe, and how things move ahead. Everything is discussed, from corruption to holes in the road.

My main worry for today is how long it will take the printers to print the programme.

There are so many discussions that start, "What if?" - "What if the printers have a long power cut? What if we're competing with all the election posters for a second round?"

18 MARCH 2008

I think people in the office are feeling very stressed.

They are feeling more worried about the election than they even admit to themselves. They are worried about what it means for themselves, for their children, and all the practical inconvenience they are facing at the moment.

But there is also a buoyancy when you speak to people about what's happening in the country.

Of any election that I've ever been around for, this is the one where there's a sense of meaning and importance. People really care, and they know that it means something significant to their lives.

30 MARCH 2008

I have arrived back from London after the election.

The expectation after such a crucial election was that everything would feel different, but of course it does and it doesn't.

Everyone is talking about the election - and the sense of community, how it has brought everyone together - but also there are still the same problems and frustrations.

But people are smiling more in the street.

31 MARCH 2008

Today is not a good day.

People are very frustrated in the delay in the announcement of the results. It was a sad day.

We had a team lunch rather than working, because it is impossible to work in this environment.

There is constant rumouring about every aspect of the election. And I have to admit that, selfishly, every single thing I hear about the election makes me think how it will affect the festival.

This festival has become such a labour of love for everyone involved.

1 APRIL 2008

We're not a political organisation - we have no political axe to grind - but we are working in an incredibly politicised environment.

Morgan Tsvangirai at his 2 April press conference
Tsvangirai's press conference 'upstaged' Hifa's announcment

The afternoon brought news of possible press conferences. Morgan Tsvangirai said there would be news, but that it would only come out tomorrow.

By some bizarre and slightly comical chance, I have scheduled a press announcement for the festival tomorrow morning. So it could be that we are going to coincide with the biggest and most significant political announcement of the last 28 years in this country.

Talk about being upstaged.

2 APRIL 2008

The press conference was a huge disappointment - an announcement of results that were not verified and were not commented upon by the other side.

9 APRIL 2008

Everyone is tiring of the election.

Another problem is that the computers for the box office, which arrived in the country a few days ago, were fraudulently collected by someone and taken.

They don't belong to us, they belong to the computer company that is our partner.

It just seemed like a strange, dreadful thing. It's hard enough as it is, without having something so unlikely happen.

I assume it is an inside job of some kind. But someone cleared the computers through customs and ran off with them.

10 APRIL 2008

This is my last diary entry.

Despite this incredible political environment, I continue to get people coming up to me and telling me they are so excited about HIFA.

It feels strange to be signing off almost 20 days before the festival happens - I'd love to tell you how things progress.

In the meantime, I leave these diaries feeling that the festival is going to happen. I have no doubt about that.

Whatever happens in the next couple of weeks, this festival will go ahead.


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