Updated: Jul 7, 2019
Zimbabwe's capital city Harare, with its jacaranda tree lined boulevards and buzzing entertainment and arts/culture scene, captivated my heart like few other cities have.
I didn't know what to expect before visiting Harare, since the international community doesn't know much about life in Zimbabwe. Due to political tensions the country has experienced the last few decades under ex-leader Robert Mugabe's rule, most tourists have stayed away from visiting the country.
At the time of my visit, Mugabe had finally been ousted and there was a buzz of positive energy as residents geared up to vote in their next leader. I spent six weeks touring Zimbabwe's major attractions and quiet towns, and loved every minute of it. While there were a few small hiccups associated with travelling to Zimbabwe at this time, such as needing to have American currency because ATM machines were not functioning, on the whole it was an incredible travel experience and Zimbabwe is now one of my favourite destinations worldwide.
There is plenty to keep busy with outside of Zimbabwe's capital, from going on safari in a National park to visiting a medieval city of stone ruins. But I wanted to do Harare justice, so I spent a full two weeks in the city and tried to indulge in as much of it's vibrant arts and culture scene as possible.
Culture Tour of Mbare
To start, I booked a culture tour of Mbare with Harare Township Tours. My guide, Garikayi, is the owner of the tour company and at the time was busy building a social entreprise community centre to coach young people on finding their true potential. When Garikayi took me to the centre, I found inspirational historical leaders painted on newly built fences, carefully placed rock gardens, and plenty of hope and possibility sifting through the air. Mbare is the township where many of the city's lower socioeconomic status citizens live, so project's like Garikayi's will make a big difference in transforming the lives of Mbare's residents.
On the tour I visited a lively wholesale craft market where every souvenir imaginable can be bought at competitive prices, and met the prospering Zimbabwean artist Gresham Nyaude at his home studio. I was able to chat with Nyaude about his recent exhibition trip to New York, and get a sneak peak at his upcoming series. Next up we visited Chill Spot, a radio station inspiring the rise of new musical talent in Mbare, and admired a number of different artists making useful items out of recycled materials.
I left Mbare feeling uplifted, and fired up by the idea that communities are stronger when they stick together. Garikayi taught me that no-one goes hungry in Mbare. If someone cannot afford a meal, it won't be long before they're given one, even by a total stranger.
Garikayi also shared stories about his time living in the United States, and explained why he returned to live in his home country. According to him, there's little sense of community in American cities, and many residents sadly turn to drugs when they're stuck in a cycle of poverty. In Zimbabwe, people come together instead of turning to dangerous substance abuse or homelessness. I'm not surprised to hear these sentiments, as they align with the feedback I've received from other Africans who returned from America. Entrepreneurship is another common characteristic I discovered in many of the people I met in Harare, and across Africa. In Mbare, on any given day hundreds of thousands of residents are heading out into the world to pave their own path, whether it be through selling wholesale crafts or becoming an international visual artist. It appears the possibilities are endless in Mbare.
A Concert Stacked with Zimbabwean Superstars
After spending a few days in Harare, I began to recognize the popular hits by Zimbabwean musicians being played repeatedly on the radio. They're catchy and had me hooked right away, so when I'm told there's a concert at the Harare International School where many of them will be performing, I immediately grabbed myself a ticket.
Alongside an overflowing crowd of fashion forward Zimbabweans of all ages, I cheered on three of Zimbabwe's most accomplished musicians including Oliver Mtukudzi (famously known as "Tuku"), Jah Prayzah and Ammara Brown. I was blown away by their talent for captivating a clearly loyal audience, and have had their albums on my regular playlist ever since. I especially enjoyed watching Prayzah and Brown incorporate the Zimbabwean thumb piano instrument, the mbira, into their performances.
I couldn't help but ask myself, why do Africans know more about North American artists, than North Americans know about Africa's great artists? All three of the superstars I saw perform were memorable for their authenticity and ingenuity, qualities I believe have largely disappeared from North America's music culture.
Attending Harare International Festival of Arts (H.I.F.A.)
After such an incredible concert, I decide I need more of Harare's entertainment scene. With the Harare International Festival of Arts (H.I.F.A) coming up, I was in luck.
The 6-day festival was in its 20th year, and organizers had filled the calendar with an impressive line-up of artists to honour how far they'd come. Zimbabwe's eclectic, close-knit community of artists, intellects and academics have transformed HIFA into an important symbol of the country's ability to use the arts to unify, endure and celebrate life, and I feel ultra thankful that I was in town to experience it.
During the week I was overwhelmed by the love and connection I felt at HIFA. I attended a free storytelling workshop to hear amateur and professional storytellers weave ancient African myth with new-age dramas, shopped for a locally made mbira and high-end African fashions, and danced all night to a range of musical styles from reggae to African-country western fusion.
Attending HIFA was the perfect way to wind down my stay in Harare, and I left convinced I will return someday soon. I am pleased I had the chance to see Zimbabwe through the eyes of Zimbabweans, instead of continuing to rely on mainstream media's political headlines to tell me their version of the "truth".
Zimbabwe's Capital City has me Captivated
By indulging in a full calendar of arts and cultural experiences in Harare, I had the chance to connect with a number of Zimbabweans and learn important lessons from them. A lasting lesson I'll keep with me forever, was how residents of Harare don't sit on the sidelines and wait for someone else to solve their problems. They live full lives and truly appreciate what matters most - community, friendship, family and pride in oneself.
As I looked back on my arts and culture adventure in Harare, I tried to identify what it was that makes the scene so captivating. Then I remembered learning about the famous saying in Zimbabwe, "Let's make a plan".
For Zimbabweans "Let's make a plan" means when one door closes, you look for another one to open. As I consider the way Mbare residents relied on one another, or how HIFA organizers persevered to keep the festival running even during hard times, it occurred to me that it's this character of perseverance that makes Harare's arts and culture scene so memorable.