Harare Book Café the hub of Zimbabwe's cultural life

August 2007 -

The terrible conditions in today's Zimbabwe only feed the desire of young artists to express themselves, but this is becoming more and more difficult for them. The Book Café is an initiative by the Pemberi Trust, which plays a central role in the cultural life of the capital, Harare. "The situation in Zimbabwe has deteriorated alarmingly and terribly within a few weeks," says the trust's Artistic Director, Paul Brickhill, one of the driving forces behind the success of the café. "Our general manager has been threatened with arrest. There are long power cuts every day. Food and water are in increasingly short supply. This weekend we will go hunting and gathering for food supplies for Book Café kitchens."

The repression in Zimbabwe is encouraging artistic quests. The younger generation, in particular, is exploring its identity, heritage and the possibility of making statements through artistic expressions with a political edge. Many young people are active in the theatre and music, but poetry is especially popular. Humour and satire are widely used stylistic devices. In addition to a strong urge to innovate, we are witnessing a revival of more traditional forms: in music, Afro jazz and fusion are flourishing, and the mbira, a kind of thumb piano, is again being played by many young people. The revival is particularly remarkable because a lot of talented musicians have left the country. Four million of Zimbabwe's 14 million people have fled in the past seven years. Many others have died of Aids. The cultural climate here is now being shaped mainly by the young."

The Book Café has existed in its current form for the past ten years. It is a place where cultural entrepreneurship goes hand in hand with expansion. There are at least 500 performances a year, plus facilities to support artists. "We work a lot through partnerships," says Brickhill. "And we have a fierce marketing policy. Performers are paid out of their box-office receipts, whilst salaries, rent and overheads are financed from sales of food and drink. Activities like workshops and readings are paid for through fundraising, which provides a fifth of our budget. Because we have been doing this for so long, we have managed to strike a good balance between presenting art honestly and operating as a business. But it’s a daily struggle to keep going."