In Zim­babwe, com­edy thrives as coun­try slowly falls apart

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - FEATURES - By Farai Mut­saka

Zim­babwe’s econ­omy is fall­ing apart, and po­lice are crack­ing down on grow­ing anti-gov­ern­ment protests. But the coun­try’s com­edy scene is boom­ing. No sub­ject seems ta­boo.

Even 92-year-old Pres­i­dent Robert Mu­gabe, widely ac­cused of muz­zling free speech, is a tar­get.

In­sult­ing the pres­i­dent can bring a one-year jail term in this south­ern African coun­try. None­the­less, the co­me­di­ans carry on, be­com­ing bolder as fears of speak­ing out be­gin to erode.

In one skit at a show on Thursday called “State of the Na­tion,” an ac­tor play­ing the first lady, 51-yearold Grace Mu­gabe, lays her stake to the pres­i­dency on hear­ing the news of the “death” of her hus­band, the world’s old­est head of state.

“I de­serve it. Were any of you clean­ing his nappy and wip­ing the spit off his chin?” she says. She also talks up her own chances of win­ning elec­tions.

“We have al­ways won, even when I was push­ing the old man in a wheel­bar­row,” she says, a ref­er­ence to the real first lady’s com­ment at a po­lit­i­cal rally last year: “I will push Pres­i­dent Mu­gabe in the wheel­bar­row to bring him to work.”

Near the end, a fake Mu­gabe emerges, strug­gling to walk while scoff­ing at ru­mors of his demise. Some in the au­di­ence laugh. Oth­ers gasp. The real pres­i­dent has joked at the per­sis­tent ru­mors, telling re­porters ear­lier this month: “It is true that I was dead. And I res­ur­rected. As I al­ways do.”

The com­edy show played to a packed au­di­ence in the cap­i­tal, Harare. “State of the Na­tion” will be a twice­monthly show stream­ing live on in­ter­net, said or­ga­nizer Davis Guzha, di­rec­tor of Rooftop Pro­mo­tions.

“Com­edy al­lows us to laugh but also to think about our prob­lems at the same time,” said Sam Monro, or Com­rade Fatso, a stand-up co­me­dian who runs Zam­bezi News, a satir­i­cal so­cial me­dia show on cur­rent af­fairs.

In ev­ery­day life, the state of this once-pros­per­ous coun­try’s econ­omy and pol­i­tics is hardly a laugh­ing mat­ter. Gov­ern­ment has failed to pay its close to 300,000 work­ers, in­clud­ing the mil­i­tary, on time since June.

In­dus­tries are clos­ing down, wors­en­ing un­em­ploy­ment where more than two-thirds of the pop­u­la­tion of 13 mil­lion sur­vive on in­for­mal work, ac­cord­ing to the African De­vel­op­ment Bank. Peo­ple line up for hours at banks to ac­cess their money as cur­rency woes deepen.

The spec­u­la­tion over the health of Mu­gabe, this coun­try’s only leader since in­de­pen­dence from white mi­nor­ity rule in 1980, has only height­ened the un­cer­tainty.

Near daily anti-gov­ern­ment protests are of­ten met with brute force by po­lice. Some from Zim­babwe have vowed to protest this week out­side the United Na­tions as Mu­gabe ad­dresses an an­nual gath­er­ing of world lead­ers.

Yet amid their trou­bles, Zim­bab­weans are still laugh­ing at life and at them­selves.

While com­edy shows at­tract an up­per-class crowd, or­di­nary peo­ple flood so­cial me­dia with jokes, images and video self­ies pok­ing fun at the grow­ing prob­lems.

“It has al­lowed Zim­bab­weans to deal with a lot of ta­boo is­sues,” Com­rade Fatso told The Associated Press at his of­fices at Moto Repub­lic, a struc­ture of for­mer ship­ping con­tain­ers that houses dozens of artists.

But the po­lit­i­cally charged ma­te­rial comes with risk.

A lo­cal ac­tor, Sil­vanos Mudzvova, was ar­rested in April for try­ing to stage a play scripted on Mu­gabe’s state­ment that at least $15 bil­lion had been looted from a di­a­mond-rich re­gion by joint-ven­ture com­pa­nies min­ing there. He was re­leased but then was ab­ducted again last week.

On Thursday, Mudzvova spoke to the AP from a hos­pi­tal bed in Harare where burns and bruises on his legs and back were vis­i­ble.

“Six men took me from my home on Tues­day night. They threat­ened to shoot my fam­ily be­fore tak­ing me away,” he said. The ac­tor, who is also an ac­tivist, said he was given elec­tric shocks by men who de­manded in­for­ma­tion on his ac­tiv­i­ties.

Oth­ers have been brought to court on in­sult charges for mak­ing and cir­cu­lat­ing jokes about the pres­i­dent.

Still, com­edy shows have be­come a sta­ple in the cap­i­tal. The Shoko Fes­ti­val for com­edy and music is set for later this month.

“We are us­ing com­edy as a tool not just to in­form but as in­for­ma­tion for ac­tion, us­ing com­edy to en­cour­age young peo­ple to be ac­tive and to be part of move­ments that are chang­ing our coun­try for the bet­ter,” Com­rade Fatso said.

One of the grow­ing num­ber of young stand-up co­me­di­ans is Nqo­bizitha Dube, or Q the Boss, who last month took aim at Vice Pres­i­dent Phelekezela Mphoko’s 19-month stay in a $400-a-night ho­tel suite amid Zim­babwe’s wide­spread poverty.

Open­ing his act in one of the ho­tel’s au­di­to­ri­ums, the co­me­dian elicited gales of laugh­ter when he said: “Every­body please clap your hands . We want to thank the VP for al­low­ing us to use his liv­ing room for the night.”

TSVANGIRAYI MUKWAZHI — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Zim­bab­wean ac­tors are seen dur­ing a com­edy scene from a show called State of The Na­tion, Wed­nes­day, Sept,14, 2016. Zim­babwe’s com­edy scene is boom­ing as the coun­try’s econ­omy is tank­ing, and po­lice are crack­ing down on grow­ing anti gov­ern­ment protests. At the re­cent State of the Na­tion show, even 92 year Pres­i­dent Robert Mu­gabe widely ac­cused of muz­zling free speech was a tar­get. In­sult­ing the pres­i­dent can at­tract a sen­tence of a year in jail in the South­ern African na­tion.

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