Rewind­ing the film:

The Sunday Mail (Zimbabwe) - - FRONT PAGE - Garikai Mazara

IT MUST be one of the sad­dest ironies in Bester Kanyama’s life, that af­ter ded­i­cat­ing his life to cre­at­ing and cap­tur­ing mem­o­ries, at the cru­cial mo­ment he should be rel­ish­ing those mem­o­ries, the va­garies of time have been so cruel to him such that he has to rely on his wife for rec­ol­lec­tion.

Aged 81, Kanyama should, by any stan­dards, be a repos­i­tory of anec­do­tal and nos­tal­gic mo­ments of the mak­ing of present-day Zim­babwe.

Un­for­tu­nately, the story that he told for gen­er­a­tions through his lens, now has to be re­told by his wife of 64 years. And she has every right to tell the story, for she has been part of the jour­ney that Kanyama has trav­elled over the decades.

If Bester Kanyama would be the cam­era, Hilda, the wife, would be the film — in­sep­a­ra­ble items, one which can­not func­tion with­out the other.

Kanyama, the cre­ator and cap­tor of the mem­o­ries, is suf­fer­ing from de­men­tia, a pro­gres­sive de­cline in cog­ni­tive func­tion due to dam­age or dis­ease in the brain, af­fect­ing mem­ory, at­ten­tion, judge­ment, lan­guage and prob­lem-solv­ing.

“It must have been some four years ago,” re­counted Hilda, whom he mar­ried in 1954, “That he started send­ing dif­fer­ent sets of pic­tures to dif­fer­ent clients and our son, who has been by our side in the pho­tog­ra­phy busi­ness for years, ad­vised him to re­tire.”

Whilst the name Bester Kanyama might not ring a bell to the younger gen­er­a­tion, those that grew up fol­low­ing the cult read­er­ship of Pa­rade Foto Ac­tion will eas­ily re­late.

Those that read the orig­i­nal Daily News, the one that was banned by the Ian Smith regime, can also re­mem­ber the name with some nostal­gia.

In the for­ma­tive years of the First Repub­lic, those who re­li­giously fol­lowed main­stream pub­li­ca­tions like

The Herald and The Sun­day Mail will eas­ily re­call the name be­ing as­so­ci­ated with State func­tions.

In short, it will be some height of pho­to­graphic blas­phemy to nar­rate the his­tory of pho­tog­ra­phy in Zim­babwe with­out mak­ing any men­tion of Bester Kanyama.

There­fore it is quite sad that at a time when he is sup­posed to be hav­ing pho­to­graphic mem­ory of the nu­mer­ous iconic events that he cap­tured since get­ting his first cam­era in 1947, Kanyama now has to rely on his wife for such chron­i­cles.

So this nar­ra­tion, which be­gins with Bester get­ting a cam­era as a birth­day present from his fa­ther, who was a post of­fice worker in Shamva back then, is a nar­ra­tion largely told and re­called by Hilda, who has stood by Bester’s side for six-and-half decades.

That union was blessed with two sons, David and Bester Ju­nior. Ju­nior is now late.

“It must have been for his birth­day, his first cam­era, I am not sure what my fa­ther-in-law had seen in Bester to buy him a cam­era. But that was how he got into pho­tog­ra­phy. He got that present in 1947.”

Start­ing off in Shamva, Bester was to open his small stu­dio, which he moved to Chit­o­mbor­wizi, just out­side Chin­hoi, where his fa­ther had ac­quired a small-scale com­mer­cial farm which still op­er­ates to this day.

“He would cy­cle to Ga­tooma (now Kadoma) from the farm to buy film, pho­to­graphic pa­per and chem­i­cals for his stu­dio. And it is there that Canaan Buchanan, then run­ning a Ko­dak shop in the town, asked if he would like to join him.”

From the cam­era bought by his fa­ther through a catalogue in 1947, to be­ing a dark­room as­sis­tant in Kadoma, Bester was slowly mak­ing strides into the world of pho­tog­ra­phy.

Af­ter years be­ing trained in the back­ground by Buchanan, Kanyama started fil­ing pho­tos for the Daily News, then the mouth­piece of ris­ing na­tion­al­ism in the coun­try.

Then the in­vi­ta­tion came, for him to join the Daily News full-time.

“This meant we had to move from Kadoma to High­field, Harare.”

It was dur­ing the heady days at the Daily News that Kanyama made some of this ad­ven­tur­ous for­ays, par­tic­u­larly the long drive to Sango Bor­der Post, where Gon­akudz­ingwa was, to meet Joshua Nkomo and com­pany.

Stitch­ing to­gether the mem­o­ries, Kanyama tried to re­call the drive to Gon­akudz­ingwa. Given that the ma­jor­ity of the jour­ney was punc­tu­ated by pa­trol of­fi­cers, es­pe­cially on the Chiredzi-Sango stretch, Kanyama said it was by some stroke of in­ge­nu­ity that he got away with pho­tos from the de­ten­tion camp.

“I knew they would search my car, so I re­moved the film and hid it some­where in the car. When they asked me why I was car­ry­ing a cam­era with­out film, I told them I knew it was il­le­gal to carry a loaded cam­era,” he painstak­ingly re­called of the jour­ney.

Added to the Gon­akudz­ingwa es­capade, one other dar­ing jour­ney that he un­der­took was trav­el­ling to Whawha, an­other de­ten­tion camp for black na­tion­al­ists.

He said it was through such vis­its to de­ten­tion camps that he got to be friends with most na­tion­al­ists.

Be­sides rub­bing shoul­ders with the who-is-who of na­tion­al­ism, one of the en­dur­ing mem­o­ries for him was com­ing fourth in the Asahi Pen­tax In­ter­na­tional Photo Con­test in 1965, whilst work­ing for Pa­rade mag­a­zine.

The photo that won him fourth place proudly stands in his lounge at his Souther­ton, Harare home.

The photo stands proudly along­side an­other one that he equally trea­sures, when he was pho­tographed, al­most 20 years later, re­ceiv­ing a bot­tle of whiskey from Mr Robert Mu­gabe, then Prime Min­is­ter of in­de­pen­dent Zim­babwe.

“In the 80s, when he was chief pho­tog­ra­pher in the Min­istry of In­for­ma­tion, he would ac­com­pany the then Prime Min­is­ter, on sev­eral in­ter­na­tional trips. On one such trip, the Prime Min­is­ter, whilst ad­vis­ing his se­cu­rity per­son­nel on the dan­gers of drink­ing, asked them to be­have like Bester, who didn’t drink. In that con­ver­sa­tion, he was given the nick­name Chi­ram­bakusara John­nie Walker.

“My hus­band jok­ingly told the Prime Min­is­ter that he should brew beer, as per tra­di­tional cus­toms, be­cause he had given him a nick­name.

“Months later, must have been on some Christ­mas eve, sure the Prime Min­is­ter brought a bot­tle of John­nie Walker Red La­bel, to­gether with a lot of Christ­mas good­ies. That is why that au­to­graphed photo of that pre­sen­ta­tion hangs on that wall.”

So suc­cess­ful was Kanyama’s ca­reer in pho­tog­ra­phy that he had to leave High­field, then along­side Mbare and Mu­fakose, the bedrock of ris­ing na­tion­al­ism, to buy a house in Souther­ton, then an af­flu­ent sub­urb, in 1978.

“I stand to be cor­rected but I think we were the first blacks to buy a house in Souther­ton, then re­served for In­di­ans, Por­tuguese and other na­tion­al­i­ties,” proudly re­called Hilda.

Whilst the im­mensely pop­u­lar Foto Bester Kanyama Stu­dios raked in most of the in­comes, the Kanya­mas sup­ple­mented their in­come with a record bar (they used to call them a sound sta­tion back in those days), four dis­cos un­der the Bes Disco la­bels and a modelling agency, largely cred­ited with dis­cov­er­ing Kubi Chaza, later on Kubi Indi.

“It was through the stu­dio that he did most of the shoot­ings for Pa­rade Foto Ac­tion. I would help a lot with the shoot­ings in the stu­dio. Or even de­liv­er­ing the disco equip­ment where it had been hired,” she said of the days when their work was the cen­tre of at­trac­tion at Machip­isa, High­field.

Ernest Tanga wek­waSando, the mu­si­cian, fondly re­mem­bers the days of Pa­rade Foto Ac­tion, for he was one of the ac­tors in the se­ries.

“Oh, you are look­ing for mud­hara Bester? He is there in Souther­ton. Let me link you with his son, David. But that you have men­tioned him, I re­mem­ber very well how we used to shoot the Foto Ac­tion se­ries at his stu­dios at Machip­isa. I hope he will be able to share with you many more such mem­o­ries,” Tanga wek­waSando summed up his re­la­tion­ship with Kanyama.

With such a rich ta­pes­try of mem­o­ries, it was only fit­ting that dur­ing the Sil­ver Ju­bilee awards of 2005, to cel­e­brate the coun­try’s 25 years of in­de­pen­dence, the Na­tional Arts Coun­cil re­warded Kanyama for his con­tri­bu­tion to the growth and de­vel­op­ment of the coun­try’s pho­tog­ra­phy in­dus­try.

But that is not the only award hang­ing on his walls. Be­sides the 1965 Asahi Pen­tax In­ter­na­tional one, in 1983 he scooped sec­ond prize in the USSR In­ter­na­tional Fel­low­ship photo con­test. In 1987, he was awarded an Ex­cel­lence in Vis­ual Arts gong by the Na­tional Gallery of Zim­babwe for his Baringa Ex­hi­bi­tion.

In 1970, he had pub­lished a pho­tog­ra­phy man­ual, Ku­tora Mi­fananidzo, pub­lished in Shona.

If it were not for his mem­ory loss, a sit-down with Kanyama would, in­deed, be a jour­ney down the mem­ory lane of the cam­era, from the light-box cam­era of the 1940s right to to­day’s dig­i­tal age.

“Af­ter shoot­ing his pho­tos, one of our nephews would help him to down­load the im­ages, but the prob­lem came when he de­liv­ered the pho­tos, he would send them to wrong ad­dresses. And since he was do­ing work for some high-pro­file com­pa­nies, the only op­tion was to re­tire,” shrugged Hilda.

CAM­ERA AND FILM . . . Bester Kanyama goes down mem­ory lane with the help of his wife of 64 years, Hilda. To Bester’s right is his col­lec­tion of cam­eras from the first one he got in 1947. (In­set) THE TWIST . . . the award-win­ning pic­ture hangs on the walls of Kanyama’s lounge along­side the tro­phy

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