Rewinding the film:
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