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Conjoined minds: Southern African Plays 11’s uniting power: Part 1

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HAVE CONTRIBUTED—Hungwe

As Chancellor College drama lecturer and playwright Smith Likongwe launches ‘Southern African Plays 11’ at Golden Peacock in Blantyre tomorrow, RICHARD CHIROMBO takes us through the anthology, which Likongwe has edited and contains seven plays of playwrights from Southern Africa.

The mind, they say, is a scene of constant bustle; at least the mind of Zimbabwean playwright Blessing Hungwe, whose mind gave birth to the play When Angels Weep, in which, again tapping into the playwright’s mind, is born the protagonist Sarita.

But, perhaps even more important, is Hungwe’s idea to introduce a painter whose products-of-the-imagination culminate in the play.

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When Angels Weep is, at best, a play about how, sometimes, people simply watch as, as others say, Rome burns.

Here is a girl, Sarita, who is evidently more trusting of her uncle Tito than anyone else that she mistakenly believes that all that glitters is gold.

Justice can, indeed, sometimes be deaf, dumb, blind and outright insensitive. This type of justice is at play as 13-year-old Sarita is offered to sexual predators – of course, with her ignorance-tinted consent.

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It is only 17 years later, when the clock of time clicks that 30- year mark, that it all comes back to her; the bad memories of a past she thought was pleasant. The sex issues were, after all, not part of a bad dream, but an essential part of reality she thought she relished in.

Too late.

In the play, Sarita lives in two worlds— the world we call the past, which her uncle destroyed, and the present, which is when she is 30 years.

It is at 30 years that she confronts Tito, who can only justify, and not curse, his actions. It was all for the good of Sarita, he believes— just that a saving act seems to have been misrepresented by his niece.

However, those who hope that Sarita will avenge for the pain she suffered when her uncle plunged her, head-first, into the world of sexual predators are wrong.

Of course, revenge, one of literature’s recurrent themes, is sweeter when delivered through the hands of those who were once, like Sarita, innocent.

They also say there are different colours of revenge, with each persona or character colouring it their own way.

But, if ever the word revenge crosses Sarita’s mind, it only forces her to resign to fate. There is no sweet revenge; only painful memories.

To add salt to injury, in the words of Southern African Plays 11 author Smith Likongwe, “The other people who could have saved the situation are so helpless. They are angels. They know it is wrong but they cannot assist. They can only weep”.

Sounds familiar? It does.

In Malawi, for example, cases of rape, defilement and other forms of domestic violence are on the rise. What does Parliament do? Dilly-dally in tightening the screws.

What does Gender Minister Patricia Kaliati— who visited a defilement suspect at Kawale Police Station on Tuesday this week— say: “I, as a mother and minister, am worried that gender-based violence cases continue to be registered in the country. Time has come for us to strengthen the laws by making sure that those convicted of rape and defilement get stiffer sentences.”

Well, sounds familiar.

Art is truly universal because action in When Angels Weep has this canny ability to be reflected in real life, even far away from Zimbabwe.

The main message is that inactivity is costly.

The second play in Southern African Plays 11 is Likongwe’s Mzansi Hopes. The protagonist is Affidavit, who treks to South Africa from Malawi in search of greener pastures.

When leaving behind his wife Tsala, he promises to come back, probably swimming in riches, pinning his hopes on God as he carries along a tattered Bible without the books of Genesis and Revelation.

But then, as in real-life, the true motivational factor is lost in time: the protagonist Affidavit forgets his mission to get rich and go back to Malawi while those left behind, Tsala notably, cling on to the hope that he would come back home, rich and in one piece .

In South Africa, he finds a keeper named Bheka but shows ungratefulness by eloping with Bheka’s wife Zinhle.

The stunned husband has to find ways of avenging for his loss, for the betrayal.

Because Affidavit is into illegal mining activities— a specialty for zamazamas (illegal miners) — Bheka sets a trap in a mine, conniving with gang members to kill Affidavit.

Revenge, that familiar theme, is at play, coloured in the ink of a mine-trap.

The Chosen One, Zambian Cheela Chilala’s brainchild, is a story about ungratefulness and dictatorship in politics. When elders of an imaginary country organise a ceremony meant to honour the nation’s founding father, Somazala, long dead but still revered and proudly referred to as the Lion of Bantara, incumbent leader Zundazonke runs amok.

His sister Uwemi’s pieces of advice he quickly and freely discards, like an old, torn piece of cloth.

Bribery then takes centre-stage, with attempts made at winning the heart of Motomoto, the head of elders, but it ends in tears as hitherto passive citizens settle for Uwemi as their preferred leader.

Even when he runs mad, Zundazonke still believes that he is the chosen one.

Well, he once was the chosen one but can as well be called the forsaken one.

The message, though, is that, despite various manifestations of hard reality, for those corrupted with power, obsession with power leads them into a realm of fantasy where even citizens’ rejection is not enough to make them accept the judgement of fate.

In Profound Secrets, Michael Mmoloki Tebogo represents Botswana well, and with a difference.

It is a play in which characters’ names foreshadow what is to happen to them.

It is a play in which, as in real life, Dikeledi means tears; Motsumi stands for hunter; Keabetswe simply means ‘We have been given’. Then, there is Goitseman, which means ‘Who Knows’ while Tshenolo is translates to revelation.

As such, when Dikeledi informs her mother that her [the mother’s] husband is acting bizarrely but does not reveal what it is that is bothering her, the mother consults others and secrets are revealed.

In Shoes and Coups, which South African Palesa Mazamisa penned, hell breaks loose when Ultimate State of Lascivia’s leader dies and some elements connive to ensure that his daughter, The Great Successor, shares power with someone else behind citizens’ backs.

Even when Nimrod, The Great Successor’s adviser, organises a secret hand-over ceremony, the citizens leave their ears open and get wind of the news.

Thanks to citizens’ mouthpieces, namely iMbongi and Voice, the citizens thwart all attempts to circumvent them and the will wins.

Awareness really brings a new consciousness.

From Namibia, Donald Matthys comes up with Battered, which exposes the prevalence of sex work and sexual diversity in society with a tinge of defiance.

Robin, Pieter’s sister, treks to Windhoek, where, instead of being the information technology (IT) expert she pretends to be back at home, turns out to be a sex worker who is, of all things, also transgender.

In the play, characters also learn that what they see or hear is not always true. Others find that their so-called biological parents are not their biological parents and other things that secrets are made of.

Pieter, Robin, his ex-girlfriend Yvonne and friend Tueripura all discover that life has a deeper surface.

But, even when dealing with the remains of what used to be facts— such as that Robin is an IT expert— judgemental behaviour comes into play, but Matthys the playwright is ready to, with an intrusive voice, condemn that.

Better understand circumstances that led one to what they have become and support their new position without judging them unnecessarily.

It is a play against the continued suppression of women. Those that suffered paid a big price; what remains should be encouragement, that seems to be the overriding message.

In Chimbwido — Girl of War, playwright Stanley Makuwe shows that, in Zimbabwe, women, even if they are looked down upon, can move mountains.

A chimbwido is a female errand girl. When Zimbabwe was fighting for independence from Britain, such girls came handy, serving masters and mistresses and, if the need arose, saving masters and mistresses from death.

This is what happens to freedom fighter Comrade Dusvura Grader Mutonga Nebara, who loses track of his colleagues but has to get back to the military base before the enemy catches up with him.

From the bush to the military base, death visits upon them twice but, thanks to chimbwido Mashoko, the Comrade makes it to the village.

After the death of Makanaka, who had a baby, Mashoko has to inherit Maka [short form for Makanaka]’s name and take care of the baby— who does not make it to the village— and Comrade Dusvura Grader Mutonga Nebara, who is shot at and bleeds all the way.

In fact, at one point, he feels like giving up the ghost, believing these to be his last words: “Maka, I also have a dream. A dream to see Zimbabwe flag rising up to the sky, to see a black leader sitting on a high chair, a black judge leading the Supreme Court so that my people are judged fairly. My spirit wants to fight on, but my flesh cannot handle this anymore.”

But death does not always win.

Surely, the diversity of characters in plays that are in Southern African Plays 11 is likely to extricate the soul, in this time of Covid, from present unpleasant realities— maybe give play-lovers enough lessons that enable them to, like Comrade Dusvura Grader Mutonga Nebara, outlast any number of pandemics viruses may throw at them.

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