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People's Poets
Steve Vickers, BBC Focus on Africa
April - June 2007

"You wanna chain me, you wanna contain me
You wanna chop off my head and de-brain me
You want me to develop this "yes Comrade" mentality
All in the name of your supposed unity
Well, listen shamwari, my mind decides to be free
So though you control the police, the army, the TV and most society
You can't control the hearts of humanity
You can't control the desire for equality
Cos you can beat our bodies but our minds will be free
I said you can beat our bodies but our minds will be free
I said you can beat our bodies but our minds will be free"

During a performance at the monthly House of Hunger Poetry Slam in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, leading poet Samm Farai Munro, under the stage name Comrade Fatso, takes a swipe at the elite aligned to the ruling Zanu-PF party in his poem Streets.

"I think it captures the gritty hope that there has to be for those who are hustling and struggling to get by, "says Comrade Fatso, one of the founders of the slam. "It's an advisory voice from the streets saying that as the youth, with 80 per cent unemployment, we will win in the end because we're in the majority and they are in the minority."

Cutting-edge protest poetry is on the rise in Zimbabwe, despite the repressive climate. The slam has been running for almost two years at the Book Café, a hotbed of the arts in Zimbabwe. In a country that has been increasingly polarized along racial lines, it attracts a multi-racial crowd.

It is clear that the poets have come here to be heard. With stage names like Police State, Outspoken and Skeletan, some deliver their works with a hip hop influence, while others stick to their traditional Shona and Ndebele styles.

Victor Mavedzenge, a well-known poet who helped to get the slam off the ground, says, "My instinctive feeling that there were many brilliant poets out there is confirmed by the momentum that the poetry slam is gathering two years after its inception." The event is usually oversubscribed, as budding poets try to make their mark. About 15 of them take turns to recite their verse. When Kruus takes the microphone, he laments the ever-increasing levels of poverty:

"A suitable name for him would be Misery
Suffering to him is like water from the
[Victoria] Falls, always falling constant,"
How long can this persist?"

The slam takes its name from Dambudzo Marechera's classic book The House of Hunger. Marechera wrote about his painful experience growing up in poverty in colonial Rhodesia under Ian Smith. But the founders of the poverty slam have given the title a new resonance, alluding to the whole nation as a house of hunger, with all but a privileged few feeling the effects of the country's economic crisis.

With an ironic sense of humour, the event goes out of its way to be democratic, mindful of the Zanu-PF government's iron grip on power. Judges are chosen from the crowd, and when they hold up their marks for each contestant, the audience has a right to veto their decisions by booing and shouting. "We can amend the constitution and amend your marks," jokes one spectator. Another warns one of the competition's judges, "We've got a tradition of dealing with the judiciary in this country, we'll find where you live and deal with you."

Some poets prefer not to live too close to the edge, coming up with more general poems. But Comrade Fatso believes that there is no reason for artists to be timid. "Obviously the regime can't control every single thing that happens," he says. The slam is a space for rebellious free creation. It provides a platform where the youth can be openly political and rebellious without being necessarily connected to any political party."

But some poets, like Kadija Mutekateka, prefer to deal with love:

"I'm hot when I think of kisses sweet
Warm sensual hands stroking me
I burn when I remember the . . . heat
Put two stones together, rub them,
and the flint will cause a flame
It's like that when our bodies meet in . . . heat
I take off my top
It's freezing cold, but I can't stand the . . . heat
Open the windows, give me some air
I can't breathe
The incense is too much,
We have an inferno here."

Kadija has been performing here for a year. "It's been male-dominated, but there are a lot of female poets coming up now," she says.

Although it is more about taking part than winning, there is a tremendous response from the crowd when the judges decided that the winner is Shona poet Mutumwapavi. His title-clinching poem is Kaupenyu Aka (This Life) - a farcical tragedy illustrating the problem that people face getting health care. In it, he is taken to hospital after being hit by a car. As he waits for treatment he overhears a group of nurses talking about how many days are left before they leave the country to take up jobs elsewhere, while a government minister is airlifted from the hospital to another country because there is no medication.

"I want to share the goings-on in this nation with other people who don't have first-hand information," says Mutumwapavi.

The slam grew out of a dynamic performance poetry venue at the annual Harare International Festival of the Arts. French artist Pilot le Hot encouraged local poets to begin a regular event where talent could be developed.

Performance is particularly important in Zimbabwe, as the book industry struggles with galloping inflation. The chances of a young artist being published are slim so live events offer the only platform to be heard.

The slam also offers the hope of gaining the international exposure that has been achieved by some of the country's most prominent poets, like Chirikure Chirikure.

"The fact that it started from an international perspective gives the young poets a vision that their voice can be heard across the globe," says Chirikure. "No matter how the nation is deteriorating, there's still a future for the youth. They grew up in a relatively stable economy, and feel they have the right to be heard, to call the nation to make a way forward."

Steve Vickers is a BBC African Service correspondent based in Harare

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