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"Either you burn inside, or express yourself and get arrested" - Interview with playwright Raisedon Baya
Marko Phiri,
May 2011

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Raisedon BayaRaisedon Baya is one of the country's most celebrated playwrights and has bagged a number of awards as he documents contemporary Zimbabwe through the lens of the theatre. At this critical time when Zimbabwe is facing all sorts of challenges, be they political, cultural or social, Baya takes some time off to speak about artistic freedom, poetic licence, censorship, and the creative spirit.

You have been in theatre for many years now, does present day Zimbabwe offer different artistic or creative fodder as it did when you initially?
When I first began it was about telling stories about what I see around us and I don't think that has changed. My involvement in the arts has never been to be politically relevant. The arts have basically existed to nourish the soul to speak out about what is happening around us, rather than provide a political alternative. Even now, I believe the totality of being a human being cannot be realised when we exclude the arts. But what we have seen in the past few years is government shutting down spaces for artistic expression. The arts have of course been identified as a form of speaking your mind or political openness, but recently this space has come under fire with a lot of actors being imprisoned and questioned.

Bulawayo artists appear to be in the news for the wrong reasons with arrests of theatre artists and other creatives. What is happening here that is not happening elsewhere in the country?
That is true. I will give you an example. When someone from Harare speaks about Gukurahundi they get away with it; but not so for someone in Bulawayo who does the same. In Harare you are seen as liberal, you are seen as being open-minded or as being brave. But when it comes from Bulawayo, it is interpreted as tribal, and that you want to open old wounds; you want to start a tribal war; you want to be controversial for nothing. So aurtomatically the ground is not the same.

It makes life difficult if you want to be creative as a theatre practitioner. Right now the topical issue is national healing, so there is no way you are going to address issues about national healing without mentioning things that happened in the past. But when you talk about these issues you immediately get arrested. And it not just about us artists but also everyone who wants to express themselves. So we are caught between a rock and a hard place: either you burn inside or express yourself and get arrested.

This obviously raises issues about censorship. Where does this place your work?
What has been happening in the past three or so years have not been censorship, but rather that there is a political hand involved. Because what we do is we take the script to the Censorship Board first and they tell us they are not censoring politics but things like pornography and other things that might offend. So the Censorship Board says it is okay go ahead with the performance. It is when we stage the plays that you see police shutting us down. But my understanding of censorship is that the police act when there has been a complaint that something is offensive, then an action has to come in. But still you see the police coming in and stopping plays and the question for me is 'who has complained?' Listen

What has been happening has really been political rather than the censorship one would expect. I have nothing against censorship if it is coming the way it is supposed to.

Obviously it has not been easy to walk the fine line between following your creative spirit, artistic freedom on one hand, and safety concerns on the other, especially after the incarceration of your theatre comrades-in-arms.

It's either you go quiet and die inside, because the thing about creative people, is not just about writing, but that you have something to say, you want to change the world. If it is about an evil thing, you know passionately that you must say it and expose it. But when you store it all up, it means it will end up suffocating you and killing you. Some have asked themselves is this worth dying for? I was speaking to a friend recently who said he had been picked up and locked up and spent three nights in prison and no one knew where he was. We have to weigh things up and ask ourselves: is it worth it? You ask yourself, do I want to be safe and remain irrelevant or should I sing with everyone?

With all these worries for artists, what are you working on in an environment like this?
I am working on different types of projects, one of which is training young people. Creatively, I am working on two plays that I want to present at the end of the year. One is called Superstar Prophet, which is about a prophet who is about to fall from grace. And it's nothing political at all! [laughs]. I have also been working on a play themed around national healing, but with the arrests that have been happening, you would not want to put your actors at risk. But it is nothing major really as it is about asking what is the role of artists in the national healing process, reconciliation and integration for those who want integration. We are in discussions with the actors about whether we can risk it. But we cannot start this process without going back into our history so that is where the danger is for us. The difficult thing lies in trying to tell these stories when you are from Bulawayo. It would be much safer for Harare theatre to tackle this theme.

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