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the positive stories of Zimbabwe - Interview with Fungai James Tichawangana,
October 14, 2011
Inside/Out with Fungai James Tichawangana
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Tichawangana is a writer, photographer and web developer. He is
a founder of Venekera Works, who developed the popular entertainment
portal Itsbho.com. He is also the proprietor of Zimbojam.com
did you start Zimbojam?
When I was at college, I signed up to do engineering. And
the very first lecture was some guy talking about cement. Half way
through the first semester I started feeling very unhappy. And then
I found some computer labs and started doing stuff. And I fell in
love with computers. At the same time I joined a student magazine
on campus and started writing for them. So I went to my parents
and told them I wanted to leave my degree programme, and we had
a big row about that. In the end they said that I was free to do
what I wanted but they couldn't support it.
With two friends we set
up a company called Venekera Works and the idea was to design websites.
At that time Dell was just taking off. There was the whole dot.com
thing that had happened. My friend Brian and I and another partner
were very excited about the Internet. We wanted to build this big
Internet behemoth. But Venekera struggled financially. As a company
we managed to get a lot of recognition and the brand became very
recognised, but it never really took off. Part of the reason being
that, at that time Zimbabwe started heading downward. Then Celsys
offered to buy us. Initially we refused, but as things in the company
got worse and worse, we decided to sell. It didn't work out,
though because we didn't see eye to eye on a lot of things,
and so after 9 months I resigned. In 2008 I started working on Zimbojam.
excites you about Zimbojam?
We're telling a side of the Zimbabwean story that is often
ignored. When we were going through the political and economic troubles
of 2001 to 2008, so many websites went up and were focussed on the
politics. There was some business; there were lots of sports, which
is important. But we forgot the other side of the Zimbabwean story.
The Herald at one time was just politics and business, they cut
out entertainment altogether because of the newsprint shortage.
Even when we were going through the toughest times, we were writing
books, singing, painting, having a good time, going out. And I'm
excited to be able to share that with other Zimbabweans locally
and outside. The feedback that we get from Zimbabweans who left
with the problems started say, you know it's such a breath
of fresh air to hear that Zimbabwe is not all darkness and poverty
and problems. People are having fun and doing amazing things.'
have any favourite stories?
I enjoy stories about people who are making a difference. So when
we do a profile about someone who
despite everything around them has made something, is building or
working towards something, I really like it. There are so many of
them. I had an experience with one such story, which touched me
and made me realise why it's so important for us to do that.
When my wife died in March, I was totally devastated. I wanted to
shut everything down and go off somewhere. My parents live in the
UK and they had asked me to come and spend time with them. [Shingi]
used to support the site so much, and I remember a discussion I
had with her where I said ‘if I ever had to choose between
Zimbojam and you, it would be you hands down. I wouldn't have
to think about it.' In the months after she died I wanted
to leave. So one morning I walked in to the office and the team
was running around, someone was editing and putting up stories,
and I thought I can't do this. I can't leave. So I went
back into the office. But up until June, when NoViolet won the Cain
Prize, I was just not effective. I remember reading that story and
something inside just went off. I got so excited and for the first
time in months I was excited about something. I wrote the story
and put it up on the site and we shared it on Facebook. We made
a lot of noise about it. Later on I realised that that's part
of our role as Zimbojam, when we tell the story of a Zimbabwean
who's doing something, the trickledown effect is so vast.
You never get all the feedback but when someone who is struggling
reads a story about another person who has managed to overcome those
challenges it inspires them and urges them on.
you're working on DefZee, what inspired that project?
After about two years of working on Zimbojam, we realised that the
young people had a totally different set of things they were doing,
they subscribe to different musicians, and different entertainment
and Zimbojam was not catering to that. We toyed with the idea of
creating a section for them on the site, but we realised that it
would be best to create a different site, which would be run by
teenagers. They would decide what content, what events to push and
that's how DefZee came about.
are the issues young people are interested in?
A big thing with young people is identity. Identifying with Zimbabwe.
Someone who teaches at a private school here in Harare told me a
story about how they were teaching pupils a song in Latin. They
explained that Latin was important because so many other languages
are based on and derive a lot of words from it, and that Latin was
also known as the language of the Gods. Then she started talking
about how English was the language of business and French was the
language of love. Then she asked ‘what can we say about Shona?'
One kid stood up and said ‘Shona is the language of poverty.'
She stood there shocked. This kid went on and said ‘you know
what? You cannot tell me otherwise, because if you look around everything
that we touch has poverty written all over it. I've grown
up in a country that's falling apart and the first opportunity
I get, I'm leaving.'
I think young
people all over Zimbabwe have the same sort of struggles at different
levels. The young girl in Gokwe is thinking I must leave this place
and go to Harare. A young kid in Bulawayo is thinking I must go
to Jo'burg. I grew up in Bulawayo and I went back recently.
You can feel, more than here in Harare, that young people have left.
White Zimbabweans grapple with the issue: ‘am I Zimbabwean?'
They go to Australia and the UK and after a few years they realise
this is their home. They come back here and they're told ‘No,
you're not Zimbabwean, you're not African.'
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