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Telling the positive stories of Zimbabwe - Interview with Fungai James Tichawangana, ZimboJam
Upenyu Makoni-Muchemwa,
October 14, 2011

Read Inside/Out with Fungai James Tichawangana

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Fungai James TichawanganaFungai Tichawangana is a writer, photographer and web developer. He is a founder of Venekera Works, who developed the popular entertainment portal He is also the proprietor of and

How 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 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.

What 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.' Listen

Do you 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. Listen

I know 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.

What 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.' Listen

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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