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Look at Zimbabwe
September 28, 2009

The Harare International School, in the leafy suburb of Mount Pleasant in Harare, is and isn't like a piece of educational scenery from the upper echelons of English or US society, It IS in the sense that the buildings, the grounds, the facilities, the infrastructure is in another league when compared with even the best schools in Zimbabwe. Yet it ISN'T in the sense that it is doubtful whether a school in Britain or the US could match the sun, the brilliant greenery, the tropical flowers, the unique Zimbabwean setting which makes so many Europeans and US citizens want to stay on in Zimbabwe despite all Zimbabwe's hardships and a political situation they don't like.

The school has an infants, a junior and a senior school and the children comes from Zimbabwean families and families from countries all over the world. Although it is a school in Zimbabwe, the curriculum is not Zimbabwean and possibly for many of the children Zimbabwe, its culture and arts, its traditions, possibly even its topography and demography, are a rather remote subject area.

It is for this reason that once a year the school holds what is called a 'Tarisai Zimbabwe' Day, which translated simply mean 'Look or take a look at Zimbabwe'. And for quite a number of years when Tarisai Zimbabwe rolls around the school calls on CHIPAWO to help out. This year was no exception. The theme was 'Animals'.

Not only does CHIPAWO help out on this particular day but it has also brought to the school over the years a number of arts and theatre experiences - plays for all ages and presentations of Zimbabwean dance.

Performing at the Harare International School has always been a pleasurable experience - but none more pleasurable than performing for the little ones in infants and the junior school. The school has a fine auditorium, built to offer the usual pros arch stage but also to make semi-arena performances in front of the stage possible. The little ones sit on the front of the semi-circular raked rows of seating.

I will always remember them, during a performance by children (ages 9-12) of CHIPAWO's popular play, 'Jari Mukaranga' or 'I am also your wife', coming into the acting area and looking inside the pots in which the elder wife was cooking her family's meal to see what they were going to eat. And then when the younger wife was with her children and they were talking about the events of the day, the little ones simply came and sat with the children of the family and together they listened as the family chatted.

It was with this in mind that we decided for Tarisai Zimbabwe this year to do a special play for the little children which would give them maximum opportunity to be a part of things. Again the play would be performed by juniors, children between about 9 and 12 or 13.

First of all, the play was to be performed in the round, with the children sitting on the floor right round the action. Then it was to be a children's story with lots for them to get excited about. We decided to do an adaptation of an earlier play based on the story of a leopard caught in a trap. A woman comes past and the leopard persuades her to let him out. Predictably the first thing the leopard wants to do when he gets out of the trap after being in it for three days without food, is to eat her.

The woman manages to persuade him to allow her to ask three other creatures for their opinion. If they all say she should be eaten then so be it. The first to be asked are the trees and they predictably list all the horrible mutilations that human beings inflict on trees and wholeheartedly endorse the idea that the leopard should eat the woman. Unfortunately for the woman, the next creatures to make themselves available are cows - and they talk of how human beings rob them of their milk, slaughter them to eat their flesh and make things with their hides and they too think it is a great idea that the leopard should eat the woman.

In the original story, it is the jackal that then comes along and delivers judgement, tricking the leopard to get back into the trap, and so the play was called 'Mutongi Gava' or 'The Judge Jackal'. For this production we decided to build on the character of Machena, the clever, well-dressed, with-it dog that helped the overworked Donkey in our comic opera, 'Mangwende's Donkey', to 'fix' his master and his master's wife by running away with the corn. Machena comes sauntering in and in no time manages to bluff the leopard into the trap in return for some dancing and eating at the wedding the woman is on her way to.

Well, before remembering the wonderful effect of the story on the children when the play was performed, I should say that CHIPAWO's contribution to Tarisai Zimbabwe comes in two forms. From early morning until noon, four teams of arts educators work with four rotating groups in marimba, traditional dance, modern dance and storytelling. So all that had been going on all morning when the children now trooped into the hall with their teachers and the exciting in-the-round space was set up.

From the beginning, you could hardly shut them up. Opening with marimba music then on cue from all directions in the hall Zimbabwean animals, complete with authentic costumes and body masks, began to lumber, trip, sway and dance their way through the audience, having lots of fun with the children on the way, onto the acting area. There was a hippo, a giraffe, an ostrich, cows, the dog and the leopard. After a bit of dancing and pranking with the audience, the animals leave the stage and the leopard creeps into his trap, a bamboo bell-like framework under which he skulks - until a woman on her way to the wedding comes singing by.

The children watch with bated breath as the leopard tries to persuade her to trust him, that he will be her friend. There are already lots of cries from the children. 'Don't believe him'. 'He's lying.' They warn the woman.

She then says to the audience: "I am in two minds. I don't know what to do. Should I let the leopard out? Or should I leave him there?" In rehearsal the young actress wanted to speak these lines as if they were rhetorical questions, as if she was musing to herself. We tried to get her to really say it to the audience. She being young and there being no audience, she struggled to understand. We tried to describe to her what would happen if she asked these super participators in the audience the question direct and waited for an answer. But it was a problem.

Well, when she did as she had been asked to but not quite believing in it, she got the surprise of her life. With one voice the children shouted out: "Noooo! Don't let him out! Leave him there." They got up and shouted standing. Some even came onto the stage pleading with the woman not to do something so stupid as to let the leopard out. Then the young actress understood. She got the hang of it and from then on she milked the technique for all it was worth.

To the audience's horror she decides to trust the leopard. There is a scream as the fearsome creature leaps out of the trap with a roar. Having done a dance of celebration he sets about stalking the woman with a view to making short work of her. He in his turn plays up to the children so that when he leaps at her, he doesn't forget to leap at them a couple of times too - with the ensuing screams and panic on their part, of course.

The play is full of questions - Do I do this? Is it right? Should the leopard spare her? Etc and each time they tried to 'bring the audience into the action', the actors discover that there is in fact no need - they are already part of the action and have been the whole way. A curious permutation was when the dog, Machena, pretends he does not understand and asks the woman and the leopard to demonstrate to him what the situation was like before the leopard was released from the trap. He eventually overcomes the leopard's suspicions and gets him to do so. As the leopard moves towards the trap, such is the power of 'negative capability' that the children were now also empathising with the leopard and they shouted out to him not go back into the trap! He had become part of their world, part of the story and they did not want to see him suffer either. Interesting!

Quite often such performances take place with adult audiences using the same techniques and working up a whole lots of kids. Charming, yes, but nothing as refreshing and delightful as when the whole thing happens between children, children acting to an audience of more or less the same age and all of them taking part in a wonderful child-to-child world of storytelling as real as any story well-told is to any child.

There is something special about these performances on Tarisai Zimbabwe day. We should do it more often.

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