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  • Zimbabwe's Elections 2013 - Index of Articles

  • Poetry in politics: West Hollywood to Zimbabwe
    Stephen Cass
    July 18, 2013

    In West Hollywood

    Since moving to Los Angeles a little over a month ago, I haven’t had the chance to attend an open mic. That was until last night when I ventured out to West Hollywood to Da Poetry Lounge. My goal was to survey the local poets, not to read any of my own work. Through my observations, I could not help but notice the timid voices behind powerful poetics. To their defence, for some of them it was their first time divulging such intimate information in a public forum, but it was rather peculiar to me that the collective voice of the group was rather quiet.

    What brought about this general lack of confidence in a form of expression that so heavily relies upon honesty and charisma? Seeking answers, I looked to the protesting poets of Zimbabwe whose story is beginning to pull the attention of the world.

    On the streets of Harare

    There are a number of young artists acting out against political corruption, voter fraud, a manipulation of public opinion, and a general lack of fundamental liberties in an effort to hold their leaders accountable. They call themselves, “Zimbabwe Poets for Human Rights” and they are potentially in the midst of changing their political landscape with a presidential election coming up on July 31st.

    The current president Robert Mugabe has served in is position since 1987, winning four subsequent elections since. Starting in 2002, his campaigns have been riddled with accusations of various kinds of fraud. Policies like the Public Order and Security Act and the Miscellaneous Offences Act have been put in place to seemingly interfere and suppress public opinion and voter turnout.

    These acts grant additional power to the executive party and police force through the limitations they set upon the public. Some of these provisions include punishments for unauthorized wearing of camouflage, ringing a bell, playing music in a public place, or generally appearing mischievous (Miscellaneous Offences Act). In 2005 over 700,000 individuals lost their homes and businesses through Operation Murambatsvina. Opposing political parties, as well as the United Nations argue that this was a way of ostracizing many of the less affluent communities in Zimbabwe by forcibly removing them from their homes for what the administration claims to be an effort to stem illegal housing and the spread of infectious disease. After all of this, it is safe to assume that many of the citizens have had enough. Their current form of protest is poetry, their prose acting as an effort to both rally and inform the public of the alleged corruption.

    Zimbabwe Poets for Human Rights

    The coordinator of Zimbabwe Poets for Human Rights, Robson Issac Shoes Lambada, has been on the forefront of this cultural crusade to hold their leaders accountable for their actions, as well as working to enact both political and voter reform. In his poem, “Politicians and Governancy,” he expresses the need for the public to head to the polls to promote this type of change. “Voting is the beginning of the end of complaining,” he says with conviction, “And abstaining is donating your right to choosing. I choose to choose by voting and choose laughing over fighting, voting over sloganeering and voting over fighting”.

    In West Hollywood many cries were similar to those of the Zimbabwe protesters; though not with the same sense of enthusiasm, conviction, or urgency. Their words rang true, there was no doubt about that, but they came out as murmurs. Thoughts of police brutality, racial barriers, media censorship, and fallen soldiers plague the pasts of some of these Southern California poets. Many gave off the feeling of being helplessly trapped in a system that is entirely out of their control. Their general distaste in the current state of our society was not complemented with a resolution. The death of the young man Trayvon Martin acted as inspiration to many of these young poets as they try to come to terms with, what they felt was, a police officer getting away with murder. One particular poet wore a hooded sweatshirt in solidarity for the deceased Martin. While the audience generally supported the young woman as she read, the passion was nowhere to be found in the room. There was no outrage, no tears, only a lightly struck chord that faded away once the next poet began.

    The Zimbabwe Poets for Human Rights are in a position to have a genuine impact in their looming elections as they seek a change to their current state of life and many are not going to sit idly by. Having been under oppressive circumstances for decades now, they aim for the restoration of their essential human rights. Their passion comes from recognizing the opportunity for improvement in a bleak situation that once may have been out of their control.

    Unification in poetry

    What is it going to take for western poets to do the same and rise up as a unified voice? It’s a gentle balance between facing great societal injustices and having a platform to bring about change. At this very moment, the content is already there, it’s just a matter of finding a suitable voice to broadcast it. If an election is what it takes to usher in some form of poetic justice nowadays, we have three long years ahead of us. We can either stay silent in apathy or make as much noise as we possibly can. The Zimbabwe Poets for Human Rights chose the latter and we could be in the beginning stages of our own poetic movement if things continue down this path; for the more that is at risk, the louder voices become.

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