By Rebecca Fischer

“The week of HIFA we live; the other 51 weeks we are in hibernation.”

—Zimbabwean supporter of HIFA

In early May 2017, my husband Anthony Hawley and I were guests of the Harare International Festival of the Arts. HIFA is a six-day arts festival held annually in the busy center of Harare, Zimbabwe, down the street from President Robert Mugabe’s residence. I am a classically trained violinist and Anthony is a multimedia visual artist and writer; our artistic collaboration is called the Afield (think “further afield”), and we produce creative work that pushes our skills to new kinds of expression. At HIFA we performed a program called “Time Pieces” for contemporary solo violin and video. We also led a workshop on artistic collaborations.

Rebecca Fischer and Anthony Hawley (right) onstage at HIFA 2017. Photo by HIFA MEDIA, Kudzai Chakaingesu

Rebecca Fischer and Anthony Hawley (right) onstage at HIFA 2017. Photo by HIFA MEDIA, Kudzai Chakaingesu

Both Anthony and I are experienced travelers, yet the trip to HIFA was our first visit to the African continent. Throughout our week in Zimbabwe we were continually awed by the generosity of the people, the openness of artistic dialogue, and the feeling that anything could happen. Here are some thoughts from our trip:

HIFA is on the scale of Lolapalooza—who knew?

HIFA is one of the three largest arts festivals in Africa. When the Afield was initially invited to perform by Manuel Bagorro, HIFA’s founder, artistic director, and a native Zimbabwean, we had very little information about the festival’s scope. HIFA has a modest web presence, so we had to ask around to find out that HIFA has been in existence since 1999 and regularly schedules almost 100 artistic groups to perform each year, including music, dance, theater, and comedy.

An attendant of the festival could observe as many as 25 performances each day, although many of them run concurrently. The official opening of HIFA 2017 featured a main-stage show with the southern-African band Mahube, 50 dancers, a 50-piece choir, two jumbotron screens, fireworks, and more than 1,000 audience members singing and dancing.

HIFA is all-arts inclusive.

In addition to the many local and international groups performing, the festival showcases the very best Zimbabwean visual arts and crafts, in particular stone sculpture and textiles. An extensive crafts fair is situated in the HIFA grounds where patrons can converse one-on-one with the artists. Food trucks and pop-up bars magically appear a day or two before the festival starts, and I was ecstatic to find a vegetarian café in an open hut serving one of the best lentil soups I’ve had. (I am always in search of great vegetarian food on the road.)

Various installations of recycled art are nestled in the groves of enormous trees, and HIFA hosts a daily open-air fashion show for Zimbabwean designers. In the show I observed, barefoot models not only displayed clothing but also engaged in an interactive performance with the audience, drawing attention to the empowerment of women.

Charles Ives would have appreciated HIFA.

Because so many activities are packed into a six-day period, and most of the shows are on outdoor stages, there is understandable sound overlap at the festival. A quintessential HIFA experience for me was waking up from a jet-lag-induced nap in my nearby hotel to hear an Afro-pop band and a New Orleans–style brass band rehearsing in equal sonic proportions outside my window. 

It takes a village.

There is a sort of celebratory chaos in the way HIFA runs, and given the festival’s size, flexibility is necessary for optimal function. Part of the festival’s educational mission means employing many young Zimbabweans to work intensively for a two-week period. Eighty young people between the ages of 18 and 30 are assigned to be artist liaisons alone, with so many other jobs available at the same time (security, box office, airport runs, stage crew, etc.). The HIFA grounds are flooded with staff wearing blue or white HIFA shirts with the person’s job on the back for clarity. And everyone wants to help.

Nothing can be taken for granted.

It is important to note that outside of the HIFA grounds some children are begging and many Zimbabweans are starving. The country has an official unemployment rate of over 90 percent (this doesn’t account for street vendors and other cash markets) and the economic situation is abysmal. HIFA had to be cancelled in 2016 for the first time since 1999 due to lack of funds.

Corporate sponsorship and support from international embassies enable many artists to receive funds for travel to HIFA, which also creates a sense of international community at the festival (our travel was funded by a grant from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln), but the situation is still sometimes tenuous. HIFA cannot count on the city of Harare to have consistent electrical power, so the grounds are powered by HIFA’s own generators. During HIFA’s opening garden reception, the lights went out for a short time, but the lit candelabras around the enclave kept the party going late into the night.

The stunning lack of cynicism at HIFA creates possibility.

Considering the challenges involved in the production of HIFA, I was struck by the overwhelmingly positive and even gleeful attitudes of the staff. This optimism filters down to everyone at the festival; we all felt proud to be a part of HIFA’s awesome undertaking. The large LED screens for our performance weren’t working the night before the show? No problem, a few extra hands helped them to function beautifully by our performance with time to spare. The space designated for a bar looked like a hollowed-out, wooden shed? Thanks to the bar owners’ inventive solutions, a few hours later the space had an inviting interior with colorful wall hangings and lights.

Artistic collaboration opens new doors.

On the opening day of HIFA, the Afield offered a workshop titled Between Sight and Sound: Envisioning Artistic Collaborations.  We introduced the key tenets of our working philosophy—Dream-Forward, Anywhere/Anyhow, and Something Out of Anything—to the participants, and they got to work using color and their imaginations to develop plans for their own multimedia presentations. We were inspired by the creativity of the participants and their sophisticated artistic and cultural sensitivity. Thanks to our experience at HIFA, the Afield is now launching the Afield School, a mobile, transportable series of workshops in a new educational platform.

The theme of HIFA 2017 was “Staging an Intervention.”

In Manuel Bagorro’s opening remarks for the festival, he stressed the importance of HIFA in all of our lives, of the ability for an explosive artistic experience to nurture hope and creativity even amid hardship. An intervention, he pointed out, takes a community, and what better way to stage an intervention than through artistic expression on a global level. Manuel’s vision is extraordinary, and what he and the HIFA staff are able to do in Zimbabwe is somewhat miraculous. As evidenced by the joyful crowds of people from all backgrounds attending HIFA, the arts in Zimbabwe are not only for the privileged but for everyone to rejoice in our expressive humanity. It was my privilege to be involved at HIFA and welcomed as part of the artistic community that sustains us all. I cannot wait to return. 

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