Tara and her art

Her room is immaculate, save for the papers and notebooks on the desk.  The chime of a dream catcher on the wall is interrupted as Tara closes the window and sits down, cross-legged, on her bed.  Some of her drawings are up on the cupboard, with a gemstone chart stuck on her door.  Looking at it, I can identify some of the stones on her windowsill. A tinge of citrus lingers in the air, and Tara moves to tidy her bed, which she thinks is less than presentable.

“Art is the only thing I focused on.”

 

Tara the Artist

Tara paintingTara Dena Jack is an artist.  She always has been.  From her days in nursery school, to high school at Hellenic, and now studying towards her Bachelor of Fine Art.  That she was meant to be an artist, Tara never doubted that.  “It (art) has always been a strong point, since I’m not really academic.” Tara points to the paintings stacked on top of her bookcase as proof.  Even when she’s meant to be studying, her fingers itch for pen and paper and Tara draws instead.  “Art is an outlet for me.”

As happy as she is with her degree and career path, art wasn’t always her  first choice.  For a time, music held sway.  “I started music when I was 4 or 5, and I started playing the clarinet when I was 14, so in Form Two,” Tara says as she adjusts her legs to get more comfortable.  “I also taught myself basic piano, so I can play a few tunes.”  When it came down to choose between art and music, the decision boiled down to what gave Tara more creative license.  Art it was.

 

“I can express myself more with art. Art is more liberating.”

2016-06-03 (2)What of her art itself?  Tara scrolls through her Instagram and flips through her book of doodles as she talks about her style and what she’s created.  I notice a lot of pencil work and inking, but not much in the form of paintings.  A slight frown on her mouth as she readjusts her seating again and ties up her hair.  “With painting, I don’t have a style that I’ve developed.  With my pencil work, it’s more detailed.  I like stuff like pencil work and pen work, stuff that you can control.”  Her pencil work is stunning. Images of skulls and candles flit across her phone screen.   Tara’s proud of her pieces, but she admits that her work is dark. “In O Level, I did kitsch, still-life, like ‘pretty pretty girly stuff’.  But I find skulls more interesting. You think about a painting of a skull more than just a painting of a flower.”

 

“I always try incorporate a hidden meaning in my art.”

 

Tara fiddles with her hairbands as she talks about her plans for the future.  She wants to get her art out there for people to see – something she hasn’t been doing.  She thinks back to her art teachers in high school and how they’ve shaped her life so far, and continue to play a role in deciding her future.  “Most of my role models are my art teachers.  They see what I’m capable of, they’re more confident in my abilities than I am.”  It was Greg Shaw, her high school art teacher and artist in Harare, who pushed Tara to develop her skills as an artist.  It was her O Level art teacher who convinced Tara to study Fine Art at Rhodes University.  Their influence has motivated Tara to pay it forward and become an art teacher and artist.

 

Tara the Zimbabwean

Would she work in Zimbabwe?  Tara pauses, and takes a breath before responding. “I’m drawn to political stuff.” She tilts her head in inference.  “Political stuff that I wouldn’t be able to do that. And I can’t do kitsch stuff either.”  I ask her the question again.  She looks up, frowns and responds, “I don’t know.”

To see more of Tara’s work, check out her Instagram.

All the art pieces in this story are property of Tara Dena Jack. 

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A comics creator named Bill

We are living in the age of the comic book.  From tv adaptions such as Arrow and Jessica Jones, to box office smash hits such as the Avengers and the Batman movies, comic book properties have never enjoyed such immense popularity.   In Zimbabwe, Marvel and DC have many diehard fans and loyal readers.  Admittedly, I am one of them (Team DC all the way).  Despite my unwavering love for all things comics, I couldn’t help but wonder why there weren’t more African based comics – comics that would speak true to the realities and stories on the continent.  That’s why my interest was piqued when I heard about Bill Masuku and his work.

Bill The Illustrator

Bill Comics Work

Some of Bill’s rough sketches

Bill Masuku recently graduated from Rhodes University with a degree in Commerce, but he chose to pursue a career in comics full time.  His relationship with them began thanks to an overactive imagination as a child. “I was but a wee lad (when his fascination with comics started), although reading comics religiously came in Form One.”  He created his first full comic when he was in Grade 5.  His first reader base were his fellow classmates, and Bill’s creation was a hit amongst his friends. “It was about a group of kids with superpowers fighting tyrant teachers. Shamefully it was titled BillSaga.” From the moment he saw how people received his comic, it was the beginning of a life of combining illustrations with compelling storylines.

“It was like self actualisation, like the precipice of my human potential.”

Bill the Storyteller

However, after this preliminary break, Bill took a break from comics.  Not only was schoolwork a major factor, but he still couldn’t wrap his head around the art of the good comic story. “My ideas for a good story were incomplete. Writing takes time and it’s a constant refining process.”  For example, his first was to create a story around a team of superheroes whose origins were in South Africa, with the plan of eventually expanding the team to include heroes from across the world.  Such a team made sense in Bill’s mind but translating it on paper proved harder than expected.  He decided to cut down the team and keep the focus on Africa.  This was the golden idea, and with this in mind, Bill started to flesh out the story, incorporating elements from his imagination and current African events to produce an interesting yet relatable story.  “There was that proposal from Gaddafi to initiate the United States of Africa.  Tearing down trade boarders, unifying the currencies and just being great.  In my current universe, the African Union, or the United States of Africa, is in effect by 2014.” In addition, Bill plans on reviving old forgotten folk tales, an audio series, as well as a separate title he calls ‘The Third Chimurenga’, whose premise is a cross between speculative literature, sci-fi, and historical fiction:

Blending fact and fantasy, the story starts in the Rhodesian Bush War, where scientists conducted experiments to create a human weapon. With the death of the lead scientist and the end of the war, the test subjects were put into suspended animation in a facility located a few kilometres outside of Harare.  An unfortunate stranger stumbles onto the site, unleashing these human weapons into modern Zimbabwe.

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Creating the stories behind the comics is a long process for Bill.  Not only does he do historical research, but he also has to test out the plausibility of the powers he gives to his characters. Bill explains his current concepts: “I’m currently struggling with human flight – somewhere between warping one’s own electromagnetic field against gravity and or adjusting the density of fluids in the body and treating the atmosphere as a liquid.”  Bill adds to the superpower factor by grounding his characters to ordinary, relatable people that Zimbabweans encounter on a regular basis:

“The secondary theme I’m following is what would an ordinary person  do with powers. Not a super buff millionaire or an alien.  A kombi conductor with the power to teleport. The circumstances of his life. And what choice would make him a hero or villain. Because in my universe, there is no evil.”

However, he’s hit a few speed bumps when it comes to fleshing out his stories.  Especially when it comes to writing female characters, Bill wants to present heroes that are complex but don’t fall into the stereotypes and tropes that have come to characterise representations of women in comic books.  “It’s harder to write believable female characters that weren’t raped, recovering from some trauma, or the converse depiction of them as a Mary Sue. A lot of thought has to be considered. It’s even more difficult for a black female character.”

Bill the Strategist

As invested as Bill is in his craft, he is not naive to the realities of the comics industry in Zimbabwe and Africa.   The industry is growing – with independent publishers in South Africa, and Nigerian comics gaining more prominence and publicity.  However, comics as a business is still not taken seriously – at least in Bill’s opinion.  “The obstacle,” he says, “is getting over the idea of ‘maPopeye’ and stagnant creators.”  MaPopeye in this case refers to the old style of animation, where people produced brief 10 minute clips of cartoon, such as Popeye. “It’s good for 10 minutes of laughs, but not really a career path or anything of value.”  For young artists and creators to have some kind of success, they have to continue in this old model without exploring their own artistic avenues, leading to a stagnant market.  Bill remains optimistic of the comics industry, and points to the Comics Conventions held in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Zambia.

“The number of dynamic creators has risen tremendously, but the perceptions mean that we can’t make a living off it and it becomes a sub-craft, coupled most commonly with graphic designers.”

SILVER DIAMOND issue 1 cover

With his recent graduation Bill moved back home, and whilst Zimbabwe’s economic situation isn’t the most ideal setting for a young illustrator like him, he’s learnt to appreciate the little things that are to his advantage.  “There are some pleasant conveniences, like EcoCash.  It’s the card that registered my patreon account.  I have more time free time to research and draw.”  To get some funding for his work, Bill set up a Patreon account, which works in the same way as Kickstarter or GoFundMe.  His mother and his friends have been supportive thus far, but he needs financial support to expand his work and produce more comics.  “I need to buy a scanner, so that as soon as I’m done with a piece I can edit and upload.  Then partner with a printing store so I can sell at conventions like AfriNerd Con and maybe even HIFA.  Later I’ll buy a tablet so I can do digital art.”

“Why walk when you can teleport?” 

Bill’s drawings and story arcs illustrate a growing artistic industry and space in Africa.  With non-African comic companies and creators possessing the lion’s share of the readers and collective imagination, it’s high time that young Zimbabweans like Bill get the opportunity to represent their narrative in comic form.  Who knows, perhaps in a few years, the continent could see its own crop of comic book adaptions.  And one of them just might be one of Bill’s creations.

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If you’d like to support Bill via Patreon, check out his account here for the details.

For more illustrations and comic creations, follow Bill on his Instagram at @billmasukuart

Sex Ed in Zimbabwe: does it do the job?

The recent Court ruling that banned child marriages and raised the minimum age of marriage to 18 years has been applauded and welcomed by Zimbabweans in the country and abroad.   For years many women  and men have fought tirelessly to protect children (specifically girls) from child marriages, and the ruling was a breath of fresh air in the long struggle.  The ruling coincides with increased discussion and talk on  introducing contraceptives into high schools.  This debate, unlike the court’s decision, has not gone as smoothly nor has it been well received by many.   Nevertheless, it’s important to look at the state of gender and sex education in  Zimbabwe, and  whether it is doing any  good.

Reviewing the Current System

There have been several papers written on gender and sex education.  They all reach the same conclusion: Zimbabwe’s education system doesn’t do enough to cover this important conversation.  In her 2012 dissertation, Miriam Banda examined the educational materials used in high schools, as well as the structure of gender and sex education curriculum.  Her findings highlight the problem areas.   Guidance and Counselling (G & C) lessons, or Life Orientation, or Life Skills, is where teachers are supposed to cover topics such as sexual health, contraception, and gendered roles.  However, the reality is different.  The content covered in these classes isn’t examinable, so it’s not given as much attention as other ‘more important’ subjects.  Furthermore, according to Banda’s research, if teachers feel uncomfortable with the subject matter, they can simply skip a topic or cancel the lesson.  The same mentality for History or Geography is unthinkable, so why is it so easy for them to opt out of G & C?

The inadequacies don’t stop there.  When teachers do engage with students, the main message they preach is abstinence.  Whilst teaching abstinence is not bad, it is bad when it’s the only message they convey to teenagers at the expense of other information.  It’s impractical to believe that teenagers will abstain from sex just because they are told to – they are teenagers after all.  The logic behind abstinence-only education is a fear that talking about sex will lead to teenagers wanting to have sex.  There is a major flaw in this reasoning: teenagers are already having sex.  Furthermore, as Crispen Bhukuvhani notes in his 2012 paper, the abstinence that teachers and parents advocate contradicts HIV/AIDS literature, which preaches safe sex.  Getting conflicting messages about sexual health leads to even more confusion.

It’s not just about sex

There is another fundamental flaw in the argument against comprehensive sex and gender education is that it will only be about sex itself, which is incorrect.  Sex and gender education is about teaching teenagers about contraceptives and reproductive health, but it’s so much more than that.  It’s  teaching them about consent.  It’s teaching them their legal and reproductive rights. It’s teaching them about rape and sexual assault.  It’s informing them about the avenues and options available to them if or when they are raped.  It’s teaching victims not to blame themselves and teaching perpetrators not to rape.  Ultimately it’s teaching teenagers that sex is not just a physical act: there are psychological, legal and societal aspects to it that are swept under the rug simply because people don’t want to compromise their comfort.

Insider Opinions

Former Minister of Education, Sport, Arts and Culture David Coltart agrees that Zimbabwe’s education system can do better.  Although he is unsure what the current curriculum covers, he believes it’s time for a review:

 “The current curriculum needs a drastic overhaul generally.”  Zimbabwe’s curriculum hasn’t transformed alongside the socio-cultural changes in the country.  “Many children get involved in sexual relations because they have no hope that they can go on to get a qualification and a decent job. We have to give children more and better education on these issues, but we need to give children hope”, emphasizes Coltart.

Sian Maseko, a feminist and women’s rights activist, agrees that more needs to be done:

“The truth is  young people will get the information somewhere and somehow. So we need to ask ourselves the question – isn’t it better that they get comprehensive sexuality education that deals with sex, sexuality, identities, intimate relationships, violence, sexual health, consent, coercion, peer pressure etc. in a way that is mature, correct and creates a space for discussion and questions than for them to learn it from peers or magazines? The most important aspect of issues to do with sex and gender are how society and social spaces construct our understanding of them – so what does society say about women and sexuality? What does society think about married people using condoms? What does society say about sex work? We need to start addressing some of these harmful norms that prevent individuals from enjoying their sexuality and exploring in a safe, knowledgeable and consensual way.
In all societies in the world there are harmful norms about women and their sexuality. What do you call a man who has sex with a lot of women? What do you call a woman who has sex with lots of men? The answer is definitely not the same because we judge women and women’s sexuality more harshly than men.
 This is why it has to start at school. Young people need to explore these issues together in a way that says, ‘questions are good’, ‘violence is wrong’, ‘you can say ‘no’ whether you are a boy or a girl’, ‘you have the right to protect yourself so you can carry condoms whether you are a boy or a girl’. For as long as society believes that sex is for men then we will never shift our understanding of sex and sexuality”.

Conclusion

It takes teachers, parents and guardians, and religious leaders to give Zimbabwean teenagers a comprehensive sex and gender education.  Of course it can be argued that our country has bigger things to worry about at this point, but it’s easy to forget that teenagers won’t stay teenagers forever.  The older they get, the harder it is to correct the harmful thinking and mentalities that they could one day pass on to their children.   We’ve shown that our country is capable of The question now is, are Zimbabweans ready to bite the bullet and have an honest talk about sex?

Photo sourced from http://quib.ly/

Pieces of Home: A View of the Sunshine City

 

Harare, nicknamed the Sunshine City, is a city whose beauty is often overlooked.  When you’re on the ground, you never get a full view of the city and its skyline.  Instead, you experience the pothole-riddled roads, the constant throb of noise and traffic, and ever-present malfunctioning traffic light.  Whilst this Harare has its own chaotic glory, it’s refreshing to see a side of the Sunshine City that is not always celebrated or represented.

A View from the Top

 

It was from the 12th floor of the Causeway Building that I had the chance to see the view.  Overlooking Simon Muzenda Street (previously Fourth Street), it was a harmonious union of an ocean of sky and cloud with man-made blocks.  From the Sacred Heart Cathedral and Dominican Convent High School, to the Mukwati Building and St. George’s College peeking out in the distance, it was a picture that I’d never seen before.

 

The CBD at Dusk

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The city landscape changed as the sun gave way to night, its orange tinge still visible on the horizon.  Buildings and landmarks that I walked past without so much as an afterthought looked completely different to me in the dusk light.

 

It is not often that positive images of Harare and Zimbabwe in general are promoted.  There are beautiful pictures of jacarandas crowning Harare’s roads with a regal purple.  Images of Harare on the ground, the people and cars that populate the concrete space.  If you’re lucky, you stumble upon the odd photo of the Reserve Bank or some other well-known building.  Standing on the window ledge of Causeway Building’s 12th floor, it was a gratifying and humbling experience.

My city may be clogged with traffic, its road riddled with potholes, the streets full of pedestrian power, and the air tinged with the smell of smoke (a gift from the kombis), but I love Harare in all its perfect imperfection.  The Sunshine City is my home, forever and always.

 

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Busiso and moving to South Africa

Busiso was 14 when he moved to South Africa.  Zimbabwe’s economy had taken a spectacular nosedive, and it was decided that for him, South Africa was a better environment.  His father was already working in Pretoria as a doctor, but the rest of his family stayed back home.  Busiso was completely alone in Johannesburg.  “It wasn’t the easiest of moves”, he says, as he shifts slightly in his chair.  “It was during that time when xenophobia was a thing.”

                                               “IT WAS NOT THAT EASY AT ALL.”

Adjusting to a new school, St. Benedict’s, made things even harder. He’d left just when he was solidifying friendships – Busiso didn’t know a single person in his new high school. “To add to it, when I came here, I skipped a grade.  So I was a year younger than everyone.”  There was only one other Zimbabwean there, who was a year older than him.   He was surrounded entirely by South African students, all older than him.  It was painfully obvious that he was an outsider, and there were many times that Busiso didn’t feel like he belonged anywhere.

Busiso HS

Busiso as a high school student

 

New school, new curriculum, new environment, new country – Busiso had to adjust quickly to his new life.  “It was a bit intimidating, I felt a bit out of place.”  Eventually, he found his footing, and it was thanks to his adopted city.  “Thing is, there’s a lot of people you can meet when you’re in a place like Joburg.  It’s not the friendliest place, but you’re definitely guaranteed to make friends.”  Although there were moments in the beginning where he wanted more than anything to go home, his father encouraged him to tough it out. Now, looking back at those growing pains, Busiso’s come out of stronger, wiser, and more well-rounded.

 “I WAS STILL IN THAT COCOON THAT  ZIM PUT ME IN”

 Having experienced life in both South Africa and Zimbabwe, Busiso has to come to appreciate the similarities and differences between the two countries.  “It’s a lot more liberal here(South Africa)”, he says, in comparison to conservative Zimbabwe.  For him, people in South Africa are more open and expressive, something that took him by surprise when he first arrived.  “I was still in that little cocoon that Zim put me in, where I don’t question my elders.” It was only after the big move did Busiso start to question what was previously unquestionable, and open his mind to new ideas and ways of thinking.

                                                

Busiso goes back to Zimbabwe on a regular basis. Here he is at last year's Colour Run. Image sourced from Liyon Media

Busiso goes back to Zimbabwe on a regular basis. Here he is at last year’s Colour Run. Image sourced from Liyon Media

Fast forward to 2015, and Busiso is fully settled into life in South Africa.  He is currently in his second year at Rhodes University studying law.  “One thing that I’ve always been hardheaded.  I like being right”, a smile on his face, as he explains his degree choice.  “Having knowledge of the law is power.”  Ever since Grade 10, Busiso knew was sure of himself, what he wanted to study, and where to go.  Although the University of Pretoria was his original choice, he has no regrets about landing up in Grahamstown.  “It (Rhodes) produces a certain type of person that I’d want to be like.”   It was an added bonus that Rhodes is known for its Zimbabwean-friendly atmosphere, with Zimbabwean students making up a large percentage of the international students.

                              “IT WAS NICE TO BE ABLE TO DROP A ‘ZVIRI SEI SEI'”

Happy to be amongst fellow Zimbabweans, being able to speak and hear his own language, was a big change from Busiso’s high school experience.  He’s learnt to reconcile the boy he was when he left Zimbabwe, and the man he became in South Africa.  However, he has, and always will be a Zimbabwean.  “Growing up there (Zimbabwe), as a child, really made me Zimbabwean.”  Busiso’s heart will always be with his country, and even though he wants to start his career in South Africa, he has every intention of going back home and making a difference.  “One thing I want to do is take what I’ve learnt back home.  If every educated person is leaving Zim, how are we going to grow?”

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Let’s Talk About Mr.Rhodes

By now, I’m sure most of you have heard about the protests at University of Cape Town, and followed #RhodesSoWhite and #RhodesMustFall.  Yes, the age-old problem of colonial legacy and heritage has reared its controversial head again.   Southern Africa has come alive on this touchy topic, and judging from the reactions and debates on social media, the region is far from reconciling with its colonial past.

Cecil John Rhodes

The now infamous Cecil John Rhodes Statue at UCT. Picture sourced from the Guardian website

Cecil John Rhodes was not a nice man.  That,  I’m sure, we can all agree on.  He lied, stole, cheated, and harassed his way to become filthy rich.  For the longest time, he was presented in the history books as a progressive forward-thinker, who almost single-handedly made Southern Africa what it is today.  Yes, he did shape Southern Africa.  And this region still bears the scars of his schemes and interference.

This is the heart of the issue now:  there’s a giant statue, in the heart of a campus in Southern Africa, of a man who deserves zero adoration, respect, or celebration.  Rhodes did donate the land for the UCT campus – but then again, it wasn’t really his land to  start with, was it?   People walk by that statue every day, a constant reminder of the ‘great’ man who deigned to donate ‘his’ land and money to the establishment of a university.  In a country that is  still negotiating a difficult and traumatic history, it’s understandable that some students at UCT would be hurt by constantly being exposed to a monument of a man who killed millions of natives and relocated thousands of others.  And when people feel like their voices are being shut out, when the Powers That Be refuse to even listen to your views and complaints, people get desperate.  People get angry.  People get drastic.  The poo being flung on that statue was a demonstration of that frustration, anger, and disgust.  It worked.  People started to listen to their grievances.

Then came an equally controversial subject: changing the name of Rhodes University.   This debate is not new; the proposal was first tabled all the way back in 1994, by the then Student Representative Council (SRC) President Vuyo Kahla.  Fast forward to 2015, and the debate rages on, but something has changed.  The warm, friendly atmosphere at Rhodes has often masked the underlying frustrations and tension that bubbled to the surface a few weeks ago.  If  an institution does not condone, nor associate ourselves with the views and morals of Rhodes, why do they insist on keeping the name?  Name changes are not new: after Independence, did Zimbabwe not change its name from Rhodesia?  If a university is so intent on preserving its brand, then surely its reputation should be based on the quality of its education, and not its name?  Ultimately, why, until now, have people been so dismissive about this issue, an issue that clearly affects ALL of us?

Photo sourced from Wikipedia

Photo sourced from Wikipedia

Colonial baggage and the legacy of Rhodes is a burden that every Southern African must bear.  History has not been kind to Africa, and as a Zimbabwean living in a foreign country, I can personally say that nothing is more aggravating than someone trivialising your distress and your history.  Living with colonial legacy is hard enough, do we really need to live with the monuments that glorify a man who represents a particularly  dark period in African history?  A man who said,

“Pure philanthropy is very well in its way but philanthropy plus five percent is a good deal better”

AND

“I prefer land to niggers.”

Removing such monuments, contrary to popular belief, is not “erasing history”.  Rather, it’s acknowledging that some of the men and women who were celebrated as heroes in their time do not deserve that honour today.  The statue of Cecil John Rhodes in Zimbabwe was taken down, yet we are still very much aware of his life and legacy.  Statues of Lenin, Stalin and Saddam Hussein have been torn down, but that was not followed by the world collectively hitting Delete on their histories.

A statue of Rhodes in formerly Southern Rhodesia

A statue of Rhodes in formerly Southern Rhodesia

The statue was taken down and relocated to a museum

The statue was taken down and relocated to a museum

At the end of the day, this is a discussion that’s not going to go away.  It shouldn’t go away.  The effects of colonisation are still strong today, and even though the Born Frees didn’t live through it, doesn’t mean we are not affected by it.  Telling someone to “get over it” is downright insensitive and ignorant.  All it comes down to is consideration.  For any progress to be made, and for Southern Africa to reconcile with its tumultuous past, each of us needs to be open to each other’s perspectives, distress and opinions.  To quote my Vice Chancellor, Dr. Sizwe Mabizela,

“When you walk in someone else’s shoes that is when you realise what it is like to be that other person.”