Zimbabwe’s resilient creative industry

It’s a cool and rainy afternoon, not unusual for this time of year. The roads aren’t as packed as during the week, ensuring that the drive to my destination is short and pleasant. I’m glad for the cooler weather. It creates the perfect ambiance for my first Hustlers Market, hosted at Moto Republik.

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Griffin the poet

Stephen Musengi has always been a knack for creativity. Starting from his primary school days, he’s explored his creative self through writing and through music. At first these two remained separate vehicles for Stephen, until he decided, at the age of 15, to try his hand at writing rap. His experiment proved to be a hit with his classmates, and since that first mini performance 8 years ago, Stephen’s grown to be an artist in his own right, using different media to channel his thoughts and hone his skills.

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Tanya’s Nefertari

Nefertari means “beautiful companion”. An Egyptian queen and wife of Ramses the Great, Nefertari is celebrated for her beauty and style. She’s a fitting inspiration for Tanyaradzwa Mushayi, who has always had a fascination with Kemet and ancient history. “I thought why not mix my Shona name with my obsession with Kemet.” So she married the two names together, and the Tanya Nefertari brand came into being.

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Tapiwa and a side of poetry

His story begins in his childhood. Thanks to a father who instilled an appetite for books, Tapiwa Mugabe read voraciously from a young age.  “(It was) mostly silly stories that barely made sense, and fantasy stories with heroes and animals,” says Tapiwa, laughing at the literature of his childhood. As much as tales that were once so fascinating seem trivial now, this early introduction fostered the wordsmith within Tapiwa, culminating in the publication of an anthology of poems in 2014. Continue reading →

So far so good? Young Zimbabwean identity in 2016

36 years ago, Southern Rhodesia was wiped from existence and Zimbabwe was born. Great pomp and ceremony ensued as the populace celebrated the end of a long guerrilla and the establishment of majority rule. Bob Marley even wrote a song for us, and he came down and performed, free of charge, at the official Independence Day celebrations:

In 2016, things are different.  Zimbabweans are scattered across the globe. Many people have left for their studies or employment. There is a generation of people with Zimbabwean heritage who have not set foot in the country.  And for a born-free generation, navigating their Zimbabwean identity is a chore in itself. Four such Zimbabweans, all studying at Rhodes University in South Africa, speak of what it means to be Zimbabwean, 36 years after Independence.

Marshall, 23

“Being Zimbabwean in 2016 comes with many arduous challenges and a lot of hard work in the quest to get opportunity and recognition necessary for the meaningful success in the global village we live in today.

As a young Zimbabwean, I find it hard to break barriers no matter how good I am – barriers that, if broken, will propel my career to dizzy heights. This is largely due to negative political connotations that come with being from Zimbabwe.”

Perpetual, 23

“Being a Zimbabwean youth is tough. Particularly a patriotic youth. You yourself fail to explain where you draw your strong allegiance to the country from.

It’s quite an amazing phenomenon really. I can rave and curse about the situation in Zimbabwe but dare someone else do it. So what does it mean to be a Zimbabwean in 2016, 36 years after independence? It’s a myriad of emotions. Love. Hate. Love. Hate even more.”

Mholiwethu, 21

“My Zimbabwean identity means being resilient in the face of all adversities and having faith and hope as strong a mustard seed.”

Varaidzo, 18

“I like that Zimbabweans, we’re peaceful people. Yeah our country’s messed up, but we’re survivors. It hasn’t broken us.  If you’re outside of the country, you know you’re not alone. You’ve got a community of Zimbabweans there with you.”

Zimbabwean Identity, 36 years on

So what does it mean to be a young Zimbabwean in 2016? There isn’t a straightforward answer to that. There’s a constant tug of war in establishing your identity.  Inheriting the past, surviving the present, building for the future – often times, it can be suffocating to live such an existence. Nevertheless, for many of the young Zimbabweans out there, their national heritage and identity is a badge they wear with pride.

Simudzai mureza wedu weZimbabwe
Yakazvarwa nomoto wechimurenga;
Neropa zhinji ramagamba
Tiidzivirire kumhandu dzose;
Ngaikomborerwe nyika yeZimbabwe.

Phakamisan iflegi yethu yeZimbabwe
Eyazalwa yimpi yenkululeko;
Legaz’ elinengi lamaqhawe ethu
Silivikele ezithan izonke;
Kalibusisiwe ilizwe leZimbabwe.

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

Thembiso and her road to the A-List

You can almost hear Thembiso’s voice, even over the static medium of text.  The smiley faces and exclamation points that dot her responses paint the image of  a young woman whose face that’s just as expressive as her voice.  You wouldn’t be wrong in thinking this: a recent graduate living in California, Thembiso’s planning on making full use of her social skills to propel her to an anchor spot on E! News.

“It’s (the constant moving) definitely made me really social and friendly because I was forced to put myself out there in order to make new friends with each move.”

Thembiso Mawema was used to travelling around.  “My dad was a diplomat so I travelled a  lot but moved to Malawi, Kenya and Zim.”  2007 spelled the big move across the ocean to the United States, but after moving  around so often it wasn’t anything new for her.  Schools were on winter break when Thembiso and her family arrived, but she started school almost immediately after settling into her new home.  “That was definitely the biggest change, from going to a Zimbabwean private school like Convent to an American public school! Major shock! I went from an all-girls school were discipline was a big deal to a co-ed school where kids would make out in front of their teachers like it’s  nothing.”

“I got the most ridiculous questions a lot of the time tho like ‘how did you learn how to speak English so fast’, ‘do you have cars in Africa or did you ride elephants to school’.” 

Apart from the usual comments on whether she lived in a hut or how could she speak such good English, she had no problems fitting in and finding friends.  Travelling and moving so often helped Thembiso hone her social skills and she’d learnt to adapt to new places and cultures.  She upgraded to university, where she graduated with a degree in communications this year.

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“My goal has always been to be a host on E! News, but I just love entertainment, & pop culture & fashion so as long as I’m doing that I’m golden.”

Thembiso had always been set in her career goals.  “My endgoal is to be a host/tv personality”, she says, and true to form for Zimbabweans the world over, she’s started laying the foundation for her dream.  It all started with one of the newer social media platforms, Snapchat.  “I just used it like anyone else & people always tell me how much they enjoy them & how I need my own show. I was just being myself too so it was nice to see that people enjoyed that I suppose.”  Thembiso laughs as she thinks back to where she started.   She’s continued with her Snapchat stories (hosting a #AskThembi every Sunday) and now has her own blog and Youtube lifestyle channel:

Whilst Thembiso has started the journey to create her own brand, she did meet some initial resistance from her parents, who didn’t see entertainment journalism as a legitimate profession.  They naturally had other plans. “My mum has dreams of be becoming a lawyer  which would definitely be my first choice if I didn’t want to be an entertainer.  So I would say they definitely prefer me to do something else, but they support me in what I want to do which is more than I can ask for. My mom gives anyone and everyone the link to my blog to boast.”

 

“I want young guys and girls, to live the life they want for themselves, to not be afraid to not want to be an engineer.”

Thembiso hasn’t been back to Zimbabwe since her family moved, and being away for so long has had an effect on her connection to her old home.   She arrived in California when she was 14 and Thembiso spent the all-important adolescent period in a new surrounding.  However, she never let go of who she was and what she’d learnt when she lived in Zimbabwe.  Her parents and friends (those who are still Zim based) are her touchstone.  “Being close with them and them keeping me grounded and reminding me where I came from is what keeps it (her Zimbabwean identity) going.”  Although she hesitates on whether she’d permanently move back to Zimbabwe, Thembiso’s firm in her resolve to maintain and represent her Zimbabwean roots whichever platform she’s on.AhrRisgu-Q5LU3fMBbH1YME-kOhE9tzBAGqrxhBPki0q

You can check out  Thembiso’s work at www.justthembi.com,  as well as her Youtube channel.