Fleeing the Tatters

Voice of Zimbabwe Struggle Thomas Mapfumo Escapes to Oregon

But how could no one have noticed that Mapfumo's family had been gone for months? Reporter Michael Kariati failed to supply any specifics about Mapfumo's new home, and referred vaguely to the band having "signed a long-term contract to play in the U.S.A.," the sort of fantasy notion one often hears from naive local fans. It took a South African paper to reach Mapfumo and learn that he plans to return and play his traditional end-of-year concerts this December.

In Zimbabwe, I was often amazed at the local press's obliviousness to cultural events. Foreign outlets from The Economist to All Things Considered interviewed Mapfumo during the election campaign, well aware that his concerts were helping to rally the opposition. But even the most staunchly antigovernment newspapers in Zimbabwe paid little attention.

"It's one of the tragedies of this country," Zimbabwean broadcaster Geraldine Jackson told me from Harare. "We don't make heroes of our own people. They have to go somewhere else to become heroes." Jackson lost her job in state radio when she broadcast news of safe routes out of the city during the 1998 food riots. Her words gave the lie to the official line that all was calm and peaceful. Recently, Jackson has been working with Capitol, Zimbabwe's first independent radio station. Mapfumo told me that he was interviewed live by Capitol, but despite a landmark free-press ruling by Zimbabwe's highest court, the station has been closed down, and the interview does not seem to have aired.

Mapfumo: Enough is enough.
photo: Billy Barnett
Mapfumo: Enough is enough.

Mapfumo knows that returning to Harare will be dangerous. "But this is not a storm in a teacup," he told me from his Eugene home. "The whole world will be watching." Mapfumo's police contacts assure him that he faces no charges, nor any risk of arrest, but he adds, "You can never tell with these people. They are sometimes very tricky." And very rash. Faced with the threat of impeachment, Mugabe is now lashing out anew at his foes, promising to arrest former Rhodesian president Ian Smith, who has lived peacefully in Harare since his downfall. Mapfumo is reportedly getting heavy airplay in his absence. He certainly could become a target if he returns.

Meanwhile, back in Harare, Mapfumo's remaining musicians are rehearsing, waiting for him to come back. But even if he does, their lives will never be the same. In an e-mail message, guitarist Dube reports that the band's fans, who have traditionally shown the dedication of Deadheads, now feel betrayed, and that other chimurenga artists are rising to fill the vacuum. The country may not recognize its cultural heroes, but it needs them. If new figures of Mapfumo's courage and stature were to emerge from Zimbabwe's present crisis, he might be doing his country, and African music, the biggest favor of all by staying away.

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