The Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA) ended with a bang on Sunday. It was fun but exhausting with musicians from around the world bringing their unique talents to mix with Zimbabwean artists and audiences in this year's festival. The 2011 theme, "The Engagement Party," stressed community engagement, and I am proud to say that the U.S. Embassy sponsored band, Slavic Soul Party! (SSP!), led the way.
The performers this year, ranging from handicapped Chinese dancers to Zimbabwe's hottest reggae rap superstar Winky D, were uniformly outstanding. Still, the most memorable parts of HIFA for me are, and have always been, the outside engagements with Zimbabwean communities around Harare. My embassy's Public Affairs Section and their local partners organized workshops and special performances to complement SSP!'s HIFA main stage show. This "Balkan funk" brass band from New York City took the "engagement" theme to heart. The band started off with two days of workshops with Zimbabwean brass bands. They then paraded through Mbare Township, Harare's most densely populated and economically deprived suburb. Organized by the local Chiedza Childcare Centre, SSP! and the Zimbabwean Salvation Army marching band led a procession of nearly 400 children and majorettes from two area schools to raise awareness for a campaign to stop child abuse. Later that day, they partnered with the Zimbabwean Air Force band for a parade through the busy downtown streets of Harare from African Unity Square to the National Gallery.
It was great having the U.S. Embassy-sponsored group as featured HIFA performers this year, including extensive positive publicity in local media despite the often frosty relationship between the U.S. and Zimbabwe. But the parade through Mbare Township trumped everything. This groundbreaking march was an important opportunity to show the true face of America, in all its diversity, to ordinary Zimbabweans. Even more important, it allowed us to reach out to hundreds of young people who, despite their economically-deprived circumstances, still represent Zimbabwe's future. Music is truly a universal language. As Harare's mayor said to me at one of the HIFA performances, "It allows people from all over to come together, enjoy and get to know each other."
And equally powerful, we saw a real demonstration of how music and art can knock down barriers as we worked to arrange the parade. Despite Zimbabwean government unease with having so many foreigners running around Harare and interacting with Zimbabweans without government supervision, the local authorities still gave us a permit for the Mbare parade -- at a time when they had banned unions from parading to celebrate International Labor Day. The local police provided attentive and courteous escorts who enjoyed the music as much as the kids did. People along our parade route came out of their houses and stared in wonderment as our procession passed. Several came up to me as I walked along with the ensemble, and told me how thankful they were for this gesture of friendship from America.
The parade route was about four kilometers, the longest march I've been on since I left the army 29 years ago. I enjoyed every millimeter of it and would gladly do it again. For me, this was an example of what diplomacy is really all about -- reaching out and touching the minds and hearts of people. Our real success comes when we are able to leave an indelible impression that simply cannot be matched by formal meetings and negotiations, and that, in the long run, will really shape the views that people have of my country.