Summer is a serious, hard-working time of year in southern Africa. Chilly mornings and bright, clear days define this hemisphere's winter months when school is in session and young minds are focused. That made it a perfect time for U.S. Embassy Harare and the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs to bring five American writers from the University of Iowa's prestigious International Writing Program to workshop and discuss the power of books with Zimbabwean youth.
The writers, representing a wide variety of literary styles, including poetry, journalism, novels, and short stories, started their program by speaking about their craft and inspirations at writing workshops and literary readings in the capital of Harare. To liven up one evening, they turned a reception at the Deputy Chief of Mission's residence into an impromptu poetry slam. Zimbabwean poets performed in English and Shona, while the Iowa Writers read from their own work. Even our Deputy Chief of Mission joined in with a rousing rendition of Judge Noah Sweat's "Whiskey Speech," a monument to Southern oratory and political doubletalk, according to the diplomat.
Early the following morning, our team hit the road to Masvingo, a town 300 kilometers south of Harare, for the Youth Cultural Arts Festival (YOCAF). At YOCAF, the group led discussions with young Zimbabwean students, dramatists, and journalists on the festival's 2012 theme, "The Power of the Pen." In light of Zimbabwe's turbulent political history over the last 10 years, this gathering and its workshops were truly daring and courageous. In the words of one festival organizer, "young Zimbabweans must express themselves despite existing restrictions on free speech."
Masvingo security officials, in true form, disagreed with the YOCAF director's remarks. As a justification for their obvious presence at nearly all of the festival events, plain-clothes security forces cited "security concerns" over YOCAF youth forums, performances by members of Zimbabwe Poets for Human Rights, and a performance of the election drama "No Voice, No Choice." Despite the tense atmosphere, YOCAF events continued as planned, and the Iowa writers held nothing back as they spoke with packed audiences about challenges in journalism and the writer's obligation to the truth. Zimbabwean YOCAF attendees were no less courageous: at a drama workshop, students wrote and performed a play criticizing the Zimbabwean diamond mining industry.
Both the Iowa writers and the Zimbabweans felt renewed by their interactions and exchange of views. One novelist likened his experience to a high striker carnival game, saying that he'd seen the "hammer of free speech come down so hard that it rang the bell at the top," and that he felt confident "young Zimbabweans were so inspired that there was no turning back from this point." While his optimism will likely not spark an immediate social transformation, this cultural exchange was public diplomacy at its finest: passionate Americans and Zimbabweans sharing a love of literature, powerful idealism, and free speech.