At a first-floor restaurant at the Gaborone Main Mall, a young woman scrunches up her face and snaps her finger as she sinks luxuriously into the lyrics of a yesteryear hit song, Emotional Roller Coaster. Granted, her octave range is not faithful to the original singer’s but she could do wonders with sufficient vocal training ÔÇô and maybe fewer cigarettes.
Almost every five minutes, there are more bear hugs than you find at a Gaborone gastropub or the lounge of Sir Seretse Khama International airport.
Done with the singing, the young woman rejoins her table where she gets a congratulatory bear hug from a friend. She then excuses herself with “I just wanna smoke outside” and pads out onto the balcony to continue her degradation of the ozone layer.
Scripture may not exactly be explicit about it but it is a sin not to use God-given talent and so every Tuesday, the devout gather at Caf├® Khwest to worship in verse and in song.
The former genre, by turns humorous, somber and titillating, seems to dominate. Don’t try to listen out for rhyme because rarely does it occur. This is a hip place and urban middle-class sub-culture, notable for its distinctive lack of Africanness, is an intriguing side show to the art on display.
The best thing to be said about these open mic sessions is that they provide young people with an opportunity to showcase and hone their artistic talent.
In a country like Botswana, where seeds of spoken-word poetry have only recently sprouted, this is an encouraging development. What happens in Gaborone, the country’s cultural capital, is usually replicated in other parts of the country. Hopefully, the spoken-word poetry movement will spread across the country.
The worst thing to be said about the sessions is that at a time when the government is talking about diversifying the economy away from diamond mining, the Caf├® Khwest poetry is, for the most part, virtually inexorable. Somewhere in her poem, another young woman says that she “can’t wait to be rescued like Cinderella.” That seems culturally inappropriate because the Cinderella story belongs to Greco-Egyptian mythology.
Rosy-cheeked Rhodopis, the original Cinderella, washes her clothes in a stream, a task forced upon her by fellow servants, who have left to go to a function sponsored by the Pharaoh Amasis. An eagle takes her rose-gilded sandal and drops it at the feet of the Pharaoh in the city of Memphis; he then asks the women of his kingdom to try on the sandal to see which one fits. Rhodopis succeeds. The Pharaoh falls in love with her, and she marries him.
Poetic licence notwithstanding, application of the Cinderella theme in an African setting appears a culturally and artistically fraudulent premise.
Yet another young lady (by her account 20 years old, from Kanye and “a bit tipsy”) dreamily rhapsodised about “gangsta loving” in verse. Hopefully, “gangsta” was being used in its benign sense to suggest “cool” but it bears mentioning that youthful obsession with hip hop does not do justice to the rich and multifaceted African-American culture.
Someone was heard to invoke “Yes, you can”, the refrain popularised by the international man of the moment but it is worth reminding ourselves that Barack Obama would not be where he is if he had limited his gifts to the hip hop culture.
The poetry on the evening in question was also thematically self-limiting because it offered nothing beyond cloud-nine-romance or romance-gone-sour narratives.
In one of the last interviews she did before her death last year, Miriam Makeba was asked why other Africans have failed to repeat her phenomenal international success. Her answer was that there was not a layer of cultural fraud between her music and African reality while other, mostly younger Africans wanted “to sound like Whitney Houston.”
For the first time in Botswana, the arts are being lavished not only with presidential attention but government money as well. A few weeks after being sworn in as president last year, Ian Khama announced that henceforth the national holiday that honours the presidency would also be used to celebrate artistic excellence.
Steven Chifunyise, a Zimbabwean cultural expert who facilitated a training workshop on intangible cultural heritage in Gaborone last year, described Khama’s support as “nothing short of a revolution.” He urged Batswana artists to make the most of this support.
“Artists should not take this support for granted because it won’t last. You must give him good quality for the support he is giving you,” Chifunyise said.
That’s sounds good advice to remember on Tuesdays when young people gather to get tipsy, smoke outside and poeticise about different kinds of loving.
Recontextualising “Yes, you can” would be a good start. Yes, you can.