Tales of three cities…

Delayed Gratification magazines.
In October last year, People’s Stories Project, The Slow Journalism Company (UK) and the British Council South Africa partnered up in a storytelling experience that highlighted the creative scenes, ideas and cultural challenges across three southern African cities. Matthew Lee of Slow Journalism Company and Delayed Gratification magazine recalls his introductory experience of meeting artists across these particular metropolises.

It was quite an experience. Over ten days in southern Africa I’d met so many talented and creative people, and had so many fascinating and eye-opening conversations, I felt slightly overwhelmed. 

I had joined Nana Ocran, the Editor of People’s Stories Project, for an exciting collaboration that took us to Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa in October and November last year. In all three countries we were hosted by the British Council South Africa, who wanted us to get involved in some of their ambitious projects to promote creativity and innovation in the region.

The main focus of the trip was the second edition of ColabNowNow, the British Council’s programming strand at the pioneering Mozambican arts conference Maputo Fast Forward. It saw eight selected artists and storytellers from across sub-Saharan Africa and the UK spend a week in the Mozambican capital working together on digital art projects – a unique collaboration which ended with a marvellous one-off exhibition on a balmy Maputo evening.

Matthew Lee (Slow Journalism Company) and Nana Ocran (People’s Stories Project)

We had lots of opportunities to get to know the artists’ work. People’s Stories Project is supported by the British Council to offer African creatives the opportunity to develop challenging and thought-provoking editorial work. I was there representing the Slow Journalism Company, the publisher of Delayed Gratification magazine, with the goal of encouraging the participants to think more deeply about storytelling and innovative ways to highlight this. Delayed Gratification is renowned for its infographics, in which we find compelling narratives in data sets.

After Mozambique we travelled to South Africa, where we attended a social event in Johannesburg. It was an opportunity to meet several young local creatives and speak to them about the challenges faced by artists in South Africa today. The final leg of our trip took us to Harare, where the local British Council office introduced us to dozens of artists and journalists. I ran one of Delayed Gratification’s infographics workshops at co-working space Moto Republik, where we met determined individuals who have been able to create inspiring and innovative work under extremely difficult circumstances.

In the subsequent articles, I will share some personal thoughts on the experience.

(24 October 2018) Maputo gets a bad rap. When I searched for travel tips for the Mozambican capital before my journey, an ominously titled blog post appeared near the top of Google’s rankings: “Maputo: My Least Favourite City in the World.” A few days later, as I joined a group of young artists at the Botanica venue for their collaborative exhibition, it was clear that Maputo had been unfairly maligned online. In fact, Maputo was the star of the show, with the city’s laid-back pace of life, leisurely cafe culture, colonial-era art deco architecture and fascinating hidden history permeating the artists’ work. Frankly, if you find yourself looking out to Maputo Bay eating fresh seafood or matapa – a delicious Mozambican staple made with cassava leaves – and you still haven’t warmed to the city, you’re doing it wrong. 

As I got to know Maputo better myself, I began to recognise fragments of the city in the artists’ work

My visit began at the Joli guest house, a welcoming hotel on a palm-lined street in the north of the city. Here, I found the nine artists chosen by the British Council for ColabNowNow spread out across the cozy downstairs space and the pool terrace to work on their various projects. Some of the non-Mozambican artists had come to Maputo with projects in mind, but most were content to see where their creativity took them in an unfamiliar setting – with fellow artists on hand for inspiration and advice. As I got to know Maputo better myself, I began to recognise fragments of the city in the artists’ work: Nilton Mungamba’s illustrations of buildings under threat from development; Will Hurt’s geometrical digital art inspired by colonial architecture and lush vegetation; and Maxwell Mutanda’s collection of colourful propaganda posters for the Frelimo political party, whose distinctive corn-and-drum emblem I’d seen fastened to countless walls and trees.

A spirit of collaboration encouraged by ColabNowNow’s fantastic organisers and its facilitators – Eduardo Cachucho, Dr.Tegan Bristow, Filomena Mairosse and Eliana Nzualo – generated a contagious creative energy. Maxwell’s restless curiosity and passion for history could have taken him in any number of directions, but his work for the group exhibition was a collaboration with South African hair artist Nikiwe Dlova about self-expression and beauty for African women. Elsewhere, Will helped Nilton create an interactive app to showcase his illustrations, while Tanzanian photographer Andrew Munuwa worked with British-Zimbabwean poet Tanyaradzwa Chitunhu to create a powerful piece on contemporary urban culture (Tanya’s own poems were given a striking holographic treatment by Will, below). Ghanaian visual artist Hakeem Adam and Nigerian artist Afopefoluwa Ojo contributed to Valerie Amani’s extraordinary and multifaceted work about funeral rituals, as well as creating their own distinctive artworks. Since this residency, both Valerie and Will were selected to facilitate at this year’s Fak’ugesi digital festival in Johannesburg, and will also return to Maputo Fast Forward in Mozambique.

Powerful poetry from Tanyaradzwa Chitunhu

Despite a tough group deadline, when I delivered my Delayed Gratification infographics class to the artists, I could sense a desire among them to work together to present data in innovative ways. 

Maputo Fast Forward artists’ showcase at Botanica – Mozambique, 2018.

The highlight of the visit was a sparkling group exhibition at the Botanica café and art space, which saw the artists’ combined talents showcased in a beautiful setting, on the most gorgeous of spring evenings. It was the perfect start to this southern Africa trip.

Jacaranda season in Johannesburg

(27th October 2018) ….Shortly after landing in Johannesburg, I took an after-dark stroll from my Melville guest house to a neighbourhood bar, determined not to let the city’s reputation for being unsafe make me do something as paranoid and profligate as hire an Uber to deliver me down the road safely. But this urban environment does generate paranoia in new arrivals: there were no pedestrians in sight, private security vehicles did laps of the suburban streets, and I was separated from houses by walls – great big towering walls – embellished with spikes, electric fencing and signs warning anyone bold enough to jump the barrier to expect an armed response. 

The act of building walls to separate ourselves from others carries particular historical resonance in a city whose present-day human geography reflects the destructive consequence of decades of racial segregation.

Johannesburg, at least in its well-heeled districts, is a city of walls. And the act of building walls to separate ourselves from others carries particular historical resonance in a city whose present-day human geography reflects the destructive consequence of decades of racial segregation. Yet while the city’s visual identity seems to encourage inward-looking isolation, my experience of exploring the metropolis over the next couple of days did not correspond: whether it was dancing with the multicultural hipster crowd in Braamfontein bars, checking out the converted warehouses and artists’ studios at Arts on Main in Maboneng, or exploring inner-city Hillburg with the community-focused Dlala Nje team, I scratched the surface of a city that was vital, vibrant, global and, above all, open-hearted. 

This expansiveness was on full display at the Roving Bantu Kitchen, an eccentric yet cosy retreat in the working class suburb of Brixton, which according to genial host Sifiso is not a restaurant but “an eatery, a living museum and a Kultural base” – an ideal setting for a storytelling mixer arranged by the British Council, South Africa. Over Sifiso’s generous Afro-soul food, I enjoyed a wide-ranging discussion with guests including arts critic Nolan Stevens, graphic artist Sindiso Nyoni, dynamic editor and writer Ntombenhle Shezi, and Jamal Nxedlana, creative director of cultural intelligence agency, Bubblegum Club. While the people we met did speak about ongoing challenges relating to lack of opportunity, representation and funding for black South African artists, there was discussion about the broader challenge of creating art in a country still coming to terms with its history and still trying to forge a national identity. We also spoke about the impact of gender, disability and economic inequality.

Johannesburg is not like Cape Town, a charmer of a city it’s easy to fall instantly in love with. But I got a strong sense of why Jozi is one of the most exciting places in Africa for young creatives. There’s so much going on and so many opportunities; you just have to look beyond the walls.

Screen from Delayed Gratification infographics workshop in Harare.

(30th October 2018) I had no idea what to expect from Zimbabwe when our early morning flight from Johannesburg landed at Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport. My entire understanding of the country had been shaped by tales of the late and former leader of Zimababwe’s brutal dictatorship, which had dominated almost all British media coverage of the country until his ousting in November 2017. In fact, in our own magazine, Delayed Gratification, the only coverage on Zimbabwe so far, has been a longform piece charting Mugabe’s rise and fall.

A year after his ousting, my all too brief visit to the country revealed the depth and diversity of a cultural scene that has survived and grown in spite of long-term political instability, economic woes and stringent media laws. 

With the help of Farai, Ronald, Chipo and Extra-Blessing from the British Council in Harare, we were treated to a crash-course in contemporary Zimbabwean culture, media and journalism. Most of our meetings in addition to a well-attended Delayed Gratification infographics class took place at Moto Republic, the kind of place you’d expect to find in Shoreditch, a creative hub made from shipping containers. The city council planned to demolish it in 2017, prompting an ultimately successful #SaveMotoRepublik campaign on social media.

Through our conversations with creatives, artists and journalists in Harare, we managed to get a sense of how transformative social media has been in these turbulent and transformational recent years, especially for young people in the country desperate to circumnavigate the restrictive mainstream media, which is largely government controlled. Our first meeting was with comedians Samantha ‘Gonyeti’ Kureya and Sharon ‘Maggie’ Chideu, who along with producer Lucky Aron founded Bustop TV, which produces satirical sketches in the Shona language and publishes them on YouTube and Facebook. Reaching over 400,000 people, their most popular sketches mock the authorities in a way that would almost certainly not be possible in the traditional broadcast media. One of the key figures behind Moto Republik, Samm Farai Monro aka Comrade Fatso, was also present – he’s a comedy writer and performer himself, who along with his colleagues at Magamba TV have spent years laughing at the authorities (in English), often facing state intimidation. 

There’s a rich vein of talent in the country, and over three days we met countless artists, journalists and creatives who are persevering under difficult conditions.

At Gavas, one of the most popular restaurants in the city, we chatted to writer and editor Munya Bloggo about Shoko, an urban culture festival that takes place each autumn and showcases the country’s best comedians, musicians and spoken-word artists. It became clear that there’s a rich vein of talent in the country, and over three days we met countless artists, journalists and creatives who are persevering under difficult conditions – a week before our visit photos of empty Harare supermarket shelves and impossibly long queues at petrol stations spread online as the country suffered severe shortages of essential goods. 

We were inspired by Tafadzwa Tarumbwa’s glorious animations, which have accompanied videos by some of the country’s most leftfield musicians, and, at a bar blissfully unaffected by major beer shortages, we chatted to director Tomas Brickhill, whose debut movie Cook Offis that rarest of things, a Zimbabwean romcom. It was great to meet Eugene Mapondera and Tinodiwa Makoni from ComExposed, a collective that promotes and supports comic- and graphic novel-making in Africa, and it was inspiring to learn about the work of Stephanie Kapfunde from digital storytelling pioneers Enthuse Afrika, who have plans to launch a Slow Journalism magazine of their own.

I’m under no illusions that the brief glimpse of Zimbabwe I saw reflects the reality for most Zimbabweans, who continue to suffer serious food and medicine shortages, rampant inflation, sky-high unemployment and disastrously unreliable water and electricity supplies. Yet after a lifetime of only hearing one story of a Zimbabwe that was run into the ground by many of its leaders, it was hugely refreshing to see this other side to the country, where a determined, imaginative and youthful population is using digital media to express their individuality and imagination.

In the lead up to Maputo Fast Forward (MFF) 2019, People’s Stories will be reflecting on some of the words and work of artists and storytellers from last year’s MFF season – in the spirit of slow journalism, of course!