Rules Are Rules…

Charlie, Annabel and William at the Bulawayo office of the National Arts Council

Charlie, Annabel and William at the Bulawayo office of the National Arts Council

There were several theories. Some said they had seen advance publicity of the launch event we were planning. Some said they were alerted by my putting “musician” on my immigration form. Some favoured a conspiracy and sabotage theory. Some pointed to the uneasy relationship between our respective governments. Whatever it was, they – immigration that is – were not going to budge. The officer at Bulawayo airport and, later, the chief officer in town, both insisted that I could not perform in public without a temporary work permit costing $500, the same as it would for much longer than the period I was staying.

I explained in full the context in which I was wanting to perform – the second anniversary of Simon’s passing, the tribute album we had recorded last year, and the planned launch. I emphasised that I would not be paid for this performance or indeed any other occasion that I might be invited to sing during my stay. The chief officer, although kind and professional, was firm and unmoving. “Rules are rules,” she said.

And so began a long trail of paperwork and visits to offices – endless walks along drab and dreary corridors past doors marked with impenetrable job titles, endless repetitions of the same information, endless frustration at time wasted, endless waiting around for people to show up or to do what they had promised.

Many people helped – my old friend Mbazo Phiri of Sabela Music Projects, who runs the Ibumba Festival, explained in detail what we had to do, gave us office space to write letters, made phone calls to Harare on our behalf, introduced me to a government minister and generally gave a lot of moral support. Annabel, one of my strong women, helped with a lot of the paperwork and lent her laptop. Desmond Ntini, another old friend who put a lot of energy into the launch project, accompanied me and Charlie on several of our immigration visits, and found me a hotel where I could get a drink after a particularly bad day. William Nyandoro at the Bulawayo office of the National Arts Council was very supportive and although he was off work in the second week did not turn us away when in desperation we turned up at his home late one evening.

We produced a contract, a budget indicating how much of my own money was going into the project, and a letter to the main Arts Council office in Harare. Everyone we spoke to, apart from immigration of course, said we should not have to pay. On the Tuesday of the second week, endorsed by the head of the Arts Council as permission was in process, I performed at the opening of the Ibumba Festival.

Days dragged on – not one without a trip into town related to this and other snatched errands to do with the launch concert. Every day we would swear that we would return from town in time to rehearse, and almost every day we failed to do so. The rest of Sunduza, bless them, were understanding and sympathetic.

On the Thursday of the second week we finally received, via the Bulawayo office, the official letter from the Arts Council in Harare giving me permission to play at Ibumba on the Friday and the launch on the Saturday. After another long wait at immigration for an answer from their Harare office, during which Charlie’s cousin Leroy was sent to an internet cafe, at my expense, to scan and email a document because they didn’t have a scanner, I was told to come back on the Friday morning to pay for the work permit.

Rules are rules, indeed, and in hindsight we should have dealt with this a long way in advance. Mbazo has intimated before that I have been lucky to escape the scrutiny of the authorities, and earlier this year a South African gospel singer he had engaged was turned back at the airport, so I guess they’re tightening up. Artists in Zimbabwe operate under a lot of stresses too – when we went for the required police permission for the concert, for example, we were asked for a copy of the CD so that it could be screened for any political content. Even diverting from the standard version of the national anthem can invite censure apparently. So on the whole I guess I got off lightly.

The experience bruised me however, dominated the short duration of my stay, and only just failed to totally spoil the launch concert. I’m not going to say, “Never again,” but I do feel that a break from my regular visits is indicated.

More positive blogs to follow, I promise!