By: Eugene Ulman
Zimbabwe is a country in crisis and for a new generation astronomical inflation, empty supermarket shelves, fuel queues, power cuts, Aids, censorship and political violence have become the norm.But the Book Cafe is one of the places that make the capital city Harare so addictive, in spite of all the problems.I first visited the Book Cafe in 1998, not long after it opened. I saw a Tracy Chapman-style singer-songwriter and a stand-up comedian called Edgar Langeveldt who made jokes about the recent riots.
It was hard to imagine back then how significant this place would become.
An environment of tight radio and TV control means that in Harare popular culture happens live.
The modest-looking Book Cafe has just quietly turned 10 years old. In 1997, a “lefty” bookshop called Grassroots Books was transformed into cultural venue, with book launches, discussion nights and performances.
Over the years, the cafe has become the epicentre of Harare’s alternative culture. Six nights a week an audience gathers here, which is as varied as the city itself.
The events each night vary greatly, but they have one thing in common: at the Book Cafe there is no censorship.
The cafe was the brainchild of Paul Brickhill, owner of Grassroots Books who needed a venue where his band Luck Street Blues could play. So he created one.
His son Tomas Brickhill says the cafe has an important role, especially in difficult times.
“If you’ve got a chance to tell people what you think then you have to do that, especially in times of crisis,” he says. “Not that rock and roll is going to save the world or anything as silly as that. But in a way music gives a voice that maybe can push the boundaries a little bit.”
The economic crisis has hit the arts hard in Zimbabwe, and venues must support commercial music and culture to survive. So the Book Cafe has evolved into an all-important space for artists to connect and collaborate without being limited by genre or market.
Besides creative innovation and entertainment, the venue also provides an environment where performers and audience can debate, challenge and confront.
Samm Farai Monro, better known by his stage name Comrade Fatso, is a regular – a protest poet who is becoming something of a celebrity in Harare, mixing English with the majority language of Zimbabwe Shona. He features in the cafe’s monthly “poetry slam”.
Even Comrade Fatso acknowledges the difficulties of speaking out. “One thing with Book Cafe is that if you’ve got the guts to say what you want and spit it out in a poem – you can do it – but you don’t know what’s going to come next,” he says.
“That’s the joke – in Zimbabwe you’ve got freedom of expression but you don’t have freedom after expression.”
The venue plays host to a range of musical styles – from the jazz band Too Open, through hip hop artists Unity Vibes to The Spirit of the People with singer James Mujuru. They carry on the great tradition of the late Ephat Mujuru who introduced so many around the world to traditional Shona music and who also played memorable sets at the Book Cafe.
There has never been an attempt by the government to shut down the book café, but the artist and management are never entirely safe from run-ins with officials.
During a recent comedy night the police burst in and arrested two performers. They were released the following day, physically unharmed but intimidated.
As the stress of everyday life intensifies and Zimbabweans have come under increasing pressure to turn against each other, The Book Café is a reminder that sometimes simply getting along can be the most powerful form of protest.
It is not a venue that advocates a political stance, and it does not represent any political party or corporate interest.
Although there is an energy of rebellion and freedom, it is not a place of slogans or campaigning; it is a place of open dialogue and expression.