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Holding Zimbabwe's Leaders Accountable Through Poetry


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm David Greene.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

Zimbabwe is preparing for elections this year. Given its history, brutal suppression of the opposition and accusations of stolen votes, there's pressure on the politicians to do better this time around. One group is trying to hold the country's leaders accountable through poetry.

In the capital, Harare, NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has been chatting with a couple of the young protest poets.

ROBSON ISAAC SHOES LAMBADA: Is it politics? Is it poli-tricks? Or it's now poll-tricks?

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Robson Isaac Shoes Lambada recites "Politicians and Governancy."

LAMBADA: Politicians and governancy, politicians in governancy, politicians governing governancy, governancy governing politicians. Politicians reiterating the rhythms and the rhymes of political ruthlessness, and insulting the poem and the poet's consciousness.

QUIST-ARCTON: With elections on the horizon this year, it's open season for Zimbabwe's creative writers. Shoes Lambada is the coordinator of the Zimbabwe Poets for Human Rights. And the wordsmiths are not letting the country's political leaders off the hook.

LAMBADA: The poem speaks specifically to how elections have been manipulated by politicians and how they have used violence, and how they have tried to make sure that people vote for them. So it's generally how politicians manipulate the populace, to make sure that they gain the votes when election time comes.

QUIST-ARCTON: Michael Mabwe is another of the rights' poets.

MICHAEL MABWE: What shall we say and do when politics is no longer the battle of ideas but the conquering of masters who control the greatest number of thugs? What shall we say and do when the dead are more than the living on the voters' roll? What shall we say and do when politicians have become hyenas devastating our communities? (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: Mabwe says Zimbabwe's youth must jettison apathy, rise up, register, and vote to make a difference.

MABWE: We are concerned with issues and not individuals. So what we exist to do is to make sure that that people of Zimbabwe are well informed so that they can make informed choices. If that choice becomes Morgan Tsvangirai or it becomes Robert Mugabe, that's a different issue altogether.

QUIST-ARCTON: Political opponents, President Mugabe and Prime Minister Tsvangirai, have been locked in an uneasy power sharing marriage under a regionally-brokered deal for Zimbabwe since 2008. This was after violent elections, with killings that rights organizations say were state-sponsored and left more than 200 people dead. The political rivals should be facing off in the presidential race due this year.

Poet Shoes Lambada says young voters must be alert.

LAMBADA: What should the youth say and do when they let them lie to the ah-bodda-bigga-boon? Wibbly, wobbly walking in a grotesque parody of motion, with worn out emotions, and hopeless like skeletons of prehistoric animals. Voting is the beginning of the ending of complaining. And abstaining is donating your right to choosing. I choose to choose by voting and choose laughing over fighting, voting over sloganeering and voting over fighting.

QUIST-ARCTON: Shoes Lambada says this is a direct message to young Zimbabweans.

LAMBADA: What people must understand is that if they don't vote, they've actually voted. They've donated their vote to where they didn't want it to go. But the challenge we have is that we are saying that as a people we must go out there and vote for a government of our choice. So that when those people fail us, we also take blame to say we chose these people to be in power.

QUIST-ARCTON: But does speaking out mean getting into trouble? Again, Michael Mabwe.

MABWE: Sometimes we do. We have had to dodge police after performing at some functions. We have had to live with threats from people who would think that you are, you know, attacking them directly or their policies. So there are so many risks. But we have come to a point where we have said, OK, this is our calling. We have a duty to make sure that we do this. Because if we don't do this, then who will do it? So that keeps us going.

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: Lonely forever, lonely forever. (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Harare.

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Foreign language spoken) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton
Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is an award-winning broadcaster from Ghana and is NPR's Africa Correspondent. She describes herself as a "jobbing journalist"—who's often on the hoof, reporting from somewhere.