The Sunday Mail
Robert Mshengu Kavanagh
STEPHEN Joel Chifunyise can only be described as a cultural giant. Internationally and in Africa, Zambia in particular, he loomed large.
Chifunyise was an arts and culture polymath. This means he performed many different roles with distinction and displayed a variety of talents. Some are better known than others.
He was without doubt the foremost Zimbabwean playwright. His output is staggering – 55 performed plays up to 2010! His plays have been performed at the University of Zimbabwe, Theatre in the Park, Reps Theatre and no doubt all over Zimbabwe. He has several published collections of plays, short stories and children’s tales.
His themes – all essentially Zimbabwean – explored Zimbabwe’s culture, its modern mores and topical burning issues, including the political.
Perhaps his greatest masterpiece is “Vicious”, a classic play – up with the very best – on middle class poverty in Zimbabwe. He knew a lot about that as, though a civil servant for many years, he never had a brass farthing to his name. In most of his plays, he treated his topics not only with a deep understanding of the issues but also a wonderful sense of humour.
When the Zambian group, Kanyama Theatre, toured Zimbabwe in the early 1980s, they performed imaginative and exciting theatre without all the fancy props, costumes and other expensive extras, thereby showing that one does not need to have lots of money to make plays.
This triggered the explosion of community theatre groups that characterised the high-density areas in the 1980s and early ’90s. It was Chifunyise’s hilarious play on cholera, “Mr Polera”, which took Kanyama’s audiences by storm.
Chifunyise was not only a playwright. He was also a gifted and skilled performer. He acted in many of the plays that made a name for the Chikwakwa Theatre at the University of Zambia in Lusaka.
Here in Zimbabwe, he astonished those who knew him as a director in the department of arts and culture and later as the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Education, Sport and Culture, with his traditional dances and, in particular, his drumming. He was not only able to play, he also had a very deep knowledge of traditional dance and drumming as well as their meanings in the social context.
When he was in the ministry, he was instrumental in ensuring that the Mbende (or Jerusarema) dance was accorded UNESCO World Heritage status. He also played a key role in the growth and acceptance of Theatre for Development and Community Theatre, being a key figure in the organisation and success of the International Workshop on Theatre for Development in Murewa in 1983.
He was an active initiator of the Zimbabwe Association of Community Theatre as well as the Zimbabwe Association for Theatre for Children and Young People (ZATCYP/ASSIYTEJ).
He was quite free from the jealousy and possessiveness which has been a hindrance in the growth of the arts and his support for theatre groups and theatre artistes was selfless and unlimited.
In 1989, Chifunyise played a major part in forming the children and young people’s arts education organisation, Chipawo. Largely as a result of his efforts, it became the Chipawo Trust. When the board was constituted, he became the chairman. Over the years, working closely and harmoniously with the executive director, Dr Robert McLaren, he oversaw the phenomenal growth of the organisation and presided over its ground-breaking achievements.
Nationwide, his profile was greatly enhanced by his participation as a storyteller in the popular television youth magazine programme, Nde’pi Gang’a, by Chipawo Media.
As Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Education, Sport and Culture, he earned a name for himself by his humble and open door approach.
Those who wished to speak to him were freely admitted. He also had a hands on approach and often pitched up unannounced at school meetings.
In the sporting arena, he was also popular. He was the first ministry official to be voted a Sportsman of the Year – a feat he achieved through his support for basketball, culminating in him being voted the Basketball Player of the Year!
As a journalist in numerous publications, Chifunyise highlighted the work of artistes and enhanced the status of the arts sector.
He was an acknowledged expert on cultural policy and, perhaps less well-known in Zimbabwe, was Chifunyise’s international and pan-African status in the field of cultural initiative and programmes.
In particular, he did a great deal of work for UNESCO. He was prominent in promoting the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), Intangible Cultural Heritage and Cultural Policy Development, to name but a few.
Stephen Chifunyise led a life of total dedication to the arts and there are many people, both old and young, in Zimbabwe, in Zambia and from all over the world, who will testify to his massive influence on their lives and his undying achievement in the sector.