The Sunday Mail
Features & Entertainment Editor
When I joined The Sunday Mail as a cub reporter in 2008, I immediately sought to find myself a niche, something that would guarantee me a byline every week.
There was no shortage of talent at the then Garikai Mazara-led Entertainment Desk; talk of Robert Mukondiwa, Godwin Muzari, Mirirai Nsingo and Grace Shamu. There was no way a greenhorn like me would be able to make an immediate impact.
So I devised a plan.
Within weeks of being in the newsroom and fearing that I would be told, after the first three months, to pave way for others and find myself jobless, again, I proposed to start a Theatre Column. This is when I had my first encounter with Stephen Chifunyise, the man. I had long come across some of his works — on stage and on television.
For over five years — week in, week out — I reviewed, previewed and fought in the thespians’ corner. I had come to know them quite intimately.
Chifunyise was my go-to guy for everything theatre, at first, and then everything to do with the arts in Zimbabwe. He knew the nooks and crannies of the industry.
Chifunyise understood me long before I realised where I was headed with my profession. This colossus of the arts industry even wrote a profound citation about me, a little-known journalist, and my work in theatre, after one of the arts industry bodies had been so kind to give me an award.
In workshops and conversations we had afterwards, he made sure to remind me that theatre should be used as a tool for political and ideological development. Indeed, theatre developed me to the extent that I took a short course in Theatre Arts, just so that I could interpret the works of some geniuses in this industry.
An opportunity was later to present itself for me to say some things about him as well. It was a festival in honour of Chifunyise’s great works over many years, cutting across different cultures in dozens of countries. It was held at the University of Zimbabwe. Remember, Chifunyise was my go-to guy about anything arts related. I did not know what to do. I was overwhelmed by the occasion.
Daves Guzha, famous for his Theatre in the Park, which back then was a tiny gazebo with hardly any space for more than a handful of people, tried to give me some tips but it was too little too late.
Of course, I mumbled some things on the day, underwhelmed my audience and myself big time. But Chifunyise still had some kind words for me. That was the man he was. Kind and loving. Besides having record-breaking plays that toured, cumulatively, over a 100 countries — he did not look the part. He always had that humble “guy next door” look. When he spoke, his demeanour, particularly to the kids, whom he was very passionate about, was always pleasant. One would be forgiven for thinking he was some sekuru straight from a Mhunga bus plying the Gutu-Harare route. His grey hair, which spoke of unmatched wisdom, could be mistaken for hupfu (mealie meal) from a local chigayo (grinding mill).
And when he taught dance — that Jerusarema-Mbende dance he loved so much that he made sure it was recognised by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage — one would think he was some diehard entertainer of yesteryear kings.
Yet, this was an academic of international repute, whose works (not counting the over 50 plays he wrote) touched millions of people worldwide.
Yes, he is one of the founders of Chipawo, an arts education development organisation targeting children and the youths. Chipawo — officially launched in 1989 — grew to become a worldwide phenomenon. Nationwide, Chipawo has 71 centres with over 1 000 children.
Chipawo World has so far launched sister organisations that are also run by young people in Botswana (CHIPABO), Namibia (CHINAMIBIA), South Africa (CHISA) and Zambia (CHIEZA).
The world initiative, CHAREWO, meaning Children’s Arts Education World, has interests in countries like Australia, Ethiopia, France, Gambia, Germany, Ghana, Malawi, Nigeria, Norway, Palestine, Philippines, Puerto Rico, Sweden and Uganda. Chipawo is the training ground where Hollywood star Danai Gurira, the late Chiwoniso Maraire, David Chifunyise, Thando McLaren, Rute Mbangwa, Farai Kuzvidza, Malvern Potwayo, Charmaine Picardo, Tafadzwa “Jack” Chimbetete, Cynthia Njagu and Wellington Makoni, to name just a few, passed through.
Chipo Basopo, a director at Chipawo, who joined the organisation in 1993, was also groomed there before rising through the ranks.
This man of the Shumba totem, born in the land of Josiah Tongogara on September 21 1948, was born with two great gifts. One was his mind, which saw him attain an MA in Theatre Arts at a time when most gifted black children failed to make it beyond Standard Six in a racially divided Rhodesia.
According to his peer from Zambia, Professor Dickson Mwansa, Chifunyise went on to create a global project which was adopted by UNESCO.
Chifunyise’s other gift was his ability to stay humble even when he was the brightest spark in the room, at the workplace, in a city or even in a country like Zambia, at first, and then Zimbabwe.
He shifted quite easily between roles that required him to dine with Government Ministers, Presidents and representatives of bodies such as the United Nations or narrate ngano to four-year olds at Mai Musodzi Hall in Mbare.
A certified UNESCO facilitator in the area of intangible cultural heritage, Chifunyuse was instrumental in the ratification and implementation of the UNESCO 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Heritage Convention in the region.
He was also a member of the UNESCO team of experts on cultural governance, within the scope of implementing the 2005 UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of Cultural Diversity. Following his death, I was not surprised when CNN and the United Nations bulletins quickly picked up the news and begun celebrating his life and works.
His friend and colleague in the arts sector, Daves Guzha, was at a loss for words.
“Stephen Joel Chifunyise was and is the quintessential playwright, arts educator, policy guru, social commentator of all time. Stephen’s writings are intergenerational and it is this ability to weave past petty and destructive situations that made him such a unique and outstanding character.
“His creativity is to be seen in works such as ‘Strange Bedfellows’, which holds Zimbabwe’s all time touring record of 38 countries, and in the clarion call to nationhood and peace building in ‘Rituals’ and ‘Heal the Wounds’. In the pacesetter and only sitcom to come out of Zimbabwe, ‘Waiters’, Chifunyise showed us the power and need for racial harmony in the Zimbabwean nation. The tree shade is depleted.”
Rest in eternal peace Uncle Steve. You are indeed a hero of our time!