Saturday, February 04, 2006

Has Freedom of Expression arrived for us?

I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of IGZIABEHER
MAZEMR 118:17

Soon after I posted the first writing, my e-mail inbox received the first responses. And there I was thinking that I was the only Rastafarian online. For the first time in my life, I felt truly free to express myself.

When one thinks of freedom of expression in Zimbabwe, one thinks of the deplorable Media Laws that have been enacted by a regime that cannot bear criticism- itself an admission that it merits censure. One thinks of C.I.O operatives who ride with us on the public transport, ears pricked in case someone gets careless with their remarks.

The state of affairs as they are in Zimbabwe, we sometimes forget that the longing for freedom of expression has been felt by Rastafarians way before the enactment of these evil laws or the deployment of C.I.O. agents to eavesdrop on civilians. Censorship does not always take the form of written laws. Nor does it always take the form of the threat of being taken away in an unmarked vehicle in the middle of the night for swimming lessons in acid barrel. As a Rastafarian, I should know.

The censorship that I encountered firsthand was that of fear; fear of society's disapproval. Fear of the shame I was accused of bringing to my parents before the church pastor and all their friends. So even when they would ask me why I had embraced a religion that is associated with vagrancy, teenage delinquency and urombe, I could not even explain myself. Fear of being derided, the moment you tell someone you are Rastafarian, he or she bursts in to laughter, even if they haven't got a clue what a Rastafarian is. Then, they will ask you if you smoke dagga and if you are a vegetarian.

It took me a while to work out that people would ask me about my beliefs only so they could review them and have a good laugh amongst themselves. When I walked in on a family entertaining themselves thus, I stopped talking to people. But that too is a form of censorship. I became unable to express myself.
I got the same attitude when I was called upon to set the record straight with the mainstream media. The first time I went on A.M Zimbabwe, with Priest Joshua Chitsa, we were asked about Bob Marley and the smoking of marihuana. Seeing as we were allocated only 10 minutes, we left the TV-viewing public with the impression that Bob Marley founded the Rastafarian Movement and that smoking marihuana "enhances the belief". Not only that, but the event we were trying to generate publicity for- an attempt at creating a national organisation for the Rastafarians- was established as some sort of jamboree with lots of artists performing, I was even asked to name any famous ones coming, with plenty of enhancing of the movement. I still have the tape somewhere, and when I clear it with ZBC, I should like to post excerpts.
Then there was that nightmare with the Sunday Mail, where one of the journalists tried to get the representative of the Sistren to take off her head covering so that he could gawk at her locks.
In the end, I decided not to deal with the mainstream media. Without there being a Law in force, we Rastafarians have effectively been banned. As one Muslim participant at the Dialogue Among Civilisations put it, we remained on the "nation's blindspot." Without the opportunity to be heard, we became subject to the misconceptions pepertuated by the mainstream media.
Every one saw the need for us to have our own media. But there was the problem of capital. And so, we fell prey to another censor- poverty. There was no money to buy computers, printers, video cameras, TV and Radio airtime etc.
A glimmer of hope has emerged with the advent of the Internet. It's relatively affordable for someone like me. Here, I have found a voice, on this blog. However, I am not about to shout, FREE AT LAST just yet.
As I have noted, the socio-economic condition of the Rastafarian has also proved to be a cruel form of silencing. Many of the Rastafarians I know do not have access to the internet. In the year 2000, the Computer Society of Zimbabwe said there were only 12000 computers online in Zimbabwe. How many of those are going to have a Rastafarian handling the mouse?
So, for a long time now, I have been reluctant to get online and talk to my people. That great censor- fear- was still in place. Fear that no one's out there in cyberspace.
In my fear, I had forgotten that Zimbabwe is now much bigger than what I see when I look around. Our Great country now occupies cyberspace, and there are several Rastafarian Zimbabweans online!! I know this now, because barely minutes after putting up the first posting, I started getting e-mail.
For a writer, I do not think there is nothing more liberating than the realisation that someone out there will read my work. They may rip it to shreds and declare a fatwa, they may send it to their friends, they may shake their heads; whatever. But they have read it.
Now that is what I call Freedom of Expression.
The Blessings of the Father be poured upon you, and may they be multiplied a thousand times a thousand. Amen.
And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

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