Is Satire the New Protest? - Zviri kumbofamba sei?

Society & Culture | By Rumbidzai Dube , Lawyer | 22 November 2014

People often ask why Zimbabweans speak of a repressive government when freedom ‘of’ expression is guaranteed in the Constitution and articles such as mine can be published. However, they often overlook that freedom ‘of’ expression does not guarantee freedom ‘after’ expression. Citizens only get clarity on whether their thoughts and words fit within the political establishment’s version and understanding of freedom ‘of’ expression when they get a response befitting the impact of their words.  Such a ‘response’ often consists of ‘visits’ to police cells in other words unlawful detention and often extends to bruises and broken bones for those who dare go onto the street to protest.

So, since we can’t go on the street and hold placards or march and get our voices heard; we (Zimbabweans) have taken to our creative juices; letting our grievances out in the flow of our words; words often spoken so eloquently; with so much hidden meaning that those who block our protests on the streets become ignorant participants in spreading the word of our protest. In satire we have found expression, saying things we would dare not say openly; and Richard Matimba popularly known as “Uncle Richie” has opened or rather widened the doors to our exercise of this freedom.

Mbiri yavo ndeyei? What is Uncle Richie’s fame?
Uncle Richie is the brains behind the “unotoshaya kuti zviri kumbofamba sei” craze that has hit Zimbabwe. In polite terms his message is “what exactly is going on” but in liberated speech what he means is: what the f*** is going on?!!!”  Nowadays, every statement and joke among Zimbabweans is punctuated with this statement. The message began as an audio recording circulating on WhatsApp (a cross-platform mobile messaging App which allows people to exchange messages without having to pay for SMS.)
When one first listens to it, the audio sounds like the incomprehensible rantings of a drunkard.

The words are mumbled in a slur; the thoughts sound disjointed and discordant, unrelated even, what one would call mumbo jumbo.

But upon listening more carefully, one gets Uncle Richie’s crazy wisdom.  In Uncle Richie’s words is a fascinating exercise of agency in which he strings together narratives of the economy, society and politics. He talks of people getting haircuts in butcheries (Unotoona vamwe vachitogerwa zuda mumabutcher-You see people getting haircuts in butcheries) [who does that?!]. He hints at the dearth in leadership and true representation of constituencies in Parliament (Wotoona kuti ah vanhu vese pa..vanotoshaya mumiriri anotovamiririra… And then you see that all the people at… cannot find leaders to represent them). He talks of the lack of transparency and accountability in Parliament as a representative body as citizens are left wondering what exactly Parliament’s business is  (Pavanozodiscusser muParliament vanenge vachitodiscusser nenyaya dzei-In Parliament, you really wonder what they will be discussing).

He goes further to explore issues of social justice; from the rampant lack of decent housing (unotoshaya kuti vamwe vari kutoshaya dzimba-and then you can’t get how some people do not have houses); food to eat (vamwe vanenge vadya makuseni-some would have had food in the morning); proper health care (vamwe vanoto..vanotoshandisa Vicks kana vachida kuti flu yavo iite kakudzikira- some  use Vicks if they want their flu to get better) to lack of clean and safe water (vanotochera mvura mumigodhi- they fetch water from wells).

Added to all the obvious confusion caused by the governance deficit, Uncle Richie expresses his confusion at the unusual events that have baffled mankind; Zimbabweans included making us all wonder what our world has come to. First the inexplicable and mysterious disappearance of an Indian man in Mt Nyanga, in Zimbabwe (vamwe hanzi akwira mugomo ashaikwa-some are said to have climbed up a mountain and disappeared) and the strange disappearance of Malaysian Flight MH370 (hanzi yatoshaikwa ndege yacho-they say that the plane can’t be found).
Through his satirical skit, Uncle Richie paints a clear picture of the acute discord that characterises our economic, social and political landscape, both nationally and globally. As millions of Zimbabweans share the audio, and laugh at Uncle Richie’s words his message continues to build a shared consensus that something is wrong with our society. Through his words, he builds confidence for agency and legitimises the idea that it is only right to talk about all these injustices and unusual events.

And so when the police chief, Commissioner Chihuri collapsed and claimed he fainted because he wore the wrong shoe on the wrong foot, Zimbabweans asked “Zviri kumbofamba sei?” How does a whole general mistake left from right? Kupfeka banana here shuwa?

When we all heard that members of the Apostolic Faith Johane Masowe Sect had beaten up police officers, we asked-Zviri kumbofamba sei? Many felt that the police had it coming given their history of brutality against unarmed civilians. Others wondered if we were progressing into a state
of lawlessness.

We all grit our teeth, pedestrians and motorists alike as the vehicles that take us from point A to B, plod through potholes and ask; Zviri kumbofamba sei? How come our roads [with the exception of a few] are not getting fixed when revenue is being collected on the roads day and night? Isn’t that why police have waged a war against combis; to ensure that the combis comply with all road regulations including paying for operating licenses? Or do our police just get a kick out of smashing private vehicles’ windscreens for no
apparent reason?

And when it emerged that a man had been arrested for setting his dogs on wild animals in the President’s backyard, we asked- Zviri kumbofamba sei? The President has deer in his backyard? Wow! When I grow up I also want to have deer in my backyard.

And when we had half-naked Brazilian dancers paraded during the Carnival; Zimbabweans asked -Zviri kumbofamba sei? How do we as a society still have people who cat-call and wolf-whistle at women wearing short skirts or dresses yet we have naked women paraded on our streets as part of a “cultural event?”
We also hear of miracle money, miracle gold, miracle weight loss and miracle babies in this era of prophets or “profiteers” as some would call them and ask; Zviri kumbofamba sei? Are these men of God or men of gold?

When we heard that popular Sungura music artist, Alick Macheso was using a traditional unorthodox method of curing his daughter’s fontanelle (nhova) by inserting his penis in his daughter’s mouth we all asked; Zviri kumbofamba sei? Was there no other way of curing her? Should a daughter ever suffer the misfortune of seeing her father’s privates?
Again when we heard about the internal fights within both the major political parties; Tsvangirai has fired Biti or Biti has fired Tsvangirai or is Mnangagwa going to take over from Mugabe or is it going to be Mujuru; then we heard Mujuru never shot down a helicopter during the liberation struggle- we all asked; Zviri kumbofamba sei? We were left wondering- whose narrative should we believe? Which narrative of history is true? What is the future of our country with such messy politics?

One thing remains constant; using the Zviri kumbofamba sei? phrase, as Zimbabweans we are naming and shaming the rot and those responsible for it in our politics, economy and society. I am inclined to agree with Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s who both argue (in their book called Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Non-Violent Conflict) that, the assumption that the most effective and forceful way of waging political struggle is through violence or the threat of it, is not true.  It takes high levels of participation by members of the population for any struggle to succeed because anything that enhances the population’s resilience, invokes public loyalty, inspires the majority and is grounded in local mobilisation is bound to succeed. Zviri kumbofamba sei? does that.

We have created a home-grown movement with high levels of participation by ordinary Zimbabweans in which we are saying “this is ridiculous” to things that are ridiculous or “get your act together” to those who need to do so. We might not be toyi-toying on the streets but in our numbers as we pass the messages from phone to phone, one WhatsApp message to the next we are certainly getting heard. The icing on the cake; even those who would ordinarily arrest us for saying these things are passing along the messages; either they have caught onto the dominant spirit or they are just too dense to get its import. But whatever their reasons, I felt- sitting in my house- that satire has indeed become the new protest in Zimbabwean society?

Read the full transcript of Uncle Ritchie’s First Zviri kumbofamba sei skit

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