Was it all worth it? It has yet to be fully assessed but Zimbabwe’s plunge into the carnival business last weekend was undoubtedly less than a resounding success.
EDITOR’S MEMO WITH IDEN WETHERELL
This week questions were being asked whether a parade of scantily-clad girls from a country with a completely different culture in the middle of the Highveld winter was the right thing to do.
Certainly, teenage boys were mesmerised by what there was to see, but parents needn’t have worried; most of the entertainment ended in the safe hands of traditional dancers and drum majorettes.
Frankly, this wasn’t a carnival at all. It was a collection of disparate dancers and drummers marching through the centre of the capital. The foreign performers were few and far between. Newspapers captured those who did turn up and they were certainly colourful! Many ended up in bars.
What was missing in all this was atmosphere. Rio de Janeiro is a tropical city infused by Latin American rhythm. That is where the Samba dancers come in strutting their stuff. Their displays were unique and scintillating. Harare didn’t come close.
And what did the organisers think they were doing scheduling this exercise in amateurism just as the cold weather was setting in? Back home in Rio the nights are approaching 30 degrees. You get that in Durban and Maputo, not Harare.
One clue can be found in the proximity of the so-called carnival to Hifa. Here was a professional, well-run and exciting week-long festival of an international standard. Then suddenly, the state plonks down a rival effort just weeks from the original event and expects it to work just as well.
Zimbabwe does actually have a tradition of sorts. There is — or was — the university Rag with its parade through Harare on a Saturday morning. Proceeds from that went to charity.
Quite separately, there was the Jacaranda Queen contest that was widely supported and held at the one time in the year that can be called tropical.
Last weekend’s effort was a cut-and-paste job. It borrowed from what it thought was the Rio Carnival with its Samba contest attracting hundreds of thousands and providing a huge tourist draw card.
There are calls to make the event more attractive to regional observers.
But Zimbabwe has a thriving tourism industry in places like the Victoria Falls and Hwange.
The Zimbabwe Tourism Authority, a parastatal, described the carnival as “celebrating our diversity”. That would make a nice change in this totalitarian state, but it remains to be seen whether the “perception shift” the Hospitality Association of Zimbabwe is looking for will materialise.
People will only see Zimbabwe as a safe and attractive destination when it actually becomes one! The brutal murder of a Guruve farmer and his daughter immediately ahead of the event was hardly an advertising draw.
Exactly how the representative tourism bodies are going to translate Sambas into bucks is the big issue. Carnival is big business in Brazil. It is also prominent in Cape Town which now attracts the sort of tourists partying in Rio. By comparison with Cape Town, Harare is poorly marketed, analysts say.
Much of that is political.
“As long as Zimbabwe is regarded as a pariah state that is presided over by an authoritarian regime,” one analyst told this paper this week, “it will not attract any meaningful visitors.”
The example of the popular Freshlyground afro-pop band that was booted out of the country at Hifa for some real or imagined offence illustrates precisely the problem of a sclerotic regime claiming to be the victim of a hostile world.
In which case, the evidence was visible to all.
At the end of the day, Zimbabwe will have to clean up its capital-city centre and improve its maintenance if the international community is to take it seriously.