Sound Matters: The SEM Blog

Jennifer Kyker – From scholarship to activism in Zimbabwe

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During the President’s Roundtable at the 56th Annual Conference of the Society for Ethnomusicology in 2011 I suggested that ethnography is critical in sustaining a sense of urgency into the fourth decade of the AIDS epidemic. Turning to musical modalities, those infected and affected by the epidemic frequently sing aloud that which all too often still cannot be said, positioning ethnomusicologists to offer important insight into lived experiences of HIV/AIDS.Yet in the context of the global pandemic, producing knowledge alone seems insufficient, compelling us from scholarship to activism. As I observed in 2011, our discipline has long advocated that the music of all the world’s people is worth studying. To become an activist in the struggle against HIV/AIDS is an extension of this principle, making clear that the lives of all the world’s people are likewise worth saving.

Responding to HIV/AIDS through women’s education

I would like to share a few words about my personal involvement in social activism in Zimbabwe, where HIV infection rates soared to well over 25% of the total population in the late 1990s. Over the course of several extended trips to Zimbabwe during this time, I witnessed firsthand the devastating effects of HIV/AIDS, and following a year-long stay as a Fulbright Fellow in 2002-2003, I returned to the United States determined to make at least a small difference.

Seeking to identify a response that would be meaningful, feasible, and familiar, I settled upon educating orphaned and vulnerable teenaged girls, the demographic group at highest risk of new HIV infections, in the urban, high-density townships of Highfield, Glen Norah, and Epworth, where I had primarily lived and worked. Tsitsi Magaya, daughter of the famed mbira player Cosmas Magaya, offered up a name, the Zimbabwe Music Festival Association provided a start-up grant of $3,000, and in August of 2003, I suddenly found myself directing a new, 501(c)(3) non-profit organization called Tariro, or “Hope.”

Educating girls, shaping individuals

At the heart of Tariro’s work is our recognition that women’s education represents a key intervention in preventing the spread of HIV; as the Global Coalition on Women and AIDS has observed, “Growing evidence shows that getting and keeping young people in school, particularly girls, dramatically lowers their vulnerability to HIV… Evidence from Zimbabwe shows that among 15-18 year old girls, those who are enrolled in school are more than five times less likely to have HIV than those who have dropped out.” Yet in Zimbabwe, no child attends school for free, and the ability to pay school fees, buy required uniforms, and purchase necessary supplies is increasingly out of reach for over a million children who have lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS.

Working with local headmasters, Tariro identifies academically gifted girls at risk for dropping out of school, and who in many cases have already spent extended periods of time out of class. We currently sponsor over fifty students, paying school fees, purchasing uniforms and supplies, including sanitary products, and making textbooks available through a lending library. Reflecting the power of individual voices and stories, a common theme within musical ethnography, Tariro offers students highly personalized attention. Further distinguishing our localized approach from that of larger, multinational aid organizations, we are committed to supporting students throughout the duration of their education, maintaining sponsorship even at the university level.

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Pauline K., Tariro’s first university graduate, completed her Bachelor’s degree at the University of Zimbabwe in 2010

The role of music and dance

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Tariro students with mbira player Sekuru Tute Wincil Chigamba, center left, and dance instructor Daniel Inasiyo, center right)

From the beginning, music and other forms of expressive culture have featured prominently in Tariro’s work. For many of our students, music, dance, poetry, drama, and visual arts constitute important means of self-expression. In a society where HIV/AIDS is often stigmatized, these artistic modes help young people speak openly about the disease, and share their experiences as individuals living in communities deeply affected by the virus. These expressive forms are likewise ideal activities in a setting with limited resources, as students can engage in them at little or no cost. In the following video, for example, a group of Tariro students living in the informal, peri-urban township of Epworth perform an original song they composed about HIV/AIDS. The same group of students regularly wrote poems and staged dramatic skits dealing with HIV and related issues, such as child abuse, giving them a platform to publicly communicate a children’s perspective on the epidemic.

Tariro also offers students the chance to participate in more structured musical experiences. Every Saturday, our students gather on the grounds of Chembira Primary School, a government institution with the motto “The home of traditional dance.”

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Daniel Inasiyo demonstrates choreography for a marimba arrangement of mbira music

Under the instruction of Daniel Inasiyo, the school’s traditional dance instructor, Tariro students join forces with the Chembira traditional dance group, learning to sing, dance, and play indigenous genres such as mhande,jukwambakumba, and mbira, as well as the neo-traditional Zimbabwean marimba.

Tariro students perform mbakumba

Many of the musical styles Tariro students perform are rarely represented in scholarly literature, or in extant recordings of Zimbabwean music, which have focused predominantly on mbira and related popular styles. After the demise of Zimbabwe’s National Dance Company in 1991, these styles have also increasingly disappeared from public performance contexts in Zimbabwe, with the exception of a few annual festivals, such as Neshamwari and Jikinya. Through public performances at venues such as the German Zimbabwe Society and the Mannenberg, as well as a set of self-published field recordings entitled Maungira EZimbabwe, our students participate in maintaining the audibility of these musical forms within the contemporary Zimbabwean soundscape, eliciting deeply enthusiastic responses from listeners.

Music, ethnography, and social justice

As Jeff Todd Titon has observed, applied ethnomusicology is more than a “process of putting ethnomusicological research to practical use,” reflecting instead a broad “desire to intervene with music on behalf of peace and social justice.” Engendering true social change is a long and difficult process, and Tariro’s modest successes do not diminish the many challenges inherent in our work. In an environment characterized by macroeconomic instability, hyperinflation, frequent power and water outages, and political upheaval, we see a small percentage of our students drop out of school or fail their exams each year, and at least one of our former students has died. Tariro must likewise negotiate pronounced disparities of power, from the household gender relations confronting our students to the legacies of capitalism and colonization that shape our very existence.

Inherent within our work, the methodologies of musical ethnography have greatly contributed to Tariro’s ability to navigate this complex situation. Joining our localized approach and long-term commitment to educating girls in Zimbabwean communities affected by HIV/AIDS, the participatory nature of Tariro’s traditional music and dance ensemble, which offers students the chance to develop musical skills, form social networks, and acquire cultural knowledge in a supportive, peer environment, points even more explicitly toward applied ethnomusicology’s promise in responding to issues of social justice in the field.

Jennifer Kyker

University of Rochester

[Originally published on 4 March 2014]

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