Curry, but not for Uncle Bob

2004 Edinburgh Festival Fringe

In a restaurant in Leith poetically and ironically (due to my post-colonial roots) named Raj on the Shore, I was doing a one-woman show called Curry Tales. Through cooking several curry dishes and feeding the audience, the show explored the lives of 6 different characters and through Indian, Chinese, Trinidadian and British Asian characters several over-riding themes occurred, especially one of my favourites: that culture is irrevocably inclusive and a metaphor like curry works on multiple levels because it truly represents diversity, a global phenomena that evolved out of cultures meeting, not clashing. In Curry Tales the cooking, the feeding and the story telling merged into a thrilling audience performer experience.

Manuel Bagorro, founder and artistic director of the Harare International Festival of the arts absolutely GOT Curry Tales, he got what I intended, he got the spirit of generosity entrenched in the piece, he got the spiritual relationship with food that South Asia shared with Africa, he wanted it for HIFA 2005. Not forgetting the logistics of actually transporting a working kitchen and four of us to Zimbabwe, I was also concerned about taking a play that uses food as it’s single metaphor to a nation that was once Africa’s food basket with one of Africa’s best economies now reduced to food shortage and despair. Not now, not there.

HIFA 2008

Curry Tales has taken a life of it’s own and after over 200 performances across the UK, I was doing a five week run at the prestigious Market Theatre in Johannesburg in February 2008.

A one-woman show as intensely visceral and interactive as this allowed me, the performer, to truly understand how connected I felt to the country. It was an ancient connection that somewhere in time my Dravidian roots emerged from African cousins lost in time but with every performance was being excavated and examined through an artistic filter.

Manuel Bagorro kept e-mailing Ed Higginson, Rasa producer and me in the intervening years and between us we still could not find a viable way to go to HIFA 2006 and 2007. Now in 2008 we had a set and crew in Johannesburg. The logistical obstacles of going to HIFA were alleviated somewhat and coupled with support from the British Embassy, all seemed possible.

Still what really swung it was Honesty in Melville and several Zimbabwean refugees like her I met in Johannesburg. Honesty like her name, standing in truth as she served me coffee, set me strait about Zimbabwe, she said “Go with your eyes and heart open and Zim won’t disappoint”. There she was, a single mother, educated but having to eke out a meagre living as a waitress in South Africa but she reminded me that art transcends politics.

“Go and do your thing, we need to know the world hasn’t forgotten Zimbabwe”

HIFA 2008 The Art of Determination

Up to a week before the festival we still weren’t sure we would make it to Harare. The organisers called it challenging times, was this euphemism or understatement or a commitment to a festival with a higher purpose? They were functioning as if nothing would interfere with their work. They sent us our tickets, co-ordinated with Ed every little detail of our stay there, sent us efficient and exhaustive information.

Bright-eyed Precious greeted us with a big smile at the airport. Tickets for all three performances of Curry Tales has sold out she says as she ushers us into a mini-van where there is a jazz band from Spain, an American comic, an alto tenor from Hanover and tribal dancers from Brazil, the magic begins.

The Zimbabweans were very proprietorial about HIFA because for them art is not just for good times but must be celebrated even more during challenging circumstances.  Apart from vague references to the Uncle Bob (Mugabe) Issue, the recent presidential elections, the dire economy, the troubles outside Harare, the day-to-day struggle to overcome food shortages didn’t seem to faze anyone. My South African crew were moved by the dignity and courage of the Zimbabweans who are proud of their country and the desperate conditions that will lead them to take refuge in neighbouring countries.. This experience was as much an eye (and heart)-opener for them as it is for me.

I came prepared for tension and anxiety and, if news coverage was to be believed, maybe to even dodge bullets. How readily we accept any bad news story from Africa.

I wasn’t prepared for the faith Manuel and his team have in themselves and in art to create a festival that gives us back so much instead. I wasn’t prepared for joy and respect for all things cultural, that a man, who had put in a full day in a sawmill, spent 8 hours rigging lights for Curry Tales and did it with patient professionalism.

I wasn’t prepared, as I took my bow, for cheering and applause that was a warm embrace as if for a wanderer who has at long last returned home.

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