Zimbabwe: Theatre for the people by the people

By Andrea García Giribet

For over two decades, theatre groups in Zimbabwe have been changing the understanding of human rights in their communities, one play at a time.

Many people around the world aren’t aware of their human rights, but they still live every day in a freer, better way thanks to them. However, knowing your rights, and being consciously and properly informed, can make a huge difference. It means that you can defend them, protect them and demand that the state, and others, do the same. In Zimbabwe, information about human rights isn’t readily available, but many theatre groups around the country – including the Eastern Arts Ensemble (E.A.E.) – have found a creative human rights education initiative to help people learn more: theatre.

Theatre is “a tool that works across all sectors of the society” says Roselina Muzerengi, Campaigns Coordinator for Amnesty International Zimbabwe. “It’s cost effective and it encourages community participation”. These reasons are key as to why theatre is the ideal human rights education tool for Zimbabwe.

In a country where technology isn’t widely adopted and communities are often remote and separated from each other, theatre and its ability to educate big audiences through entertainment has proven to be successful. Theatre doesn’t discriminate because of class, education or background, it’s free, open and available to everyone. And as a member of the E.A.E. says this is “theatre for the people, by the people”.

A group watches a theatre A group watches a theatre
A big crowd enjoys a HRE play during a theatre festival in Zimbabwe. © Amnesty International Zimbabwe

Another key element is how these plays encourage community participation. A member of E.A.E. points out that “human rights are a part of people’s lives, whether they are aware of them or not”. Theatre “educates and empowers communities” so that people can “enjoy or demand their human rights” and, most of all, it “empowers ordinary people to demand authorities to be accountable for the protection and promotion” of human rights.

Muzerengi adds that the goal is to “raise awareness on different human rights issues, change mindsets, attitudes, beliefs and practices”, all in a “non-threatening space” that “stimulates discussion among the audience”.

School children are particularly engaged with theatre, and many plays are performed on school playgrounds over lunchtime. Schools are “the centre of communication in rural settings”, points out Muzerengi. “Word of mouth is very effective”, she explains, “once an announcement is made at a school assembly, it’s guaranteed that by the end of the day, the word will have travelled over a 15km radius, without the use of phones or other media”.

E.A.E. focuses on schools with the goal of growing a generation that is “human rights aware”. They praise the country’s constitution, which “encourages human rights to be taught in school”.

According to E.A.E., these plays break down human rights in a more understandable manner, making theatre one of the best ways of advocacy. Theatre “demystifies” human rights “in an entertaining way”, says Muzerengi. They are no longer an abstract concept difficult to relate with, but rather something tangible that affects their everyday life.

Actor performs in a HRE play in Zimbabwe Actor performs in a HRE play in Zimbabwe
Actor performs in a HRE play in Zimbabwe © Amnesty International Zimbabwe

The plays touch on a wide range of human rights issues. An example is “Mr. Ngwerewere”, one of more than a hundred plays that E.A.E. have created to date. The play, made in collaboration with the Zimbabwe National Family Planning Council, warns girls about “sugar daddies” that sexually abuse school girls “by enticing them with cash, food and fancy cars”. The goal is to raise awareness about how these men “violate the right to education for girls” and lead to “unwanted pregnancy, infection of HIV and different STIs and rape”. E.A.E. says that some of the kids for whom they performed this play years ago are now primary school teachers and they “openly testify how plays like Mr. Ngwerewere” helped them.

This human rights education tool has been praised all over the country. “People in areas like Marange Chipfatsura, Gonon’ono and Gwirindindi” really appreciate them, says Muzerengi, “since they don’t have TVs to get information”. Its popularity has led to audiences demanding more. For example, the audience in the region of Manicaland requested to be trained in theatre skills “to use the tool to educate others and spread the message far and wide”. Smaller drama groups were created, and their popularity led to the birth of the “Manicaland Theatre Festival”, a competition where plays are awarded for their “effective messaging of human rights issues”, the content and, “of course, the theatrical skills that take care of the entertainment component”. Its success was such that the festival is now an annual event.

Two actors perform in a HRE play during the Manicaland Theatre Festival Two actors perform in a HRE play during the Manicaland Theatre Festival
Two actors perform in a HRE play during the Manicaland Theatre Festival © Amnesty International Zimbabwe

Human rights advocates in Zimbabwe recommend theatre as a key tool to reach wide communities, no matter class, background or position. Muzerengi recommends to “be clear on the intended results of the play”, as to not to stray away from the educational goal of the project. But “be firm and open” to feedback from audiences, so that the next play finds an even better connection to them. E.A.E. points at “researching real issues” as key to its effectiveness, as real stories people have lived through or have seen in their communities will guarantee engagement and participation. Above all, they recommend theatre groups and activists to be passionate, and advocate for rights over everything, rising above politics and focusing on the communities.