When we think of Zimbabwe the first thing that comes to mind probably isn’t a satirical comedy show. We think of the Zimbabwe we hear about in the media, where Robert Mugabe presides with an iron fist over a nation whose economy is in deep crisis, where poverty and unemployment are endemic and political strife, corruption and repression is commonplace.
But Samm Farai Monro, aka Comrade Fatso, believes that satire has never been so prevalent or necessary in Zimbabwe: “Satire and humour are great ways to unpack big political, social and economic issues. You make people laugh and think at the same time. It’s a really powerful tool to communicate to people.”
Monro created Zambezi News, now Zimbabwe’s leading satirical programme, which parodies the state-controlled Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, and brings with it a fresh, bolshy take on the Zimbabwean political system. Monro and his co-founder, Outspoken both have backgrounds as spoken-word and hip-hop artists, and as activists: their music is described as ‘socially conscious’ and has been banned in Zimbabwe for its ‘political content’, and they run Magamba, ‘a cultural activist network’, which uses arts and culture in the struggle for social justice in Zimbabwe.
The idea for Zambezi News came when Fatso and Outspoken were approached to do a live news skit at a local film festival — it went down so well that they decided to explore the possibilities of the format. They developed the show into a faux-news programme, with three comic newscasters, which cuts between the newsroom and satirical reports from the field, and features a string of outrageous characters and skits. In 2011 they shot the first series, which highlights the country’s social and economic issues.
“Zambezi News is about dealing with burning political issues in a humorous, satirical way. We deal with the political hot potatoes: from corruption to climate change: xenophibia to homophobia —but always with a good dose of sarcasm and wit.”
Given the authoritarian reputation of Mugabe and his party Zanu-PF many outsiders wouldn’t expect Zimbabweans to be speaking out against the state, or mocking the president and his wife. Monro acknowledges that “being a leading satire show and poking fun at the powerful comes with risks.” Threats are real and common in a country where most of the media is controlled by the state or cronies of the ruling party. Zambezi News content is blacklisted on state-controlled radio and TV and they are regularly targeted by bloggers accusing them of anti-government propaganda. The Police, the Censorship Board and the Central Intelligence Organisation have harassed them, and men suspected to be state security agents threatened one of the main actors.
But Monro does not let controversy or state threats impede his projects: “I am Zimbabwean and I believe that you have to fight for the change that you believe in. You only live once. I wanna be part of making Zimbabwe the great country that it should be. A just and free Zimbabwe.”
Despite state opposition the show is now on its third series, and Fatso and the cast have just finished shooting the fourth. Six million Zimbabweans have viewed the show — initially they publicised it through community radio, stations activist groups, social media and YouTube, and on requested they produced 10,000 DVDs to distribute them to people in town and villages across the country. Now, with increasing numbers of young people in Zimbabwe sharing videos and content online, The Zambezi News Team have a widening audience and more and more alternative means of using their content to provoke debate and of enabling Zimbabweans to speak out.
“I believe that through the work we do we have opened up space for free expression in Zimbabwe and we have inspired a new generation of young Zimbabwean satirists, rappers, bloggers and cultural activists to speak truth to power.”
This year Monro launches Moto Republik, a creative hub in his home-city of Harare, to bring together this new generation of artists, citizen journalists and youth activists —a place to co-work, grow ideas and share knowledge.
For Zambezi News “global domination” is the plan and they are taking the show continental as well as regional. 2015’s Summer tour not only brought them to Shambala festival for a live performance, they also performed live shows in Sweden, South Africa, Swaziland, the UK and the United States. Monro attributes their popularity abroad to the global relevance of their message and style: “Yes, we are African satirists but we feel the issues we deal with are universal ones: freedom of expression, social and economic justice and the right to have a good time! Satire helps convey to the world a whole different narrative about where we are coming from as Africans. You’ve got crap politicians? So do we! You got recession? We had hyperinflation! Let’s talk!”
Watch The Zambezi News HERE.
Find out more about Sam Farai Monro HERE.