It takes a certain kind of talent to get an entire room of serious journalists and press freedom advocates laughing during a presentation about free expression in Zimbabwe. The southern African country is one of the most repressive countries in the world, ranking 128 out of 180 in Reporters Without Border's 2017 World Press Freedom Index.
But hip hop artist and comedian Samm Farai Monro – also known as Comrade Fatso – managed to prompt giggles while speaking at the 2016 Highway Africa conference in Grahamstown, South Africa.
To be clear, conference attendees - myself included - were not laughing at the dismal state of free speech in Zimbabwe.
Rather, we were laughing at the creative ways in which Monro and his organisation - the Magamba Network - challenge censorship, corruption, and power-hungry politicians through satire, hip hop, and other art forms.
"Magamba" - a noun in the local Shona language which means "heroes" or "freedom fighters" - was co-created by Monro and emcee/spoken word artist Outspoken in 2007, when Zimbabwe was experiencing hyperinflation, living standards were plummeting, and support for the ruling ZANU-PF party was waning.
Monro and his colleagues saw an opening for youth to get involved in making change, and decided the mission of the Magamba Network would be "to use creative forms of youth activism to open up democratic space in Zimbabwe."
This quest is no small feat. Under 93 year-old President Robert Mugabe – who has been in power for over 37 years – journalists and activists have been detained, killed, disappeared, and tortured simply for sharing information or peacefully criticising the government.
But Monro and his colleagues have been courageously paving the way for future generations to create a country where they can express themselves. The Magamba Network's various projects include the annual Shoko Festival – "a dynamic space of free expression, cutting edge urban culture and rocking good times!"; B. the Media, which trains and empowers young citizen journalists, Moto Republik, a co-working space where young creatives "can meet, collaborate and dream big", and Magamba TV, which produces cutting edge political satire.
Magamba has received international coverage for its groundbreaking work - including a feature about its satirical show, Zambezi News in The Guardian and a documentary short on Channel 4 called Standing up to Mugabe.
I recently spoke with Monro about Magamba's creative approach to activism, the challenges it faces and the exciting projects that lay ahead.
Why does Magamba use satire and music as ways to promote discussion and encourage free expression?
It's about using forms of activism that speak to young people in their language. That's why we started off doing a lot of hip hop and spoken word, and leading underground hip hop events. From there we branched out into satire, comedy, new media and innovation - just using many forms of activism that talk to young people that can inspire and motivate them in being part of changing their country.
How has the landscape for free expression in Zimbabwe changed since the Magamba network was created?
I think Magamba's been a key player in expanding space for free expression in Zimbabwe, and inciting young people to believe that they can speak their mind. When we started out with Zambezi News in 2011, there was no political satire to speak of - but we blazed the trail.
Now there's a mushrooming of young people that are putting out critical content and producing online TV shows that deal with social and political issues. A lot of them trace the inspiration back to Zambezi News for making them believe that they could speak truth to power. Through other initiatives like Kalabash, and a lot of our work in citizen journalism, we've expanded space for online expression, trained new bloggers, supported young and new media startups.
The Shoko Festival - which we also started in 2011 - has grown to be one of the biggest festivals in the country and a key space for cutting edge arts and culture as well as very free expression.
Moto Republik - Magamba's new co-working space for young creators - was almost demolished recently by the city of Harare. Why did that come about, and how did your community respond to it?
We're not sure where the whole attempt to demolish Moto Republik came from. On our side we had our plans in order - we had approved plans from council and we'd paid regularization fees. So, for us it really did come out of the blue.
Moto Republik is the first creative hub in Southern Africa, and it's really an amazing space for free expression; it's a coworking space for young creators, activists, citizen journalists, bloggers, designers, youth activists and so forth.
It was really worrying to have this attack on such a space, which is so key to generating new ideas to take our country forward. But I think the amazing thing was the reaction of our community, and how we resisted the demolition. We launched a massive social media campaign to put pressure on politicians, launched a big petition, and put so much pressure on council and the government that they had to back down and reach a compromise with us.
What kinds of criticism does Magamba receive?
You have those - the government and Zanu-PF supporters - who throw different criticism at us that try to undermine what we're doing. So of course they'll say "you're Western-sponsored, imperialist-funded."
They throw a lot of typical anti-opposition insults our way.
Sometimes you have ZANU-PF supporters who question why a white person is involved in Zimbabwean politics. But at the end of the day, we're a very mixed organization at Magamba Network; it's all about getting young people involved across colour and class boundaries to be part of the change and to be part of a new Zimbabwe. And we can only do that if we're all working and struggling together.
We get knocked by the government and the state often. We've gotten threats, the police harassed us, we have a lot of our content blacklisted. The police threatened to arrest us last year during Shoko Festival for political content that we were performing. They've harassed us previously when we've launched new seasons of Zambezi News. But it just goes to show the impact that we're having. And the fact that - yo! - if they want to block the launch of Zambezi News it means that even the police are watching our show.
Have you ever felt in danger?
We have remained relatively safe. We always say that "we hide in plain site." We're very open about what we do. We produce leading political satire shows, we take on the government. But I think that also, to an extent, we've built up a very big presence and reputation in Zimbabwe, so if we were disappeared or arrested, there would be a big outcry around that.
Of course, as I've said, we have previously been threatened with arrest. I've been arrested before for my activism. We've been harassed by the police. We have our content blocked from any of the - any radio or TV - which is all controlled by the state. But I think, also you see the, the kind of outcry that happens. Like when, for instance, they tried to demolish Moto Republik, and there was just this massive outcry and a huge social media campaign that made them think twice.
How does Magamba make the connection between free expression and other human rights?
I think one is just emphasizing to young people how important free expression itself is. And being able to express yourself freely. And we do that - I mean, we kind of embody that - in our hip hop, in our spoken word, in our satire, in our standup comedy. That's pure, uncensored, unadulterated free expression, showing young people what it is to speak truth to power; to speak your mind; and basically what expression would and should be like in a free society.
...in our hip hop, in our spoken word, in our satire, in our standup comedy. That’s pure, uncensored, unadulterated free expression, showing young people what it is to speak truth to power...
But, of course, through that free expression, we touch on so many different other key political struggles and human rights issues in our country. We touch on everything from the fight against sexism, to the fight against corruption, to fraudulent elections and the right to strike.
How do Zimbabweans access Magamba’s content?
Zimbabwe has over a hundred percent mobile phone density. Basically everyone has got a mobile phone. And so we're able to reach more and more people through mobile broadband internet, which is quite widespread in Zimbabwe.
We share our clips and videos on YouTube, but very importantly on Facebook, because that's the biggest video sharing platform in Zimbabwe - you've got about 1 million Zimbabweans on Facebook.
WhatsApp is also a really key way of sharing information. Of all data that's used in Zimbabwe, 80% is used for Whatsapp. We make sure we repurpose clips and share them on WhatsApp, so that they go viral there.
For Zambezi News, Seasons 1-3, we had it broadcast across Southern Africa and into Zimbabwe on satellite TV.
Some years back here, we used to distribute tens of thousands of DVDs, but now social media is very prevalent.
What does Magamba have in store for 2017?
We're working very much towards the presidential elections in 2018. And we're working with many different youth organizations and social movements and civil society organizations to motivate young people to register to vote - and to defend their vote in the upcoming elections.
Another thing we're doing in 2017 is expanding to the African continent. There are a lot of different creative prototypes and projects that we've been doing in Zimbabwe that have been successful and so are now expanding into East Africa.
Any advice for fellow free expression activists?
If you're fighting for free expression - be creative. And be innovative. And, of course look for interesting global examples that can work. But you have to connect with the local context. If you're focused on young people in your country, then make sure that your activism is fresh; that it's original, that it's relevant, that it's got street cred. Make sure that it's organic, that it's participatory and involves everyone.
Learn more about the Magamba Network by visiting their website, following them on Twitter and liking them on Facebook.