is an interview with Portia taken from The Times. Feb 2003
THERE ARE FEW
clues to the former glory of Portia Gwanzura. She struggles to make ends
meet in a gloomy Coronation Street-style terrace on the outskirts of Wigan,
far from the mansion with servants she occupied as head of a musical empire
in Zimbabwe. Instead of cruising in her fleet of chauffeur-driven Mercedes,
befitting Zimbabwe's foremost female singer, she sits on an old stained
sofa and cannot do much except watch the rain outside.
This outspoken woman, dubbed the "Madonna of Zimbabwe" for being
the most powerful businesswomen in her country's music industry, has abandoned
her life's work to seek political asylum in Britain. She inspired awe
in imitators, alarm in rivals, and named her band Hohodza (or "woodpecker")
because she relishes the challenge of cracking the hardest opposition.
What could make a woman like Portia Gwanzura so afraid?
"Before I say anything, I just want you to know that if you hear
I've died in an accident, it wasn't an accident, it was the Zimbabwean
Government," she says. "People who speak out in Zimbabwe get
silenced, one way or another. The ones who leave are the only ones with
a chance to tell the truth."
Gwanzura never meant to get her music mixed up in politics. She was born
35 years ago in a rural mud hut, and would amuse her friends with songs
as they walked several miles to school across the plains. As soon as she
could, she moved to the capital, Harare, where she realised she would
never make it in the male-dominated music industry without some serious
So began years of setting up businesses, from beauty salons to car dealerships,
also fitting in two children, before she had the money to set up Hohodza.
She hand-picked the 12 band members by auditioning young school-leavers,
believing them to be easier to train to her vision of a blend of traditional
folk songs and modem pop.
"My aim was to be one of the best groups in the world, but I knew
I was starting something very new and difficult," she says. "If
you are a female musician in Zimbabwe you are seen as a kind of loose
woman. I just had to stop caring about that."
These were the golden years, for her and Zimbabwe, and her band, which
draws strongly on national pride, went from strength to strength. They
had ten hit albums in as many years.
Hohodza picked and mixed different musical traditions from across Zimbabwe,
using the mbira - a thumb piano - and xylophone as well as drums and guitars.
They toured Europe twice, building up a respectable following, and their
latest album, Zvinoda Kushinga (Strength is Needed), was edited in London.
"We were free," says Gwanzura. "Zimbabwe was one of the
most visited countries in the world, we had lots of food, lots of hope."
It is a sign, she says, of how confident people were then that when the
Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) - President Mugabe's Opposition -
asked her to play at their launch in September 1999, she agreed. "I
didn't think twice. We were asked because we were one of the biggest bands,
and I felt Mugabe was making a lot of mistakes. I didn't think that there
would be a problem."
As a household figure she wasn't surprised to be approached by two men
in suits after a gig the night before the MDC concert. "They said,
'Portia, are you playing for the MDC?' I said, 'Yes, I'm looking forward
to it'." She smiles at her own naivety.
She says that they then showed her their passes from the Central Intelligence
Organisation (CIO), the feared Government security agency, and warned
that her life would be in danger if she went ahead. "The band was
shocked. We sat down to talk about what to do, and we could only think
about stories we had heard of people being disappeared by the Government.
We thought we could be next."
They stayed away from the launch, but it was the last time that she wanted
to be cowed by Mugabe's regime. Guilty about letting the MDC down and
disturbed by her unpleasant brush with the Government, Gwanzura was converted
to the Opposition overnight.
Hohodza did everything they could to support the MDC, wearing T-shirts
on stage, flashing MDC membership cards as they sang, and ending concerts
with open-handed waves -the symbol of the MDC - and chanting "chin-ga"
As if Gwanzura could not be in more trouble, she married a white Zimbabwean
mechanic called Sean, just as Mugabe stepped up his campaign to blame
whites for the country's growing problems. After the Government's failure
to win a referendum in February 2000, Gwanzura began to believe that the
MDC could win in the elections in June that year.
She wrote a highly provocative song, Zvinhu Zvao ma, which has an irrepressible,
danceable beat but means "things are tough". The lyrics are
an angry indictment of the Zanu (PF) regime: "People cannot afford
to buy food, they are walking miles to find work, children are fainting
in schools, when is it going to end?"
The song was quickly removed from the playlist by the government run Radio
Zimbabwe, and a DJ who played the song was sacked. "People wanted
to hear it, but if they played it at home it had to be done quietly, because
you wouldn't know if your neighbours were Zanu (PF) and would get you
beaten up," she said. "The only safe place to put the song on
was in your car, with the windows rolled up."
Even before the Government won the election, Gwanzura felt isolated and
doomed. Thomas Mapfumo, the country's best-known and most politically
engaged musician, is now in virtual exile in the United States.
While pro-Government bands such as Tambaoga thrived with songs likening
Tony Blair to an outdoor toilet, Zanu (PF) supporters were demanding to
be paid off in beer to avoid violence at Gwanzura concerts. "Sometimes
it was a relief to turn up at the venue and find Zanu (PF) guys had cleared
everyone away. It meant no one would be hurt," she says.
But soon the beer didn't work any more. Last year, one of her singers
was ambushed after a concert, and given a fatal beating. Gwanzura is convinced
that the killing was political. At a concert last March thugs grabbed
the microphone before she went on stage and shouted, "Down with Portia,
don't let the white puppet live!" The crowd erupted into violence,
fled, chased by cars full of Zanu (PF) supporters.
"Enough is enough, I thought I'd die," she says. She sold her
businesses so she could fly to Britain with her husband, leaving her two
children in Harare with her father as the couple sought asylum. Weeks
later her 11-year-old daughter was killed in a road accident. "I
will never forgive myself. I left Zimbabwe to save myself and she got
killed. I am responsible."
She was not allowed to work in Britain while she waited for news on her
application from the Home Office, and did not have the heart to sing anyway.
She sat at home grieving for all she has lost. Very quietly, her husband
plays her music in an upstairs room. Right now, it is the only hopeful
thing about Gwanzura.
Since this interview was given, Portia has been granted
permission to live and work permanently in the UK
Hohodza Biog &
MP3s - Hohodza Tour Dates