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Monday, 29 June 2015

Refugees are human too

By Andrew Mulenga

Imagine having to suddenly flee your home, without warning, the possibility of never returning again. You are immediately on the run with the sound of screams, bombs and gunfire in the background, a quick headcount of your family they are scattered, some at school, others at work, how do you get hold of them?.

Refugees I, acrylic on canvas, 2015 by George Muzamba
Where do you run to, where do you hide, what do you carry with you? You cannot carry the home theatre system you are still paying for, that pot on the stove will have to remain where it is, even if you remember to carry your phone charger what use will it be, you are on the run.

This is of course an experience the majority of us Zambians have never experienced having been born in blissful peace and becoming so accustomed to it, that most of us take it for granted often toying with the notion of civil strife as can be seen in the battles of the key-board warriors or online-politicians who continuously threaten each other on popular social media just because they belong to rival political parties or different ethnic groups as has become the recent trend in Zambian politics.

Nevertheless as Zambians we can only imagine what it feels like to be displaced as George Muzamba of Kamwala South in Lusaka is doing through paintings dedicated to displaced peoples and exodus of refugees.

“For about two years now I have just been playing around with this issue of refugees. The images that I see on TV touch me and I always think this is sad, why should such things happen to people, these are families, women and children, what next for them,” laments Muzamba who is an avid follower of African current affairs.

“I don’t know  I feel very bad when I see this movement of refugees, I just want to put them on the canvas, just to get the images of suffering out of my mind, the only way I can do it is to paint, even when the images are from my imagination, I really wonder what these people go through”

Refugees II, acrylic on canvas, 2015 by George Muzamba
He confesses that he has never seen a group of refugees first hand but is aware that ever since the 1960s, Zambia has been the second home to countless refugees especially during the Kenneth Kaunda-led liberations struggles of Southern Africa, once harbouring the likes of former South African president Thabo Mbeki and Robert Mugabe.

“You see what really pains me is when I try to put myself in these peoples shoes, I think look, these are human beings just like me, yes refugees are human too,” he says.

This year, the World Refugee Day -- annually commemorated on 20th June --- was held under theme “Get to know a refugee” and in a speech at Lusaka’s Mulungushi International Conference Centre last week, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Representative to Zambia Ms Laura Lo Castro announced: “The number of people displaced by war, conflict or persecution reached a record high of nearly 60 million around the world in 2014! An average of 42,500 people became refugees, asylum-seekers or internally displaced persons, every single day – that is four times more than just 4 years ago. And 50% are children.”

Rebels on the move, acrylic on canvas, 2015 by George Muzamba
She expressed concern that “as this tragedy unfolds, some of the countries most able to help are shutting their gates to people seeking asylum. Borders are closing, pushbacks are increasing, and hostility is rising. Negative propaganda inciting to xenophobia, discrimination, and casting refugees as gate crashers or terrorists is on the increase.”

Addressing top government officials, members of the diplomatic corps, representatives from the refugee community and the press, Lo Castro emphasized that if people adhered to this year’s theme and personally got to know least one refugee and took time to listen to their individual stories, problems such as discrimination and xenophobia would not exist.
“Here in Zambia people have luckily continued to enjoy prolonged peace and stability and a sustained open door policy that since decades has welcomed refugees fleeing conflicts and persecution. In addition, the Government of Zambia has recently allowed former refugees - who have spent 20 and more years in the country and are unable or unwilling to return to their home country - to remain legally in Zambia,” stated Lo Castro.

Nevertheless, in the painting Refugees 1, Muzamba fills a large canvas from end to end with a sea of people, they appear seated on the ground most resting their heads between the palms of both hands in despair, the group seems to be waiting for further instructions or placement. You cannot tell out their individual faces, maybe because you are not supposed to. And to enhance the feeling of sadness, the artist decided to use a monochromatic aesthetic, of greys and black which conceivably adding to the gloom, enhancing the image’s reflection hopelessness and misery.

Artist, George Muzamba believes refugees should
be treated in a more just and humane manner
At 39, Muzamba has not yet shown his work in a gallery and by art world yardsticks, this makes him a late bloomer. He has been a self-taught sign writer adorning market stalls around the capital from as far back as he can remember but, encouraged by his mentor Albert Kata head of the Kanyama Art Centre (KAC), Muzamba has been practicing with acrylic on canvas. He says his first works were imaginary scenes of wildlife, and he would even sell one or two although his main source of income has always been sign-writing. In fact, when there are no tenders on the signage front, you will find him at KAC working on his canvases.

“I don’t think I can do the wildlife secenes anymore, even if they used to bring a bit of money here and there for now, my passion now is really with the refugees, this is what moves me, I really want to add my voice and tell the African leaders that enough is enough of these civil wars, people cannot be living on the run,” says the artist who is a dedicated member of the Rastafarian movement, believing in peace, love and harmony as well as adhering to the tenets of African emancipation hero Marcus Garvey of Jamaica and His Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia.

Muzamba observes that as an artist who has only undergone informal training chances may be slim for him to get his work into a gallery or exposed internationally, but he has promised himself that this year, by all means he will take some of his work to the Henry Tayali Gallery in the Lusaka for the Independence Week exhibition in October. Undeniably, his work may not be top-of-the-shelf, but it is honest and unpretentious as he says, it comes from the heart. 

“I think I have the confidence now, I will just take my work, if it is accepted in the gallery then it will be a plus for me. Yes I need money, but even if they don’t buy it, my message on the situation of refugess has to get out there,” he says.

He adds that the challenge he faces at the moment is the purchase of art material, he did not realize that the material used for studio practices such as canvas, tubes of acrylic and horse hair brushes can prove quite costly as compared to the paints and brushes that he uses for sign writing which can be bought at comparatively lower prices in the many hardware stores all over Lusaka.

“But, art is what I love doing and I won’t stop, I was born to do this. It’s also a continuous learning process, what I’ve discovered with painting, the more you practice the more you get better especially playing around with colour, you get to understand how to control light, how to create the illusion of shadings and perspective you know,” he says.

In his short experience he observes that since there are not too many galleries in Zambia, government should think of supporting artists like himself by commissioning them with commemorative murals to beautify the city on the walls of spaces such as the flyover bridge and the football stadiums. Muzamba also thinks the corporate support for the visual artists is not as good as that of musicians.
“I am just a beginner but I have been watching for long time, (visual) artists never get the support. I am always at exhibitions at Henry Tayali gallery, I never see a pop up banners from MTN, Airtel or Barclays, but when it comes to supporting the musicians they are number one, I can’t say, maybe the artists don’t approach companies for support, I am not a member of the Visual Arts Council yet,” says Muzamba.

Certainly, the artist does have a point with regards corporate sponsorship but also as he rightly interrogates, there is no telling whether VAC is making an effort to approach business houses for support.

Meanwhile, GroundUp a South African community news organisation with a focus on social justice in vulnerable communities reported that “On World Refugee Day this weekend, South African police, traffic officials, metro police, brand specialists, immigration officials and defence force members shut down Cape Town Station's taxi terminus as part of Operation Fiela. The four-hour operation brought commuters to a standstill as taxis were not allowed in or out on a busy Saturday morning. Dozens of foreign nationals were arrested.”

According to GroundUp, South African Police Services (SAPS) Western Cape Media Centre confirmed that during the operation counterfeit goods to the value of R150, 000 (approx. over K91, 000) were confiscated as well as substantial amounts of cannabis. 86 arrests were affected; 81 were undocumented foreign nationals, one was for possession of cannabis, three were for counterfeit goods, and one was for an outstanding warrant of arrest.

GroundUp sent the authorities a set of questions that included: On what legal basis was the action carried out?  81 of the 86 arrests were for undocumented foreigners. How do SAPS and SANDF personnel know who is a foreigner? Since foreigners are not legally obligated to carry documents on them, on what legal basis can you arrest a foreigner for being undocumented?, Did SAPS have warrants to search the stores? How can people get their confiscated good back, especially since some storeowners allege they did not receive receipts for their confiscated goods?

A response from Lieutenant Colonel Andre Traut, however, stated: "[K]indly be advised that Saturday’s crime operation in Cape Town was executed in terms of the Criminal Procedure Act, and any person who is of the opinion that he or she was unlawfully arrested or treated can address the matter by lodging an official compliant with authorities."
Operation Fiela, a project aimed at eradicating crime in South Africa has been described by a number of SA media houses as “legitimising xenophobia”. 

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