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Harare International Arts Festival Ends - 2003-05-06

In the Zimbabwean capital, the annual Harare International Festival of the Arts ended on Sunday after a somewhat controversial week-long run.

The festival ended with a fireworks display after the London Community Gospel choir gave the final performance, delivering a message of hope.

There are some Zimbabweans who feel because of the economic and political crisis, the festival should not have been held this year. Some say holding the festival sends a message that things are normal in Zimbabwe. They launched a mail campaign to make their point.

But the festival's founder and director, London-based Zimbabwean concert pianist Manuel Bagorro, argues that Zimbabwe needs the festival now more than at any other time.

"I believe that this is the absolutely most important time to do something of this nature," said Mr. Bagorro. "I think that any initiative that nurtures any section of our community is incredibly important at this time when people are so desperate for nurturing. My decision to keep the festival right in the center of the city, despite concerns about security, and concerns about petty crime and so on, is some effort on behalf of the festival to acknowledge the reality of the situation.

"Yes, it is true you walk out of the gates of the festival and you are confronted with the destitution of many, many Zimbabweans," he continued. "However, it seems to me that to cancel a festival of this nature achieves nothing."

Despite the controversy, thousands of people who could afford the modestly priced tickets and had the fuel to go to the city center attended the festival.

Mr. Bagorro founded the festival in 1999. Most years, he has managed to put together an event featuring dance, music, theater, and visual arts from all over the world. The festival was not held last year because of the political tensions over the presidential election.

Now, the negative publicity Zimbabwe has attracted has convinced many artists not to come to Harare.

One of the artists who performed at this year's festival is South Africa's jazz sensation Judith Sephuma, who says many people tried to discourage her from coming to Zimbabwe.

"They scared me a lot, saying, "It is very difficult in Zimbabwe, are you going to make it back?", and I said, "By the grace of God and by the strength of God I will make it back home". But I knew that things were very difficult, but I did not know how much difficult and I realized when I got here that things are really difficult," said Judith Sephuma.

Zimbabwe's difficult times include 80 percent unemployment, shortages of basic commodities, and a political crisis that is splitting the nation. But for the last week the Harare International Festival of the Arts provided, at least, some distraction.