SENTINEL Editor, Tinashe Mushakavanhu, interviews Namibian songstress and poet, Christi Warner. Namibian literature is lesser known than the other literatures from its regional neighbours, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Warner speaks about her cross genre work as a writer, singer and theatre practitioner. She also speaks of the involvement of women in the Namibian arts sector and what needs to be done for further active participation.
Where were you born and spent your childhood?
I am proudly Namibian, born in the capital city, Windhoek, where I stayed half of my childhood and the other part of it in Oranjemund, which is right at the Orange River and the border of South Africa and it is also known as the place where diamonds are found in Namibia.
Though you are Namibian, I understand you have mixed ancestry – has that influenced the creative person that you became and your appeal to a diverse audience?
Yes, I also have a Liberian ancestry, which many a times has helped me open my mind to the rest of Africa. It has made me realize that although we are divided by borders, this continent was once one, and that we all have to find unity in our diversity. I see myself as the perfect African: even though I have Liberian blood within me and live in Namibia, I feel I belong everywhere in Africa. In 1995, I was invited to a Southern Africa Theatre Workshop in Tanzania and wherever I went people thought I looked like someone from Somalia. In my own country people constantly think of me as either Herero or Damara/Nama speaking – two different ethnic dialects of Namibia.
What is the message of your art – topics/themes/issues you focus on?
My art has a social focus: even love, according to me needs to be regarded as a social challenge and if I was president, I would make it a ministry on its own or give it just as much magnitude as other social challenges – . My first writing reflected a lot about me and my struggles and growing up as a teenager and then, because of my involvement with Bricks, I became aware that there are people out there that have no voices that needed someone else to help tell their stories. So I started introducing the challenges and successes of grassroots people in my writing (issues like poverty, politics and health related issues, self understanding and growth). I tend to write mostly about women and children, not because I am a woman, but mostly because these factions of society seem to always be two steps behind on the ladder to freedom.
What language do you use? And is the choice of language an expressive issue for you?
English is the main language I communicate in; in fact I enjoy this melodic Shakespearean language which is quite widely spoken. Apart from Afrikaans (which is a South African dialect that borrows from the Dutch Language) I am quite fluent in English. The latter is also the official language for Namibia. I realized soon enough that most of the Namibian challenges and achievements are in fact universal and writing in English makes it easier to communicate with my own people and the rest of the world.
You are a very energetic young woman with an active presence in the arts in Namibia? Are there are other active female artists (in music, literature, theatre) in Namibia? If not, what do you think is the problem and how best can it be rectified?
According to the outcome of a research paper I wrote in 2005 (commissioned by the Southern Africa Theatre Initiative –SATI): Namibian women are active in the arts but in subordinate positions… Women are singers, but very few compose their own songs… Very few get involved in fundraising schemes to get their music out… They are still dependent on men for the major parts. Women are actors on stage, but very few write, direct or produce their own plays… they are still dependent on men to direct and control them. Although I do have an active presence in the arts in Namibia (I run a theatre company – Township Productions – with a colleague, I recently became the editor of POETREE, a Namibian poetry publication, I helped produce three Namibian music albums, I compose my own songs, produced two music videos under my production company AfroChica Entertainment, etc.), I am still walking the path of discovery and trying to claim my space. In fact, I sense that I haven’t yet arrived but I continue on my journey and I keep looking at the successes of other women who despite the hardships found their place in the Namibian society, women that take up positions of directors, songwriters, playwrights, literary managers, stage managers, choreographers, film and theatre producers, set and light designers, business managers, etc. And these women I proudly look up to are:
Angelica Schroeder – Choreographer and head of the African Dance Department College of Arts
Gwen Lister – Editor of the Namibian Newspaper
Laurinda Olivier-Sampson – Playwright, Lecturer for the Performing Arts Department at the University of Namibia
Tanya Terblanche – Director, playwright and actor
Felicity Celento – Arts Administrator, events organizer and actor
Elizabeth Khaxas – Poet and Business manager
How much power, if she has any, does a female artist have in the Namibian society?
Right now it does not seem like women and their contributions are noticed in the music and poetry scenes, just like any other fields, because these fields are crowded by our male counterparts, but I do believe that the few women in the industry are noticed, people are aware of them, it’s just that their efforts are rarely recorded. If women can learns to claim her space she can be a valuable asset to Namibia and the rest of Africa. To obtain power is tough and nobody easily hands anyone power, but reclaiming our space is a journey of life that we all must walk. Namibia needs women to use their art to inspire other women, to help educate the masses about the struggles and successes whether it is political, social or economical. I believe just like anywhere in the world, Namibians need a lot of inspiration, they need to learn to believe in themselves, they need to stand up and contribute to making our country strong, politically, socially and economically and if they can get inspired by a singer or poet it will be a great achievement not only for this person or persons but for the arts in general.
As a young woman writer do you consider yourself a feminist?
People could make that assumption because of the fact that I tend to write mostly about woman and children. Even though I write about women and children, it is only because they remain a fraction of society left behind. In fact, in my writing I encourage women to stop playing the blame game against men, and face head on the challenges that we have and find the courage to change them. I remember having a debate with the committee of the Namibia Sanlam NBC Music Awards in 2005: their suggestion was to have separate categories for women and men in all the awards categories. My argument was that I would feel more a winner as a woman if I won an award where I had to compete against my male counterparts. Making this division implies that women are still weak and that we can never be true winners outside women’s groupings.
And do you think anything has changed in recent years to encourage more African women to participate in the arts, particularly writing and poetry? Are there any African women writers who have influenced you? In what ways?
I would like to remember the 21st century as the century that openly welcomed women to claim their places in society. The invitation is there, we all heard it, but the response to it has been rather slow, especially when it comes to Namibian women. Or in some cases it is happening but again it remains behind closed doors. It’s not so much a case of being influenced but I have great respect for women like Tsitsi Dangarembga, Bessie Head, Gcina Mhlophe and Antjie Krog. Their determination to make it in a male dominated environment gives me that constant hope that one day I will be a force to be reckoned with.
What do you think about the direction and momentum of the arts scene in Namibia today?
It is alive! Thank God for this. You cannot afford to relax today, because once you do you can be easily forgotten or someone else will come up to take your place. Companies these days are willing to pay more while in the past musicians; poets; theatre practitioners ended up with meager figures for all their hard work. Namibian musicians have started to make waves in the neighboring countries, e.g. South Africa, Botswana, and Angola, thanks to Channel O, a music program for DSTV South Africa, but this still has to happen for the other art disciplines.
Who are some of the contemporary Namibian writers and why do they have a low international profile like their counterparts from say, South Africa and Zimbabwe?
I wish I knew the real answer to why Namibian writers seem to have a low international profile, but I suppose the only thing one can do is to be aware of the outside world and get our work noticed outside our own borders. If things don’t happen I guess it becomes important to stand up and make it happen for yourself. I realized that most Namibians do not advertise themselves online. The internet is such a powerful tool and because of it you found me! Established writers that I am aware of are: Joseph Diescho, Anoeschka von Meck, Keamogetsi Joseph Molapong, Laurinda Olivier-Sampson, Vickson Hangula, Petrus Haakskeen.
In your opinion do Namibian people support/appreciate the arts? If not, what do you suggest should be done?
In the not so distant past people didn’t regard the arts as important and you could get disowned by your family for choosing to be an artist or writer, but now parents seem quite happy to encourage their children to follow their creative passions, but of course they still encourage you to have an educational certificate on the side. Ordinary people are requesting more local content on radios, but unfortunately selling CD’s is still a battle because most people would rather make illegal copies. Certain music & book shops in the country still do not want to host Namibian music and books, thus it becomes difficult to get your work out to the public. I suppose it is necessary to enforce stronger government policies to ensure that shops in Namibia sell local music, books, art and crafts. The local music awards are partly a blessing as they have helped many local artists become household names but I suppose their fundamental role should be to recognize and award musicians for their hard work and talent. I am not sure if it is right to ask musicians to enter their work for the annual awards. Maybe I am wrong, but shouldn’t an award be there to help set the standard, but if you award people based on who gets the most public votes in all the categories, especially when it is the aim of the ward to make money from the public through calls or sms then I think we are lost. If this is the aim of the awards then it is best to call it a competition.
Tell, me about Township productions, your theatre for development company. What was/is the vision? What is the role you are playing in contemporary Namibia? Have you been successful? What challenges have you been facing?
We specialize in Theatre for Development (TFD), Forum Theatre, Community Theatre and produce theatrical, literal, audio and visual productions to advance and compliment national programs for artistic consumption by local, regional and international communities. Our successes are small, but important: we have managed to send at least two Namibian artists for training to South Africa (as a playwright, set and light designer), and our publication POETREE, partly sponsored by the National Arts Council of Namibia and comes out every second month, gives three poets per edition the platform to showcase their work and during the launch of each edition they are given the platform to perform alongside other poets. One of the challenges is as always, financial: it is not always easy to get financial support for our activities. Most organizations or funding institutions still need to be convinced of the importance and value of theatre – but we have been lucky to work closely with two government ministries (Ministry of Education – Directorate of Adult Education -, Ministry of Youth National Services, Sports and Culture), the National Theatre of Namibia and the Media Institute of Namibia, Namibia Community Radio Network, College of Arts and the Legal Assistance Centre and through them we are making a mark.
Your debut musical album – I found my rhythm – has been receiving a lot of rave reviews across the world. What is it all about? And do you think you did enough to fully express yourself in the album?
This album is close to my heart because through it I learned to express who I really am, what I stand for as a human being. I Found My Rhythm means more than just sound, it means purpose… I found my purpose in life; I found God and a sense of belonging in this world. For a start, I believe it is a pretty good project, people listen to my songs and they can sense the poet, the philosopher, they can discover and uncover themselves. I have always believed that music should not just be about singing, but a means to touch the soul and help the spirit grow. Because of this album other musicians have noticed who I am and although it is just available in Namibia I have had invitations for collaborations and other upcoming artists have asked me to help develop their skills.
Christi Warner is a Namibian Poet, Singer/Songwriter & Theatre for Development Practitioner