This year’s Maun International Arts Festival (MIAF) confidently crossed the divide: it is no longer just a poetry festival. This year it embraced all of the arts in a holistic and exciting way.
Poetavango, a group of committed volunteers, have pulled off an amazing feat. Take a moment to think about what they have done. They brought artists from all over the world to Maun to celebrate art in numerous venues, usually with many events happening simultaneously. They housed the artists, organised transport in many cases. They fed them. Took them on cultural excursions. All of this done by folks in their spare time, after working all day as teachers, physical therapists, running their own businesses. I give them serious credit. I couldn’t have done it and I think most of you couldn’t have either. In my book, MIAF 2015 was a great success, the best festival so far, and the Poetavango members need to be very proud of themselves.
But it wasn’t perfect. Events occasionally didn’t start on time. Sound for stage performances was sometimes a problem. Because of late funding, the programme was fluid. These are teething problems. MIAF is growing up and in the near future important decisions need to be made to ensure its continuation. Without that I’m afraid it will collapse under its own weight. For me, there are two main threats facing the Festival.
Firstly, the structure at the moment is not sustainable. It is being run on the backs of individuals, people like its chairperson, Legodile Seganabeng, and his team, especially Thato Molosi and Juby Peacock. But sustainable organisations are vulnerable if they depend on individuals. Structural problems such as this become more prominent as an organisation grows.
The solution will require funding. This is where the Ministry of Youth, Sport and Culture needs to step-in, and step-in in a big, sustainable way. MIAF should be the exact vehicle that the Ministry would be keen to help. I would expect Tourism would want to get in on the programme in a bigger way too, since events such as these are the future of tourism worldwide.
The Festival is big enough now to need year-round paid staff and an office. It can’t keep growing, as it has, on the backs, and often the budgets, of committed volunteers.
The second threat to the continued growth of MIAF as an important arts festival on the continent is the involvement of the local Christian business/missionary conglomerate known as Love Botswana.
During the 2014 Festival, I was concerned regarding the sudden growth of Christian poetry from performers during events. Artists get inspiration from many places, including from their spirituality. I am not suggesting that is a problem in and of itself. A Christian or Rastafarian or Muslim poem is part of what art is. Art is about the artist’s truth, and about the artist’s absolute freedom, that includes the expression of their spirituality.
But this year there was a noted shift. Two of the events, including the final show, were held at The Village Church, owned by Love Botswana. At the big poetry event on Friday, the owners of this missionary organisation were at the front of the audience introduced, as could only be construed, as VIPs. Also the first performer that night was brought to the Festival by Love Botswana. She had a decidedly Christian message and agenda. This is a problem.
I know, thanks to their overseas funders (Texas-based Baptists) and their many business interests (a lodge and a private school), Love Botswana has ample resources. These can be used effectively to further their cause, the entire point of a religious mission.
An arts festival is the antithesis of a religious organisation. Arts must be about the truth. It must allow for the widest possible definition of that truth. Freedom of expression from all angles must be encouraged if the integrity of the festival is to be retained. Organised religion is all about control of people following the dictates of their religious books and obfuscation of any wider truth beyond that.
Money for the Festival is vital, but that money must be without strings. It appears to an onlooker that the donations and involvement of Love Botswana are not free. My real fear is the escalation of that involvement in the future— that is the threat.
What would happen if Love Botswana took over all of the funding for Festival? How might that affect who can and cannot be invited? Or what they chose to perform or speak about? Would Binyavanga Wainaina , a gay Kenyan writer be allowed to attend? What about our Kat Kai Kol-Kes, a transgender writer and performer? Even as an agnostic, there were times this year I felt decidedly uncomfortable.
If the Christian agenda is pushed further, I will need to accept that MIAF will no longer be a festival for me. Ijt will, in fact, no longer be an arts festival— it will be a Christian festival. And that would be a huge loss to the arts community in Botswana.