"AND one more thing…” I read as I’m scrolling down the WhatsApp messages coming in from colleagues in Zimbabwe who have been working with us for six months on an arts project with young people, “…could you bring dental floss? You’ve no idea how I am suffering!” First world problems!

As we land in Harare and are met by colleagues the news is already terrible – Mozambique, Malawi and now Chimanimani in the east of Zimbabwe have been hit by cyclone Idai. Hundreds are dead, thousands are displaced, their homes destroyed, and there is a severe threat of cholera and disease. This in some of the countries in the world most severely affected by poverty. The Zimbabwean news cycle plays out the images, in the languages of Shona and Ndebele. The grief is manifesting practically in the cross-border work to retrieve Zimbabwean bodies from the Mozambique Coast.

In a situation of emergency and extreme poverty, the arrival of a white woman with a purse who is not here to contribute to the relief effort is a tricky thing.

We are here to join young people who are eager to work with us for six months in a creative and performing arts project. This is not exactly disaster relief and it’s not an easy tension to hold. There is a lot of critical ink being spilled in the columns of the commentariat, both academic and journalistic, on the subject of overseas aid.

READ MORE: In the aftermath of Cyclone Idai, solidarity become imperative to saving lives

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International development projects are seen to fall foul of the critiques of “do-gooding” – “white saviours” off to add to their CVs at the expense of those in the global south.

In between these critiques of aid work and white saviours formulated in the global north there is another story, not as divisive or insistent on purity, but all the more significant for it.

The Global Challenge Research Fund (GCRF) was set up a couple of years ago to mitigate these critiques. It continues the work of many NGOs to set up fair and equitable partnerships, looking for long-term, practical solutions, designed by multidisciplinary teams of researchers, organisations, local partners, and really anyone who might be able to bring the kind of creativity to the table that could bring about durable change for intractable global challenges.

The momentary joy caused by the arrival of dental floss is immediately offset by the daily hunt for petrol. There isn’t much and most is reserved for those with special membership cards or privileges. Long queues plague our days unless we can pay in US dollars.

We work in three different currencies just to get from A to B. Our time is spent with bundles of Zim dollars counting out what we owe in the well-thumbed equivalents of a 5 pence piece and hoping that our “petrol whisperers” will manifest to show us where there might be supplies.

READ MORE: Aid charities praise Scots for raising £2 million for Cyclone Idai

“Always trust your hosts” is a maxim of much fieldwork I’ve been engaged in. Tried and trusted relationships will find a way. And so it comes to pass that, despite fuel and cash shortages and power cuts, we are sitting in a circle with a newly established group of young people who are over the moon that we have come to witness what they have been doing.

The National: Devastation in Zimbabwe after Cyclone IdaiDevastation in Zimbabwe after Cyclone Idai

Two days before their performance they are bubbling with excitement with what they have learned and how much things have changed since they were able to be in the driving seat as leaders, thanks to our GCRF project.

They are putting on a play called Beautiful Zimbabwe. It begins with a powerful rendition of the South African national anthem, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, always one to bring goose bumps to those of us who were brought up resisting apartheid in South Africa and Zimbabwe however we could.

Zimbabwe doesn’t have much of a tourism industry. You need a strong cultural sector to develop tourism. Yet it desperately needs the foreign currency, including tourist dollars, to help what is a broken economy. Those cultural artefacts that survive after the multiplicity of colonial plunderings need animation and what Unesco define as “intangible cultural heritage” needs stewards, translators and custodianship.

Stephen Chifunyise and Robert Maclaren, two of the founders of CHIPAWO, the young people’s theatre company, guide us in the ways in which generations of young people are caught in tension between traditions, the church and globalisation. This is the space in which all our joint work has been unfolding, where we are living these tensions together.

At the same time we are injecting some GCRF cash and energy into the vexed question of how to ensure that traditions and languages might survive poverty, ransacking, and inequality.

I’m putting it nicely here. Let’s turn to Zimbabwe’s great novelist Dambudzo Marechera, in The House of Hunger, as rendered by playwright Tafazwa Bob Mutumbi. ‘The colonial, post-colonial condition is one of being born into this rape, being nurtured and conditioned by it.

“The underwear of our souls was full of holes and the crotch it hid was infested with lice. We were whores eaten to the core by the syphilis of the white man`s coming, masturbating on to a playboy centerfold, screaming abuse at a solitary but defiant racist baring our arse to the yawning pit latrine, writing angry black poetry…”

There is plenty of this – angry black poetry containing liturgies of lamentation about the raping, abuse, violations and beatings of women. Some of it is clumsy, some of it tight as a drum. From our impromptu initiating of a poetry slam as part of a literature outreach in the regional town of Masvingo in December 2018 we have seen a new series of poetry slams emerge, led by those who had the experience of taking part in the first somewhat anarchic experiment.

In the presence of the young poets and the theatremakers of Zimbabwe we become witnesses to the global horror of violations. The men among us puzzle a little at the repertoire and extent to which this is so dominated by the women’s cry. To the women it’s a different story – of course women have talked about all of these things together, all over the world, between themselves. It’s just now there is a moment of solidarity for young people, boys and girls, young men and women alike, to bear witness on platforms beginning to be offered up.

Zimbabwe’s leading poet Chirikure Chirikure , director of Harare Literature Festival, is the brains and elder behind the development of part of this poetic work on the ground. Thanks to his leadership of the next generation of young artistic developers, there is also something different happening.

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THE young team of leaders from Harare Literature Festival have formed a collective and they are holding another first-time poetry slam, this time in the high-density suburbs of Highfields, Harare. The languages of the poetry are those of the rival clans – the Shona and the Ndebele. There is long standing tension between these groups. Poetry doesn’t happen much in this part of town but when it does it tends to be in the venues that are left in the city centre.

One of the stars of the first Masvingo regional outreach slam has had the chance to travel the six hours to the capital to perform. He’s juiced and after the fourth encore, he’s walking on air. We witness him the following day performing back in his home town of Masvingo. He’s like a hero returned and feeling that energy, which any performer knows as life-blood, of this time with the stage and a gift to give an audience.

Enabling young spoken word performance poets to try out their work on an audience which never gets the chance to experience poetry live was one of the ways the young leaders in our project were suggesting strengthening the intangible cultural heritage and mediating rival languages.

When responding to the question as to what they might want to ‘make’ as a performance piece reflecting on linguistic diversity in Zimbabwe, and not just working in the colonial English, the young leaders in the theatre company CHIPAWO decide to make a piece using sign language.

One of their number, Charles, is their leader for this element. He self-identifies as deaf. The company has learned to communicate in sign language and the young people immediately start teaching us their newly learned skill under Charles’ careful watch.

We are hopelessly bad at moving our fingers and yet the young people patiently work us through the movements so we can tell them, in sign language, how we are. They talk about how much it has meant to them to be able to perform using sign language.

The National: Tawona Sithole and Alison PhippsTawona Sithole and Alison Phipps

“The play we did in sign language really touched me,’’ said one. ‘‘This has changed the theatre company to have someone who is deaf and who is communicating with you.

‘‘This is the first time we have worked with other languages. It has helped our performance. I was very ignorant but during these sessions with Charles teaching us the sign language, I came to believe out there people really need to take this on. Now we are a team, and now we are a family, everyone is important. As the youth we need to educate each other, we are leaving our roots and we need to love our culture.”

Sitting outside in Harare Gardens with officials from the Ministry of Youth, Sport and Culture, the argument is made again by the young leaders we’ve been working with. They don’t need a “white saviour” to pipe up here, and they’ve rehearsed their eloquent points many times over with us in the gaps between programmes.

The ministry officials hear the protestations about culture needing support but come back at those speaking with the classic cut away: “So you’d rather we didn’t send aid to Chimanimani, would you?”

To have art is to deprive those suffering, or so the argument goes here, rather than understanding that it is precisely the creativity and dexterity of those who make new narratives that can renew a culture, a nation, a generation, a broken spirit, and can heal.

READ MORE: The questions Cyclone Idai raises about our response to global disasters

There is little proof that when decision-makers are shown evidence, it actually works to bring change. We’ve seen this with Extinction Rebellion because, as they rightly say, the proof is in and the experts have shared it in all the forums available to them, but the decision-makers are not responding to the facts.

It’s no accident that it’s always the journalists, writers, artists and academics, pointing to uncomfortable truths who are the first to be banned, the thinkers and visionaries, the dreamers and showers – of alternative narratives.

For our work in the Unesco Chair programme for Refugee Integration through Languages and the Arts, at the University of Glasgow we focus on co-creating stories about evidence.

This means working with ideas – epic themes of the arts and humanities – performed in the languages people hear and think with, and in which they deliberate and decide about how to make their lives better.

Kudzidza hakuperi is a Shona proverb meaning learning is never finished. There is nothing perfect or finished about this work in Zimbabwe either, but in the hands of the next generation there are strong signs that culture is being re-envisioned, renewed and re-energised for fresh purposes.

Tawona Sitholé and Alison Phipps work with the Unesco RILA Chair programme at the University of Glasgow as artists and academics.