No One Was Whispering...Not Even The Hippos
Updated: Jan 14
Today, I realized that I hadn’t played my guitar -- I mean really jammed -- in forever. In fact, the last time was eleven years ago, during a powerful moment in Zimbabwe...and I don’t think I’ve ever shared that story. If you don’t mind, I’d like to share it now.
I've had a guitar since I was 17, but I never really enjoyed playing it.
Actually, that's not true. The real problem is I never really enjoyed carrying it.
By 2008, I had already been on the road for almost five years.I would travel to a new city every three or four days. And all these experiences involved believing in my journey, jumping into the unknown, accepting real risks, and living with the consequences.
Most of those times worked out well. That's why I'm here.
But some didn't. Some ended fantastically bad. Sometimes I needed to leave the situation as fast as possible. A few times, my survival depended on it.
And that meant that what what I carried mattered.
So I began to think of my guitar as just extra weight I had to move every time that I moved on. And if you heard me play back then, you'd hear exactly that -- the whining sounds of an unloved instrument.
One day, I just stopped playing altogether.
That all changed my first night in South Africa.
I was in Durban, and I couldn’t sleep, so I picked up my guitar, walked out to the balcony, and grooved in a rhythm I had never played before, but immediately felt natural to me. It was playful, soulful, and full of blues.
It was me. Months later, when I was a bartender in Cape Town, after every shift I would sit against that mustard colored wall (in the picture), and play until the stars in the Southern Cross stood tall over Table Mountain.
People from all over the world would join in. Our voices and souls would harmonize until sunrise. In March 2008, Zimbabwe held a close national election. It was the first time in a long time that Prime Minister Mugabe had faced a real challenger, and there was a palpable hope that, after decades of systematic oppression, change would happen. For weeks, the Mugabe regime delayed releasing the election results. Tensions were high across the country. Most saw the government’s silence as a sign that Mugabe had lost. One morning, in Cape Town, I read that Mugabe had cracked down hard. He deployed soldiers and tanks to cities around the country to “maintain the peace.” He detained all the international journalists. Deploying military and shutting down the press usually signal darker things to come. I didn’t even finish breakfast. Zimbabwe’s story had to be told. That same day, I jumped on a 24 hour bus to Harare. And so began my career as a freelance journalist.
And I brought my guitar.
I was near Victoria Falls when I met a group of passionate musicians, self-described revolutionaries, but who were really young citizens who wanted to see change and experience freedom in their country. One particularly turbulent afternoon, the group needed to let off steam. So we collected our instruments, got into a rowboat, rowed to the middle of the mighty Zambezi River, and started to play. On one side of us was Zambia. On the other river bank was Zimbabwe. Downstream lay the Falls. Here in the middle of the river, was no man’s land.
And we jammed.
It wasn’t long before rowboats from both banks of the river converged around our boat. They started adding rhythm, some slapped the sides of the boat, many clapped, and those with oars started smacking the river. Soon, everyone was singing. The hippos came too! Their great heads would surface around the boats, and every now and again, they’d bellow a tone deaf harmony. It sort of resembled a sputtering Harley motorcycle. We sang for hours. Towards the end, we took a break and watched as the sunset began to sweep across the river. As darkness overtook us, I started singing Talkin' 'bout A Revolution by Tracy Chapman: "Don't you know, we're talking about a revolution (Sounds like a whisper)" Like wildfire, the song moved from boat to boat, until it erupted full force for the chorus:
Poor people gonna rise up and get their share Poor people gonna rise up and take what's theirs Don't you know you better run run run run run run run run run run run run I said you better run run run run run run run run run run run run 'Cause finally the tables are starting to turn, talkin' 'bout a revolution I looked around and saw scores of people, hands raised to the sky, ardently expressing their hope that a brighter future lay ahead. No one was whispering.