Now Or Never

From Zimbabwe to Iqaluit: an artivist's story

Francisca Mandeya refers to herself as an artivist. She uses her voice, and her mbira to make music. Mandeya lives in Iqaluit, Nunavut. She is a long way from her home in Zimbabwe, where she learned the power of spreading her message through music.
Francisca Mandeya sings and plays her mbira in Iqaluit, Nunavut. (M. Pucci/CBC)

Note: this story includes explicit language.

Francisca Mandeya refers to herself as an artivist. She uses her voice, and her mbira to make music.

She currently lives in Iqaluit, a long way from her home in Zimbabwe where she learned the power of spreading her message through music.

Mandeya grew up in Wedza, Zimbabwe. She remembers singing and dancing with her family when she was young.

"We were mostly singing church songs. Also fun songs," she said. "Even liberation struggle songs. We sang them without knowing we were doing that."

It was her children who taught her how to play the mbira, a wooden instrument with metal tongs similar to a thumb piano.

Francisca Mandeya playing her mbira. (M. Pucci/CBC)

Mandeya would come home from work and start sharing stories about the issues she was experiencing through her work in the community. 

She would tell stories to her children, while her daughter played the mbira. They sang about gender equality, the environment or the Zimbabwean diaspora.

Escaping danger, anxiety in Zimbabwe

Mandeya's decision to leave Zimbabwe did not come easily.

"I was 45 and had lived more than half my life there. Where would I go?" she recalled. "But I had a sister in Iqaluit and she knew what I had been going through at home."

That included a threat against her life.

"Somebody followed me ... he threatened me with disappearance," she explained. "Of course I stood up to him and told him that he did not have the whole of Zimbabwe on top of his head."

It wasn't the first time she had experienced threats — even from the police, as well as break-ins at the offices where she worked.

"I was living under so much stress — politically, economically, and my sister was like, 'You know, I don't want to come there to bury you. I'm buying you a ticket. You're out of there.'"

Francisca Mandeya with her sister Tina (M. Pucci/CBC)

When she got to Iqaluit, Mandeya couldn't get over how welcoming people were. To commemorate her glowing first impression, she wrote a poem called Warmth in a Cold Place

"There's actually warmth in this cold place because it's better to be cold and safe than to be warm and not safe," she recalled.

Still, Mandeya has experienced some challenges in addition to that warmth.

"When I was walking down from my house going to my sister's place, some young men followed me and started shouting 'n--ger — she's black!' and he did it over and over and over. He even crossed the road to come to my side."

When Mandeya got to her sister's place she asked her to take photos of herself in the black dress she was wearing. 

"I posted the photo and story of what had happened on Facebook," recalled Mandeya. "I said in the end, 'My dress is black. I am not black.'"

"The more I look at myself the more I do not want to be called black," she said, "because for me it's just an idea of somebody who assigns a colour to people. And I don't want to identify as such because it hurts me. It comes with insults. It comes with being demeaned."

Singing in Shona, and Inuktitut

Mandeya refers to the power of music when she speaks. It's her way of sharing messages about what is going on in her community, be it in Zimbabwe or Canada.

"Music is my voice. It's therapeutic. It's a vehicle for social change."

Mandeya also uses music as a tool for connecting with her community in Iqaluit. She taught students there some songs in Shona and she in turn learned some songs in Inuktitut

Francisca Mandeya shows a young girl her mbira. (M. Pucci/CBC)

"I never thought I would sing in Inuktitut —not in my life," she said. "And I never thought Inuk students would sing my language Shona."

"When I saw that exchange of languages and the beautiful music we produced together, I came to the conclusion that it's true — music is a language on it's own. And the connections you make when you sing's just beautiful."