Danai (Didi to her friends and family) Gurira is now pursuing an extremely successful career in show business in the United States. A reviewer described her as ‘the red-hot Zimbabwean actress…who stars as butt-kicking, katana sword-wielding zombie, apocalypse survivor in The Walking Dead’. She has scooped an Obie Award and other awards for writing and acting.
Yet, Danai could very easily have been an academic like her father or a librarian like her mother or any one of the many careers that graduates of the Dominican Convent in Harare choose. Instead, surprisingly and rather unfashionably, she decided to take up drama, earning herself an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) at New York University. The performing arts was not a popular choice among young girls of her age when she was a Harare teenager. So why and how drama?
The answer is simply ‘CHIPAWO’.
Danai admitted this herself when she addressed a group of Swedish parliamentarians at the CHIPAWO Media Centre while on a visit to Zimbabwe from the States somewhere around 2003. Movingly, she acknowledged her debt to CHIPAWO, saying that it was CHIPAWO that had launched her on her theatre career and provided her with grounding in the performing arts. She explained that her membership of and experience in the CHIPAWO Youth Group made her and the others in the group believe that they could do anything they set their minds to. The sky was the limit. And it seems that this is exactly what is happening for Danai right now in the United States.
The CHIPAWO youth group that Danai was referring to and of which she was a member was the very first separate youth programme CHIPAWO introduced. It was designed for those in secondary school and for the first time the children of that age met separately from the other children in CHIPAWO and had their own centre. In addition to the usual syllabus of traditional and modern dance, they learnt marimba and mbira and made plays. The first play they created themselves and performed publicly was called Chill Out – and it dealt with a very real identity crisis in the lives of young Zimbabweans. The central character was a girl called Tinovimba. All the other girls in her peer group had European names and they made her feel that her Shona name was not ‘cool’. There was a traditional dance club at the school and when she joined it, the other girls mocked her.
This was a very real problem for young people in those days. It was experienced by the girls from Dominican Convent like Danai and those other from other schools who participated in CHIPAWO programmes. They were labelled SRB, meaning Strong Rural Background.
Danai at that stage had shown little interest in performing arts but she joined the Youth Group because her very good friend, Thando McLaren, and her schoolmate, Chipo Chung, were members. It was in the classes, the drama training and above all the performances in plays such as Chill Out, followed by Freedom and then a brilliant musical scripted and directed by CHIPO Chung, that theatre got into Danai’s blood and she gained the confidence and skills that the theatre work in the youth Group imparted.
The CHIPAWO Youth Group of that time was a golden group. It brought together an unusually talented group of young people, most of who have gone on to make their mark like Danai. There was David Chifunyise, whose music became very popular in Zimbabwe, in particular his memorable arrangement of the Shona wedding classic, ‘Tauya nemagumbezi’. There was the tragically late Chiwoniso Maraire, the celebrated mbira-player and singer, who attended a number of sessions because her younger sister, Tawona, was a member of the group. Chipo Chung went on to graduate at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) in London and has played a influential role in humanitarian activism and in theatre, featuring in numerous television roles.
After performing as a singer – with the late Andy Brown, Chiwoniso Maraire and also as a soloist – Girls’ High School graduate, Thando McLaren, did a degree at the University of London. She then converted to Islam and proceeded to carve out an impressive career as a writer of books, mainly for young people, and as the founder and editor of the Muslim women’s magazine, Sisters. Her novel for young people about Zimbabwe’s land reform, ‘Far from Home’, went on to win international awards.
There were others also that have made their name in the Zimbabwean arts world – and many more who never attended the Golden Youth Group but who went on to make their mark – Rute Mbangwa (well-known singer), Farai Kuzvidza (producer and director of Zimbabwe’s most popular children’s TV show, Nde’pi gen’a?’), Tito Shoshore (Chiwoniso Maraire’s drummer), Tsitsi Tizora (Umoja programme organiser), Malvern Potwayo (music teacher in Zimbabwe and in China), Chipo Basopo (who heads CHIPAWO), Catherine Chirongoma (skilled digital video editor), Charmaine Picardo (MC and SAFAIDS youth role model), Tafadzwa ‘Jack’ Chimbetete (well-known television producer) and many others.
Just as it was CHIPAWO that launched Danai on her career as an actress, so CHIPAWO has empowered and inspired hundreds of children and young people, who are now having an impact on society, both locally and internationally – thanks to the dedication of founding arts educators such as the late Elizabeth Takawira, Sekuru Majeza, Clayton Ndlovu and Mkoma Clency Gwaze and the founders of CHIPAWO – Farai Gezi, Julie Frederikse, Robert McLaren and Stephen Chifunyise.
CHIPAWO would like to congratulate its graduate, Danai Gurira, on her unprecedented success and echo what she said ten years ago, that CHIPAWO gives its graduates the belief they can do anything – the sky’s the limit. We are sure this is exactly how it will turn out for Danai.