Of the four elements of hip-hop, two—emceeing and deejaying—are far more prevalent in Gaborone than the others—namely, breakdancing and graffiti. I hear about the days of b-boy crews and spontaneous breakdancing circles from old hip-hop heads as if they are talking about a remote and distant past, and I can count the number of active graffiti artists in the city on one hand. The graf pieces that have made their way onto walls are often seen as vandalism and scorned as evidence of a generation of degenerates.
But Arts for Change, a new youth-based initiative in Gaborone, had a vision to not only destigmatize street art but utilize it to uplift the community and inspire the youth. The initiative started as casual conversations between friends, progressed to countless meetings in Kafkaesque government offices and impromptu roadside set-ups with community leaders and residents, and ended as a fully-fledged international arts project in one of the lowest-income neighborhoods in Gaborone.
The origins of the initiative date back to the end of 2012 when local graffiti artist and emcee Khwezi, with whom frequenters to this blog will now be familiar, teamed up with his friend Laone Matlapeng and the Alliance Française of Gaborone for a creative exchange with two South African graffiti artists. They held workshops and painted the walls of the Alliance Française. When I arrived in January, Khwezi and Laone were already looking to expand this initiative beyond the walls of the Alliance and into the community.
While I entered the initiative as a documentarian my role took on different shapes including as a co-organizer. Collaborating again with the Alliance Française, with special help from Cultural Coordinator Hanna Rochetaing, and bringing on a number of private and public stakeholders and supporters including Dulux Botswana, the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture, the Botswana Society for the Arts, the European Union, France Volontaires, the Botswana Council of Churches, Region Reunion and more, plans were drawn up for a community-oriented graffiti project in the neighborhood of Old Naledi.
Old Naledi is located in southern Gaborone and is considered one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city. Its origins date back to before independence and over the ensuing decades the rest of the city has largely neglected the neighborhood. It carries a reputation of poverty and crime, and Gaborone residents will warn against even passing through it after dark. I received a fair share of perplexed stares and concerned questioning from other passengers whenever I boarded the Naledi route combi (minibus taxi) at the station. But as part of the initiative, Arts for Change was attempting to shine light on a vibrant neighborhood rich with history and counter the connotations and stereotypes of its people. The biggest threat we faced while working after dark in Old Naledi was getting a toe stepped on when an impromptu dance circle broke out.
The project brought together three local artists—Khwezi, Saone and Okoth—and three visiting artists from Reunion Island—Jace, Kid Kreol and Boogie—in a creative exchange to paint structures in the neighborhood. In the original vision, we had planned to target government buildings that were at the heart of the neighborhood, like the Clinic and the Community Center, but faced a great deal of resistance—in one meeting, a government official told us (with a completely straight face) that they could not give us permission to go through with the project because “it had never been done before.” Facing this resistance from above, we turned to the people on the ground.
Tuck shops are makeshift structures and converted shipping containers that sell sweets, chips, cellphone minutes, cigarettes and other small items. They are often owned or rented by families and situated in front yards and street corners. When we proposed the idea to tuck shop owners, the reaction was very different from the government officials we had approached. Soon we had people approaching us, leading us to their shops and giving the artists free reign over the creative decisions.
Despite a few additional hiccups—like when our truckload of spray cans from South Africa arrived a week late—things moved swiftly and productively through April and May. By the end of the initiative, Khwezi, Okoth, Saone, Jace and the duo of Kid and Boogie had painted up more than ten tuck shops in all three wards of Old Naledi, as well as the walls of the Tsholofelong Project, a center for street children. It was a learning process for all, including the artists, who spurred on by each other’s work, experimented with new techniques and approaches.
This initiative—coloring in Old Naledi and helping to popularize an important pillar of hip-hop culture—was just one part of Arts for Change’s first project. We also hosted arts workshops for youth in Old Naledi, but that will have to wait for my next blog post. In the meantime, enjoy watching the work done by these talented graf artists, set to some Botswana hip-hop spanning ten years. The organizers of Arts for Change hope that this is just the beginning of a resurgence in socially conscious graffiti to complement the rapidly growing hip-hop music scene and, among other things, have their sights set on Gaborone’s combis for their next canvases.