Battle Ground -- Land, Soil, Common Ground, Earth

By Jheri St. James

RUNNING FOR THEIR LIVES: Zimbabweans flood South Africa, where compassion has ebbed; In Africa, a migration of desperation. (L.A. Times 9/9/07)

Battleground – The Land of Zimbabwe

Stone Age hunters related to today’s Khoisan people, occupied the area known as Zimbabwe about 5000 years ago or earlier. These expressive people depicted scenes of life in rock paintings across Zimbabwe known as the Bushman paintings. Ancestors of the Shona of today (4/5’s of the population), Bantu-speaking peoples began migrating into the area around AD300, eventually displacing the earlier hunters.

Formerly the Republic of Rhodesia, Zimbabwe’s name derives from the word “Dzimbadzemabwe”, which means “Big House of Stone” (see right) in the Shona language, and refers to the site of the capital of the Empire of Great Zimbabwe. In the Middle Ages (c. 1250-1629), Great Zimbabwe stretched between the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers of southern Africa in the modern states of Zimbabwe and Mozambique. At that time, this land was renowned for its gold trade routes with Arabs.

Portuguese settlers destroyed the gold trade and began a series of wars with African natives that left the empire near collapse in the early 17th century. The Ndebele people fled the Zulu leader Shaka’s incursions, and arrived in Zimbabwe, calling their new empire Matabeleland. In the 1880’s the British South Africa Company of Cecil Rhodes arrived, and in 1898, the name Southern Rhodesia was adopted. These brief sentences cover 900 years of warfare and today’s story remains much the same, but now the battle for Zimbabwean land is between two local forces, not outsiders.


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Find the Zimbabwean Soil Collectors in this Picture . . .

FUNDRAISER NETS $4,600 FOR VILLAGE: Group of local women are helping bring water to a poor African tribe known for its artwork. (Daily Pilot 3/22/07)

Common Ground 191 has collected two cups of the Zimbabwean soil still being fought over for so long. Do these little soil samples contain volumes in stories of death, bloodshed, starvation, drought, suffering, and cruelty? We here at Common Ground 191 often ponder the perceived value of land, soil, dirt.



Zimbabwe was once regarded as the breadbasket of southern Africa. The government’s decision in 2000 to confiscate most white-owned commercial farms triggered the collapse of the agricultural industry, the country’s biggest employer and exporter, and led to spiraling unemployment, hard currency shortages and hyperinflation. The United Nations estimates that a campaign against urban squatters and street merchants in 2005 destroyed the homes of 700,000 people. The World Food Program estimates predicted that by the beginning of 2008, 4.1 million people, about a third of the population, will need food aid.

Speaking of food, Sydney E. (Harare) Ncube) was our first collector of the three (one solo; one duet) who sent Zimbabwean soil. Sydney provided us this picture of himself in a garden. He wrote, “A once self contained guest cottage turned into a vegetable garden after a government sponsored opration called Murambatsvina, in Shona meaning ‘drive out the filth*,’ demolished it. The cottage which we sometimes used, if unoccupied, as a venue for music practicing with my friends in the neighbourhood. The government had lost almost all parliamentary urban seats in an election that year (2005), and the campaign was a brutal reprisal which left nearly a million poor urban dwellers homeless; worse, it was winter time.” (*Is filth the same as land, soil, dirt, earth?)

“It was great to hear from you, yours is a unique art project of remarkable magnitude. I must admit, I last visited your site a while ago, but took an opportunity this time to surf through. Gee, I was impressed, starting with audio sounding like a science movie. Real cool. I see you have made lots of progress regarding soil colleciton from other countries. I felt glad and proud to see my country listed, and being the collector.

“Musically, I’m in the process of putting together a jazz outfit, but man, it’s a bit of a hassle, musicians are at times difficult to keep together especially when many and young. I’ve decided to settle for a combo of four. But unfortunately we we were about to take off, after a ‘bang’ performance a the “Mannenburg” jzaa club, a premier jazz joint in town, the bassist got sick and was admitted at a local hospital, but he is recuperating. The drummer too, does not look well. This was a special combination, carefully scouted, but then somehow it doesn’t quite jell due to unforeseen circumstances, but I’m still fighting on. My dream is to assemble the tightest jazz act in the land.”

HOUDINI HOLDS ON, FOR NOW. (The Economist 3/24/07)

Sydney works with the U.S. Embassy in Harare, capital of Zimbabwe. The saxophone he holds plays a part in this story, as well as a meeting in Zimbabwe fostered by Gary Simpson, founder of this project. It began with a gift from Gary to Sydney of a DVD of the “Four Star Jazz Quartet”--just a friendly gesture with a kind collector.

Here is Sydney’s response: “At last, at last I got my parcel from you yesterday afternoon. Oh boy, what a fabulous outfit those cats are. Gary, the Four Star Jazz Quartet is just too good; they are a delight to watch. I cannot remember how many times I played the DVD. Kelly (my wife) loved the part where the bass player mentions my name; in fact I also felt gooda than James Brown.

“’This is for Sydney in Zimbabwe,’ said the bassist and the rest of the musicians. That was a mind blast, Gary. You should have heard us chuckle like kids in Santa Clause’s arms. Kelly just went, ‘aaaaagggghhh…man you are getting famous!’ ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet,’ I shot back, trying to sound like President Ronald Reagan. “I was so inspired by their performance that I’m actually planning to have more practice with my new band; I’ve issued a directive to session every Sunday, from this week onwards. The DVD will certainly be a perfect yardstick and example to my folks.

“Thank you very much, pal. Your gift has certainly changed my musical attitude for the better. Hope it does the same to my folks out here. To FSJQ I say, keep it up, your performance on that DVD is top drawer stuff.

“By the way, Gary, I’m the Chairman for Ndebele Art Project in Zimbabwe. Kelly and I think it’s a good cause and I’m enjoying being part of this worthy international project . . . All this is part of grand preparation for a new progressive Zimbabwe, re-establishing our status as the torch bearers in the region. But alas can’t so no more. Ask Sandy and Co. They have experienced a fraction of the beauty of this land.”

FUNDRAISER NETS $4,600 FOR VILLAGE: Group of local women are helping bring water to a poor African tribe known for its artwork. (Daily Pilot 3/22/07)

Common Ground

The term “common ground’s” original definition is “area of agreement: something mutually agreed upon ...” and is a great networking core, even among strangers, who come together to help each other accomplish certain goals. In June 2007, Gary decided that, for an exhibition of the Common Ground 191 project at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, he wanted to include Jennifer Kemper and Kimberly McKinney of NAP (Ndebele Art Project). NAP is a non-religious organization based in Costa Mesa, California, whose mission is to “Carve a Brighter Future” for the talented artists and their families outside of Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.

In one of their newsletters, they subsequently mentioned Common Ground 191, which led to a tour of the project’s headquarters and studio in Laguna Beach. Then, Kimberly agreed to collect soil on her next trip to Zimbabwe. Jennifer wrote: “Just a quick note to say we had such a great time with you yesterday! Again, what an honor for NAP to be a part of such a great mission . . . hang in there! Your studio had such a great energy and vibe! I (we) really look forward to seeing you again soon. Have a great day, Jen.”

Now the two future collection facilitators of Zimbabwean soil, Sydney Ncube and Jennifer Kemper, were going to be in the same country. “We got connected with him through an artist from Laguna Beach named Gary Simpson who makes murals with soil he has collected from around the globe. He had read the Daily Pilot article about last spring’s NAP event at AIRe and connected us with Sydney, who he had recently received Zimbabwean soil from.
“Since a ground liaison is crucial for the work we do, we were nervous and excited to meet him for the first time,” wrote Mire Molnar, a NAP worker. “Not only did Sydney turn out to be a joy to be around, smart, funny and appreciative of good American rock n’ roll and jazz music, he also works for the U.S. Enbassy, speaks Ndebele and understands all the customs, cultures and the political climate of Zimbabwe . . . we conversed about the village’s needs for many hours in the tea hut (a hut with a sunroof and lots of open air)…” (Below, Kathy Green and friends of NAP)

CRISIS? WHAT CRISIS? (The Economist 4/19/08)

In April, Sydney wrote for the NAP newsletter: “I managed to speak to Lister some during the week and she asked me to thank you on behalf of the entire Jubulani village community—their appreciation for the good things you do for them. The latest being furniture for the preschool (NAP funded 50 chairs and a desk for the preschool) and medicinal tablets which have been of great help to the commujnity. She told me of a recent case of an old lady who was under severe pain and got relief from the tablets NAP provided on the last trip. She also said enrollment (at Jabulani Preschool) has increased by about fifteen kids since the school term started. I agreed with her that, there is no way she could have turned them away, and that has a positive signal to the community. Pre-school teacher, Dani, has requested that NAP provide uniforms for the children. Lister reports that it will cost approximately $500 to purchase everything from shorts to tops including sets for the teachers as well. She said the windmill broke down and she managed to get it fixed with help from a chap from the airport. That was smart of her!”

Postscript: The NAP Board notes that the Jabulani Pre-school now has over 55 children and a large number of those are orphans. Providing school uniforms for each child will be on our agenda next month. NAP has contracted with the windmill installer who is bringing (NAP-purchased) tools to the village so that regular maintenance of the windmill can begin. (Left: Sydney with native ladies, working on NAP projects.) Please go to http://www.napafrica.org for more details on participation.


The story of the earth is ancient; much older than any fleeting headline in any daily newspaper. The earth was here long before any generation of man(kind)—mountains, seas, rocks, and perhaps even the Big Baobob Tree. The word “human” supposedly comes from two sources: homo=man; humus=earth. Man walks on the earth, pretty much with the attitude Kenneth Burke describes below in his definition of a human being.

Being bodies that learn language
thereby becoming wordlings
humans are
the symbol-making, symbol-using, symbol-misusing animal
inventor of the negative
separated from our natural condition
by instruments of our own making
goaded by the spirit of hierarchy
acquiring foreknowledge of death
and rotten with perfection.

Jabulani Village joins Common Ground project
Walter and Abigail collect dirt for artist project

This is a picture of the peaceful Big Baobob tree.
The word for peace in Zimbabwe is ukuthula.





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