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02/28/2011

Crashing the boy's club

Hall_big
In Malawi's ubiquitous entertainment halls, women are often seen as unwelcome visitors. Photo by Katie Lin

By Katie Lin

In the middle of Blantyre’s densely populated township, Ndirande, sits Spencer Video Centre. It’s big, bright blue and blaring seriously loud music.

With featured shows ranging from Mexican wrestling to football to Asia’s best Bruce Lee films, these entertainment halls have become a “boy’s club”-type haven for so many men in the urban sprawl that is Blantyre.

But in a country where conservative gender norms are rule-of-thumb and even couples refrain from holding hands in public, it's easy for certain behaviors to be misinterpreted—and entertainment halls are no exception.

Put simply, if a dignified woman does not want to be mistaken for a prostitute then she knows better than to go into one.

I arrived at Spencer and, having already missed the first four minutes of the Newcastle versus Arsenal game, was hard-pressed to find a seat. About 60 men were packed into the balmy room, perched on a dozen benches and sitting on the floor.

Sitting on a bed of wooden crates was the main attraction: a 24-inch television. A worn, red scarf was draped across the top crate—a reminder of the favoured team, Arsenal.

I sank lower in my seat as Arsenal rose to a 4-0 lead. Not only was I now a mortified Newcastle fan, but I was also the only woman in the hall.

Owner Baron Banda had only one thing to say: “No women. Don’t like women—unless they come with their friends, their boyfriends or someone they know.

“You see, this is a male place, with male entertainment.”

I had to inquire further. “So, are the halls strictly for men? Or are they a place for men to collect away from their women?”

Banda chuckled and gave his head a brusque rub: “Yes...an escape for the men...”

I figured as much.

Steven Danger, a 15-year-old patron of Blantyre entertainment halls, explained: “Since women don’t normally fight, it’s irrelevant for them to go and watch these movies.”

That’s not to say, however, that women don’t enter the halls.

“Some women go in, but not those who are married because most married women watch it in their homes,” said Danger.

I gathered from this comment that married women stay away not because they aren’t necessarily allowed inside, or even because the television content doesn’t appeal to them, but because it would do their image more damage than the entertainment was worth.

“If the woman is a prostitute, she has no problem getting into entertainment halls,” said Danger, “because that is how she gets her bread and butter.”

So, what happens if a regular, unassuming, law-abiding woman, like myself, does go inside?

“We give them pieces of advice [about how] women are not supposed to watch films in such places,” Danger says.

Well, nobody told me.

So there I was, glued to the television as much as my male company, as the game drew to an end.

In the 89th minute, Newcastle tied the game, and with that, noise levels peaked. Then, with just three minutes left in overtime...

Power out.

The crowd surged from their seats, like wasps from a hive, and poured out of the hall into the night, where the day’s dusty, bustling market had turned into an onyx expanse, peppered with makeshift paraffin lamps.

And so I moved through the dark market with a friend, recounting each play, each goal, each card.

Boy’s club or not, the excitement of a good game knows no gender.

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Africa Without Maps


  • There's so much more to Africa than predictable headlines about war, famine and AIDS. From Ghanaian beauty pageants to music in Malawi, Africa Without Maps provides a rare glimpse of life in Africa from Journalists for Human Rights interns on the ground.

    Funding for the jhr bloggers is provided by the Government of Canada's Youth International Internship Program.

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