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02/08/2011

Malawi's theatre for social change

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Tawonga Nkhonjera's play Malawi Kwacha tackles taboos surrounding sexuality. Photo by Sarah Berman. 

By Sarah Berman

From the minibus to the newsroom, life in Malawi can be pretty dramatic.

“Everything in Malawi is theatre,” explains playwright Tawonga Nkhonjera. “The raising of the voice, the tones, the excitement—Malawians will always play with you. Even on the bus.”

From folk tales and traditional dance to bedtime stories passed on by grandmothers, Malawi’s culture is steeped in dynamic storytelling. During my first week working at the Daily Times in Blantyre, I was frequently captivated by my colleagues’ commanding personalities and lively oration.

But even in a society rich in oral tradition, some topics go unspoken. Compared to many African countries, Malawi is staunchly conservative. With a heavy Christian influence permeating all aspects of society, I quickly learned that exposed knees and shoulders were not acceptable—even on the hottest days.

“As Malawians, we like to pretend we are a good God-fearing nation,” Nkhonjera says. “And so we have all these taboos about sex and so on.”

Nkhonjera seeks to tackle taboos in his work. Homosexuality and prostitution are just a few of the issues addressed in Nkhonjera’s recent play, Malawi Kwacha. The show is a historical tribute to the life of John Chilembwe, an anti-colonial figure who is celebrated in Malawi every January.

In scenes punctuated by lively song and dance, the protagonist Chigaluka exchanges uncommonly progressive opinions with his prostitute costar.

“I don’t mind lesbians,” says the tube top-wearing actress with a matter-of-fact grin. “A female customer would be the easiest money I ever made.” For a country that condemned its first openly gay couple to 14 years hard labour in December 2009, such tolerance can seem pretty radical.

Later on, a well-received impersonation of Malawi’s President Bingu wa Mutharika satirizes the government’s real-life announcement last month which called for Malawian police to shoot and kill robbers on site.

If the audience’s wild reaction is any indication, there is a healthy appetite for the perspectives explored in Malawi Kwacha. Such playful and engaging conversation about sex and politics is not often represented in Malawi’s mainstream media.

“Most of my plays address cross-cutting social issues,” Nkhonjera says, adding that sex education in particular is very slow to reach Malawi’s public schools. “Prostitution is happening in Malawi, so let’s address it.”

While debunking some common sexual attitudes and assumptions, Malawi Kwacha also offers a history of oppression in the region, and calls on Malawians to rise up and tackle all forms of injustice.

Nkhonjera isn’t alone in his efforts to use the language of drama to enact positive social change. Mufunanji Magalasi, dean of humanities at the University of Malawi, says theatre has been used to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS, democracy and voting.

“When you talk about theatre in Malawi today, the bigger portion of performances are theatre for development,” Magalasi explains.

Fueled by non-government organizations in the 1990s, researchers found that community theatre was a much more successful way to spread awareness in rural Malawi. 

“In the villages they prefer performance, or something visual—something they can see and comment,” Magalasi says, noting that one study found 92 per cent of village respondents could not read a newspaper. “In theatre, the idea of interpersonal communication is very strong.”

“Theatre is personal. It’s one-on-one human contact,” Nkhonjera agrees. “It’s the human content that’s really touching.”

And lucky for Malawians, the drama comes easy.

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  • 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.

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