Malawi turns to peaceful protest and powerful theatre – Susan Dalgety

Malawi's YDC theatre group. Yankho Kumwenda, far left, dreams of the group appearing at Edinburgh's International Festival
Malawi's YDC theatre group. Yankho Kumwenda, far left, dreams of the group appearing at Edinburgh's International Festival
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As Malawi celebrates its Independence Day, Susan Dalgety witnesses five minutes of powerful theatre that makes her shiver.

Today is Malawi’s Independence Day, when the country will unite to celebrate 55 years of freedom from their former colonial masters ... us.

The theme of this year’s celebrations is “peace, unity and love”, but there wasn’t much unity and love on display earlier this week in Blantyre’s main shopping centre.

Standing outside the locked doors of the Shoprite supermarket, I knocked the glass door with increasing frustration, while inside an impassive security guard shrugged his shoulders.

“They have locked the doors because of the demonstrations, they are frightened there will be fighting,” explained another disgruntled shopper as he headed out of the mall. “Shoprite always close their doors.” I later read that, just before we turned up, there had been a skirmish in the mall car park between supporters of the ruling party, the DPP, and people still protesting the 21 May election results.

Social media was awash with the image of a DPP supporter face down in the back of an army vehicle after being arrested by the Malawi Defence Force. “Is #Malawi teetering on the edge of chaos?” asked political scientist, the ‘Tall Man from Zomba’ (@bonidulani) on Twitter.

I don’t think so. The frustration about the election result, which saw 78-year-old President Mutharika just scrape a second term, is palpable, but Malawi is not about to descend into a Zimbabwean-type hell. Not yet, probably never.

But there is something stirring in this peaceful country. Two generations after independence, those born after 1964 are finding their political voice.

“Osaopa” – without fear – is their slogan and they seem determined to drag Malawi politics, kicking and screaming if need be, into the 21st century. The current face of this young movement is Saulos Chilima, a hugely successful businessman turned middle-aged freedom fighter.

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Chilima may have come third in the recent Presidential elections, but he has not disappeared back into the corporate world. Instead, he has donned the uniform of a protest leader – sunglasses, black t-shirt and flak jacket – and taken to the streets, and the courts, to fight for what he believes is justice.

“When those in authority behave divergent to morality, we the people must behave divergent to that authority. #Osaopa,” tweeted @UTM, Chilima’s political party account, earlier this week. Peaceful protest is not the only driver of social change. Standing in the late morning sun earlier this week, I witnessed five minutes of powerful theatre that made me shiver.

We stumbled across the YDC Theatre Group in the grounds of Malawi’s national museum. They were rehearsing among the museum’s collection of colonial-era vehicles, including a steam engine emblazoned with the legend, ‘Made in Stafford’.

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Next to them were the dancers of the Hope for the Youth Foundation who, under the watchful eye of artist Peter Massina, transform traditional dances into contemporary performances, with powerful messages about cultural pride and development. “When we won independence, we were able to depend on ourselves,” explains Edgar, one of the dancers. “Yes, there are donors.” He stops, then emphasises, “but it’s our country”.

The theatre group, whose members age from 16 to 29, will not be joining in this year’s independence celebrations. Instead, today they are en route to Moscow, where they will take part in an arts festival.

“It is our first time out of the country. The Russian government paid for our tickets, everything,” explained their PR guru, Prince Kazembe. “We did get an invitation to Kingston-upon-Thames festival,” he added balefully, “but no sponsorship, so we could not go. It is our dream to take our plays to Europe.”

“We would love our company to perform at the Edinburgh Festival, in Scotland,” piped up Yankho Kumwenda. “But we have little funds,” Prince reminded the group.

After their Moscow performance, the group fly straight to Rwanda, where they will take part in Ubumuntu Arts Festival, which is held every year following that country’s 100-day commemoration of the 1994 genocide.

Their play ‘Wasted Adjectives’ tells the story of three young African refugees, victims of human trafficking and fleeing from conflict. “The cultural industry, and theatre, are still at an infant level here in Malawi,” explained YDC’s founder and playwright, Fumbani Phiri, in a WhatsApp conversation later that day.

“Art and culture are so important in our country’s development,” he adds, but with a country struggling to feed its growing population, investment in the creative industries is hardly a government priority.

Malawi is a nation of story tellers. Books may be in short supply, but the oral tradition that grew from village women telling stories round a communal fire is as vibrant now as it was before the first white settlers arrived.

“I am currently writing a stage play about Dr David Livingstone,” messaged Fumbani. “I am exploring his contribution to the changes in African society, through religion, and comparing it to modern politics.

“It is less about his biography and the relationship between Scotland and Malawi, more about his role in African culture and politics. It is quite tricky to write.”

“Will you focus on his flaws?” I ask. “Yes, and that is where the conflict of the play will rise,” responds Fumbani.

Livingstone’s story, told from a Malawian perspective, will be a very different tale from that I learned as a young child in a Wigtownshire primary school.

But at its heart will be ubumuntu, the story of being human, and the inspiration behind the arts festival in Rwanda, and what drives Fumbani, his young actors, Peter and his dancers.

We are all – playwright, politician, missionary - humans together, and it is through art we can peacefully explore what it means to be human, our flaws and our potential for greatness.

That’s why today, the most meaningful part of the independence day celebrations will not be the political speeches or displays by the Malawi Defence Force, but the traditional dances, like Honora from the northern lakeshore and Gule Wankulu from the central region.

Dances that have been performed in villages for hundreds of years, passed down from father to son, from grandmother to granddaughter. Dances that tell the story of Malawi, the land of flames, before the white man came. Dances that tell the story of being human. Happy Independence Day, Malawi!

Wasted Adjectives by YDC can be watched on Youtube, posted by Youth Developers