A May night in Malawi feels like a North Carolina one in October. Indeed it is fall in Malawi and I am finally putting my sweatshirts to good use. Lilongwe is undergoing a makeover. The dusty Presidential Highway I use to cycle calmly in January is now a four-lane slab of cement and gas-guzzling SUVs racing from one appointment to the next. Indeed the highway is the centerpiece of Lilongwe’s concrete makeover, a symbol of modernity. Not only that, Parliament house was just completed last week and there were thousands of well-wishers to usher in the stunning monolith which is situated right at the base of Lilongwe’s “Capitol Hill.”
The potholes I used to gripe about…while still gnawing most of Lilongwe’s roads, are beginning to smooth over with cement, courtesy of teams of workers who fill them…one pothole at a time. Only five months here, Lilongwe is beginning to glitter. It is still that collage of maize fields and mini-buses I arrived to in January but it’s beginning to swell with construction sites, challenging its quaint charm. I’d conjecture Lilongwe is hustling and bustling itself into the most congested urban area in Malawi, exactly why I have taken some time to explore some of the countryside. It’s a pretty remarkable difference.
Malawi is 90%+ rural and minutes outside Lilongwe’s nebulous borders the country is transformed into that iconic Africa that’s been ingrained into my imagination through movies, books, and National Geographic: thatched roof huts, legions of children playing by the side of the road in tattered hand-me-downs, wood fires sending smoke trails across the landscape which wander into your car and finally into your nostrils. If you look hard enough its clear this is no National Geographic. Some of those faded shirts and chithenjes (Chee-TEN-jayz) the women wear bear the face of President Bingu, evidence of an impressively far-reaching election campaign. Then some of those villagers flip open a cell phone…Malawi is always teetering on the edge of modernity and in so doing reconciling two histories: the one the Agogos (grandmothers) remember and desperately want to impress upon their grandchildren and the one which holds internet and modern technology sacred.
Navigating this cultural maze reminds me of that game Labyrinth. The maze passageways are constantly changing as players insert puzzle pieces whose individual kinks reshape the maze. Each person attempts to expedite the distance to his or her chosen amulet, pearl, or what-have-you. In this analogy those precious stones become scholarships abroad, satellite tv, or a job in City Center Lilongwe. These new gems are obviously very alluring and many educated Malawians succumb to the temptation to move abroad becoming nurses in Manchester or settling down in Indiana. But not everyone…Peter Mawanga has made explicitly clear that this is his home and he wants to carve out his niche in Malawi, not the UK or “greener pastures.” Just a few weeks ago Peter’s “Talents of the Malawian Child” garnered official NGO status under the National Youth Council. His mission: Get kids off the street, into school, and playing music. Moreover, he wants to enable artistically gifted youths to use their gifts as a means of financially supporting themselves. He did several projects like this (Vingoma na Visekese, 2006), with support from a constellation of funders including UNICEF. Now he has a bona fide Malawian NGO and will use it to do something. Likewise, my friend Q Malawezi who has spent considerable time abroad has told me of his dreams to create a Malawian Center for the Arts, a task he intends to see through in Malawi. Certainly I support each person’s pursuit of happiness, which sometimes means working abroad. Yet, Peter sings about a “brain drain” in his songs. In a country with a dwindling pool of overworked nurses facing an HIV epidemic, it is inspiring to see some of Malawi’s intelligentsia committed to using their talents at home. I’ll leave it to the Malawians to decide how best to provide the incentives to keep their talents in Malawi but in the end the option is theirs, and that’s the issue…having the option. So much of that iconic Africa is less about upholding some idea of bucolic African tradition and more about options. Had they the option those children would not be in tattered clothes. The agogos wouldn’t send those children foraging for firewood to cook those meals which send those smoke pillars spiraling across the horizon. Those thatched roofs would surely be replaced with something sturdier to keep out the rains…and the mamba snakes.
The task of bringing an ordinary villager from Kasungu a world-class education is not unfeasible; in fact it happened to William Kamkwamba, the “boy who harnessed the wind.” Still, the task is great and I don’t see my role here to overhaul Malawi’s education system or banish the HIV epidemic into oblivion. My role is to create a fusion album that after the final track will leave listeners salivating for more. And to do that, I have Peter Mawanga and a legion of world-class Malawian musicians. The album’s purpose is to get people thinking about important issues in important ways, which means paying the message forward: talk to your friend, your neighbor. If enough people start talking, more people start doing, and that’s how you start to tackle a public health crisis. People are already doing and that’s inspiring. Kudos to President Bingu for making ARVs free and initiating a national awareness campaign which includes radio, billboards and interactive theatre. Music is one method which I think we’ve only scratched the surface of.