The pulse of Brundian drum beats. The calculated pauses and dynamics of spoken word poetry. The wail of Ernest Ikwanga’s guitar as Mafilika swells behind him. This past weekend, the International Women’s Association of Malawi (IWAM) put on the first ever Lilongwe Arts Festival at the International school in Lilongwe. They had a lineup of some of the best artists in Malawi. The Burundian drum/dance/singing troop was one of my favorites…wait Burundian? Yes Burundian and very proud to be. This dance troupe consisted of Burundian refugees from the refugee camp in Dzeleka, Malawi. Many of these Burundians have never even set foot in Burundi. A refugee camp was started in Malawi years back to accommodate the tide of fleeing Mozambiquans from their war in 1992. Likewise driven by and from war, the Burundians arrived a few years later. The camp is now home to Somalians, Congolese, and other displaced Southern Africans. These Burundians we saw are some of the longest residents, so long the troop’s child members were born in the camp. Yet, for the kids the Burundian music is rooted into the very fiber of their being. Men and children alike; they all drummed, danced, sang and did it as effortlessly as breathing. The women were just as good-relishing one of these few opportunities to journey outside the camp. In fact, the strength of their identity formed a world away from home inspired one of the pieces we heard yesterday by Lilongwe’s spoken word prodigy Q Malewezi.
I have seen Q perform a few times but each time he delivers some new spellbinding piece that gets me rethinking the meaning of social justice and the quirks of human behavior: “Whose AIDS gets the aid? Who gets paid? Who gets the aid to get laid….whose AIDS gets the maid?” (taken from Q’s “Who?”). I’d think it’s got to be tough to write about this stuff in the kind of way that really hits people. As fervently open as so many Malawians claim to be about their HIV status, the truth is this is still a deeply stigmatized disease. Talking about it still makes people squirm, speak of AIDS in cloaked metaphor and shift the topic of conversation. At the same time you have an aggressive AIDS awareness campaign and Q Malewezis who are tired of the silence and ask the pointed questions which jab hard enough you feel them. They force you to confront AIDS even if you’re HIV negative. This culture of openness I have mentioned in previous posts is still here but as with everything exists on a spectrum. When most HIV positive people don’t even realize they are positive anyway you can’t expect them to be open. That’s understandable. But the confusing web of not knowing-knowing but not telling-telling but not knowing creates a fog that keeps people from being visible even when they are open. That said, there are many who continue to stand until the fog clears. Q’s message is to keep asking the hard questions and is an awesome example of the power of art.
Art not Aid. This seems to be my new mantra. Of course development is important but so is developing people’s artistic potential. I have often scoffed at the description of Lilongwe by travel guides who shall remain nameless, as “Africa’s most boring capital.” Like any place it’s as boring or as lively as you choose to make it. Still, part of this moniker might be inspired by the fact that there is just not a lot of live music, theater, or performances to go to. On that point, the International School was packed Friday and Saturday nights with ex-pats and Malawians hungry for some ear candy. Well, they got it…but they don’t get many opportunities.
No matter how developed you are, you will always need art. I realize that growing up I had started to take art for granted. My musician parents always encouraged me to take music lessons, to paint, to do theater, to see plays, etc. It was always there whenever I wanted. In fact, I could literally walk into the living room and pick up the instrument that suited my fancy that particular day. Here in Malawi options for the performance-going public are severely more limited and people crave a concert, dance performance, theatrical piece like the IWAM event. In fact, people need it. And this must be why Lilongwe gets the bad rap for being such a “boring capital” (no art….or is there?). There were more than 10 awesome local artists at this festival but the problem lies in the dearth of venues. Still, there is a dearth in music training and institutions to harness those musical skills.
If I were writing a poverty reduction strategy paper (PRSP) I’d have art included in the A-list of priorities for developing the economy. I hope I am not shooting myself in the foot for a World Bank gig in a few years…but art actually does improve the economy. I think people need art to stay sane which means people will pay for it. This ensures that any musically gifted person with the right encouragement can make money off of playing music. Still being realistic-I know that Joe musician isn’t exactly how you say “making bank” but in this country of limited job opportunities, making money doing what you love is a rare one. Also, if people can develop their artistic skills that means more paintings of higher quality, more music that people will want to buy, more handcrafted jewelry….all things that people with the money will spend on. And they will spend their money on these things.
In ten years I’d like to see a Malawian Center for the Arts, something that Q has been jonesin’ for for years. I’ve also heard talk of a national Malawian dance academy and music education in schools. I actually think that all of these things can and will happen and why not in ten years? There are enough dedicated people here otherwise I wouldn’t feel comfortable making such a projection. Here’s some of them: