Mzondi Lungu enjoying malawi Song and Dance

this year I accompanied a team of educationists visiting a school in the eastern part of Dedza. I observed a Standard 4 Expressive Arts lesson in which students composed and enacted an impromptu song and dance. I would have thought this impossible, but not the students, nor their teacher.

mzondi lungu dancing

It was clear from the expressions on the students’ faces that they enjoyed the lesson. The absence of a larger social meaning in the activity was more of a fault with the curriculum design than with the teacher’s purpose for the lesson. The lesson had achieved its purpose by giving students an opportunity to express their artistic skills in composing, singing ad dancing.

The children in this school came from a remote  part of Malawi. They were using a powerful medium of expression and knowledge-making. Although such performances of theatre, song and dance have become universal ways of disseminating what has come to be described as “civic education”, they also serve as a way through which communities engage and interact with social change. Communities use such performances to talk to authorities, subvert unequal power relations, and celebrate a vibrance and vitality that is easily missed in the top-down, one-way discourse of officialdom.

While Malawian artists have exploited these forms of expression in music, poetry, film, painting, and pottery, among others, aid workers and government departments have also used these art forms to disseminate civic information and development messages. The comedy duo of Chindime and Samalani  appear at public functions, on TV and in radio sketches to make Malawians laugh while conveying public service messages. Sadly, Samalani, real name Elias Chimbalu, passed away at the end of June. He was aged 40. Chindime ndi Samalani perfected the art of theatre for development in an arena whose other great performers include The Story Workshop, Timveni Arts,  and Theatre for a Change.

The current sensation on the Malawian music front this year has been Lawi. With Francis Phiri as his real name, Lawi adopted his nickname from ‘Malawi’ (Lawi singular, Malawi plural). The genius of Lawi’s music is expressed in the everyday persona whose mass collectivity accumulates into the many flames that shine the Malawian path.

His song Amaona kuchedwa burst onto the scene early this year, and has enjoyed playtime on practically every radio station, entertainment joint, engagement parties and weddings. But it is his other songs that capture the warm heart of Africa that is Malawi in a range of childhood memories, images of the capital city Lilongwe, and the beauty of rural livelihoods. Lawi’s golden voice has charmed the Malawian ear in a way no other musician of his Afro-soul genre has done in recent memory. His is a phenomenal  addition to a tradition trailblazed by Wambali Mkandawire three decades ago.

In poetry, there is a new generation of performers who have taken over the mantle from the generation that fought the one party dictatorship. That generation was represented by scholar poets such as David Rubadiri, Felix Mnthali, Jack Mapanje, Mzondi Lungu, Frank Chipasula, among others. They mostly wrote in English and taught in universities. Today the poetry that is telling the Malawian story is in Chichewa, and is performed by young poets. Many of them follow Benedicto Wokomaatani Malunga in intonation and voice deflection, in deference to a poet who pioneered a genre.

As was with the earlier generation, there are still few women poets, but they pack an intellectual punch. Ovixlexla Bunya is a multi-talented artist who dabbles in TV, poetry and is also a student of philosophy. Days before the general elections on 20th May she released a recorded Chichewa poem that subtly laid bare the shenanigans of the major political parties that were contesting. Titled after a campaign slogan, ‘Dzuka, Malawi, Dzuka’ (Wake up, Malawi, Wake up), it is a rapid-fire narrative crafted in a powerful, moving lexicon that brings sobriety to the inebriation of blind partisanship.

Malawian artists tell all. They have seen governments come and go. They have given artistic interpretation to scandal, crime and vice. They will continue reflecting the kind of society Malawi is. They will keep imagining and re-imagining the future. They will tell more Malawian stories through song and dance, tears and laughter. That is why the arts and the humanities need to continue being an integral part of the school curriculum from primary through to university, including teacher education.

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