Author Archives: Katie Lin

About Katie Lin

For years now, Katie Lin has suffered from itchy feet. Since 2005, she has lived and worked in Sri Lanka, Mexico, Canada, England and today, finds herself in Blantyre, Malawi, working at the Malawi Institute of Journalism. In 2010, Katie received her Masters degree in international multimedia journalism from Newcastle University in the UK, where she also trained with the BBC and the Press Association. She has since contributed stories, reviews and photographs to several UK-based publications, including The Journal, the Sunday Sun, and HotShoe magazine. An avid photographer and media enthusiast, Lin is thrilled to have the opportunity to combine her passion for journalism, education and travel in her new role.

Malawi’s Vice President speaks out about protests

Vice President, Joyce Banda. Photo by Katie Lin.

Seated on the porch of her state residence in Blantyre, Malawi’s first female Vice President, Joyce  Banda, wraps a thick, white shawl around her shoulders and clasps her hands together, indicating that she’s ready to be interviewed.

There is a calmness about Mudi State Residence, with its towering trees and extensive gardens. In such a setting, it is difficult to imagine the starkly different atmosphere that engulfed Malawi’s commercial capital just one month ago.

On July 20, nationwide pro-democracy demonstrations against economic and administrative mismanagement took place, but it wasn’t long before these organized marches disintegrated into chaos and the country erupted into two days of rioting, widespread looting, and violent clashes between police and civilians.

The use of lethal force by police resulted in 19 deaths, dozens of injuries, and more than 500 arrests.

“Where Malawi is at [right now] is as a result of two or three years of frustration and pain and trying to reason with government – and government refusing to listen” Banda says.

Long plagued by fuel, electricity, water, and foreign-exchange shortages, Malawians presented President Bingu wa Mutharika and his administration with a 20-point petition on the day of the demonstrations. A dialogue between civil society organizers and the government to discuss the petition is scheduled for Sept. 17.

While Banda hopes this dialogue will yield viable solutions, she explains that the root of these problems lies within the political agenda of the ruling Democratic People’s Party (DPP).

“The President wants his brother to take over from him,” Banda explains of the cause for tensions within the DPP.  “And that’s where [the problems] start from.”

In December 2010, the Vice President was expelled from the DPP for her stance against this unconstitutional succession process – and her strained relationship with Mutharika, her honourary “father” and mentor, only appears to be worsening.

Just two days after the protests, Mutharika threatened to arrest numerous political and civil society leaders – including Banda and leader of the opposition, John Tembo – accusing them of organizing the July 20 demonstrations to topple his administration.

Despite having been openly critical of the President’s constitutional breaches, Banda insists she did not organize or participate in the demonstrations.

“I called upon those that were going to exercise that right to march to march peacefully and not to destroy property. I asked the police to protect lives on the road. I also asked the leadership of this country to discuss matters that affect Malawians and resolve any problems peacefully.”

For Banda, Mutharika’s accusations are unwarranted.

“When I hear my name, top on the list of those who are wanted, to be persecuted or to be killed or to be smoked out … I’m surprised,” she explains, “because I don’t know what crime I have committed.”

“But if the crime is that I stood by Malawians when they suffered, when they protested, when they were not happy, then I am ready to be persecuted.”

Most recently, the People’s Party (PP), a political party formed by Banda and her supporters, officially registered and claims to have already gathered more than 1 million members, further strengthening speculation she is a strong presidential candidate for the 2014 national elections.

“Joyce Banda is a shrewd politician, both in terms of organizing and in terms of making an appeal when she speaks,” says political analyst Blessings Chisinga. “So when you look at the potential contenders for the 2014 elections, she is clearly a frontrunner.”

He explains that the emerging PP may offer a fresh and credible alternative for Malawians in the 2014 elections, as disillusionment towards the DPP grows and opposition parties enter a state of flux.

“Malawians are fed up and are very keen to welcome a new brand of politics.”

Flash from the past

Photographer Rohit Oza poses with a picture of his father, Ranchhod, the original proprietor of Capital Art Studio. Photo by Katie Lin.

Behind a set of imposing wooden doors and in a building teeming with antiquity, lies an invaluable collection of historical documents: photographs.

Nestled among the labyrinth of narrow streets that make up the UNESCO World Heritage site of Stone Town, Capital Art Studio literally wears the image of Zanzibar’s past but is also a treasure trove of individual histories.

I stumbled upon the studio as I haplessly wandered Stone Town one morning. Initially drawn in by the myriad of black-and-white photographs filling its windows, I somehow ended up having an impromptu studio session with the studio’s proprietor, Rohit Oza.

As I sat there on a stool with Oza’s hands cupping my shoulders for our portrait, I felt oddly anachronistic; I smiled nonetheless and stared straight ahead as we waited for the self-timer on my camera to go off.

Beep. Beep.

Maybe it was the 80-year-old faded balcony-scene screen behind me – or the 1930s children’s rocking horse in front.

Beep. Beep.

Maybe it was the retro wedding portraits plastered on the studio walls – or the 19th century Arabic architecture those walls were holding up.

FLASH!

Oza’s father, Ranchhod Oza, originally opened up shop in 1930, and apart from a 100m relocation down the street, everything – from studio props to the 1950s Kodak cardboard cutout at the door – remains the same.

“Many old people, they remember us,” Oza later explained of the business’s clientele, many of whom his late father photographed.

“Families who left the country for a long time, they’re coming back and asking for the old photographs.”

Following the Zanzibar Revolution in 1964 – just a month after Zanzibar gained independence from Britain – thousands of Arabs and Indians were killed and thousands more forced to flee the island.

But in 1992, the island ceased being a one-party state and made the transition to a multi-party political system – and now Zanzibar is seeing the return of both Arab and Indian exiles and British expats.

Rohit and I in the studio, which has remained unchanged since the 1930s.

“I’m very interested in some of the people who are coming back and asking me for photos,” Oza says as he leafs through a box of black-and-white 8x10s.

He emerges victorious, presenting me with a photograph of a ship. He explains that a man once walked into his studio looking for pictures of a ship by the name of S.S. Said Khalifa – presumably the same ship in the photo.

The S.S. Said Khalifa belonged to Sultan Khalifa ibn Kharub, ruler of Zanzibar from 1911 to 1960, and this man’s grandfather was its captain.

“I had to print it, but I showed him the photograph the next day,” Oza explains, as he points at two blurry figures standing near the ship’s bow. “He looked at it and he said, ‘It might be my grandfather standing in the cabin.’”

As he replaces the lid on the box of 8x10s, Oza assures me that I shouldn’t expect to see much change in the future – only in hands, when he passes the business along to his photographer brother upon his retirement.

So for at least one more generation, those in possession of photographs wearing the unmistakable “Capital Art Studio” stamp need only sail off the Tanzanian coast to Stone Town shores to find their origin.

Student radio program debuts on MIJ FM

Journalism students Japheth Thole and Simon Makamba conduct an interview for an episode of Neighborhood Watch. Photo by Katie Lin.

On July 3, 2011, Neighborhood Watch, a student-run radio show, was proudly launched on MIJ FM in Blantyre.

The bilingual (English-Chichewa) program focuses on analyzing and reflecting on human rights issues occurring in Malawi, but also aims to involve student journalists at the Malawi Institute of Journalism (MIJ).

Inspired by the crime prevention concept where citizens organize themselves to monitor their communities, the show’s producer and creator, Archibald Kasakura started Neighborhood Watch “having seen the gap that was there between the people and their understanding of basic human rights.”

“Malawi is a third world country and issues of human rights have just surfaced,” he explains.

“We are coming from a background whereby human rights were not a part of our system. Our politics were dictatorial, and most people were not told – were not educated – about human rights.”

Kasakura estimates that more than 80 per cent of Malawians listen to the radio daily – so it made sense to produce a program for this widely-used medium.

As a student production, aspiring journalists at MIJ will be given the opportunity to develop their broadcast skills under the guidance of professional journalists, including MIJ FM’s Wonder Msiska.

Not only will the students be required to source stories, conduct interviews, and write scripts, but they will also be receiving valuable training in sound editing.

And Kasakura is confident in the show’s contributors: “A lot of them have shown interest – and if that interest is sustained, many people will benefit from it.”

But with the show still in its infancy, there are many challenges facing both Kasakura and his team of contributors, such as funding and access to resources like voice recorders.

Nonetheless, he is positive that their hard work will incite positive and far-reaching change in attitudes towards certain controversial cultural or social practices through human rights education.

“I think the future of the program is very bright,” he says. “When people understand the importance of human rights, they will be able to fuse them into their daily activities or cultures.”

“In the end, it doesn’t matter whether you are from this tribe or from that tribe,” Kasakura continues.

“You are born with rights and no one can take them from you.”

Listen to the program’s second episode, aired last Sunday, where journalist Archibald Kasakura explores the topic of witchcraft in Malawi and current legislation surrounding the increasingly disputed practice.

(Visit the Malawi Institute of Journalism’s website every Monday to listen to the latest episode of Neighborhood Watch)

MIJ students visit youth rights group

On March 23 2011, five journalism students from the Malawi Institute of Journalism visited a youth center run by Active Youth in Social Enterprise (AYISE) in the Blantyre township of Bangwe.

Victor Kanyema, Acting Programmes Manager of AYISE, gave the group a tour of the grounds and facilitated a discussion about child rights between the young journalists and some of the center’s beneficiaries.

This visit was one of four to local community-based organization (CBOs) and was arranged by executive members of the Journalists for Human Rights student chapter at the Malawi Institute of Journalism as part of their outreach program.

(Having trouble viewing? Watch jhr intern Katie Lin’s video here.)

Children in charge

Chikondi is crying again.

She’s terrified of my camera lens—and of me, for that matter.

Her brother’s broad hands land on her shoulders reassuringly and slowly draw her backwards.

Her eyes suspiciously fixated on the camera, the petite four-year-old allows herself to be blindly guided until she bumps into the pair of legs behind her.

She doesn’t even bother to look up at the owner of the legs, for she knows the trusting hands of her big brother, Davie.

According to a 2010 United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) report, 18 per cent of children in Malawi are orphaned or vulnerable—and at 22.7 per cent, the Southern Region showed the highest prevalence of orphans and vulnerable children (OVC).

Davie Namuona is one of them.

Living in the Blantyre township of Bangwe, the shy 15-year-old is the head of his household and is the sole provider for, and primary caretaker of, his five younger sisters, including Chikondi.

UNAIDS defines an orphan as being a child who has lost one parent or both parents. A vulnerable child is one where either parent is chronically ill, or an adult aged 18-59 in the household is either chronically ill or has died after being chronically ill.

In 2007, Davie’s mother died from meningitis, but the suspected cause of its contraction was a compromised immune system: she had AIDS. Not long after her death, Davie’s father, Stuart, discovered that he too had AIDS, as did their youngest child: Chikondi. Stuart subsequently contracted Kaposi’s sarcoma—a form of cancer that is common among HIV and AIDS patients—which significantly reduced his mobility and forced him to move back in to his mother’s home in a neighboring village.

His children try to visit him once or twice a week.

Maxwell Matewere, Executive Director of the Blantyre-based NGO, Eye of the Child, explains that the tradition in Malawi is for orphaned or vulnerable children to fall under the care of extended family or community members, but says that such options are becoming increasingly unfeasible.

“Because of the economic pressure on families these days, people are simply looking at themselves first,” he says.

And in a country where 52 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line, it is easy to see how these extended families and communities might find themselves stretched by the increasing incidence of OVC.

The Malawian government responded to the OVC crisis by launching a National Plan of Action for Orphans and Other Vulnerable Children in 2005. Upon the plan’s expiry in 2009, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) found there was a “high level of political commitment and resources for scaling up the responses to the OVC crisis.”

But evidently, the problem persists , and now it persists without a plan in place.

In the meantime, it is up to organizations like Eye of the Child to provide OVC with assistance and protection where the government is unable to meet these needs.

“These children are children,” Matawere reminds us, “For them to head families should be a last resort.”

Where village life meets suburbia

Despite urbanization, Chimphamba Kataghala’s 90-year-old grandfather continues to work in the industry he knows best: carpentry. Photo by Katie Lin.

In the northern village of Chako Ntchako, Chimphamba Kataghala guides me from one relative’s house to another as we do the customary rounds of greetings.

Somewhere on the road between Aunt Nyamusiyeni and Aunt Nyalweni’s home, he stops to brush the dust away from what appears to be a stone.

“See this beacon?” he asks, tapping the round cement slab with his boot. “It shows a marked plot [for] planned houses.”

With one of the fastest urbanization rates in the world, Malawi’s commercial centers are booming and as their populations grow, suburbanites are spilling into rural areas such as this. On the outskirts of Mzuzu, the country’s third largest city, villages such as Chako Ntchako are facing displacement as the government seeks to develop the area through a planned housing scheme.

Yona Simwaka, a town planner at Mzuzu City Assembly, explains any unplanned houses and huts occupying this land will be demolished; residents must sell and relocate or build a planned house on the plot. One requirement of planned houses is to have a water closet, which many existing structures lack.

From the front step of Kataghala’s grandmother’s shop, the view of Viphya forest is obscured by an imposing tobacco auction house, yet more evidence of industrial encroachment. And if you crane your neck, you can see a Carlsberg factory to the right. It’s a rapidly developing community.

Kataghala explains when his grandfather first moved to Mzuzu in 1973, most of the area was bush. When it came to land acquisition, his grandfather needed only to approach the traditional chief before being granted the requested property.

“He held on to it because he was thinking that we would always live here,” the carpenter says. “But not all my relatives can afford to build planned houses.”

Under chiefs, land settlement used to be regulated by the principle of “what’s yours is yours.”

As it turns out, what was yours is no longer yours—a single beacon will tell you that much.

In 1995, the responsibility of land distribution was transferred from chiefs to government, and with that, the threat of suburbanization lay in wait.

But it isn’t just ownership rules that have transformed.

“Almost everybody knew everybody else,” Kataghala recalls. Now, these community structures are being broken up.

He explains as the population of Mzuzu grows and those who can afford to build planned houses flock to the city’s outskirts, the “oneness” that made village life so comfortable is being lost.

“We could wash our clothes and plates and leave them to dry,” he recalls. “We are afraid to do those things now, because we think somebody’s going to come and steal them.”

While Mzuzu City Assembly has put a relocation plan in place for villages like Chako Ntchako and reserved traditional housing areas for those wanting to build huts, it’s facing resistance from some residents.

Should this possibility become a reality, however, Kataghala says relocation would be relatively straightforward—all you need is arable land and a water source.

Besides, as he believes, the essence of a village is not found merely in its location.

“There’s a very strong family sense amongst us,” Kataghala explains. “So we don’t really look at it as choosing to remain a village, we just look at it as a continuation of our existence, just in a different place.”

The plight of the condom

Malawian student Mercy Khowoya says “HIV and AIDS is real – if you can’t abstain then don’t be ashamed to use a condom." Photo by Katie Lin.

“Nyimbo imodzi sachezelela gule.” (One song won’t keep you dancing throughout the night.)

As this Malawian proverb suggests, just one sexual partner won’t satisfy a person for their entire lifetime.

But in a country where approximately 12 per cent of the population is infected with HIV/AIDS and having multiple concurrent relationships is common, only 72 per cent of sexually active men and women are using condoms, says a 2010 health report by the National Statistics Office of Malawi.

An informal survey of management-level professionals in Malawi conducted by a Canadian public health specialist found that 100 per cent of the participants agreed they are “personally at risk for HIV and AIDS.” Yet, less than 10 per cent reported feeling “confident” when purchasing condoms.

While the survey results are not statistically representative, they do indicate that many people are simply too embarrassed to buy condoms and indicates that knowledge doesn’t necessarily inform behavior.

Condoms can be purchased in Malawi for 30 kwacha ($0.19 CAD) for a pack of three.

They can also be found for free at all government hospitals.

So if condoms are indeed so widely available, what’s the excuse for not using them?

For one: “Switi sadyera mpaketi.” (You can’t taste candy if you eat it while it’s still in the wrapper.)

This popular Malawian adage speaks to the belief that the use of a condom will make sex less pleasurable. As Veronica Chikafa, Capacity Building Coordinator at the Malawi Business Coalition Against HIV/AIDS (MBCA) explains many believe “sex was made for there to be no barrier in between.”

Secondly, using a condom is generally viewed as the man’s domain.

“It’s the male who puts [the condom] on,” she says, “so it’s the male who makes the decision.”

Chikafa says that opening up communication between partners is a priority, no matter what the circumstances of their relationship.

However, there remains a gap in sex education which also must be addressed, she maintains.

“I was told that there was a lady who went for family planning and somebody did a condom demonstration using their thumb,” she says. “[She] put the condom on her thumb and got pregnant, of course.”

Dickson Chidumu, Head of Operations at the Malawi Union of Savings and Credit Cooperatives (MUSCCO) and leader of a campaign called “Be a Hero. Use a Condom,” acknowledges that such misunderstandings are not only a result of poor sex education, but also not wanting to talk candidly about sex.

“To some people, this language is considered obscene language. But they need the facts. We are running away from speaking about the facts.”

Through the continued efforts of organizations such as MUSCCO and MBCA, and of course with time, Chidumu is hopeful that cultural attitudes towards sex and sexual practices will change.

For the fact remains that you just never know:

Wokaona nyanja anakaona ndi mvuu yomwe.” (When you go to the lake, you might see hippos.)

In other words, you may think you know your partner’s status, but there exists the possibility that you may encounter the unexpected – so it’s best to be prepared.

(For easy listening on safe sex, check out Condom Nalila by Zambian musician, Dalisoul, and Safe Sex by Kaye Styles.)

A royal row

Like millions, reporters at the Malawi Institute of Journalism tuned in to watch the royal wedding. Photo by Katie Lin

The bride has finally arrived.

In one swift movement, she slips out of a Rolls-Royce and gingerly readjusts her dress.

It’s the moment the world has been waiting for, including reporters at the Malawi Institute of Journalism (MIJ) in Blantyre: the royal wedding.

Crowded around the newsroom television, one reporter comments on Prince William’s hairline and another on Kate Middleton’s dress. Someone is even singing along to the national anthem.

At this moment, the only reminder that we’re in Malawi is the portrait of a half-smiling President Bingu wa Mutharika hanging on the wall.

But there’s little to smile about when it comes to current diplomatic relations between Malawi and Britain.

Tension between the two countries first arose when Malawian newspaper the Weekend Nation published excerpts from a leaked cable in which President Bingu wa Mutharika was described by a British diplomat as “becoming ever more autocratic and intolerant of criticism.”

In the memo, Britain’s High Commissioner to Malawi, Fergus Cochrane-Dyet, also noted that local civil society activists were afraid after a campaign of threatening phone calls and commented on the government’s repressive laws surround academic and press freedom.

What ensued has been was described by the BBC as a “tit-for-tat” series of expulsions.

On April 26, Cochrane-Dyet was expelled from Malawi. Less than 24 hours later, Britain ordered Malawi’s Acting High Commissioner to Britain, Flossie Gomile Chidyaonga, to leave the UK.

While this diplomatic feud is still young, President Mutharika’s heated reaction to the cable could have serious reverberations, such as the withdrawal of the UK’s bilateral aid to the former British colony.

“Diplomatic relations between Malawi and Britain date back as far as 1964 and Britain is one of the major donors to Malawi’s developmental activities,” says Yvonne Sundu, a reporter at the Malawi Institute of Journalism.

Up to 40 per cent of Malawi’s national budget is financed by donor countries, and the UK tops the list as one of the country’s key donors.

According to the UK Department for International Development (DFID), more than £74 million GBP (over $116 million CAD) of bilateral aid was poured into Malawi between 2009 and 2010.

“It is a worrying sign that the Malawian Government is expending its energies in this way, rather than focusing on the real and substantial challenges facing it, including the need for improved governance,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement released by the British Foreign Office.

Hague went on to ask UK officials “to review rapidly the full range of our wider relationship with Malawi,” indicating that further consequences were likely to follow – and sure enough they did.

An invitation to the Malawian administration to attend a party in celebration of the royal wedding at the high commission on April 29 was revoked.

Though not surprised by this action taken by the British government, Sundu was mortified.

“Honestly it is embarrassing, not only to Malawians but also to the President,” she says.

Despite the drama between the two governments, Sundu says that the excitement amongst Malawians surrounding this historical day remains unaffected.

“What is happening is a battle between the Malawian government and Fergus Cochrane-Dyet, and not Malawians against the British in general,” she explains.

“Malawians are just excited because they are seeing Prince William, heir to the throne, having his wedding on camera, and that brings excitement amongst millions and millions of people.”

Stone ‘babies’ and fertility shame

Mother of the "stone" baby, Agnes Musulo

On a cool July evening in Malawi in 2009, 20-year-old Agnes Musolo went into labor.

She was only 24 weeks pregnant and, after having already suffered four stillbirths, she feared the worst for her unborn child.

But she was struck by another surprise—the “baby” was, in fact, a stone.

Interestingly, it wasn’t the first time Musolo had given birth to a stone, nor was it the last time that such cases would arise in the country.

The story was immediately picked up by the Malawian media and became a spectacle, but it points to a graver problem.

Some women suffering reproductive difficulties in Malawi resort to extreme measures in order to feign pregnancy rather than face the shame of being barren.

“Fertility is very important in Malawian culture,” says Faith Phiri, executive director of the Girls Empowerment Network (GENET) in Blantyre. “You can have nothing—no money, no house, but if you have children, it means you have wealth.”

And having children also garners a family esteem.

“Without children, if you are a woman, you don’t have respect,” Phiri continues. “It doesn’t matter whether you don’t have money to feed them . . . as long as you bear many children, you are woman enough.”

When a woman is unable to conceive, it is, as Phiri puts it, nothing short of a “disaster.”

“If a woman cannot conceive, that woman faces a lot of rejection,” Phiri explains. “People will ridicule you, they will blame you for not conceiving, for not being a real woman.”

For all of the rejection, humiliation, desperation and sadness that a woman must endure when faced with reproductive difficulties, it’s no wonder some are trying to disguise their condition.

As Dr Francis Kamwendo, professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the College of Medicine, explains, some women will simulate pregnancy then shift the blame when the baby they were meant to deliver turns out to be a stone. Others will experience a false or hysterical pregnancy, where the symptoms of true pregnancy are experienced but the woman is in fact not pregnant. Yet others will even go to the extent of stealing other people’s babies from the hospital.

Most recently, a woman from Mangochi in the Southern Region of Malawi delivered what The Daily Times described as a “rock-like object.”

And just two weeks earlier, Leticia Wyson, 26, from the Dedza District in the Central Region of Malawi delivered two plastic bags containing a piece of charcoal, two mango seeds, a millipede, nine stones and a snail.

Both women had faced multiple miscarriages prior to their bizarre birthing experiences, and in all of the cases mentioned, the fetus’ transformation was attributed to witchcraft.

While science cannot explain witchcraft, there does exist a clinical explanation for the “stone” baby phenomenon.

According to Dr Kamwendo, it’s possible for a woman to have a miscarriage where the dead fetus is not effectively dispelled from the womb. As weeks and months go by, it calcifies, becoming more or less like a stone.

Agnes Musolo did eventually give birth to a healthy baby boy.

But while her days of ostracization may be over, the issue of fertility shame remains entrenched for some women who face reproductive difficulties.

For Phiri, education is the key when it comes to changing current attitudes and curbing such extreme practices.

“We need to mobilize the whole community to support women and not to look down on women, whether they are able to conceive or not, whether they have children or not.”

Crashing the boy’s club

In Malawi's ubiquitous entertainment halls, women are often seen as unwelcome visitors

By Katie Lin

In the middle of Blantyre’s densely-populated township, Ndirande, sits Spencer Video Centre. It’s big, bright blue and blaring seriously loud music.

With featured shows ranging from Mexican wrestling to football to Asia’s best Bruce Lee films, these entertainment halls have become a “boy’s club”-type haven for so many men in the urban sprawl that is Blantyre.

But in a country where conservative gender norms are rule-of-thumb and even couples refrain from holding hands in public, it’s easy for certain behaviors to be misinterpreted—and entertainment halls are no exception.

Put simply, if a dignified woman does not want to be mistaken for a prostitute then she knows better than to go into one.

I arrived at Spencer and, having already missed the first four minutes of the Newcastle versus Arsenal game, was hard-pressed to find a seat. About 60 men were packed into the balmy room, perched on a dozen benches and sitting on the floor.

Sitting on a bed of wooden crates was the main attraction: a 24-inch television. A worn, red scarf was draped across the top crate—a reminder of the favoured team, Arsenal.

I sank lower in my seat as Arsenal rose to a 4-0 lead. Not only was I now a mortified Newcastle fan, but I was also the only woman in the hall.

Owner Baron Banda had only one thing to say: “No women. Don’t like women—unless they come with their friends, their boyfriends or someone they know.

“You see, this is a male place, with male entertainment.”

I had to inquire further. “So, are the halls strictly for men? Or are they a place for men to collect awayfrom their women?”

Banda chuckled and gave his head a brusque rub: “Yes…an escape for the men…”

I figured as much.

Steven Danger, a 15-year-old patron of Blantyre entertainment halls, explained: “Since women don’t normally fight, it’s irrelevant for them to go and watch these movies.”

That’s not to say, however, that women don’t enter the halls.

“Some women go in, but not those who are married because most married women watch it in their homes,” said Danger.

I gathered from this comment that married women stay away not because they aren’t necessarilyallowed inside, or even because the television content doesn’t appeal to them, but because it would do their image more damage than the entertainment was worth.

“If the woman is a prostitute, she has no problem getting into entertainment halls,” said Danger, “because that is how she gets her bread and butter.”

So, what happens if a regular, unassuming, law-abiding woman, like myself, does go inside?

“We give them pieces of advice [about how] women are not supposed to watch films in such places,” Danger says.

Well, nobody told me.

So there I was, glued to the television as much as my male company, as the game drew to an end.

In the 89th minute, Newcastle tied the game, and with that, noise levels peaked. Then, with just three minutes left in overtime…

Power out.

The crowd surged from their seats, like wasps from a hive, and poured out of the hall into the night, where the day’s dusty, bustling market had turned into an onyx expanse, peppered with makeshift paraffin lamps.

And so I moved through the dark market with a friend, recounting each play, each goal, each card.

Boy’s club or not, the excitement of a good game knows no gender.