Author Archives: Sarah Berman

About Sarah Berman

Since entering journalism in 2006, Sarah Berman has built her resume to include stints at the Vancouver Sun, and a number of magazines, including Adbusters, Discorder and Megaphone. She’s now adding to the roster with her current placement at the Daily Times in Blantyre, Malawi, where she’ll be working with local journalists for the next six months to coproduce human rights stories. Last year, Berman traveled to Thailand to work on a five-part online documentary about the social and environmental impact of shrimp farming, which featured on the Globe and Mail website. She also wrote and produced an independent doc about illegal advertising in New York City, which has been screened in Canada and the USA. Berman has a Masters degree in journalism from the University of British Columbia and an undergraduate degree in media studies from the University of Western Ontario

South African indie makes waves

Gazelle's Xander Ferreira performs the band’s single ‘Chic Afrique’ at Bushfire, Swaziland's annual international festival of arts. Photo by Sarah Berman.

Text by Sarah Feldbloom

South African indie music has rarely crossed the ocean to North America’s mass markets – but the genre is developing, and the sound is big, bright and bold.

Gazelle frontman, Xander Ferreira, says South African indie music is in a renaissance period: “We believe this is the future for African music, for people to gather a scene here first and then go and take over the world.”

At the Bushfire festival held in Ezulwini, Swaziland, Journalists for Human Rights reporters Sarah Feldbloom and Sarah Berman explored this movement of new music. In this podcast, hear what bands Gazelle, Hot Water and Tshe Tsha Boys have to say about what makes South African indie so hot right now.

Listen to the podcast: South African indie

Transforming arms into art in Mozambique

At the world-renowned artist studio Núcleo de Arte in Maputo, Mozambican artist Fiel dos Santos recalls a childhood robbed by military struggle.

“I grew up in civil war,” says Santos, who was five years old when his country became embroiled in a conflict that would last 16 years. “In my area the rebels were coming two times a week, every month, every day—but I’m here.”

In this video, Santos destroys weapons leftover from Mozambique’s civil war, and welds them into mixed-media sculptures. His artwork is part of a larger project called Transformaçaõ de Armas em Enxadas (Transforming Arms into Tools), which has amassed a collection of over 700,000 illegal weapons since 1995.

“I continue this project because it’s my contribution, my social contribution,” says Santos. “Transforming guns is transforming minds.”

Later this year, Fiel will be releasing a stop-motion animated short using metal sculptures created from decommissioned arms. The 17-minute film, Little Fiel, will tell the story of Fiel’s youth, growing up with two brothers fighting on opposing sides of Mozambique’s civil war.

In this video by Journalists for Human Rights reporters Sarah Berman and Sarah Feldbloom, Santos destroys weapons leftover from Mozambique’s civil war, and welds them into mixed-media sculptures.

Jhr partner Theresa Chapulapula on Malawi’s media clampdown

Text and video by Sarah Berman

In January 2011, Malawi amended Section 46 of its penal code to limit freedom of the press. The new legislation grants Malawi’s Minister of Information the power to ban any publication deemed “contrary to the public interest.”

Daily Times chief reporter Theresa Chapulapula says this law directly contradicts Malawi’s constitution, which guarantees the free flow of information. Having researched and written dozens of stories on the subject, Chapulapula hopes her reporting will help persuade the government to repeal the unconstitutional law.

On issue-based journalism in Malawi

Text by Jenny Vaughan, video by Sarah Berman

For Ghanaian-born journalist Edem Djokotoe, the best fodder for stories doesn’t come from breaking news, but rather the stories that emerge in the aftermath of major news events and shape society in the long term.

“We need to look for the implications that are not event-driven,” he says. “We need to focus on the big picture.”

It’s this approach to reporting that Djokotoe has branded as issue-based journalism, the focus of a Journalists for Human Rights discussion hosted by Sarah Berman at the Daily Times in Blantyre, Malawi.

For Djokotoe, an ICF/Knight Fellow working at The Nation in Malawi, it’s the wider impact of the daily news that counts. It’s not just about the pregnant woman who has to walk 20 kilometres to the closest clinic, for example, but rather about maternal health and access to adequate care. It’s not simply about depleting fish stocks in Lake Mangochi, but rather about lack of government action to support suffering fishermen, he insists.

At the core of this approach to journalism is accountability: holding leaders to task to ensure society can progress. It’s also the focus of jhr’s approach to rights media, PANEL.

Djokotoe says such stories can be found around every corner, it’s simply a matter of teasing out the core issue, finding a human face and weaving an interesting narrative.

“You can take a fairly insignificant story and make it matter,” he says.

It not always easy, though, since most newspapers and radio airwaves are crammed with stories about politics and sports. “People feel the need to put development issues on the fringe,” he notes.

It’s up to media managers to recognize the value of filling their pages and airwaves with stories about issues affecting everyday Malawians.

But the buck doesn’t stop there. Reporters need to do the necessary research (“know your country and know your constituents,” Djokotoe presses). They should also insist on getting their work published.

“If this is what you want to do, you fight for stories,” he insists. “If you really want to make a career out of this, then you will push for it.”

Djokotoe, a Knight Fellow working in Malawi

Living with garbage

A "do not litter" sign surrounded by a sea of garbage in Malawian suburb, Ndirande. The roadside has become an informal dumpsite for residents and market traders. Photo by Sarah Berman.

“What day is garbage day?” I asked my landlord upon arriving in Malawi four months ago.

Expecting her to mention a day of the week, or perhaps direct me towards a calendar affixed to the refrigerator, I was confused by her silence and contemplative blinking. After a few moments of discomfort, I soon learned garbage day doesn’t exist here.

In Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial hub, only 30 per cent of the city has access to waste collection—which, as it turns out, doesn’t include my current home. Our garbage doesn’t disappear from the curb like it would in any Canadian city; like most Malawians, we deposit all of our household waste into a metre-deep pit in our yard.

“We do not have any reliable city bins close to our home. The only city bins in this area are at quite a distance from us,” explains Anne Kafuwa, a resident in Blantyre’s largest urban township, Ndirande. Rather than rely on local government to manage waste, Kafuwa takes garbage collection into her own hands.

As she sits in front of her house peeling potatoes, I ask Kafuwa where her food scraps will end up.

“We have a garbage pit near our house,” she says, motioning backward with her peeling knife. “But we always maintain this pit when it is filled.”

Kafuwa explains that when the pit becomes full, she burns the excess and covers the ashes in soil—a low-impact disposal method taught to Malawian children in school.

In the absence of waste management infrastructure, residents simply maintain their own miniature landfills.

Unfortunately for residents like Kafuwa, not all garbage in Ndirande is managed quite as responsibly.  With no rules in place, many residents and market traders informally dump their garbage behind supermarkets or in fields.

Public litter is a common sight, and a problem the municipal government is well aware of.

“We don’t yet have the capacity to collect refuse in unplanned residential areas,” says Robert Kawiya, director of parks, recreation and environment for the Blantyre City Assembly.

With scarce equipment and Blantyre’s sole landfill in Mzedi nearing full capacity, Kawiya says “it’s largely up to residents to sort garbage at a household level.”

Although garbage may appear in the streets and gutters more often, Malawians actually create much less waste than Canadians. According to Kawiya, people in Blantyre produce an average of 0.9 kg of waste per capita per day—81 per cent of which is organic and biodegradable. This figure is nearly doubled in most Canadian cities, according to Environment Canada.

The difference is that Malawians see the impact of their own consumption on a daily basis—something I as a Canadian, had never experienced.

Knowing my own consumables will travel just a few metres from my doorstep to a hole in the ground, I have become acutely aware of my personal ecological footprint. Opting against plastic bags at the grocery store was already a natural habit, but I’ve found myself leaning toward produce over packaged food more than ever before.

Plastic bottle? No thanks. Paper napkin? I’ll wash my hands.

This awareness has led city officials to see piles of waste as an income-generating resource. “A project is now developing to harness methane gas as fuel,” says Kawiya, adding that the project could generate three megawatts of electricity for the city. Another proposal would see organic waste turned into useful fertilizer.

But like in Canada, the success of such projects relies on individuals and communities to remain wary of the things they choose to throw away. “Communities are key in development,” Kawiya says. “There are simple things that make a huge difference.”

Rallying for academic freedom across Malawi

Lecturers at Chancellor College in Malawi, protest limits on academic freedom. Photo courtesy of Daily Times.

It began with a lecture.

At Chancellor College in Zomba, political science professor Dr. Blessings Chinsinga told his public policy class that Malawi’s shortages of fuel and foreign currency could ignite political uprising. To make his point, Dr. Chinsinga drew matter-of-fact comparisons to the mass protests that toppled governments in Egypt and Tunisia.

Though such discussion of current events may seem commonplace during a university politics lecture, Dr. Chinsinga’s words have since sparked an unprecedented country-wide battle over academic freedom.

On the morning of February 12, 2011, Malawi’s Inspector General of Police Peter Mukhito summoned Dr. Chinsinga for police interrogation. The associate professor was asked to respond to allegations that he was inciting students to demonstrate against the government.

Upon Dr. Chinsinga’s release, the academic community responded by staging a public protest on February 21.

“The protest was very peaceful,” recalls president of the Chancellor College Academic Staff Union Jessie Kabwila-Kapsula. Dressed in graduation gowns—with mouths bound by handkerchiefs—lecturers paraded to the Zomba police station, where they presented a petition demanding the right to academic freedom assurance from police and government.

“On that day we got permission from police, and they actually escorted us to and from the station,” Kabwila-Kapsula says. “It was a very colourful, interesting time.”

Kabwila-Kapsula says the demonstration was important, particularly because Malawian academics in past decades feared arrest and violence. “In the 1970s and 80s, there were academics who were arrested and taken to prison because of what they wrote and said in class,” he says.

Faculty members at Chancellor College have refused to return to lecture halls until the police and government assure the free exchange ideas will continue in Malawian classrooms unhindered. Students showed support for their mentors by staging their own peaceful demonstrations.

But instead of backing the striking lecturers, the government chose to publicly speak out against the academic freedom protests.

President Bingu wa Mutharika denounced the Chancellor College demonstrations, and demanded lecturers to return to class.

“If some teacher one day just wakes up, ignores the subject for that hour and comes and says, ‘you students, do you know that you can overthrow this government? And the way to overthrow this government is to follow what’s happening in Egypt’… Is this what we call academic freedom?” the President said.

Mutharika went on to characterize the university’s call for freedoms as “academic anarchy,” saying the Inspector General of Police was tending to a matter of national security, and should not apologise for his actions.

The president did not respond to any of the lecturers’ concerns or demands.

Meanwhile, continuous campus protests have resulted in clashes between students and police, with teargas being used in residential areas on at least four occasions.

Academics at the Polytechnic Institute in Blantyre have since joined the sit-in, saying the call for academic freedom is a constitutional matter.

Six weeks into the conflict, lecturers have yet to reach an agreement with the government. “Up until this morning, there had been no effort to reach out to us formally,” Kabwila-Kapsula said. “We’ve asked the courts to interpret this as a constitutional matter.”

While no agreement has been reached, Kabwila-Kapsula says the university has been “showered in support” since the beginning of their demonstrations.

“I am very proud to be Malawian at this time,” says Kabwila-Kapsula. “This shows that we own our democracy, and can fight for our freedoms.”

Fast food, Malawi-style

Hidden away in the bush behind the Daily Times, Charles Mite is one of many unlicensed food vendors who makes a living frying potatoes and chicken on the cheap.

Every morning, the Daily Times newspaper feeds the minds of more than 15,000 people across Malawi. But what feeds Daily Times employees?

A stroll through the newsroom’s surrounding bushes and maize fields reveals a likely answer: a network of makeshift chip stands.

Chicken and fries are piled high on either side of a steel tray, while hot oil bubbles in a circular basin. All this rests atop a slender brick fire pit, shaded by a canopy of found branches.

Behind the homemade deep fryer stands Charles Mite, a self-made entrepreneur who has made nourishing Daily Times reporters his business since 2008. Most journalists I ask confirm they have eaten Mite’s chips “hundreds of times.”

Mite’s stand is not a one-off operation, but one of many satellite cafeterias surrounding most of Blantyre’s big businesses. Often hidden away from the main roads, these bustling small-scale chip stands are an institution in Malawi.

“I know other places are operating close by, but I get my business by treating people well,” Mite says. “I treat every customer like a child to keep them happy. I give them what they want so that tomorrow they will eat from me again.”

The food is cheap, and the crowd is consistent. Seated on low-slung benches and soda crates, daily patrons get a heap of salty, greasy goodness for less than $1 CAD.

Concealed by forests, corn stalks and the occasional babbling brook, each chip stand develops its own informal community. As I approach a second chip stand along the same winding footpath, a young group of potato peelers chat with regular customers about their respective families, while another woman sets up a nearby selection of bananas for sale.

So regular is the crowd that a local pastor often takes the opportunity to preach to a captive audience lining up for chips.

Mite says he gets about 100 customers a day, despite being hidden away in the bush. Many chip stands like Mite’s are constructed off the beaten path in an effort to fend off city council. The city frequently shuts down unlicensed businesses like Mite’s for operating outside designated vending areas.

“When they come, they take it all down. They take our utensils and pack them away in their car,” Mite says, adding that raising a structure within 100 metres of the roadways is also illegal.

“They demolish our fryers, take away our pans, containers—everything.” Mite’s chip stand has been shut down six times, and yet his business hasn’t skipped a beat.

“I make sure that the following day the stand is here,” says Mite.  “A lot of people come to eat, so I make sure to get all the necessary utensils.”

Legal or not, the Daily Times chip stand won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

From culprits to catalysts: Girls’ initiation in Malawi

Esitere Chabwera uses girls' initiation ceremonies to encourage young women to practice safe sex

In their respective villages, Cecelia Muliya and Esitere Chabwera are regarded as cultural leaders.

The two have worked in girls’ initiation camps for decades, tasked with the role of introducing young girls to womanhood.

Upon reaching puberty, more than half of all Malawian girls participate in some form of initiation ceremony, ranging in length from days to an entire month. Sent away to rural camps, this traditional rite-of-passage is meant to teach girls to take care of themselves, to dress like a woman and to show respect to elders.

It’s also during initiation ceremonies that many girls first learn about sex.

“They are taught how to handle a man so that the man should enjoy sex,” says Chabwera. Through sex simulation and dance, the girls are encouraged to practice pleasing men sexually. Many partake in kusasa fumbi, a custom that normally entails having sex with a chosen male—or sometimes several—from the village.

Practices like kusasa fumbi have been directly linked to the spread of HIV and AIDS, and have been categorically denounced by human rights organizations.

But instead of attempting to eradicate initiation ceremonies, one non-governmental organization asks women like Muliya and Chabwera for their input in order to make the traditional practice safer.

Janet Mwangomba of the Creative Centre for Community Mobilization (CRECCOM) is devoted to helping villages in Malawi create their own local ways of curbing the spread of HIV, empowering women and deterring gender-based violence. Rather than a top-down approach, the Thyolo-based pilot project gives community members the opportunity to make their own informed decisions.

Equipped with the means to discuss the impact of initiation practices with other counsellors from surrounding villages, many leaders like Muliya and Chabwera choose to become agents of change within their communities.

“We have still maintained the initiation ceremonies, but we have strongly discouraged girls from having sexual intercourse soon after the initiation,” says Muliya. “We are no longer forcing the girls into sex as it was in the past.”

Now, Muliya and Chabwera have incorporated AIDS awareness into their ceremonies and girls in some of the project’s 69 villages are also taught to be assertive rather than submissive.

“What we have done instead is encourage the girls to work hard in their education,” Muliya says. “We also advise those who wish to have sex to ask their partners to have HIV testing before they engage in sexual intercourse.”

Though Chabwera and Muliya have chosen to adapt the focus of girls’ initiation, their approach is still a rare minority in Malawi.

However, in villages where significant changes have come from within the community, young girls are already seeing a difference. “It’s valuable because we can see the change at a personal, household and community level,” Mwangomba says.

“Initiation still plays a crucial role passing on the knowledge of our ancestors and imparting skills,” Chabwera says.

And for a lucky few, these ceremonies will now include knowledge and skills for empowerment.

Malawi’s theatre for social change

Tawonga Nkhonjera's play Malawi Kwacha tackles taboos surrounding sexuality

From the minibus to the newsroom, life in Malawi can be pretty dramatic.

“Everything in Malawi is theatre,” explains playwright Tawonga Nkhonjera. “The raising of the voice, the tones, the excitement—Malawians will always play with you. Even on the bus.”

From folk tales and traditional dance to bedtime stories passed on by grandmothers, Malawi’s culture is steeped in dynamic storytelling. During my first week working at the Daily Times in Blantyre, I was frequently captivated by my colleagues’ commanding personalities and lively oration.

But even in a society rich in oral tradition, some topics go unspoken. Compared to many African countries, Malawi is staunchly conservative. With a heavy Christian influence permeating all aspects of society, I quickly learned that exposed knees and shoulders were not acceptable—even on the hottest days.

“As Malawians, we like to pretend we are a good God-fearing nation,” Nkhonjera says. “And so we have all these taboos about sex and so on.”

Nkhonjera seeks to tackle taboos in his work. Homosexuality and prostitution are just a few of the issues addressed in Nkhonjera’s recent play, Malawi Kwacha. The show is a historical tribute to the life of John Chilembwe, an anti-colonial figure who is celebrated in Malawi every January.

In scenes punctuated by lively song and dance, the protagonist Chigaluka exchanges uncommonly progressive opinions with his prostitute costar.

“I don’t mind lesbians,” says the tube top-wearing actress with a matter-of-fact grin. “A female customer would be the easiest money I ever made.” For a country that condemned its first openly gay couple to 14 years hard labour in December 2009, such tolerance can seem pretty radical.

Later on, a well-received impersonation of Malawi’s President Bingu wa Mutharika satirizes the government’s real-life announcement last month which called for Malawian police to shoot and kill robbers on site.

If the audience’s wild reaction is any indication, there is a healthy appetite for the perspectives explored in Malawi Kwacha. Such playful and engaging conversation about sex and politics is not often represented in Malawi’s mainstream media.

“Most of my plays address cross-cutting social issues,” Nkhonjera says, adding that sex education in particular is very slow to reach Malawi’s public schools. “Prostitution is happening in Malawi, so let’s address it.”

While debunking some common sexual attitudes and assumptions, Malawi Kwacha also offers a history of oppression in the region, and calls on Malawians to rise up and tackle all forms of injustice.

Nkhonjera isn’t alone in his efforts to use the language of drama to enact positive social change. Mufunanji Magalasi, dean of humanities at the University of Malawi, says theatre has been used to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS, democracy and voting.

“When you talk about theatre in Malawi today, the bigger portion of performances are theatre for development,” Magalasi explains.

Fueled by non-government organizations in the 1990s, researchers found that community theatre was a much more successful way to spread awareness in rural Malawi.

“In the villages they prefer performance, or something visual—something they can see and comment,” Magalasi says, noting that one study found 92 per cent of village respondents could not read a newspaper. “In theatre, the idea of interpersonal communication is very strong.”

“Theatre is personal. It’s one-on-one human contact,” Nkhonjera agrees. “It’s the human content that’s really touching.”

And lucky for Malawians, the drama comes easy.