Author Archives: Sarah Feldbloom

About Sarah Feldbloom

A self-professed “culture junkie by nature,” Sarah Feldbloom says she was lucky to be born and raised in Toronto, a city inhabited by citizens from every corner of the globe. This setting only encouraged her to explore further, an urge which led her to Blantyre, Malawi, where she’s working for Star Radio. Before heading to Malawi, Feldbloom worked as an editorial assistant for Global News Toronto and hosted and produced women’s radio shows for CHRY and CHMR. In addition, she collaborated on gallery, magazine and radio projects with community arts and media organizations including the Association for Media Literacy, Regent Park Focus Youth Media Arts Centre and For the Love of Learning. Beyond her hunger to travel, Feldbloom wanted to work in Malawi to see how the medium she loved producing most was “made and absorbed in the continent where it is king.”

Canadian-African poets proclaim the power of spoken word in southern Africa

From the mainstage to the spoken word tent at Swaziland's Bushfire festival JHR reporters Sarah Berman and Sarah Feldbloom explore the power of poetry in southern Africa. Photo by Sarah Berman.

On the mainstage at the Bushfire Festival in Ezulwini, Swaziland, Canadian-African spoken word artists D’bi Young and Croc E Moses take turns casting adjectives and adverbs into a dense crowd.

The poetry of southern Africa is a different beast than the one that lives in dark bars and sparse cafes in Canada – it garners an elevated level of respect. Though Young and Moses hail from Canada, they both chose Capetown, South Africa as a place to conduct art-making for several reasons.

Young, a Jamaican-born, Toronto-based poet explains that Africa is the home of spoken word because of its oral storytelling traditions, what she calls “the genesis of life, which then spread throughout the rest of the world.”

Moses, originally from Yellowknife, suggests that it’s the paramount celebration of rhythm in African culture that makes spoken word so special here. He also says there is more “dream space” in this part of the world, built from the tradition of using creative forms to deal with issues.

And what are the issues most commonly faced in southern African countries today? It is too easy to name them: the HIV/AIDS epidemic, gender inequity, mass poverty, high levels of illiteracy and lack of political freedom for citizens, among others.

It is for this reason that Moses finds it hard to connect with the use of poetry as a mode for entertainment as it commonly is in the West.

“In southern Africa you get exposed to extremes,” he says. “There’s a different level of consciousness.”

For Young there exists a noticeable divide between the culture of spoken word art in Africa and the West as well.

“You’ll see that in North America because of the incredible commercializaion of art practice and art-making, there’s another model [of expression],” she says.

Bushfire and other festivals in southern Africa create opportunities for performers to come together and discuss rights issues through art under the safeguard of an international public eye. Community-oriented initiatives like Bushfire serve, more than anything, as a platform to address social issues. This festival, in particular, holds the mandate to donate 100% of its proceeds to HIV positive orphans in Swaziland – the country with the highest HIV rate in the world.

From the main stage to the spoken word, tent poetry is playing a big role in raising consciousness.

“To me poetry is about clarity,” says Moses. “The more clarity we have about ourselves as individuals the more understanding we can have for others – that’s what’s shared a lot among people here, and that’s how change can happen slowly but surely.”

“Dub for Swazi People” by D’bi Young

“Pace and the Pulse and the Peace” by Croc E Moses

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, produced by Sarah Feldbloom, 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.

Books to bucks: Literary culture in Malawi

In Malawi, publishing is dominated by religious and educational texts, leaving little room for support for fiction and poetry.Photo by Sarah Feldbloom.

For Malawian authors and their readers, maintaining a literary culture in Malawi is important. “It’s about the need to revere our own stories, to have our own legends,” says Malawian writer, Q Malewezi. “Pride is very important. Pride gives support and hope, and with hope we have possibilities.”

Even so, it’s a fight to maintain a literary culture in Malawi; high poverty and low literacy discourage the production of a national literature.

Malewezi is a well known cultural figure in the country—a composer, hip-hop producer and spoken word performer who easily garners an audience. He’s now written a book of poetry, The Road Taken, which he’s self-publishing because he says there are no publishers in the country willing to print poetry.

In Malawi, 65.3 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line and only 64.1 per cent are literate, which has weakened the local literary culture. But it’s not just the literacy rate that’s having an impact. As Pascal Kishindo, Director of the Centre for Language Studies at Chancellor College tells me, it’s simply too expensive to update library collections, publish local literature and support a literate or literary populous.

Ironically, one undermining factor is the book industry itself, which is geared toward producing pamphlets for NGOs and text books, as opposed to supporting local fiction and non-fiction authors.

Of course, it isn’t impossible to access literary books in Malawi, but it’s difficult. Second-hand books are available in the market and in some local shops, though the majority of books for sale tend to be business and technical manuals or religious publications. And where novels and poetry anthologies are sold, the prices are prohibitive to most Malawians, usually ranging between KWC 2,000 and KWC 5,000 ($13 CAD to $33 CAD).

National Library Service branches are the most popular places for Malawian readers to find books. But only one branch exists in each major city, and most content is donated from Western publishers who have unsellable items or by organizations that redirect used books from schools in the West. Classics and pop fiction by authors like Evelyn Waugh and John Grisham, as well as dog eared science textbooks are popular finds.

Malewezi says the only reading most Malawian youth are doing these days is online—Facebook notes and emails, not literature. But this wasn’t always the case. In the 60s and 70s Malawi had a thriving literary community, urged by youth studying at Chancellor College.

“There was excitement in Africa,” says Kishindo. Most countries on the continent had just come out of colonialism, and so emerged the idea to create an African literature. Malawi’s most canonical writers like Steve Chimombo and Jack Mupanje published works during this time.

Kishindo tells me that now spoken word performance dominates as opposed to texts, partly because the form draws on traditional oral storytelling and partly because it helps solve the problem of producing books.

“It’s a fascinating war,” he says. “It’s like we are now saying ‘books may not be the best way of expressing ourselves, let’s go back to oral culture.’”

Women in the Star newsroom

Jhr's Sarah Feldbloom with Star radio reporters (l-r), Virginia Khunguni, Jacqueline Zulu and Chikondi Phinda. Photo by Jenny Vaughan.

Text by Jenny Vaughan, audio by Sarah Feldbloom

Female empowerment is a funny thing. You cannot see it, touch it, smell it or hear it. But when you’re faced with it, there’s no missing it. That’s precisely what jhr intern Sarah Feldbloom found in the Star radio newsroom in Blantyre, Malawi, when she kicked off her six-month placement at the station in January 2011. Right off the bat she began working on stories about the gender inequality that marks relationships among men and women in the home, at the office and in the city’s many shops and bars. Indeed, gender inequality remains a deeply troubling reality in the country, so Sarah was inspired to find that her female colleagues at Star weren’t shying away from covering issues relating to women’s rights. Not only that, but these women refused to back down when faced with machismo sources or when colleagues wouldn’t take them seriously simply because they’re not male.

Sarah sat down with three female reporters at Star and talked to them about their role as women in the newsroom, the professional challenges they face because of their sex and what kinds of stories they are driven to cover. Listen to Sarah’s podcast below.

Women in the Star newsroom

Malawians could be big winners

Malawi's National Lottery Board has pledged to put proceeds from ticket sales towards public projects. Photo by Sarah Feldbloom.

In Canada, it’s not uncommon for people to believe lottery companies play on people’s fantasies, encouraging them to hand over money with no real benefit to themselves or society. So I was interested to hear from Davie Saeluzika that he thinks the national lottery could greatly improve the lives of Malawians.

Saeluzika is the finance and administrations manager at Malawi’s National Lotteries Board (NLB). Right now, he’s working to launch what he hopes will be Malawi’s first successful national lottery service, one that will give back to Malawians by using a percentage of the proceeds from lottery sales to fund public projects.

“This is a country that is in development, but there is a lot that still needs to be done,” he says. “You want as much as possible to give Malawians a better life.”

The question is whether the initiative will be effective and sustainable.

The lottery is a new concept in Malawi, as it is in many poor countries where most people don’t have the disposable income to buy tickets. But it may become popular as the prosperity of the country changes. Saeluzika says that right now is an ideal time to launch a new national lottery because the Malawian economy is expanding.

“Just recently, we were categorized as one of the fastest growing economies in Africa,” he tells me. According to an article published in Malawi’s The Nation newspaper in January it ranks as number six.

Saeluzika says previous lottery companies “lacked the capabilities and financial muscle” to maintain a good product. But the new five-year national lottery licensee plans to use new technologies to ensure accuracy, he maintains. They will also launch a marketing campaign to educate Malawians about how the national lottery works.

“It’s not common to most Malawians,” says Eliza Kapakasa, a 36-year-old grocery store employee in Blantyre of NLB. “They should do a lot to help people recognize the lottery.”

Saeluzika is concerned effective marketing will be the biggest challenge for the new national lottery providers. They’re working against a reputation created by the first licensees who failed to honour wins of its largest prize, lotto 5, and a public that is neither knowledgeable nor eager to play.

The practice also comes with some cultural baggage. “Malawians associate gambling with bad behaviour,” says Kapakasa. It’s seen as decidedly un-Christian, according to her.

Saeluzika explains the lottery can help Malawi achieve further prosperity by collecting taxes covertly from those who don’t pay and investing them in public infrastructure. More than that, he wants the national lottery to succeed so money can be put into a fund and used for charitable projects, such as rehabilitating schools and clinics.

The new national lottery is slated to launch this month, and Saeluzika is looking forward to it.

“What you’re selling somebody is a dream,” he tells me, nodding his head with confidence.

Too few teachers: Crammed classrooms in Malawi

At resource-poor and overcrowded schools in Malawi, many students learn outside. Photo by Sarah Feldbloom.

Recently, the Malawian Ministry of Education announced its intention to improve the average teacher-to-student ratio in the country from the current one teacher to 155 pupils to one to 88.

At Mbayani Primary School in Blantyre, it appears this goal is still far off; the school hosts 11,000 students and only 100 teachers. Journalists for Human Rights reporter Sarah Feldbloom worked with Malawian journalists Chimwemwe Mangazi and Pamela Mithi to find out more. Listen to their report below.

Overcrowding in Malawi’s Classrooms

Tracking hip hop in Malawi

DJ Drew, one of the country's premier artists, performing at Malawi's massive music festival Lake of Stars. Photo by Mwai Kasamale.

In his newly released single Facebook Status, Malawian artist DJ Drew sings along to an acoustic guitar and soothing synth. “I can’t force you to be here, force you to love me, force you to trust me . . . Baby, I’m changing my Facebook status,” he croons. Fellow Malawian hip-hop artists 3rd Eye and Barry One also feature on the track, infusing it with a sprinkle of the local language, Chichewa, giving the universal sounding pop song a Malawian vibe.

The urban music scene in Malawi isn’t new, but its popularity is. Only in the past two years has it come into the mainstream, and now it’s big, says DJ Drew.

“If you go on Facebook, most of the hip hop artists from Malawi . . . they have at least five thousand friends each. It’s a trend, it’s growing, and who knows where it’s going.”

And what’s attracting buy-in for Malawian hip-hop is simple; it’s real. 3rd Eye tells me it’s about communicating what Malawian people go through. “I’m driven by my pain, and my people’s pain, you know? I see it in their eyes, it inspires me.”

He’d like to see the music industry grow because it’s a positive and sustainable export, unlike many of Malawi’s other resources. “That’s one thing we’ll always have compared to tobacco and things that are dying out.”

But developing the industry hasn’t been easy. DJ Drew and Barry One say lack of access to technology and the difficulty of marketing music without home-grown record labels are two main roadblocks. Perhaps the biggest challenge is that most Malawians live below the poverty line and don’t have a budget for luxury items like CDs or stereos.

But this hasn’t stopped artists from doing what they love. 3rd Eye says friends are working on a proposal to found an arts council, which could help support grassroots projects.

Mutual support is key in buffering the growing industry. “Malawians like to push each other, we like to help each other.” says DJ Drew. “Malawi has an industry where we are all united, we are one.”

This camaraderie seems to be having an effect. Like DJ Drew, Barry One and 3rd Eye are both about to release new albums that are distinctly Malawian in more than just their use of Chichewa.

3rd Eye’s new disc, Kumidima, which means “if darkness was a place,” binds hip hop and reggae and addresses abuses of power, Malawian history and modern-day imperialism. 3rd Eye calls it the biggest accomplishment of his career.

Evidently, it’s not just the song Facebook Status which aligns these Malawian hip-hoppers. “Me, Drew and 3rd Eye, we’ve all got different objectives but we’re shooting for the same target—to bring about change in the industry and to make it big,” says Barry One.

Women’s rights in the bedroom

Joyce Phekani runs a support centre for abused women in Malawi. She says increased awareness means more women now report abuse to police.

By Sarah Feldbloom and Jacquiline Zulu

“Look at my face. Maybe you can see me as 35-years-old but I’m 29. All of that is because of misery.”

At the Centre for Alternatives for Victimized Women and Children in Blantyre, Malawi, a survivor of domestic violence tells us about her experiences. She’s been receiving counselling at the centre to try and find a way forward from being beaten by her husband, who uses her salary to run the house while saving his own money for personal extravagances.

The term gender-based violence encompasses sexual, physical, financial or psychological abuse against women. According to a 2009 study by Malawi’s National Statistics Office, 48 per cent of Malawian women reported one or more of these four types of abuse from a partner.

Gender-based violence is an everyday part of life for many women in Malawi. From being denied the right to say no to or ask for sex, to being forced to bear unwanted children, or even request their partner wear a condom, it’s a resounding problem, one of many to be addressed around the world today, on International Women’s Day.

Initiatives that inform the public about such abuses are making a difference in Malawi, says Joyce Phekani, executive director of the Centre for Alternatives for Victimized Women and Children.

“In the early years when we were just introducing gender-based violence and its structures in the communities, there were a lot of cases being reported,” she says. “Slowly the numbers are going down because people are now aware that if [they] do such a thing it’s going to be a police case.”

Progress or not, violence against women in Malawi is dire. In the majority of casual conversations we have with women we know, they reveal they’ve been abused.

Phekani tells us that often, when women ask for or deny sex from their partners, “the conclusion for the man is that you are a prostitute or an adulterer.”

Not all women are silenced around issues of sex, but it remains a major area of contention. Women are not expected not to discuss how many babies they will have, for example, even if it is deemed unsafe for them to bear more children. And when it comes to safe sex, women are often silenced too.

“A woman is not expected to make the husband use a condom.” Phekani says. “Even when you see that the man has got a sore. You cannot. These are things we are really trying to reverse, especially in the face of HIV/AIDS.”

Phekani adds that equal pleasure in sex is often lacking, a sentiment the anonymous survivor repeats: “He would just take me as a tin for masturbation,” she says, referring to her husband.

Phekani says many girls learn from childhood that is their duty is to please their man, especially sexually. “We are raised in a society where people believe that a woman is weaker,” she says, “it’s sort of like a master and servant relationship.”

Increased awareness has been shown to promote progress, and giving voice to survivors could have a real effect on decreasing the numbers of gender-based violence victims.

When asked if public discussions carried out on International Women’s Day can really help, our survivor replies, “It’s important . . . men can change. But sometimes it might be difficult because it’s only women who participate on those occasions. It would be better if it felt like it was about families and not only women.”