Tag Archives: Nina Lex

Lake of Stars music festival “the biggest and best so far”

The main stage at Lake of Stars International Arts Festival in Mangochi. Photo by Nina Lex.

Just last month, the shores of Lake Malawi filled with thousands of barefooted festival-goers from around world as the eighth annual Lake of Stars International Arts Festival took place in the Central Region of the country.

This year’s Lake of Stars was the “biggest and best festival so far,” according to the festival’s director, Tom Porter, with over 3000 people attending the three-day event.

“We put on a quality event that combines a beautiful location with a great atmosphere. There is so much creativity on show but I think it is the positive atmosphere that draws most people,” said Porter. “But we also combine the best international artists with Malawian talent and we are the only event to do that in Malawi – and one of the only in Africa.”

Ninety artists participated in this year’s festivities, including international headlining acts like South Africa’s Freshlyground and Britain’s Foals, as well as various Malawian acts, such as the Black Missionaries and Malawi/ Sweden’s The Very Best.

“We had more people than ever, more artists, more countries represented, more support from local partners – it’s been eight years of progress and I think we learn new things each year,” said Porter.

Artists were spread over three stages, and involved musicians, dancers, poets, actors and DJs, such as Goldierocks and Gemma Cairney.

“We create a platform that showcases Malawian music and culture, as well providing opportunities for local and international artists to create unique creative collaborations,” explained Porter.

Each year the festival takes place at different locations surrounding Lake Malawi, the third largest lake in Africa, and has quickly become Malawi’s number one tourist event of the year.

Inspired by Live Aid, WOMAD and Glastonbury, in 2004 William James, from Britain, set up the festival in order to elevate tourism and raise money for the country’s developing economy.

In 2010 the festival generated $1 million, with a third of that being much needed foreign currency.

The event also created hundreds of employment opportunities as well as boosting trade for local businesses. “We provide valuable work experience opportunities for young Malawian professionals to share skills and experiences with national and international counterparts,” said Porter.

Aside from the event’s economic aims, Lake of Stars also seeks to expose Malawian artists to an international audience.

“The festival presents a positive profile of Malawi to international travellers, potential investors and media, which will hopefully create longer term social and economic benefits for Malawi,” said Porter.

“There is a lot of negativity about the continent and country – so we think it is good that the project reaches beyond the shores of the lake to tell a new story based around creativity and beauty of Malawi.”

Unlike other festivals on the continent, Lake of Stars doesn’t receive funding. Instead organizers rely on sponsorship, like this year’s sponsors Access, DHL and Kenya Airway and the use of free equipment.  Furthermore, the festival counts on volunteers who contribute throughout the year and ticket sales, which cost around between $75 and $90.

Suicide and shame in Malawi

Newspaper Suicide

Malawi’s Nation on Sunday reports on the mysterious suicide of 24-year-old Robert Chasowa, a student and political activist. Photo by Nina Lex.

As I walked to work, the headlines of Malawi’s daily papers caught my eye: “Poly Student Commits Suicide.”

I stopped mid-step, shocked and stared wide-eyed at the gruesome photograph of the young man’s dead body splashed across the front page.

In Canada, it’s an unwritten rule that journalists aren’t supposed to report on suicides: “News media increasingly may not report the cause of death; or officials may not release information on the cause or manner of death, citing respect for the privacy of families,” according to the Canadian Journalism Project.

The Canadian Psychiatric Association also states that journalists should avoid putting the word “suicide” in the headline, giving details of the method used and the media should avoid photos of the deceased, avoid admiration of the deceased, avoid front page coverage, and avoid repetitive and excessive coverage. Many of the association’s recommendations can be adopted as journalistic guidelines.

While the act of suicide in Malawi remains taboo, suicide cases are often smeared across the pages of the country’s newspaper. Tabloidization of a suicide victim’s family, personal details and death are reported on without afterthought. Photographs and suicide letters are also printed.

Families and communities are often shamed after a death because of how the media reports on suicide, explained Kenneth Mtaso executive Director of Young Voices, a community–based organization (CBO) that works to protect and promote the rights of youth in Malawi.

Attempting and committing suicide is illegal in Malawi and is treated as a criminal offence rather than a social issue. Section 229 of the penal code states, “any person who attempts to kill himself shall be guilty of misdemeanor.”

This law brings further shame to families of those who try to take their own lives.

“If you are caught trying to kill yourself you go to prison. It can be a jail sentence between four and five years.  The police look at the forces that contributed to your suicide and then decide the length,” said Mtaso. “However, this isn’t effective because most people will disregard all punishment to commit suicide.”

There are no definitive statistics or data on how many people commit suicide or attempt suicide and are jailed in Malawi; however, it is believed that the number is growing as the country faces more challenges, such as increasing levels of poverty.

With over 70 per cent of Malawians living on less then a dollar, poverty is an instigator that leads to suicide in Malawi.  Poorer rural areas are more at risk for suicides, as there are greater cultural pressures and stigmatization to face there, explains Mtaso.

“In the villages people marry younger making them more susceptible to suicide. Also teen pregnancy is big factor in youth suicide,” said Mtaso. “Because of the stigma surrounding reproductive issues in Malawi, especially in rural areas, middle-aged women who are having trouble conceiving sometime commit suicide because of the pressures to have a baby.”

About 80 per cent of Malawi’s population lives in rural areas.

While there is less pressure on urban youth to marry and have children, alcohol and drugs leads to more youth suicides in Malawi’s major cities.

According to UNICEF, the adult HIV prevalence rate in Malawi in 2009 was 11 per cent, which also contributes to suicide in Malawi.

Young Voices has been offering advice for troubled youth, who are at risk of suicide in Malawi, Zimbabwe and South Africa since 1997.

“We try to emphasize that just because you live in poverty doesn’t mean it’s the end,” said Mtaso. “Young people have a responsibility to protect themselves and value life.”

Malawi’s vaccines controversy

Women pass by Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre. Photo by Nina Lex.

The topic of immunization is often controversial – but in Malawi, it can be deadly as parents refuse their children access to vaccines.

Two months ago, the online publication, Malawi Voice, reported that 131 children from Nsanje, Malawi’s most southern district were vaccinated at gunpoint.

These families had originally fled to Mozambique to “protect” their children from the anti-measles vaccination, but when they returned home, medical officials and police tracked down the children and forcefully vaccinated them.

It was reported that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was behind the involuntary vaccinations. The foundation has been launching extensive campaigns to make sure all children are vaccinated against deadly diseases. When it comes to vaccines, Melinda Gates called Malawi one of the few countries “on track to reach the UN Millennium Development Goals.”

When contacted the Gates Foundation and its partners in Malawi were unavailable for an  interview.

In Malawi, The United Nations, NGOs and the Malawian Ministry of Health work together to ensure that all children are given shots for tuberculosis, polio, hepatitis and measles, as well as vitamins. The Health Ministry is currently carrying out a mass vaccination campaign, targeting six million vulnerable children under the age of 15 across Malawi.

“It is a requirement that all children are vaccinated, but it’s difficult to trace to see if a child has been vaccinated,” says David Chimwaza, a clinical officer at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre.

Measles is the most common disease outbreak in Malawi.

Worldwide 164,000 people, mostly children under the age of 5, die from measles. Even though effective immunization costs less than $1US and has been available for 40 years. Furthermore, each year more than 1.7 million children die of vaccine preventable diseases, according to the WHO.

“During an outbreak everyone has to be vaccinated,” explains Chimwaza. “Officials will go into homes to inspect children to check if they were vaccinated.”

However, in rural communities this can prove difficult without proper record keeping and lack of resources.

Similarly, vaccinations can be controversial in Canada, but for different reasons.

Some Canadian parents believe that the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine can be linked to autism or sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).  Although, most doctors and scientists agree the benefits of immunizations that protect against infectious diseases outweigh the rare side effects of vaccines.

In addition to health concerns, some Malawian families are against vaccinations and Western medicine because their religion forbids it, such as the Seventh Day Apostolic Church.  Members of the Seventh Day Apostolic Church who do receive medical care are excommunicated from the church.

A Malawian father, who follows the Seventh Day Apostolic faith, was sentenced to two years in prison after refusing to let his three children receive the measles vaccine due to his religious belief. Police believe that one of his children died from the illness.

In nearby Zimbabwe, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a bulletin in 2009 stating that the majority of unvaccinated children belong to apostolic faith sects, 45 per cent and 23 per cent belong to the Pentecostal Church.

Muslim fundamentalists are also against immunization programs because vaccines can contain animals that have not been killed in accordance with ritual or can contain alcohol.

In some cases Muslim fundamentalists believe vaccines are used by the West to poison or sterilize followers of Islam.

“Usually because of religion, children do not receive vaccines. They have the idea that if you are sick God will help you – you don’t have to take drugs and medicines,” says Chimwaza.

As for the children who were vaccinated at gunpoint,he explains that both the measles outbreak and the need for its immediate containment were the cause for such an extreme response.

“The police had to vaccinate at gunpoint,” he says.“I think it was the first time that has happened.”

God’s word in Malawi

Worshippers line-up outside St. Montfort’s Parish in Blantyre to attend Sunday morning service. Photo by Nina Lex.

In Malawi, God’s word is everywhere.

Minibuses have “Fear God” scrolled across their hoods, salons signs are painted with “God is Great Beauty Salon” and restaurants menus read “God’s Tasty Foods”.

And it doesn’t stop there.

Questions about your religious beliefs are common among co-workers and friends – even from strangers.

God is also the answer to all problems.  As my Canadian co-workers and I were told, “You aren’t married? Because you don’t go to church” and “You are unhappy? You need Jesus.”

With another four months ahead of me here in Malawi, I longed to be a part of a community – and attending the Catholic Church in my neighbourhood seemed like the perfect introduction.

It had been 15 years since I last attended a church service and, even then, I only went a handful of times with my German grandmother. I dreaded those early Sunday mornings full of endless preaching that left me feeling little more than a cynical sinner.

I arrived half an hour early at St. Montfort’s Parish to attend the 8:30am English service.  A vast crowd had already formed outside the red brick archways. I held my breath and pictured myself going up in flames as I was shoved through the threshold of the church.

Inside, the church was simple: the walls were whitewashed and filled with wooden pews – a far cry from the over-embellished churches I had seen in Europe and Latin America.

The pews were packed and the aisles full. Smoke and incense filled the air and white and purple fabric was draped throughout the church celebrating September, which was declared by the Pope as “Bible month”.

I shuffled around searching for a seat and found the last remaining spot, front row and center, right beside a nun.

In Canadian churches, it always seems as though there is an abundance of free seats.  Here, even with five services on Sundays, the church is overflowing with worshippers. While 84 per cent of Canadians adhere to a religion, approximately 97 percent of Malawians attend church or are religious.

As is the case in many other African countries, Malawians have a profound and perpetual belief in God.

Christianity is the main religion in Malawi, with 60 per cent of Christians being Protestant and 15 per cent Catholic. Other sects include Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists, Anglicans, Church of Central African Presbyterians and Jehovah’s Witnesses, which was outlawed by President Banda and made legal again in 1995.

The second most prominent religion in Malawi is Islam, with 15-20 per cent of the population being Muslims.

Indigenous beliefs and religions make up about 5 per cent of the population.

David Livingstone first introduced Christianity to Malawi at the end of 1800 during the British colonialism. The religion spread quickly across the country, and until 2001, Bible study was an essential subject in Malawian secondary schools.  However, Christianity in Malawi doesn’t follow strict Western practice, as many Malawians practice Christianity alongside traditional African rituals.

This quickly became evident as the church service got underway.

“Satanism and witchcraft is everywhere,” warned the priest. “Witchcraft is in our country, communities, schools and families.  Even if you don’t believe, it’s there.  Jesus even had to face Satan. “ He then proceeded to explain the three stages of evil- 333, 666 and 999,

“The only way to combat evil is through the word of God,” he explained.

Although Malawi is deeply religious, you don’t have to go far to hear criticism of the country’s God-fearing ways.

One person I met blamed religion for making Malawians lazy, “because they believe God would solve their problems and the people will not help themselves.”

And many human rights organizations blame strong religious influence for Malawi’s strong anti-gay stance.

The United Nation recently produced its first brochure highlighting its position on sexual orientation and gender identity human rights, in response some African countries, including Malawi, led by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) are fighting to define human rights regarding religion to exclude homosexuality.

However, the Zambian priest presiding over this church service preached about acceptance between Christians and non-believers. This church was also the “House of Everyone” regardless of their race or nationality, he announced as he glanced at me, one of the only “mzungu” – or white person – in the congregation.

Between hymns and much to the delight of the worshippers, the priest told jokes, referring to “the constipation and gas of religion”.

When the service ended, I left the church not converted, but with a smile on my face – and feeling a little more Malawian.

Malawi: reverting back to dictatorial roots?

Protesters hold a sign that reads, “Bingu is shit” Photo by Elena Sosa Lerín

I arrived in Malawi three weeks ago – just in time to see ‘the warm heart of Africa’ break into chaos.

Violent protests swept across the small southeastern African nation last week, leaving 19 people dead and at least 98 injured after the police and army dispersed protesters by firing live bullets and teargas. Over 250 people were arrested, including three journalists.  The protesters dressed in red demanded the registration of President Bingu wa Mutharika, due to the high cost of living and fuel and forex shortages.

Despite the government issuing a ban on the protests, demonstrations began peacefully in the morning of July 20th ,  the same day as the President’s national lecture.  However, tensions grew after the President failed to address the protesters’ grievances.  By the afternoon, looters were targeting the businesses and properties of political allies of the President. Demonstrations were only planned for July 20th but protests and violence carried over to the next day.

Yet, while Malawians reach their breaking point, it seems that the country is, in fact, reverting back to its dictatorial roots. As Malawi faces a growing list of problems, it appears that the President – a once praised economist and leader of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) – has become a power-hungry autocrat.

This was evident in his government’s violent response to the nationwide protests.  On the eve of the demonstration, machete-wielding pro-DPP supporters drove around Blantyre in the ruling party’s trucks trying to intimidate those who planned to protest.  Groups of men scraped their knives against the pavement sending a menacing message to onlookers.

Nevertheless, thousands of Malawians took to the streets in most major urban centres across the country.  Mutharika responded by calling protesters, “Thugs and sons of Satan.” He warned protesters that if they went out into the streets again that, “This time I’ll go after you […] I’ll smoke you out.”

Despite these warnings, another anti-government protest is planned for August 17. Even before July 20th protests, freedom of speech and of the press seemed to be the first under Mutharika’s attack.

Chancellor College in Zomba was closed after lecturer Blessings Chinsinga, told students that Malawi’s government could encounter similar uprisings to the ones in Egypt and Tunisia due to fuel shortages in the country. Chinsinga was interrogated by police and later fired. The college remained closed for several months and was only partially reopened to teachers who wanted to return in July, but most classes remain cancelled.

The press also has to deal with growing restrictions, including a law that allowed the Minister of Information to shut down newspapers.

According to Amnesty International, eight journalists were beaten by the police during the protests. The same day, private radio stations suspiciously went off-air and various online publication offline.  However, government-run stations remained on-air.

Sharp criticism of the President and the DDP isn’t rare, but has often been met with a strong fist.

The British high commissioner, Fergus Cochrane-Dyet, said he was promptly asked to leave after calling Mutharika “autocratic and intolerant of criticism” in a leaked cable – a costly dismissal for Malawi, as Britain recently canceled almost $40 million in aid to the country.

The United States also suspended a $350 million grant for Malawi’s energy sector after the government’s violent crackdown on protesters.

Malawi’s budget relies heavily on foreign donors.  The landlocked country gets 40% of its annual national budget from donor countries. To make up the difference the DPP raised taxes, which was a huge hit to the nation’s population as 75% of Malawians live on less than $2 a day.

To make matters worse, the cost of living in Malawi has been rising steadily due to fuel and foreign exchange shortages.

Malawians have plenty of reasons to fight: censorship of academics and the press, poor international relations and the high cost of living are just a few.

But most importantly they are fighting to defend the hard-fought democratic gains made since the country’s first democratic election in 1994, which removed dictator Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda from power.  Now, it seems, another egocentric and intolerant leader is stomping on those gains.