Tag Archives: Theatre

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.

Development Through Drama

Since jhr believes in the power of the media to change lives and aid development through awareness of human rights, while in Cape Coast, I decided to take a look at a particular medium that is often overlooked, theatre, to see how it has been contributing to Ghana’s development agenda.

Although performance has always been a part of African culture, especially here in Ghana, today’s theatre is focusing largely on contemporary issues even when performances retain traditional stylistic elements.  I sat down with Kelvin and Maxwell, two students of the Theatre Department at the University of Cape Coast (UCC), to talk about the potential for theatre to create positive change both on campus and throughout the nation.

Kelvin, a directing major as well as the president of the Association of Students of Performing Arts, described two distinct programs at UCC.  The first, Theatre for Development, focuses specifically on plays that educate audiences about social issues such as the transmission of HIV.  The department’s coordinator touted the program for tackling controversial topics such as female genital mutilation.  In this instance, students use theatre to explain the dangers and effects of the procedure and urge communities to stop the practice.  “They look at the situation and then they act on it, be it political, [about] social life or cultural,” the coordinator said of the program’s students.

The second program, Theatre in Education, teaches both how to involve young school children in theatre as well as using theatre as an educational tool in their classrooms.  As a final project, students go into junior high schools to involve the students in the creation of a play.  Using both traditional and contemporary plays, young students learn about their culture as well as contemporary issues.  These students are also empowered to speak out and have their voices heard, a useful skill for children growing up at a time when many traditional norms must be challenged in society.

UCC theatre students are also starting to reap the benefits of a theatrical education both on and off the stage.  Employers in Ghana are beginning to hire theatre students for their inherent public relations skills.  Many theatre students at UCC, where one can major in sound and lights, costuming and makeup, set design, production marketing and management, as well as acting, directing or playwriting, are finding jobs in Ghana’s quickly expanding television and film industries.  The coordinator also said that banks are now some of the leading employers of theatre graduates because of their ability to effortlessly address large crowds of financial executives as well as their excellent stress management skills.

Kelvin knows all about the importance of stress management.  As a final year directing student, he is about to be given only four weeks in which to produce a play.  Not only does that require rehearsing a cast of anywhere from 5-25 members, coordinating costumes, lights and sound, but also fundraising any costs over the allotted 200 cedis (about $150) provided by the department.  All of this is even more challenging when the play is an example of “total theatre”, the African productions that seamlessly blend theatre with music and dance.

A poster for a recent production of "Tartuffe" at UCC

Though Maxwell and Kelvin feel that the Ghanaian theatre scene is not as vibrant as it could be, a problem that  the coordinator links to the current take-home culture in which it is easier to pop a Ghanaian DVD into a player at home than to go to the theatre for the evening, they recognize that society has a lot learn from the medium.  The two recently acted in a radio play written by Efo Kwadjo Mawubge, the current director of the National Theatre and one of Maxwell’s favourite playwrights.  The play, Aluta Continua, is about the National Service which every graduate of a tertiary institution must complete.  For one year, graduates are placed in banks, local government offices and the like all over the country, but it is common practice for elite members of society to influence where their children are placed, often opting to keep them in Accra rather than sending them to the rural regions.  This comedy, depicting a meddling minister trying to influence the placement of his son, explores the possibility of a National Service scheme where placement distribution is fair and equal.

The play Maxwell is currently working, “The Family Affair”, is a family drama about two sisters in a broken home.  He wants to focus on issues of morality with play.  “Most of Africa’s plays are very traditional, but the times are changing and it’s time for Africa to change.  I want to write social plays for the new Africa, not the old,” he said.  However, no matter how eager the playwright is to send a message, there still needs to be an audience.  Passionate students like Kelvin and Maxwell are working hard to keep the spirit of theatre alive in Ghana.  “I think that people here don’t know what good theatre can do,” said Maxwell.  This is why they believe theatre for development is so important.  It brings theatre to the doorstep of the people and spreads an important message along the way.