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The Nkonjera interview

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In October of 2011, I travelled from Harare to Blantyre to participate in the Blantyre Arts Festival. I met many exciting Malawian artists. Over the years I have watched closely the development of one particular Malawian artist, Tawonga Taddja Nkhonjera.

Born in 1983, Tawonga is a professional artist, working as an author, a screenwriter and director, a playwright and theatre director, an ethnomusicologist and traditional storyteller. Today, I talk to him about Dikamawoko Arts where he is the founding Director. We talk about his film and book of folktales and about the arts sector in Malawi.

Chirere: Tawonga Taddja Nkhonjera, what is the general state of the arts in the Malawi of today?
Tawonga: The arts sector in Malawi has lept forward in a short period. There are now more films being produced; more theatre ensembles than ever before, staging different plays in venues across the country on a weekly basis. There are now more musicians than before…

Chirere: Are there many like yourself who are full time in the arts?
Tawonga: There is Peter Mazunda, a close friend and successful videographer. He worked for MBC TV (then known as Television Malawi – TVM), after which he started successful media companies like Kings Multimedia and Xtra Solutions.

There is the jazz maestro, Erik Paliani, hip-hop artist Third Eye, Namadingo, Wendy Harawa, Lucius Banda and others. We have theatre gurus like McArthur Matukuta, the director of Solomonic Peacocks and founder of the Easter Theatre Festival. We have actors like Thoko Kapiri, Misheck Mzumara, Joyce Chavula Mhango and Flora Suya. There is an influx of film and photo studios in Malawi, music and audio studios, and many other avenues.

Chirere: You are founder and Director of the Blantyre based Dikamawoko Arts. What is the meaning of Dikamawoko?
Tawonga: Dikamawoko comes from the Tumbuka wisdom that even when you have no protection against the cold, as long as you have your hands, you cannot be destitute.

Chirere: What do you do at Dikamawoko?
Tawonga: Dikamawoko Arts stresses on self-employment, social entrepreneurship and laying less emphasis on waiting for employment. We work with young, talented Malawians who have chosen to pursue careers in the arts.

We nurture their respective talents and sharpen their skills through mentorships, workshops, residencies, scholarships, internships, training programmes and education. We support artists with hands-on experience in the production of different works of art in Music, Theatre, Film and Television, Dance, Poetry, Creative Writing and Storytelling. The idea of forming Dikamawoko came about in 2006. I had been working with Kwithu Community Based Organisation in Luwinga, Mzuzu, directing children’s programmes.

Chirere: You seem to do well working with young people
Tawonga: I love working with young people. There are not many institutions in Malawi providing space and programmes designed for the development and nurturing of artists towards professional careers in art.

Chirere: Any key achievements from Dikamawoko?
Tawonga: Dikamawoko boasts of the first Malawian female filmmaker to be selected for the Multichoice Talent Factory in Zambia, Chimwemwe Mkwezalamba. We have the award-winning recording artist and musician, Muhanya, who is currently studying music in Germany.

There is the filmmaker, editor and graphic designer, Ernest Chikuni, who won Second Prize in the Young African Filmmaker Award at the Afrika Filmfestival in Leuven, Belgium. We boast of actress Vinjeru Kamanga, who was nominated for the Best Young Actor award at the Africa Movie Academy Awards (AMAA). We currently have a crop of young artists pursuing alternative arts such as Contortionism, Silk Dance, Ventriloquism and Magic.

Chirere: You published a book of folktales called He Helide, the book of Malawian folk stories.
Tawonga: HE HELIDE is a collection of 10 stories that are part of the folklore of Malawi. I believe that folktales are more essential for the world today, than they have ever been before.

Chirere: What is the place of folk tales in the modern world?
Tawonga: The world has become more digital. Technology is the order of the day. This is exactly why folktales are important, and their significance and effects need to be reestablished. You can tell a folktale through traditional storytelling, or you can dynamically produce an animated video of the same; it can be adapted into a short film, a play or a song.

I’d love to start seeing folktales on TikTok. Ever since I was a young boy, I have always been intrigued by folktales, and particularly fables. I was absolutely impressed by how Aesop could lucidly tell a story, in such a short span, and still deliver a very telling moral at the end of it. That is one of the reasons I have been attracted to the folktale.

Chirere: In your folk tale “Chilema”, a crippled musician wins the battle on behalf of his people through song? Did this story come from your childhood? And what is the lesson behind this tale?
Tawonga: “Chilema” is the only original story in the book.

All the other nine stories are those I heard from childhood, adapted for consumption in today’s homogenous world. I mean, I have read other stories of hunchbacks before; like ‘Igor’, ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ and others. But “Chilema” is an original folktale that I wrote.

The rest are adapted. I wanted to tell a story about social inclusion; a story that destroyed all preconceived notions, stigma and discrimination of people with disability, people with special needs. In Malawi, our culture and traditional beliefs have led to people with physical disabilities or special needs to be misunderstood, misconstrued and misrepresented. I wanted to show someone who was capable, despite the limitations people placed upon him due to his physical deformities.

Chirere: The title He Helide is even more intriguing, dwelling on the spoilt but narrow minded daughter of a mighty King. What is the lesson behind this tale?
Tawonga: He Helide was first told to me by my grandmother. This story is based on my great great grandfather Kamphungu who, in his tenure as Chikulamayembe, put up a decree that anyone caught breaking a particular law would be burned in their hut.

He suffered his own decreed fate. I wanted to show, through He Helide, how absolute power corrupts absolutely. Abuse of power has karma to reckon with.

Chirere: Can you say something about Tumbuka childhood? Who are the Tumbuka and where are they found in Malawi?
Tawonga: The repetitive nature of the song He Helide makes it easy to learn and sing along. I recorded the song with Dikamawoko band leader, Muhanya, in Tumbuka. Despite the story being told in English in the book, I maintained the song in Tumbuka, the language in which my grandmother originally told me the story in.

All of us grandchildren would sit by the fireplace waiting for grandmother to regale us with stories. My grandfather was the quintessential Tumbuka patriarch. With my grandmother, they had four sons and three daughters, and all of us grandchildren ate at my grandmother’s ‘chitembe’ – eating hut, from communal dishes.

We grew up with all Tumbuka values – respect for those older than you. Everything was communal, from work to recreation. When my grandmother was not able to tell us stories, my father’s younger brother, Kataghala, would tell us stories. I grew to love his storytelling because his emphasis was on the antics and pranks of Kalulu, the songs and especially the dance. He would teach us different choreographies, each one sillier than the last, and much more fun.

Tumbukas are a group of people that came to Malawi from Luba in DRC in the 13th Century. Tumbukas settled in the Nkhamanga kingdom, what is known today as Rumphi district. Today, Tumbukas have integrated with other peoples like Ngondes, Tongas, Ngonis and Chewas, but Tumbuka remains the language predominantly spoken in the northern region of Malawi.

Chirere: What plans do you have in getting this book beyond Malawi?
Tawonga: We are going to have the book on Amazon. I already have a couple of books in Kindle version so we are looking to build on the catalogue. After the book is available to online readers, we are planning a book tour in the SADC region where we will apply to children’s book festivals and fairs.

We are also booked for a Book Reading tour in Germany, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic. Beyond that, we have planned to produce Audio books and animation films from the stories.

Chirere: What is the state of the book industry in Malawi and which Malawian writers are doing what you are doing with the folk tale?
Tawonga: More and more writers are emerging today. There are more books being published. Local publishing companies are also sprouting out. He Helide, for example, is under Zikani Publishers. Malawian writers are breaking international boundaries.

We have writers like Shadreck Chikoti making a name for himself with his novel, AZOTUS. Stanley Onjezani Kenani has twice been nominated for the Caine Prize. We have a growing number of female writers. Recently, the Malawi Writers Union (MAWU) has embarked on project to promote young, budding writers of Malawi by publishing the book, MANDEBVU AND OTHER STORIES, a collection of short stories from young, up and coming writers.

There are many people working in folklore in Malawi.

The stalwart has been Dyson Gonthi who has been telling stories since I was a toddler. Several writers over the years, like Steve Chimombo, James Ng’ombe and Nancy Phiri have contributed to the preservation of folklore in book form. Contemporarily, writers like Matilda Phiri, Shadreck Chikoti, Ekari Mbvundula and others have taken to storytelling through folklore.

There is also a handbook for Storytelling in Malawi which was written by Ndongolera Mwangupili under UNESCO, an observation and interviews of storytellers at the National Library headquarters in Lilongwe.

Chirere: You have made a movie called “B’ella” which was even screened at the Luxor African Film Festival (LAFF) in Egypt “B’ella”. What is the story about and what inspired it?
Tawonga: “B’ella” is a film that explores teen life in Malawi, against the backdrop of poverty and other social challenges. The film follows the life of “B’ella”, a 17 year old girl, and her relationships at school, at home and with friends.

The inspiration for the film was the desire to speak about stories that girls go through during the transition when they are coming of age. The film was made involving local youths from the location, Chazunda.

Chirere: “B’ella” is partly about child headed families. How prevalent are child headed families in Malawi?
Tawonga: The phenomenon of child-headed families is emblematic of the degradation of the social fabric we call extended family in Malawi. In Tumbuka, we say ‘Pakaya palije uranda’ meaning that one cannot be an orphan in a village.

While this was true back then when the family structures were firmer, today we have to reckon with the rise in child-headed families in Malawi. I read some statistics somewhere that cited that 19% of households in Malawi are child-headed; and that 16.7% of children under 18 years in Malawi are orphans.

Chirere: As an African film maker, what crucial things did you learn through working on this particular film?
Tawonga: What stands out the most is that we need strong stories. We are in some sort of catch-22 situation where we need to produce quality films to attract producers with big money; but we need big budgets to produce quality films.

Technically, we are not equipped to compete with our counterparts in other continents, but coming from a storytelling background, I believe that even with a DSLR you can make a much better film than someone with a 4K camera, if you tell a good story in the right manner.

Chirere: How much of your upbringing prepared you for a life in the arts and how do you relate with your family as an artist?
Tawonga: My upbringing played a huge part in my life as an artist today. My parents stocked the best books in the house. In school, I was encouraged to join both the science club and the drama club. When he died, my grandfather left me two things of value: an ivory bracelet that is a family heirloom and a tattered book of folklore published in Tumbuka.

Chirere: You are often described as a poet, stage director, ethnomusicologist and screenwriter. Where do you think you are most proficient and why?
Tawonga: I am truly blessed to be fluent with multiple talents. While I have established myself as a playwright and theatre director, a screenwriter and film director, a poet, a musicologist, and a folklorist, it is truly as a short story writer that I derive the most pleasure in writing.

Chirere: What do you find most fulfilling and most challenging about the life of an artist?
Tawonga: The most fulfilling thing about the life of an artist is the completion of a project, be it the final cut of a film, a mastered recording of a song, a satisfactory dress rehearsal of a stage play, seeing one’s book in print for the first time. The challenge is to turn your art into a sustainable income generating professional career.

Chirere: So, currently what is cooking?
Tawonga: I performed at a couple of poetry festivals this year, and secured a recording deal for a collection of poetry pieces. I will start recording in December. At the month end of November, I will publish my second book of Malawian folktales under the title ‘CHUCHU’.

My target is to publish ten books of folktales, each one with ten stories. At the end of the project, I will have collected and preserved one hundred Malawian folktales. Thank you.

Memory Chirere

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Insight

The Joker Returns: Conclusion

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Last week I was talking about how jokes, or humour generally, can help get one through the most desperate situations (although it’s like taking a paracetamol for a headache; a much, much stronger resort is faith). I used the example of how Polish Jews, trapped and dying in the Warsaw ghetto, used humour to get them through day by day.

A similar, though less nightmarish, situation obtains in today’s Nigeria. Conditions there are less hellish than those of the Warsaw ghetto, but still pretty awful. There are massive redundancies, so millions of people are jobless. Inflation is at about 30% and the cost of living is sky-rocketing, with the most basic foodstuffs often unavailable. There is the breakdown of basic social services.

And endemic violence, with widespread armed robbery (to travel by road from one city to another you take your life in your hands) and the frequent kidnapping for ransom of schoolchildren and teachers. In a recent issue of the Punch newspaper (Lagos) Taiwo Obindo, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Jos, writes of the effects of economic hardship and insecurity on his people’s mental health.

He concludes: “We should see the funny side of things. We can use humour to handle some things. Don’t take things to heart; laugh it off.”

Professor Obindo doesn’t, regrettably, give examples of the humour he prescribes, but I remember two from a period when things were less grim. Power-cuts happened all the time — a big problem if you’re trying to work at night and can’t afford a generator.

And so the National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) was universally referred to as Never Expect Power Always. And second, for inter-city travel there was a company called Luxurious Buses. Believe me, the average Lesotho kombi is a great deal more luxurious (I can’t remember ever having to sit on the floor of one of those).

And because of the dreadful state of Nigerian roads and the frequent fatal crashes, Luxurious Buses were referred to as Luxurious Hearses.

Lesotho’s newspaper thepost, for which I slave away tirelessly, doesn’t use humour very much. But there is Muckraker. I’ve always wondered whether Muckraker is the pen-name of a single person or a group who alternate writing the column.

Whatever, I’d love to have a drink with him / her/ them and chew things over. I like the ironic pen-name of the author(s). Traditionally speaking, a muckraker is a gossip, someone who scrabbles around for titbits (usually sexual) on the personal life of a celebrity — not exactly a noble thing to do.

But thepost’s Muckraker exposes big problems, deep demerits, conducted by those who should know and do better — problems that the powerful would like to be swept under the carpet, and the intention of Muckraker’s exposure is corrective.

And I always join in the closing exasperated “Ichuuuu!” (as I do this rather loudly, my housemates probably think I’m going bonkers).

Finally I want to mention television satire. The Brits are renowned for this, an achievement dating back to the early 1960s and the weekly satirical programme “TW3” (That Was The Week That Was). More recently we have had “Mock the Week”, though, despite its popularity, the BBC has cancelled this.

The cancellation wasn’t for political reasons. For decades the UK has been encumbered with a foul Conservative government, though this year’s election may be won by Labour (not such very good news, as the Labour leadership is only pseudo-socialist). “Mock the Week” was pretty even-handed in deriding politicians; the BBC’s problem was, I imagine, with the programme’s frequent obscenity.

As an example of their political jokes, I quote a discussion on the less than inspiring leader of the Labour Party, Sir Keir Starmer. One member of the panel said: “Labour may well have a huge lead in the polls at present, but the day before election day Starmer will destroy it by doing something like accidentally infecting David Attenborough with chicken-pox.”

And a favourite, basically non-political interchange on “Mock the Week” had to do with our former monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. Whatever one thinks about the British monarchy as an institution, the Queen was much loved, but the following interchange between two panellists (A and B) was fun:

A: Is the Queen’s nickname really Lilibet?
B: Yes, it is.
A: I thought her nickname was Her Majesty.
B: That’s her gang name.

OK, dear readers, that’s enough humour from me for a while. Next week I’m turning dead serious — and more than a little controversial — responding to a recent Insight piece by Mokhosi Mohapi titled “A reversal of our traditions and culture.” To be forewarned is to be prepared.

Chris Dunton

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Insight

Reading, writing and the art of reflection

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There is a close thread that runs through what you reflect on, what you read and what sticks in your mind. It’s almost a cyclic process with regards to how all these processes unfold. Today, in this installment we focus on the thread between reading, reflection and writing.

This appears a bit cumbersome to explain. But let’s simplify it. Let’s begin with a beautiful poem which encompasses what we have so far spoken about. Here we are! The poem is penned by “Tachibama Akemi.” It goes:

It is a pleasure
When, rising in the morning,
I go outside and
Find that a flower has blossomed
That was not there yesterday.

Seemingly, the poem is simple. But, on close analysis, it reflects very deep reflection and thoughtfulness.

The persona, in an existential fashion, reflects all about the purpose and meaning of life and his place in the overall matrix of life.

The persona carefully reflects on nature. This is what makes all this poem rustic and romantic.

The persona thinks deeply about the blossoming flowers and how the process of the growth of flowers appears almost inadvertently.

It is a poem about change, healing, the lapse of time and the changes or vissiccitudes in the life of a person are reflected creatively through imagery and poetry. We all go through that, isn’t it? We all react and respond to love, truth and beauty.

So far everything appears very interesting. Let’s just put to the fore some good and appealing thoughts. Let’s enlarge on reading, writing and reflection.

Kindly keep in mind that thoughts must be captured, told, expressed and shared through the magical power of the written word.

As a person, obviously through keeping entries in a journal, there is no doubt that you have toyed about thoughts and ideas and experiences you wish you could put across.

Here is an example you can peek from Anthony. Anthony likes writing. He tells us that in his spare time he likes exploring a lot. And, more often than not he tells us,

“I stop, and think, and then when I find something, I just keep on writing.”

So crisp, but how beautiful. Notice something interesting here; you need to stop, to take life effortlessly and ponderously, as it were; observe, be attentive to your environment; formulate thought patterns and then write.

To some extent, this article builds on our previous experiences when we spoke at length about the reading process.

But how can you do it? It’s not pretty much different. I can help you from my previous life as a teacher of English Languge.

The most important skill you must cultivate is that of listening, close listening. Look at how people and events mingle.

What makes both of you happy; enjoy it. I am sure you still keep that journal in which you enter very beautiful entries. Reflect about Maseru, the so-called affluent city. So majestic!

How can you picture it in writing!

I am glad you learnt to reflect deep and write. Thank you very much. Kindly learn and perfect the craft of observing, reflecting and writing. Learn that connection. Let’s meet for another class.

Vuso Mhlanga

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Insight

The Joker Returns: Part One

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Don’t be put off by the title, esteemed readers; what follows has nothing to do with the Batman films. As you will be happily (or unhappily) aware, I am a big fan of jokes. There’s a common understanding that a joke is ruined if you have to explain it, and this is true, but some jokes do need a bit of background explanation. Anyway. I like jokes and I like thinking about how they work.

Many of my favourite jokes have to do with language and the way we use it. For example: “I just bought myself a thesaurus. I similar it very much.”

Other jokes have to do with human behaviour and here it is important, out of respect for others, to avoid jokes that perpetuate stereotypical ideas about gender, race, nationality, and so on. I’m afraid the following joke does depend upon a stereotype (I’ll come back to that), but here goes, after a bit of background information.

In Lesotho you have an insect called a praying mantis — stick-like, bright green, and with great bulging eyes. They are rather lovable, despite the off-putting fact that the female practices insect cannibalism; after mating, she consumes the male. So, now you’ve had your zoological primer, here goes.

Two praying mantises are getting up close and personal. The female says to the male: “before we have sex and I bite your head off, could you help me put up some shelves?”

Apologies to female readers, because, as I said, that joke perpetuates a gender stereotype, namely, that women are good with a vacuum cleaner or a dustpan and brush, but hopeless with a hammer and nails.

There are many jokes that are, as it were, much more serious than that. As I rattled on about in a couple of earlier columns, many of these are satirical — jokes that are designed to point a finger at human folly or even wickedness. In another column, titled “Should we laugh?”, I explored the question “is there any subject that should be kept out of the range of humour?”

Well, apparently not, if we take on board the following account of the Warsaw ghetto.

Historical preface first.

The Warsaw ghetto represents one of the worst atrocities in modern history. In November 1940 the genocidal Nazis rounded up all the Jews in Poland’s capital and herded them into a small sector of the city, which they euphemistically, cynically, dubbed the “Jewish Residential District in Warsaw.”

Here nearly half a million Jews were in effect imprisoned, barely subsisting on tiny food rations. An estimated quarter of a million were sent off to the death camps. An uprising against the Nazi captors was brutally crushed. Around 100 000 died of starvation or disease.

Not much to laugh about there, you might say. But then consider the following, which I’ve taken from the New York Review of Books of February 29th this year:

“In the Warsaw Ghetto in October 1941 Mary Berg, then a teenager, wrote in her diary about the improbable persistence of laughter in that hellish place: ‘Every day at the Art Café on Leszno Street one can hear songs and satire on the police, the ambulance service, the rickshaws, and even the Gestapo, [on the latter] in a veiled fashion. The typhoid epidemic itself is the subject of jokes. It is laughter through tears, but it is laughter. This is not our only weapon in the ghetto — our people laugh at death and at the Nazi decrees. Humour is the only thing the Nazis cannot understand.’”

To be concluded

Chris Dunton

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