I sat down with Malawian-born singer and poet Chigo Gondwe last week to talk about how she got started, her performance at the Jan. 20 “Stop Violence Against Women in Malawi” protest rally, politics and what it means to be an artist in Malawi right now. Here’s a preview and a poem:
“In Malawi, I haven’t really been able to perform a lot of my poetry; most of it has been political because of the craziness that has been happening here. A lot of it I don’t agree with. I don’t agree with certain policies, I don’t agree with certain decisions that are made or implementation thereof, but it’s difficult for me to voice out. There’s a part of me that’s so afraid that if I do say it, I don’t know what’s going to happen to me.
“There’s a poem that I’ve been warned about – I don’t know why. I think it’s innocent enough. It’s called “Our Father”.
Feverishly chanting, profusely sweating, their bodies lay prostrate, painting and appraising presidential portraits,
Leaving people destitute; an error of injustice.
In stately chambers, wining and a-dining, with mighty men and women, planning re-elections, new cycles of deception, new forms of corruption, misleading the nation with false proclamations.
Now their heads are a-bowing, them weeping and a-wailing, carving mass images of black Mona Lisas, hoping that the masses will worship their dreams but their poverty is theirs and we’re not in need. No we’re not in need.
In their high-wheeled four-by-fours they clasp the high-heeled hands of their hoes dressed in their finest clothing, they speak in tongues understood only in far-off lands where once upon a time they were masters of none.
Now canivingly claiming, blood-wealth accumulating, despicable acts and them daily indulging,
In their suits and their ties they charm and they lie to their lovers and their pals, caruse till morning hours and then start to cry because Jesus came down,
And the people had not forgotten the killing of the millions, the stealing of the billions, misleading the nations, and now, it’s judgement time.
Our Father, who art in heaven hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,
Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,
Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil,
For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever.
“That poem talks about how we’re living in a time where we’re almost expected to worship photographs of political leaders. It’s ridiculous.
“There are more important things. There are people who are hungry, there are people who need homes, there are people who need education. Money is flying out somewhere. It’s going somewhere but it’s not in people’s pockets. Not in the streets anyway.
“[The poem] talks about all the corruption that is going on in the country. It talks about how broken our society is and how that starts right at the top. Because you read the stories about these really top figures in the country who maybe are married but you read about them or you see them with girlfriends and you’re like, ‘Where’s the example for us to follow, for the children to follow?’ It’s not there. We’re almost giving up everything that we ever professed to believe in so that we can believe in a whole new set of lies. And those lies are going to be written down somewhere and it will become our new bible until the next person comes with their new bible of lies, and we’ll drift further and further away from who we’d like to be as a people.
“There’s so much history that this country has, we’ve had one of our past presidents who’s still embroiled in a corruption case. We had that other president that used to kill teachers and have people feed them to his crocodiles. And now we have a president who just doesn’t have the time to listen to what people have to say. It’s from one evil to the next, and only God can save us from ourselves. Even we can’t save ourselves. We’re just going deeper and deeper and deeper.
“It’s those types of poems that sit closest to my heart. People have asked me before, ‘Oh Chigo, can’t you do a love poem or something?’ And I’m like ‘Ok, I’ll try.’ And I try like two sentences. ‘Love is caring, love is kind, love can also be blind.’ [laughing] It’s always very difficult for me to write about sunshine.
“Maybe the pain will end one day. Maybe I’ll stop seeing these things. Maybe then I’ll be able to write about something else.”
– Chigo Gondwe
Today was a day of firsts. I had my first taste of nsima, the thick, starchy, cornmeal-y staple food of Malawi (think flubber but white). I took my first ride on a Malawian mini-bus, the crazy converted vans that taxi around the country cramming sixteen or more riders in and speeding off before the sliding van doors are even shut. And for the first time today, after a visit and tour of the Jacaranda School for Orphans in Limbe, I can honestly say I now understand what people mean when they say “Africa gets a hold on you.”
Jacaranda students participate in after-school programs, which include music, art, dance and even martial arts. The boy dancing on the left showed up at the school when he was ten years old and orphaned and asked to go to school. The Jacaranda Foundation is sponsoring his education.
Based on the success of the school, Marie said she is planning to build a boarding school in the future, and her and Executive Director Luc Deschamps are planning to build libraries for surrounding schools in the area.
Malawian poet Chigomezgo Gondwe Chokani performs at the Jan. 20 HHI “Stop Violence Against Women in Malawi!” protest rally.
“I would like to extend an invitation to all of you,” said Seodi White, executive director of Women in Law in South Africa-Malawi as she took the stage of the near-capacity HHI Multipurpose Hall on Jan. 20. “This invitation is to a place called Malawi.
“This is a place where you find women who are respected. This is a place where you find women who are not violated. This is a place where vendors respect women – who do not strip women.” Her voice grew louder with every word until it was overtaken by the applause of the hundreds of protestors gathered in the hall.
The men, women and children in the audience, dressed in white or in protest T-shirts emblazoned with the insignia “VENDOR, TODAY I BOUGHT FROM YOU, TOMORROW, YOU UNDRESS ME???” knew full well that they were already in Malawi’s commercial city-centre, Blantyre. White’s ironic invitation was meant to inference the mass disillusionment that Malawians are experiencing after innocent women were stripped and stolen from for wearing trousers or skirts in the outdoor market areas of Mzuzu and the capital city of Lilongwe on Jan. 17 and 18.
Mobs of men and boys in the largely conservative southern African country publicly stripped the women who they claimed were dressed “indecently” – despite the fact that it’s been 18 years since the late dictator Hastings Kamuzu Banda’s “indecency in dress” laws were repealed in Malawi.
At the Jan. 20 HHI protest assembly, Chancellor College lecturer Dr. Ngeyi Kanyongolo reminded the audience that the Indecency Act was repealed in 1994 and that under Section 20 of the Constitution of the Republic of Malawi women have the freedom to wear what they want.
But what is freedom without security?
Not much. And that’s why even the women who left the protest rally with a spring in their step and the brazen women you see walking the streets of Blantyre wearing pants more than likely have a chitenje in their handbag.
The electricity had been out for 24 hours where I was staying in Namiwawa, Blantyre, either due to the heavy seasonal rains or the theft of the oil out of the area transformer tower.
It was Sunday morning and still raining heavily when I set out on the 45 minute walk to town where there would be electricity and maybe even an Internet connection.
Here in the “Warm Heart of Africa” it wasn’t long until a Malawian man walking in the same direction offered to share his umbrella.
“Are you going to church?” he asked as we walked through the rain. “No, I’m going to buy one of these,” I said, pointing at his umbrella. “Are you Christian?” he persisted. “No,” I said. “Then you must be Muslim,” he stated with the satisfaction of someone who’d just solved the Sunday crossword puzzle. “No,” I said again. “Then, what are you?” he asked. “Nothing I guess,” I said.
The base reality of my response was resonant: “Nothing.” Because in Malawi, religion is everything, with religious belief even manifesting as an indirect or direct roadblock to the realization of human rights.
According to Chrissie Kabaghe, a language and culture officer working with the Peace Corps, the ubiquitous nature of religion in Malawi means that “everything is rested on God” and that Malawians’ undulating acceptance of God’s perceived will often takes the place of agency in the fight for acceptable standards of living.
“Religion is so hard to understand in Malawi,” Kabaghe said. “Everything is rested on God. A lot of people die and people accept that it’s God’s will, but it’s really people not doing anything.
“Very few people understand that they have to make their own life – that they have to work hard to make their own dreams come true,” she said. “Even people who are educated still believe that if you’re dying early, if anything bad happens, that it’s ‘God’s time’, that ‘it’s God’s plan.’”
For Kabaghe, the ill effects of the “It’s God’s will” mentality have hit close to home.
“I take the case of diabetes in Malawi right now; people are dying from diabetes and people are saying, ‘It’s God will.’
“I tried to explain to my mom that it’s not God’s will, it’s our own making – taking five sugars in our tea, our eating habits, no exercise; we’re doing harm to ourselves. But people still want to believe that it’s God’s will.”
In the same way that the saying “It’s God’s will” is being used to excuse unhealthy habits, the ideology has become embroiled in human rights issues as it has been invoked to explain away unconstitutional human rights abuses – habits that the Malawi-based Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) is working to educate and advocate against.
According to CHRR’s Luke Tembo, “religion and ‘God’s word’ have always been used as an excuse to perpetuate human rights abuses and violations in Malawi.
“We have had instances where children have been denied medicine by their parents or guardians because their God and religious beliefs do not believe in medicine,” Tembo stated in an email.
“It is even worse when you come to rights of minority groups like LGBT – we have witnessed people calling upon the killing of these people because they are doing things against the will of God.”
Tembo stated that from Malawi’s rural areas through to its urban city-centres, the “It’s God’s will” mentality reigns supreme, especially as many Malawians “have lost trust in their leaders and they think the only way to turn to is God.”
“We as human rights organizations have a very big task to challenge this belief and it will take a very long time,” he said.
In the meantime, Tembo with CHRR is devising strategies to advocate for human rights that work within the religious context of the country.
“Mainly, we have incorporated religious leaders into our work of human rights advocacy,” he stated, noting that the organization maintains a team of advocates that includes two Reverend fathers. “We use these leaders to counter and teach in religious ways why we need to respect and protect human rights.”
Because in the fight for health and human rights, “It’s God’s will” isn’t good enough.
On the morning of our first full day in Malawi we started an intensive day of training with three speakers: Medical Officer Evelyn Chibwana, Language and Culture Officer Chrissie Kabaghe and Safety and Security Officer Hector Banda.
I’m learning the national language, Chichewa! Because greetings are so important in Malawian culture, we learned the following phrase first off, and it’s incredible how many times a day I’ve already been able to use it:
Muli bwangi? (You are how?)
Ndili bwino, kaya inu? (I am fine, don’t know you?)
Ndili bwinoso, zikomo. (I am fine also, thank you.)
Zikomo, tiwonana! (Thank you, see you!)
Tiwonana! (See you!)
After our safety and security lecture with Hector we were put to the test – we went to one of the Old Town outdoor markets in Lilongwe, with the objective of walking through without getting pickpocketed. (Half joking.) Hector either walked in front of us or behind us to observe.
We were immediately the centre of attention. I felt like Emma Stone in that scene from Easy A.
I learned another new Chichewa word pretty quick – “mzungu” which means foreigner, or effectively, white person. For the most part, people don’t shout “mzungu” in a mean way; it comes across as more of a call to attention. Most of the locals I’ve met so far have been really friendly and welcoming, true to the country’s “Warm Heart of Africa” tagline. The few times that I have been the target of scowls or catcalls it’s only motivated me to prove my use at the Daily Times when I start on the 23rd even more.
The periphery of the market was wide open, with young Malawian men hawking random items ranging from peanuts to pants alongside the road. The centre of the market was buzzing with activity, with vendors’ stalls squished together in close quarters. The mud path through the stalls zig-zagged and forked, with the occasional block of wood acting as a makeshift bridge over the puddles that had collected as a result of the morning rain. The vendors in the centre of the market were more passive than the hawkers, sitting behind the counters of their stalls, many of them listening to a soccer game that was enthusiastically being broadcast over portable radios.
We emerged out the other side of the market and Omega helped me haggle with a hawker to buy a local cell. Unfortunately I’m going to be hard-pressed to avoid paying “mzungu prices” – typically four to five times the kwacha a local Malawian would be charged for the same product.
After hitting a strip mall shopping centre and happily discovering that most of our favourite North American products will be readily available to us throughout our six month placement, Omega treated us to a celebratory “girls night out” dinner at Buchannan’s Grill. But even with the white tablecloths and gourmet breadsticks it would have been impossible to forget even for a moment why we are here. At a neighbouring table in my line of vision an old white man who had to be over 50 sat across from a young black girl in high heels and a strapless black dress. She couldn’t have been over 18. Omega said the girl was probably a higher-end prostitute, and that it was a common thing to see.
After dinner Omega drove us to the division of area 47 where prostitutes can be found “waiting for the men to finish drinking.” One of the girls in our jeep made a fake cat call, but all I could think of was a Field Notes post by previous JHR trainer Paul Carlucci, Takoradi’s lost daughters, and made a mental note that I could maybe come back here to talk to the girls if I take on a story dealing with the pervasive issue.
The next few posts may be more like glorified journal entries, but because Internet cards cost quite a bit of kwacha, this is the best way to share an update on my arrival and orientation to Malawi. Stories to come once I get a few interviews under my belt and after I start at the Daily Times on the 23rd.
I’d been in airport land for 18 hours, all of it white-painted vaulted ceilings and chrome, fluorescent lights, terminal talk, slippery linoleum floors that my shoes couldn’t get a respectable grip on, the crushing weight of six-months-worth of luggage, broken sleep, “please buckle your seatbelt and return your chair to the upright position.” Like that from Pearson to JFK to Jo’burg. I cannot convey how much I was beginning to long for more than airport conveyor belt sidewalks. And then we were over Malawi.
Standing atop the portable staircase stationed outside the exit door of the plane after landing, looking out at the Kamuzu Airport airstrip, all I could think about was how soft the air felt; soft, warm, heavy and scented with the local flora and carrying the song of local fauna. Soft and heavy like the gentle sway of a backyard hammock. Whether it was overtiredness or true feelings of euphoria (probably a combination of both), I was smiling like a fool.
My JHR in-country coordinator Omega greeted us at the airport and our group split into two cars to drive to the Korea Gardens hotel, our home in Lilongwe for the next few days of in-country orientation.
We drove along the narrow roads, which have a speed limit of 50 K that no one seems to adhere to, windows down, passing children in school uniforms or plain-clothes, walking, running or cycling, men walking in business casual attire (almost always business casual attire here), women walking nonchalantly or dutifully with heavy-looking baskets on their heads. In market areas there were women attending stalls lined with food, crafts or imported products and men standing with their wares in hand. One man offered a rooster to our passenger seat window when we slowed to take a sharp corner, another man held a small kitten in such a comic way that I had to laugh – he stood with his feet square to his shoulders, hips forward and shoulders back, his right arm locked parallel to the ground and his index finger and thumb around the underarms of the dangling kitten with the most unimpressed look on his face! Luckily the kitten was doing a better job of selling itself. It looked so alarmed and confused that soon-to-be Zodiak FM JHR intern Desiree swore she would have bought it if we’d had the time to stop.
We saw everything on the drive to Korea Gardens from thatched-roof huts to stately international embassies and posh hotels. Malawi has many more expansive and expensive-looking fences cutting through the lush green foliage than I’m used to seeing in Canada – telling of the country’s problems with petty crime and underlying that, poverty.
Korea Gardens is a nice place, with lots of trees and friendly staff, set to the soundtrack of songbirds in the morning, crickets at night and a mash-up of reggae and forgotten 90s hits in between. The six JHR trainers staying here, myself included, have a bungalow called the “bronze room”. Bronze is enough to get you four walls and a roof, but the common room isn’t completely enclosed and the shared sink tubs are outdoors. We each have our own room (and our own mosquito net for the “mosies”.) There is an indoor lounge with a bar and beautiful, vibrantly coloured lounge furniture, as well as a pool, a restaurant and one of those typical, tall and expansive fences armed by a guard around the clock.
On our first day we were treated to dinner with Luke Tembo of the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR). He joined us at Korea Gardens and spoke about the work that CHRR does and the most pressing human rights issues facing Malawi. Omega’s sister Natasha, who works with the Peace Corps locally, also joined us.
He talked about the mandate, education and advocacy work of the CHRR, and took our questions. My pitch list doubled in size – the disconnect between the Malawian constitution and penal code, and the impact of HIV/Aids on the family dynamic, creating an immediate and unmet need not only for orphanages but also assisted living institutions, and the need for shelters for battered women.
According to Tembo, women’s shelters are virtually non-existent in Malawi, with the only option for women who escape from domestic abuse being temporary victim support provided by the Malawi Police Service (MPS). Tembo even said that he has seen the same women who reported their husbands for battery ultimately going to the MPS and asking for their husband’s release, because they have no means to support themselves after the arrest is made.
Tembo answered my questions about the emergent uranium mining industry in the north and the human rights issues embroiled in the new industry. With issues ranging from neglected Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) to displacement to working conditions and labour rights, I’m considering writing a series instead of just one story. I went to bed planning to use my two weeks allotted vacation time to bus up to Mzuzu and the rural areas of the north to work on the series.