Spoken Verse in Malawi: the uncertain road

On Sunday, 11 December, I sat in the audience at Kwa Haraba Arts Gallery in Blantyre. For an event dubbed Rise of spoken word poetry. I wrote an article for The Sunday Times of 18 December, 2016. I publish the article here as it appeared in The Sunday Times

The promise was that there would be a rise. At Kwa Haraba Art Gallery in Blantyre. Of Spoken Word Poetry. On a lazy Sunday of 11 December.

The expectation, as well, was that there would be a rise. A shocking event even, positively. Something that you would compare with international events of a similar nature.

It was normal, to expect such a rising. The advertising had been on point: posters of a similar design yet with different messages and personalities had heralded the day. 

From the intros of the Spoken Word artists, however, on the material day one could almost get the feeling that the message that it would be the rise of Spoken Word poetry was maybe not the correct phrase. It was catchy, eventually, but not very correct.

The actors, tipping in favour of the male sex of course like in most artistic acts, made one statement clear with the intros: they had been subjected to a demanding rehearsal prior to the event.

Beyond that, the rehearsal, there was the usual stage fright, superficially explored themes and a style too common that you would hardly separate the actors from each other. They were not only children from the same poetry family; rather were identical twins hatched poetic minutes apart.

Somehow the usual host for the Blantyre Spoken Word fests, Yankho Seunda, appeared to already have an excuse for the uncertainty in the acts.

“We started two months ago,” he said in his welcoming remarks to the sizeable audience.

In art, unlike politics, two months is undoubtedly a short time to expect a lot. Thus, the audience certainly had to be kind – it appeared he was intending to say. These acts before them were definitely not rushed but also not very mature.

Monotonous, superficially explored themes
Aside the intros, in which all the nine poets attempted to introduce themselves in a way that would forgivably pass for artistic, the other themes that paraded seemed to merge into a few. One can count them with the fingers of one hand. Even then, not all the fingers would be used.

There is no problem in having a monotonous theme, it might even have been a plan, but it was the superficial way that the themes were covered that was worrisome.

Of course, there was a brighter moment in the thematic coverage when Brian Kalinde and Matthew Chimwaza decided to tackle HIV and AIDS. The wariness with which they broached the subject, combining the knowledge of a doctor and the myth of the common man, would have salvaged the flaws of the rest of the team.

Also, when Mwai Simbota decided to tackle paedophilia with an artistic carefulness – save for the flaws in presentation a careful mind would note – there was a kind of diversity.

Otherwise, most of the works waltzed about an imaginary Africa. A theme they feared to really go into depth to excavate and critically present. They were, in a way, sitting on the shores of a sea whose history they had heard, but not read. Yet they still believed everything they had heard, even the obvious propaganda.

There was hardly any love theme (prevalent in youthful literature), but the emphasis on Africa with neither a clear direction nor from an informed perspective rendered the acts less appealing to the critical mind. The gullible, of course, would have basked in celebration that finally a generation so young was beginning to pay attention to the continent; although one poet opted to present Africa as would Joseph Conrad: as a place where phada and chipako are the favourite – where Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram are yet to be known.

Let’s erect our tents around Q
You can hardly talk about the history of Spoken Word Poetry in Malawi without referring to Q Malewezi. Actually, it is Q who can have the bragging rights that he gave rise to Spoken Word Poetry.

But, Q is not Spoken Word Poetry. He is a part of it. He might be the Chairperson of a movement – if we are to call Spoken Word in poetically political terms – but the movement is not him.

Yet, the Spoken Word Poetry displayed at Kwa Haraba at the ironically named Rise of Spoken Word Poetry was mostly centred around Q. The internationally acclaimed poet is not just a source of inspiration to the young poets, he holds them by almost a hypnosis quality. He is a demi-god such that you could tell from the intonation, the gesticulations, that most of the team were borrowing from Q – heavily.

That identity of the poet, their own, was either lost or completely non-existent.
It is a good thing to have role models, but it is a tragedy to lose your identity and take on the form of the role model.

There were brighter moments, of course, with Rabbi Kondowe defining his own style. Performing deeper and meaningful poetry that was not tailored around the style and presentation of Q. For most, however, it showed that they had detached themselves from learning from others – even those among them such as the host Yankho Seunda – and had all trained their eyes on Lilongwe. On Q.

It was a tragic flaw, for those who have been exposed to so much of Spoken Word Poetry. From home and abroad.

Music rose
It is the case in performing Spoken Word Poetry that music becomes a part. Sometimes, they have to be at par with each other – the music and the poetry – while in other cases the poetry has to be dominant. It is Spoken Word Poetry, after all.

However, at the Rise of Spoken Word Poetry it was music that was nearly eclipsing the Poetry. From Sam Shaba to Agorosso, it appeared that the musicians were well aware of the how and when to interact with the audience. They performed. Not just recited.

Once, when Panacea Phiri partnered with Agorosso for her piece it finally appeared that Poetry and Music were finally agreeing to rub shoulders as equals. The flaw could have been that marriage of an established artist with an up-and-coming. It appeared Agorosso nearly eclipsed the poet. He is established, anyway, with his guitar being unique. The Poet might have planned to ride on the waves of that fame yet somehow it did not work like that. A fellow up-and-coming guitarist for her would have left the audience hang on to her skilful way of playing with words in her piece instead of the guitarist.  

When will this rise be, Poet?
The announcement was that it would be a rise of Spoken Word Poetry, yet certainly there was no rise. It was, of course, more of a routine well-rehearsed performance. Convincing in one breath, disappointing in the other.

Nevertheless, from the passion and the commitment of the actors it was clear that there is an ability and the possibility of them raising the Poetry – the Spoken Word – from wherever they assumed it had been laid to rest.

If the efforts of all the players could be harnessed, the team gets open to other alternatives (accept that there are equally other important players in the field whom they can learn from – both within and without the borders of Malawi), remain open to criticism, hold events and rehearse on a frequent basis as they most likely did for their first ever ‘public performance', something good might come up.

The only big question would be: when will this something good come up? Another two months, maybe.

Still, their efforts now are little uncertain steps. With the positive being that they are still willing to take them, and they lead them into the light – where there are people willing to embrace them. Even with the shortfalls.  



Faulting Dictatorship

If there is an easy thing to do, it seems, is to fault dictatorship. And dictators. Simply because they are dictators.

It is as if by virtue of them being dictators, all evil is theirs.
Take Gambia. Yahya Jammeh.

A few days ago, Jammeh shocked the African continent. In what appeared to be a predictable election, with him as a winner, Jammeh lost. He did not only lose. He conceded defeat. Long before the Electoral Commission in the country officially declared the winner.

It was unprecedented. Both the loss and the concession. For, Jammeh in his dictatorial rants had once said that he would rule the Gambia for a billion years -- if Allah would will.

However, when the loss was in the air, he resigned to fate.

The optimists celebrated, the loss and the concession. They said Africa was slowly maturing, in its democracy. The pessimists, however, were not sure of what to make of Jammeh's loss and the concession. It seemed surreal.

Not long after, the Breaking News appeared on our Facebook timelines and their televisions: Jammeh had withdrawn his concession of the loss. He was calling for a fresh election. The reason being that he considered the election flawed. Not only did he consider that the electoral process was flawed but the Chairperson of the country's Electoral Commission had indeed accepted that there were irregularities with the process, especially the tabulation of votes.

Yes, the results did not change who the winner was but they narrowed the gap between the winner and the runner-up. Adama Barrow, for that is the name of the 'President-elect' of the Gambia was not anymore a very clear favourite over Jammeh, the runner-up.

This prompted Jammeh to take to the television waves of Gambia to annul the election, the results and his concession.

Drama. Typical of dictators.

Not long after, the public intellectuals came on Facebook. Jammeh is a dictator, they said. He is preparing a civil war in Gambia, they said. Their choruses were echoed by the international community. All those voices were merged into one: Jammeh had to do the right thing, step down for Barrow.

The way the international community and everyone has rushed to slam Jammeh would make you think it is a clear cut issue. But, personally, I think it is not as clear cut.

It is easy to fault Jammeh, more because he is a dictator; but I hold that Jammeh is not to be faulted.

If anything, the people to be faulted are the members of the Electoral Commission in Gambia who presided over the election. The callousness with which they conducted their voter tabulation is the one that has led the Gambia to where it is.

Jammeh was accepting defeat on the supposition that he was accepting defeat in a free and fair election. But was the election free and fair? I do not think so with the revelations and confessions made by the Gambian EC that they were on the wrong on vote tabulation.

That, the mistake they made at tabulation, has ripped the whole process apart. It has created room for doubts, fears and mistrust of the whole electoral process. No dictator, surely, would accept defeat in such an election. And, not just because he is a dictator but because he is human.

It needs a greater sense of statesmanship to accept the result in such a flawed election. And, Jammeh, we all know is nowhere to being near that honour. Even if he had graciously accepted such a flawed result, we know we would never have had him in the same regard as the statesmen of this world -- or the continent. He has such a dark record that could not be washed away by a simple peaceful transition of power.

I was lucky, for a stint, to have worked in an electoral support organisation. Any issue that deals with elections, to politicians, is sensitive.

We were advancing causes on electoral reforms but one could feel the mistrust from political players. To them, everything to do with election is a potential live wire, with the propensity to set the whole nation ablaze.

I do not think that is only the case in Malawi. It must be, also, in Gambia.

Considering the sensitivity of such a process, if there is anybody to be blamed in the whole Gambia fiasco, it is the Electoral Commission and the lackadaisical approach with which they did to the election.

It is easy to blame dictatorship, yes, but dictatorship usually starts and flourishes under the support of weaker institutions. In this case, Jammeh's dictatorship has been urged on by the weaker institution that is the EC.

Maybe when we move beyond faulting personalities, and start faulting institutions, can we then expect a healthy democracy. This, the case in Gambia, presents us with a better place for that: the faulting of institutions.      


There is no space for dialogue here

A few hours ago, and maybe even until now (the time of writing), I was involved in a bitter argument with friends and foes alike – on Facebook.

I had asked, in one of my extended thinking, what the grounds were against the legalization of abortion in Malawi. I added, I did not want religious sermons. I wanted arguments grounded outside theology.

I should have known.

What I had imagined would be a civil discourse turned bitter. Sometimes, ugly. Even, horrible. I am thinking some people have even struck me off their friends list. Others, I saw them claim, have suddenly switched from a kind of adoring me to hatred. They would kill me, had they had the opportunity. Yet, they think aborting an unborn foetus is a crime, immoral, punishable and – of course – sin!

The moment I wanted that debate, I had asked myself questions on the subject of abortion yet I found that some of the grounds those against it are standing on are shaky. Actually, I established that they are mostly against abortion either because religion advises them to or just because they can be against it: the rational ones prefer to call that morality or the idea of right to life or somethings like that.

Such reasons, to me, appeared shallow and unconvincing. They sounded more of a tyranny of the majority just for its sake. So, I wanted something that would convince me that giving a couple – or just a woman – the choice to either live with a pregnancy or terminate it is wrong.

Unfortunately, almost 24 hours later nobody had come forth with the reasons for being against abortion outside the safety of Bible verses and because their religious authorities feel like it is wrong.

I tried to stir the water further. I argued that the issue of abortion, its legalization, is a gender issue much as it is a class issue. Yet no one, from the other side, moved forth comfortably – armed with facts – to disprove my argument. Instead, they employed emotions and madness. Those who know some dark secrets about me nearly resorted to throwing them in my face to blackmail me into silence.

Those courageous enough to be chickens finally moved out of that space, to a new space, where they leveled every argument against me – the person – and other people holding a stand such as me. We have either been labelled ‘bought’ (by the West of course because the West is a vast swamp of like-minded individuals with a lot of money to buy off people like me to propagate everything un-African – whatever this African thing is), ‘stupid’, ‘brain-and-white-washed’ and some other unkind terms exchanged in the privacy of Facebook and WhatsApp inboxes.

The reactions have had me thinking: what space do we have in this country to engage constructively, to dialogue and appreciate the other’s viewpoint? I feared if we have such a rational people ready to shift gears if presented with overwhelming arguments against their stand.

Not long ago, I faulted the US ambassador to Malawi, Virginia Palmer, on the way the advocacy for LGBTQI rights were being advanced. In a conservative society such as Malawi. I found her approach to have been harmful and risky, not to herself but the people whose rights she was advocating for.

I sensed that there was an alienation. Two schools operating from completely different realities. The debate I aimed to have – yet degenerated into a free for all bout, not of ideas but emotions – on abortion just alerted me to the chasm that is existing in this country each time an issue that sharply divides us appears on the scene.

We have quietly embraced our fundamentalism on issues. This has been exacerbated by the inability to distinguish people from the arguments that they make.

To us, these days, anybody who does not share a viewpoint is not to be one of us. We may be from the same family, even, but the moment they think night starts at 6 while the entire household thinks night starts at 5 then we are free to label them, abuse them and we would even kill them. 

We can no longer accept that people can take a different view from us and still be normal. Normalcy is sharing a viewpoint.

When I raised my arguments as to why abortion should be made legal – basing on the power and class perspectives -I steered clear of the religious leaders who are to be leading a march against the legalisation of both abortion and homosexuality. To me, as I remarked elsewhere, I had no problem with them protesting. I would actually provide them with water to make their journey manageable.

I thought it was – and it really is – important for all arguments to rest on reason. A bit of emotion, yes, but much of reason. I was ready, and I still am, to move from my point of view if somebody convinces me with constructive arguments on the issue.

Yet, for colleagues across the aisle, I found a few sober enough to appreciate fallacies, lies and attacks from their own side and call them out. Most are just relishing the prospect of being in a majority and, as long as they are in a majority, then their tyranny is welcome. Do you know what they call this tyranny? A democracy!

I think that is an abuse of the term: democracy. But, if that suits someone to abuse it, I think I should let them live with it. Which is what really is the problem in this nation: living and letting live. 

It seems, for a majority, man's only freedom can be ascertained if he does what they do. When man wants to do anything different, suddenly they should be bound. Use the law, if you may, or if it appears that rationality is creeping into the lawmakers then use intimidation. The fear is, this intimidation will soon degenerate into violence. 

That has to be a fear of any rational and righteous person: the prospect of violence for disagreeing with a viewpoint!