There is something strange about the frequency of arts festivals in Malawi. Naturally, one question pops up: Why is it that Malawians in the arts industries seem to ‘hunt’ in packs? When one of them founds something, say arts festivals, all soon engage in full cry after it.
The cries, depending on the mood of the pack-hunters, either take the tone of Lake of Stars Festival, Bwalo la Aluso Festival, Likoma Festival, Blantyre Arts Festival, Mwezi Wawala Arts Festival (Nanzikambe) or whatever tickles the fancy of the organisers.
In rare cases, like in the case of the Lake of Stars Festival, Sunbird Sand Festival, the activity becomes a vogue. In other cases, however, like those of Bwalo la Aluso Arts Festival, the activity may die a natural death, to the detriment of both the event and artists.
Film Association of Malawi (Fama) president, Ezaius Mkandawire, observes that while arts and other festivals can become a useful development tool when well-planned, their meaning is diluted when they are employed with a freedom or frequency beyond reason.
Otherwise, observes Mkandawire, arts festivals may emulate the fate of lavatory fittings: They are useful when fixed in their proper place but lack a sense of necessity when multiplied beyond what is necessary for practical purposes.
“Overall, the idea of arts festivals is good but, in our case, there are things we need to work on before we can count the benefits,” says Mkandawire.
The filmmaker says, for instance, that, in the case of Malawi, experience has shown that our “arts festivals are sometimes not conducive for watching films”. He says it is virtually impossible to watch films as musicians are blazing the skies with noise.
Says Mkandawire: “While most of the festivals are named after the arts and mostly organised to promote the arts, they are not conducive to equally-important activities such as film watching. This denies local and international filmmakers the opportunity to showcase their creativity.
“Films are meant to be watched on the big screen but, in Malawi, they are watched on the small screen and festival organisers perpetuate this trend by not offering opportunities to watch films on the big screen. This is something we should work on. Just imagine, Lilongwe has one big screen and I am not sure about Blantyre after Cine City temporality stopping doing so some time back. I understand there has been a change of hands. ”
He adds that, in the long-term, there is need to create proper space.
Mkandawire’s sentiments are shared by Musicians Union of Malawi president, Rev. Chimwemwe Mhango.
He observes that the country would have benefitted more than at the moment had it been that musicians were willing to sacrifice.
“The problem we have in Malawi is that whenever we have festivals, people do not want to sacrifice in order for them to make a name. You find that when we organise festivals, some musicians, including our own members, will demand a lot of money. They want us to invest more in them than their exposure and this has resulted in them lacking exposure.
“Secondly, we seem to have problems with coordination. You will find that some musicians want to make heavy demands because they feel that they already made a name, and this disadvantages up-and-coming musicians who want to gain exposure. Even in gospel music circles, you will find that there are groups. Some work together; some don’t,” says Mhango.
Mhango adds that organisers of international festivals sometimes shun Malawian artists, a development that denies them the opportunity to get exposed.
He says the trend negatively affects local artists in the sense that the foreign artists do not conduct music clinics because they are denied the chance to observe the creativity as well as challenges encountered by their local counterparts.
“You only hear of local artists collaborating with foreign artists when Zambian musicians visit the country. So, organisers also need to work on this for Malawi to gain the exposure that festivals offer,” says Mhango.
Likoma Islanders Interim president, Peter Chiwaula, says, if well-nurtured, festivals have the potential to support the tourism industry in the country. He says this is why the islanders launched the festival started in August 2014.“We have room to grow but need support from government and the corporate world to make these festivals affordable to everyone,” says Chiwaula, whose organisation runs Likoma Festival.
However, Chiwaula observes that the government, which often comes out as the biggest culprit, cannot be blamed for problems of festival organisers’ own making.
“Perhaps to say government does not support these festivals will be harsh considering the current financial position but if we are to realise the dream of earning more through tourism there is need for a push from government. The help may not (necessarily) be in monetary terms, (it can be through services such as) free adverts on public television and radio, use of Ministry of Information and Civic Education’s public address system.
“But this should not be left in the hands of the government alone. The corporate world also has a role to play.”
Glimmer of hope
However, all may not be lost for festival patrons as the Lake of Stars organisers have, as part of the event, chalked an agreement with Fama.
“This means we have an opportunity, as filmmakers, to make the best out of the festival and showcase the best things from Malawi, thereby increasing our exposure,” says Mkandawire.
Mkandawire says the development will see filmmakers capturing short films and other interesting things that may stir interest at international level.
Chiwaula says festivals such as Likoma Festival can be used as tools for turning Likoma into a tourism hub.
“The festival promotes tourism and connects Malawians to some rural but beautiful beaches. This will eventually see more developments on the Island and earn forex for the country,” says Chiwaula, adding:
“In the long term, we expect Likoma to develop like Caymans Islands; market the Island to encourage more people to visit Likoma for weekend getaways, holidays and corporate conferences; create job opportunities to the youth during and after the festival.
“It is also possible, using the festival as a tool, to spear head developments like expansion on existing and new lodges as well as establishment of financial institutions due to increased demand making the Island a tourist destination on the Island.”
On his part, Mhango observes that festival organisers can pick a leaf from the administration of the Chibuku music competition to create more value out of the festivals than is the case.
“If Malawian musicians are exposed at the moment, it is because of competitions such as Chibuku and not necessarily these festivals. In fact, because of these competitions, we have letters of invitation from Zimbabwe, Zambia, South Africa, among other countries, for our artists to perform.
“I believe we can achieve the same using the platform offered by festivals. We can take advantage of the foreign artists to learn and create lasting relationships,” says Mhango.
Solomonic Peacocks director, MacArthur Matukuta, whose organisation recently organised the Easter Arts Festival in Lilongwe and Blantyre, cannot agree more.
“From our experience with the Easter Arts Festival, we have learned that the economy benefits in a number of ways. Among other things, the foreign musicians use our facilities, they eat our food using the money they earn, and more people come to see them face to face, and this is the kind of trickle-down effects we want,” says Matukuta.
Matukuta says a pointer that there is light at the end of the tunnel is the agreement chalked between local comedians Izeki ndi Jakobo and their Zambian counterparts Dikiloni and Difikoti.
“It is because of festivals like the one we organised that Izeki ndi Jakobo will be able to have exchange visits with their Zambian colleagues, and this will give them exposure and promote our culture abroad. So, festivals can help our country in more ways than entertainment,” says Matukuta.
Sunbird tourism Group Sales Manager, Titania Katenga-Kaunda, whose institution has been supporting festivals such as Sunbird Sand Festival and Lake of Stars, shares Matukuta’s sentiments.
“Festivals such as Lake of Stars and Sunbird Sand Festival have shown that it is possible to create a platform for exposing and development of tourism and the arts to both local and international artist and they provide a perfect and professional environment for artists and audiences,” says Katenga-Kaunda.
She says, on its part, the tourism industry player is committed to ensuring that the country benefits from festivals by providing a conducive environment in lakeshore beaches of, say, Sunbird Nkopola, for people to socialise, learn, develop talent and entertain audiences of diverse backgrounds.
“For example, Lake of Stars, which is aimed at promoting and uplifting cultural-tourism and arts at our beautiful Lake Malawi-recognises that tourism can contribute to our country’s economy. Among other things, foreign artists expose our destinations and spend money while here. Not surprisingly, Lake of Stars festival has become familiar to audiences across the country and beyond as we feature international artists to spice up the event and to inspire our own artists in Malawi,” says Katenga-Kaunda.
Still, as things stand, nobody has been able to form a precise estimation of festivals’ benefits.
But the hope and optimism that things can change for the better are more evident than definitive benefits. It may not be the time to throw up the sponge.