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Producing Malawi’s First Multidisciplinary Arts Festival

Fumbani Innot Phiri Jr.: Welcome to Critical Stages in Malawian Contemporary Theatre podcast, produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatre makers worldwide, in partnership with Advancing Arts Forward, a movement advanced equity, inclusion, and justice through the arts by creating a liberated space that uplift you and encourages to change the world. I am your host, Fumbani Innot Phiri Jr., a producer, actor, director, playwright, and of course, a freelance journalist.

Critical Stages in Malawian Contemporary Theatre, I interview established theatre artists from all backgrounds to explore the precarious journey of theatre in a modern world, defines the problem, and find a better solution to sustain us in the generation of motion pictures. In this podcast, I lead the discussion with established performers, directors, writers, who are exploring ways to greet these challenges while their works inspired the community.

In today’s edition, I’m with Thomas Chibambo, a festival manager of Blantyre Arts Festival. Thomas Chibambo is a full-time cultural and arts creator, a film producer, event manager, festival director of Blantyre Arts Festival. Since 2002, Thomas has been involved in number of creative performances and event management in Malawi. He’s a writer, director, and producer of Malawi first ever TV drama series and founder of Blantyre Festival that has been running since 2009 in the seat of Blantyre, Malawi.

Blantyre Arts Festival is nongovernmental organization, which was established in 2009, incorporated as trustees as an NGO, but responds to the needs of development, promotion of various aspect of arts and culture by organizing events, festivals, and culture exchange programs for both local and international performers. It promotes the local corporate society by providing corporate planning promotion. Blantyre Arts Festival run culture tailored projects that present the best Malawian creativity to the widest possible audience and also provide social creativity, development trainings, capacity buildings, and cultural initiative programs to uplift tourism, creativity, and enhance of cultural activities.

All right, Thomas Chibambo from Blantyre Arts Festival. Thank you for this edition and people would like to know, who is Thomas Chibambo?

Thomas Chibambo: Well, yeah. I’m Thomas Chibambo. I’m the founder and executive director of Blantyre Arts Festival in Malawi, which is started way back in 2009. And the organization has been up and running since then.

Fumbani: Blantyre Arts Festival is one of the prominent festival in Malawi, and it has been there promoting theatre across Malawi and international. So, you as Tom Chibambo, what was the secret behind to establish Blantyre Arts Festival?

Thomas: Well, when the Blantyre Arts Festival started in 2009, there wasn’t more festivals in Malawi; and during that time, most of the artists in different genres had no opportunity to have visibility in performing arts. And there was some two, three festivals which were dominated with the music only. And I find out that most of the arts disciplines had no opportunity to have visibility in the arts.

So, when the Blantyre Arts Festival came in, I thought that I should include different disciplines in the arts, where theatre was one of the disciplines that I incorporated. So, thereby including visual arts, film, photography, poetry, music, contemporary dance, and all those kind of things become part of a package of Blantyre Arts Festival to make sure that artists in Malawi have an opportunity to have visibility in the festival, rather than just to only music as a dominant of the festivals in Malawi.

Fumbani: So, it has been in genesis 2009 up to date and basically, apart from Blantyre Arts Festival, we know Tom Chibambo as a filmmaker. In late 2000, you stormed the society with first Malawi TV series, which enjoyed airplay in Malawi TV station, which was only TV station by then. And what was general like to abandon a filmmaking job and start a festival?

Thomas: Not really abandoning because I mean, if you look at a film industry, it’s one of the expensive adventure in the industry of the arts. And when I produced my first series in 2003, 2004, it wasn’t an easy journey, bearing in mind that in Malawi, most of the productions in the film category were not on top of the mind of the people because I mean, it was very, very expensive to produce. I was just lucky enough that I had the sponsored package that I was able to produce those. I still have in mind that I have to continue.

But then, I mean, when you look at the arts as arts practitioner, you should also suggest to do things that incorporate many disciplines in the arts. Now, film industry was just considering theatre and producers, actors and actresses, but poetry, music, visual arts, photographer were out of the scene.

Now, this is coming in a sense that I wanted to incorporate many, not just only line of film production. So, by coming in with the Blantyre Arts Festival, my idea is to make sure that the aspects of the arts which were left out of my direction of doing film production, should we incorporate more arts into my journey of—

Fumbani: More like multidiscipline.

Thomas: —Into my journey of being an arts practitioner in Malawi.

Fumbani: All right. So, you thought it wise, “Okay, let me incorporate a lot of art discipline in one sector.” So, you decided to come up with a festival, and the festival is called Blantyre Arts Festival. Someone was asking why did he choose Blantyre instead of making it as a national festival? Yes, we understand it’s international festival, but why did he choose the name of a city, Blantyre.

Thomas: Blantyre is one of the ... a commercial city in Malawi, and a festival should definitely have a name of the city embracing the whole society in Malawi. And we also need to make sure that one of the cities in Malawi should also have an options to have a marketing tool like Blantyre for Malawi. And it’s a marketing strategy that we would like to make Malawi as one of the touristic sector with its own brands of the city of Blantyre.

But as you mentioned already, Blantyre Arts Festival is not just about for Blantyre, it encompass artists from all over the country, but also all over the world. As we started our festival, various artists from different countries have been part of the festival. They have been coming to perform in Malawi in a different disciplines, mentioning about theatre. We started the theatre by including artists from different universities, like from University of Malawi and other local theatre productions have been part of it. And then other theatre production from Zimbabwe, from Zambia, they’ve been part of the festival and other theatre production from Germany. They’ve been also part of the Blantyre Arts Festival. It’s widening situation that we created for Blantyre Arts Festival to make sure that most of their ...

Thomas: Then we created for Blantyre’s Festival to make sure that most of the artists benefit from the organization of Blantyre’s Festival itself.

Blantyre’s Festival is one of the big festivals in Blantyre as well as in Malawi. We need to have income to have very conducive environment and the space where we can have all the aspects of performances at one venue.

Fumbani: How did you manage to incorporate all of these ideas to come up with Blantyre’s Festival? As I’m saying, I’m one of the product from Blantyre’s Festival. I got an opportunity to perform at Blantyre’s Festival when I was young. Then I got an opportunity to go to Germany to further my acting excuse[AM1] . So what was the secret behind incorporate rock artists and as well as to bring culture exchange within the circle of performing arts?

Thomas: You have to understand that when you are well organized things will always go well. You need to make sure that your organization is well registered, your organization is well connected with different sectors of the arts and you have to work very, very hard to make sure that you find partners that you can work together. It is during that vicinity of having a lot of partners but also to be well connected but also to be well-organized organization that is in tandem with the laws of the country so that when you are pursuing different kind of criteria of development in the arts, you shouldn’t have different obstacles along the way. So the secret behind is to make sure that the organization is well organized: it has its board of trustees, it is registered with the local laws—in Malawi, in our case. And you should also make sure that you are connected and you should also make sure that you have sponsors and the partners that can take you along the way. And this is why Blantyre’s Festival has been in existence since 2009 up to date and it’s still strong and it’s still going.

Fumbani: And it’s still strong, it’s still going. At the same time you struggle to access fans for the artist, but your own artists will offer themselves to come over and perform for free just for visibility and set up their new platforms. Has it been a challenge for you to access fans?

Thomas: Exactly. It’s just like any other arts organization in Malawi, also globally, it’s facing numerous challenges in accessing funds ‘cause not so many local and international organizations support arts because mostly arts has been considered as a leisure kind of activities. Bearing in mind that most of the organization, they actually support infrastructure of the government, things like that. There is a lot of challenges that the world is struggling at the moment. For instance, there was COVID-19. I know there is poverty. People would otherwise suggest to support those kind of things, leaving arts behind, considering it as its leisure organization. So because of that situation you find arts organization, I find it pretty much very hard to access funding. But like I told you, due to the partners that we have established over the course of time, we are still working hand in hand with our partners to pursue the continuity of arts and create the industry and make it to grow in Malawi.

Fumbani: So since the establishment of Blantyre’s Festival, we have seen music, let’s say musicians, and the theatre artists enjoying the fruit of Blantyre’s Festival. Tons of artists are traveling to Germany to access cultural exchange programs. In 2013 also see a secondary school going to Germany to perform at Aware and Fare Cultural Festival of which it was a birth mark from Blantyre Arts Festival.

To you, what’s your take on promoting theatre for children and young people?

Thomas: For instance, that’s our direction and we studied already incorporating theatre for young people since we started our festival already. And one of the product is yourself with the young festivals. You’ve been part of the festival since this started up to date. And that’s our directions and we still need to make sure that we incorporate young people in theatre productions. And of late, this year we couldn’t incorporate much of theatre productions in our festival settings due to the lack of performance space.

Blantyre’s Festival is one of the big festivals in Blantyre as well as in Malawi. We need to have income to have very conducive environment and the space where we can have all the aspects of performances at one venue. But you can agree with me that we don’t have it in Malawi; we don’t have it in Blantyre. And because of that we are looking forward to have a very good conducive place and a space where we can incorporate all these art disciplines to be part of the festival again. So we have to see next year how best we can incorporate all these sectors of arts so that our journey should have a very good food for imaginations.

Fumbani: As you said, this lack of conducive environment, basically for this year’s festival, most theatre practitioners complained out loud, they didn’t have a space to do performance because of how the space was designed. But to the stakeholders, they recommended the type of festival free for everyone was just perfect because it gives an opportunity for people from Blantyre to access performances, from music, poetry, dance. But theatre was not there. What’s your plan of incorporating theatre but in the very same setup?

Thomas: We suggested that the festival from now onwards, it’s going to be for free for everyone. And we would like to use the same space to make sure that we incorporate all these genres into the festival settings as it was. But then we want to have an environment where we can build different kind of stages. Now we are going to have stages for theatre. We are going to have stage for music and we are going to have stage for young people to do different kind of settings like poetry, like committee for young people. So the way forward is to build different kind of stage, at the same space, at the same venue. But we would like to have different kind of stages where we can incorporate different kind of art disciplines to have an option, to have an opportunity to have such kind of performance and the visibility for their arts so that we can have a meaningful impact in the sense of developing arts.

Malawi is losing a lot of own identity in the aspects of the arts, and it is losing identity because people do not have much visibility, a space where they can perform.

Fumbani: Don’t you think utilizing a free festival, the setup you just did this year, will have a problem in your sustainability of the organization?

Thomas: Many people are thinking that it’s going to be problematic to sustain festival when it is free. But you have to also bear in mind that when it is a free festival, it means that lot of people coming and most of the partners that we have, they need to have audience. And because of audience is going to be guaranteed during this festival, we are going to have more partners that are going to be with us because the partners will always need more audience. And because of that, we are going to sustain our festival based in the fact that we are going to have more partners with us and more partners are coming in with the resources that will be able to continue to do our festival without any problem. So sustainability is based on more partners that are going to be with us, bearing in mind that there’ll be a lot of people who are going to be part and parcel of the festival and these are twin things. It cannot change.

Fumbani: I think for the artist’s sake, it will also benefit them because they’ll be exposed to a lot of audience ‘cause it’s a free festival, and a lot of people going be there to watch, and some of the guys don’t like go and watch festivals because you need to pay something even if it’s cheap. But when it’s free they’ll say, “Ah, let’s go and have a free time and enjoy.”

Thomas: On the other hand, we also need to have the situation where people would appreciate arts in Malawi because there is a lot of mature arts, a lot of Indigenous arts in Malawi, but people tend not to go and watch because they don’t have resources. They don’t have money that they can pay. But when it is free like this, most of the people who appreciate arts by going and attending those festivals for free, like at Blantyre Arts Festival, they’ll be able to attend poetry, comedy, music. That is something that we can contribute as Blantyre Arts Festival to give society. Blantyre Arts Festival is not just the organization on its own. It is there built in the factors that the society should appreciate the arts, and we are there for the people. So when we are there for the people, we have to contribute to the society. And the society should be able to know the artists, and the artists are going to embrace the audience because they will have a lot of people appreciating their arts—like music, people who appreciate the music of different artists, poetry, theatre, contemporary dance, and all those kind of things.

And it’s also a marketing avenue where Blantyre Arts Festival acts as a market base for the artists to sell out their artistic products. So if artists are selling their products to many people, it means the artists are going to gain a lot of revenues because of their participation to the festival, so that is also a sustainability aspect for us.

You should also see that when we are setting our festival as free as such, it’s a big venue, and there’ll be a lot of stalls coming from different companies and different organizations. Those stalls’ owners are benefiting from the festival and the stalls are also paying some revenues to Blantyre Arts Festival. That aspect also is a package for sustainability for us. So the sustainability to have free festival as Blantyre Arts Festival… they see it’s guaranteed and would like to get it on and on so that people should enjoy festival. Artists should be able to give out their best to the community, to the audience out there, and partners will enjoy to be with us because they guaranteed that there’ll be a lot of people coming who can see their product and services, stuff like that. So we have the mutual benefit that is not going to lose its taste.

Fumbani: I think at this time Blantyre Arts Festival has reached a point of reaching every angle of how to sustain the festival and also each and every part from each and every discipline of theatre and performing arts is being inclusive in this festival. But how do you look in the point of involving Indigenous performances, like involving traditional dance? Last time I watched a Gule Wamkulu, which is typical, traditional and it was very nice to see. I was expecting more of that.

Thomas: Exactly. I mean that was just a starting point as you said already. I mean you have the witness eye yourself that you saw Gule Wamkulu being part of it and that is really typical Indigenous arts for Malawi and we need to do more of that because most of the Indigenous arts, young people like people who are staying in Blantyre, in the cities like this, they don’t know what it is all about. And that is the starting point when we are going to do more about that so that those Indigenous arts should also have a platform for the visibility of the arts. And Malawi is losing a lot of own identity in the aspects of the arts, and it is losing identity because people do not have much visibility, a space where they can perform. And because they don’t any income out of their arts, those Indigenous arts do not have interest to continue to do their performances. And now when Blantyre Arts Festival is incorporating them, it’ll encourage them to do more arts. Because of that our Indigenous arts will have a visibility for the generations to come.

Fumbani: And one point we have to include the inclusiveness of people with disabilities. How do you look that those point of how you are going to include people with disability? Many talented people with disabilities in Malawi, they’re doing theatre, doing poetry, doing music. What’s this type of planned access would include these artists?

Thomas: Now this time around we are going to make sure that the festival has a certain point where you say people who have disabilities should have an added advantage to participate. So we open call for applications and that is going to be one of the aspect that we are going to add to say people with the different disabilities will have added advantage to perform at the festival so that we can encourage more people with the different disabilities, artists of that nature, to be part of the festival.

We are going to have a film screening like we have been used to, that’s why I said we are going to build a different kind of stage so that we can really incorporate all those kind of different disciplines to be part of the festival. So people with different disabilities are going to be part and parcel the festival because we don’t want to leave any other aspect of the arts behind.

Fumbani: It’s like more of inclusive festival—

Thomas: Exactly.

Fumbani: —Whereby everyone with talent in music, poetry, dance can be part and parcel of the festival and enjoy the accessibility, the culture exchange programs, the workshops, which will be really nice.

Now you’re still pushing the festival and more acts are coming. More artists are being promoted through this festival. But we still have the challenge of how the culture industry in Malawi is being supported by the government, and likely you are part of the task force, which is they’re moving the parliament to have our Arts Council in Malawi. For quite decades, we have been fighting for this war. Is it a winning war or...

Thomas: It’s winning. It’s winning.

Fumbani: It’s winning.

Thomas: Yes, it’s winning because I mean what we have to understand is when you set up a fire you have to keep it burning. If you just leave it, it’ll definitely die in the natural death. But at the moment you are seeing yourself that we are definitely very provocative in making sure that the Arts Council is setting up in Malawi, and we are in a very good stage where definitely we can see that we are going to have one Arts Council pretty much soon because we have involved stakeholders that are definitely willing to make sure that they pursue this Arts Council to be enacted in Malawi.

Recently we were already discussing with the parliamentarians, and the parliamentarians, they’re the people who make laws. All the councils in Malawi are enacted by parliamentarians, and we lobbied with them, and they are so much interested to see that the Arts Council is definitely going to find its way passing through the parliament. You should also understand that it’s only Malawi out of sixteen member states in the SADC region which do not have an Arts Council. And 99 percent of the countries in Africa have one Arts Council—Malawi and just a few other countries which do not have an Arts Council. It’s a very pity.

The parliamentarians themselves, they’re on the forefront to make sure that the Arts Council should definitely be part of Malawi this time around.

Fumbani: Yeah. Okay.

Thomas: You should also bear in mind that Zimbabwe become independent in 1980. And very four years after that it enacted its Arts Council, just after four years. And Malawi, it’s fifty-seven years down the line. It doesn’t have Arts Council. This is a pity situation.

Fumbani: Why do you think is the main reason?

Thomas: Oh, the main reason was the political will. It’s a political will. The will of the government do not encompass arts as one of the sectors that they need to develop. And bearing in mind that at the moment we are in the forefront of discussion with the parliamentarians who pass laws. They were so much frustrated to hear that in Malawi there is no Arts Council putting all these factors that Zimbabwe, only four years, they had their own Arts Council. Why not Malawi? So then the parliamentarians themselves, they’re on the forefront to make sure that the Arts Council should definitely be part of Malawi this time around, so that’s why I’m saying that we are in the winning position right now.

Fumbani: Don’t you think it’s the battle is in the winning sector part I can say that is slow?

Thomas: It’s slow, and the other thing that you should also know is that the sector was not supported by the partners. And this time around we are very happy that there are some different partners who are supporting us to push the Arts Council to be enacted. That alone is an indication that the Arts Council is going to find its way through to the parliament.

Fumbani: Oh wow. Okay. We go back to Blantyre Arts Festival. For years I’ve been there. If you have changed venues, you have got this environment for theatre so how do you view the future of theatre in Blantyre Arts Festival?

Thomas: I think theatre contribute a lot of great aspects of the arts in Malawi. It has changed a lot of things, and it has also bring young artists into the play. And we could see that young people are so much interested to be part of the theatre productions in Malawi. And also there is a lot of activities that are happening that are involving theatre contributions. That alone is also showing that the theatre is going to find a better platform for them to continue because there is a market, interesting package about it. and the Blantyre Festival is making sure that theatre production should have a bigger play in the festival. But I think this time we want to make sure that maybe 50 percent of the arts should be part of the theatre productions because at the moment 50 percent is about the music.

Fumbani: Yeah.

Thomas: And this time we want to make sure that we have a bigger platform for theatre production. That’s why I said we need to have different venue at different settings, different stages, all in order to make sure that we accommodate theatre to be part of the festival itself.

Fumbani: They just ended festival, we saw how impactful you introduced issues of climate change and people were just calling it as Eco-tourism festival because how you imported issues of Indigenous performances. We see Gule Wamkulu, other traditional dance. We see contemporary. And now at the same time the whole festival was done at a conducive environment that reflect the element of climate change that will reflect how to protect our environment. What was the main goal to choose this thematic element of climate?

Thomas: You must understand that artists, you have to understand typical of the artists, artists are like the mirror.

Fumbani: Yeah.

Thomas: The mirror always… when you look at the mirror, it reflects your own identity, and the artists are like the mirror that it reflects to the challenges that the world, the country, the nation is going through. Therefore, Blantyre Arts Festival is not spared in the challenges that Malawi as a country is going through, especially when it comes to climate change. Malawi is part of it. We had the Cyclone Idai—

Fumbani: Yeah.

Thomas: Which devastated a lot of lives.

Fumbani: Yeah.

Thomas: A lot of property were damaged, and we never know what other challenges that we are going to have in the future to come. Artists must make sure that they reflect all those kind of things so that the people who are making decisions should look at the way how we can prevent other damages that can come through with the negative impact of climate change.

Therefore, our festival always look into those things and make sure that the theme should reflect to the things that are challenging the society. That’s why Blantyre Arts Festival last year was more much about the climate change reflection because it is the aspects that are challenging the society at the moment so as a mirror we were on the forefront to look at the society and tell the nations that we must do something if you want to combat the issues of negative effects of climate change and environmental protections in Malawi.

Fumbani: Apart from the festival itself, do you have independent projects that also would continue the awareness of climate change? This is of climate protection and environment. Do you have those plans or you still, you already have that idea of implementing things to do with climate change using artists?

Thomas: We would like to use the existing artists that we have to make sure that we have the projects. And already from the partners that we had last time, those partners who came from climate change and environmental protection. We are cooking something at the moment that we should have the project that we will do, definitely continue to talk more about the issues that are negatively impacting the nations in terms of climate change and environmental protection. The theatre is one of the groups that we would like to work together and make sure that we have awareness campaign about climate change and the environmental negative impact issues across the nation and we can do some clips in terms of maybe doing video clips or video series or to do—

Fumbani: Digital theatre.

Thomas: Yeah, digital theatre that we can send elsewhere. And we would like to embrace the use of digital platform, which is apparently people are using it quite a lot but do not need physical presence of the artists elsewhere. We can use digital platform, but producing some different clips, some videos, some audio series, something like that. Those are the directions that we are taking right now.

Fumbani: All right.

Thomas: Yeah.

Fumbani: Tom Chiwambo, thank you very much for a wonderful conversation. I hope next season will have another additional and we see how best we can interact more about theatre and performing arts in Malawi.

Thomas: Definitely. Indeed. We are pretty much happy that you considered Blantyre Arts Festival as one of the organization that could contribute to this podcast and I’m sure that we are going to do more than what we are currently.

Fumbani: Yeah. Thank you.

Thank you so much for having a chew with us. This has been another episode of Critical Stages in Malawian Contemporary Theatre. I was your host Fumbani Innot Phiri. If you’re looking forward to connect with me, you can email me at [email protected].

This episode is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episode of this series and other foreign podcast in our feeds, iTunes, Google Podcast, Spotify, and wherever you find podcasts. Be sure to search “HowlRound Theatre Commons podcasts” and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you love this podcast, post a rating and write a review on those platforms. Please help other people to find us. You can also find the transcript of this episode, along with a lot of progressive and destructive content, on howlround.com. Do you have an idea for exciting podcasts, answer, or a TV event that theatre community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com and submit your idea to the commons.


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Thoughts from the curator

In Critical Stages in Malawian Contemporary Theatre, Fumbani Innot Phiri Jr. interviews established theatre artists from all backgrounds to explore the precarious journey of theatre in a modern world, define its problems, and find better solutions to sustain performing arts in a generation of motion pictures. Fumbani leads discussions with established performers, directors, and writers who are exploring ways to greet these challenges while their works inspires their communities.

Critical Stages in Malawian Contemporary Theatre


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