Zindaba Chisiza*

Theatre at the University of Malawi was initiated by the Department of English at the university’s Chancellor College campus, in 1967 (Gibbs 1980: 67). The first play to be staged was Wole Soyinka’s The Trials of Brother Jero, directed by Trevor Whittock, followed by Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in the same year (Gibbs 1985). In 1970, the travelling theatre concept—taking theatre to ordinary people—was introduced when John Linstrum and Mupa Shumba teamed up to form the first academic travelling theatre in the country, although touring was sporadic (Roscoe 1977: 271). The group became well established from 1972 with the arrival of a British expatriate, James Gibbs (Kamlongera 1984). However, the growth and development of university theatre was affected by the repressive political atmosphere under the one-party Banda regime (Magalasi 2012).

Wole Soyinka’s The Trials of Brother Jero

In 1964, Malawi gained its independence from the British, but soon after came under an authoritarian rule. The new President, Kamuzu Banda, began to impose censorship laws to control literature and culture that undermined his authority (Kerr and Mapanje 2002). The University of Malawi was among the institutions where censorship and suppression were enacted. The university was opened in 1965, but was soon placed under heavy state surveillance. Kerr and Mapanje (2002: 77-78) explain that the State’s negativity towards the university stemmed from the fact that it was the only institution that could produce a group of individuals capable of challenging Banda’s authority. Consequently, Banda began to control what students were taught and suppress academic freedom (Jones and Manda 2006; Kerr and Mapanje 2002). Disciplines like political science were not taught and sociology was heavily monitored any materials that dealt with socialism were banned (Gibbs 1987; Kerr and Mapanje 2002; Mphande 1996). James Gibbs told me that academic staff members were not allowed to conduct research with ordinary people without the approval of Banda and anyone wanting to go into the villages would be directed to the MCP (Gibbs, Personal Communication, 2015).

According to Mufunanji Magalasi (2012), the political atmosphere in the 1970s and 1980s encouraged the emergence of university theatre that was critical of Banda. Scholars (Kerr 1987; Kerr and Chinfunyise 2004; Magalasi 2012) agree that to sidestep censorship many university writers turned to historical myths, folktales and proverbs as a covert means of offering political commentary. The former director of the University of Malawi Travelling Theatre, James Gibbs, told me that a play could not be staged without permission from the Censorship Board. In many instances, plays were rejected because they contained “inappropriate” political content, indecency, obscenity, or because they were showing disrespect for elders or violence. Such plays were often described as “unMalawian,” he explained. The use of encryption to sidestep state reprisals and the English language produced an elitist form of theatre accessible to educated classes (Chimwenje 2003).

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, several students writers and local lecturers were detained and expatriates were deported on the basis that they had spoken, written or done something that was thought would undermine Banda’s authority (Kerr and Mapanje 2002: 79; Jones and Manda 2006: 205). Notable Malawian university writers and poets that were detained by the Banda regime include Jack Mapanje, Felix Mnthali, Edge Kanyongolo and Zangaphe Chizeze (Africa Watch 1990).

Jack Mapanje

Felix Mnthali

In 1979, the Censorship Board’s policies slightly loosened up with the unbanning of Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel (1959) and Chris Kamlongela’s play Chiuta’s Wrath (1978) (Kerr 1987: 123). According to David Kerr (23), this encouraged the students into doing plays that were overtly socially committed (1979-80). During this period, a number of Anthol Fugard plays (Sizwe Bansi is Dead, The Blood Knot and The Island) were staged (23). In 1981, practitioners David Kerr and Chris Kamlongera were invited by the State to go and produce theatre in the rural areas of Northern Malawi in 1981. A little context is needed here.

Athol Fugard’s Township Plays

David Kerr joined the Department of English at Chancellor in the late 1960s. In 1974, Chris Kamlongela joined the department as a staff associate. Prior to joining the department, Kamlongera had been involved in university drama in the 1970s, when he participated in first Travelling Theatre at Chancellor. In fact, throughout the early 1970s, both Kerr and Kamlongera participated in Malawi Writers Group, a writers’ forum for both academic and student writers. Jack Mapanje told me that the group was formed in 1970 by two lecturers, David Kerr and Landeg White, and six students, Jack Mapanje, Lupenga Mphande, James N’gombe, Guard Mgomezulu, Frank Chipasula and Scopas Gorinmwa.

Athol Fugard’s The Island

Popular Theatre Workshop at Mbalachanda 1981

The emergence of popular theatre—as it was known then—or Theatre for Development in Malawi dates back to July 1981, when the Chancellor College Travelling Theatre created improvised vernacular plays about health, adult literacy and agriculture at Mbalachanda, in the Northern region of Malawi (Kamlongera 1982; Kerr 1987; 1995). A few months before the workshop, The Eviction, a Chichewa play—despite the English title—was staged by a group of third-year drama students under the direction of David Kerr (Kamlongera 1984: 287). Before returning to Malawi, in 1981, Kerr had been teaching for seven years at the University of Zambia. While there, he was part of the University of Zambia’s Chikwakwa Travelling Theatre (Kerr 1995: 156).[1] During that time, he had been involved in “taking groups of dramatically experienced University students to rural areas of Zambia and training local students (Secondary Schools and Teacher Colleges) to create plays in local languages, through improvisation . . . adapting local folk stories as drama, and incorporating songs and dances known by the community into the structure of the play” (Kerr 1991b: 53).[2] This is the experience that he brought with him to Malawi.

Prof. Chris Kamlongera

In July 1981, the Office of President and Cabinet invited the Travelling Theatre, which was now headed by Chris Kamlongera, to go and perform at the newly established Mbalachanda Rural Growth Centre. The thinking of the government was that the Travelling Theatre could “provide a forum of entertainment, of cultural exchange, of education and of team spirit at the centre among the extension workers and also the local people” (Kamlongera 1982: 220). Apart from fulfilling this obligation, the group decided it would conduct popular theatre workshops for eight days with a group of participants from Mbalachanda. There, vernacular sketches were created and performed in the nearby villages (Kamlongera 381). Prior to their departure, the team had identified key challenges faced by extension workers in rural areas, through the central office of Rural Growth Centres in Malawi. These were poor attendance at adult literacy classes and a reluctance by villagers to use facilities available at the Growth Centre, such as health clinics, the post office, and small business advice (381-82). The team that travelled consisted of seven students and two lecturers (Chris Kamlongera and David Kerr).

At the first workshop, they were joined by a group of primary school teachers and extension workers who made up the local participants. The workshop process involved groups identifying key themes and, then, developing sketches from these, followed by rehearsals and performance. The themes identified were health and general hygiene (digging pit latrines), modern farming methods and adult literacy. A local dance was identified and it was agreed that it would be performed before the drama.[3] Eventually, two short plays were selected for performance. For purposes of analysis, a brief synopsis of these two sketches is provided.

The sketch on health and hygiene, Kufunika kwa Ukhondo (The Need for Cleanliness), was about a Chief who was reluctant to dig a latrine at his house. Following an incident where he is almost beaten up because he attempts to relieve himself in someone’s field, he returns home disgraced. When his wife learns of this, she turns to the audience and begins asking rhetorical questions; at that point, she is interrupted by the chief, who agrees to dig a pit latrine.

The second sketch, Kumanya Mbwananga (Knowledge Is Freedom), depicted the benefits of adult literacy. It pits Mr Phiri (who has numeracy skills) against the illiterate Mr Mkandawire. After enrolling in a literacy programme in the village, Mkandawire acquires literacy and numeracy skills: that year, he triples his harvest. When asked by his friend what his secret is, he tells him that it is because of the literacy classes he was attending, so that now he can follow the instructions on correct crop fertilizer application. Impressed, Mr Phiri decides to join the literacy programme, though grudgingly.

From the outset, the Mbalachanda workshop had been compromised, especially because the scope of exploration and the community participants had been determined by government officers. Moreover, the community itself also exercised a form of self-censorship. Kerr (1989: 484-85) tells us that making popular theatre in rural Malawi under a one-party hegemony was problematic because too often community leaders were also party loyalists, who reinforced the party line. When discussions happened, they were controlled by local community leaders and MCP party officials whose comments tended to reinforce the messages in the plays (Kamlongera 1984: 392). For example, when the play about adult literacy was performed at Jeremiya village, the village headman endorsed the educational messages in the play, while the Health Extension worker who had accompanied the team emphasized the importance of general hygiene. At Yoramu Ng’ambi, the discussion was dominated by the headman, who was also the village chairman of the Malawi Congress Party, and the Health Extension worker, whose comments emphasized the need for pit latrines. It is clear that only message-based plays endorsing government policy were going to be permitted.

The Mbalachanda workshop’s framing of community participation was problematic. It is said that participation in and through performance was limited to rhetorical questions (Kamlongera 1984; Kerr 1995). There is little evidence that pathways for meaningful discussion and critical thinking were created. There is also evidence that the content of the plays did not always reflect the true needs or perspectives of the community. For example, during a performance of the adult literacy play at the tobacco estate, one community member was surprised to find that there was a literacy centre in the village and the estate manager admitted that it had not existed until a few weeks before the theatre workshop (Kamlongera 1984: 394). This was compounded by the lack of inclusion. Apart from using local languages and one indigenous dance, the dramatic form was an imported model, characteristic of the 1970s literary drama of Travelling Theatre. The team did not explore or adapt any of the local performance traditions. The absence of ordinary community members and the inclusion of teachers and extension workers instead—who were arguably community leaders—meant that the interests of ordinary people were not represented.

In the final analysis, the Mbalachanda workshop was a success in demonstrating the possibility of popular theatre as a tool in community development, but failed to foster pathways for critical thinking and true community participation. By Kamlongera’s admission, the workshop ended up being propaganda theatre in service to the extension workers and government officials.[4]

Towards Theatre for Development

The second iteration of TfD in Malawi came in 1985, when the Chancellor College Theatre for Development team was invited by the Liwonde PHCU to help in developing a communication campaign for a German Technical Aid (GTZ) funded primary health care programme, targeting a group of ten villages in Mwima, Mbela and Chisi Island (Kerr and Chinfunyise 2004; Kalipeni and Kamlongera 1996). The team led by Chris Kamlongera consisted of two lecturers (Kamlongera and David Kerr) and three drama students.

The PHC TfD project began in December 1985, at Mwima. The area had high incident rates of malaria, diarrhoea, cholera and typhoid (Kalipeni and Kamlongera 1996). In December, the team went into the villages to conduct research, or a “community diagnosis” of health problems, through discussions in the bwalo (village square) (Kerr 2002: 56). During the discussion, it was discovered that some of the main health problems were water sanitation and access to potable water (Kerr 2002). Back at their base, the PHCU and TfD teams discussed the findings and the team from Chancellor created an improvised play, the Chitsime (The Well), about the location of wells in the village. It had also been established by the PHCU team that the wells were possible sites of disease because they did not have cement aprons and were not cleaned, which allowed dirt in. In the play, the main role of the chief was played by Chris Kamlongera and the other roles were taken up by the drama students and a nurse from PHCU. The aim was to tease out where a new well should be put and who would be responsible for its maintenance.

During the performance, audience participation was elicited through “open ups”—a technique of directly addressing the audience and asking them for solutions. From the discussions it emerged that there were two unhygienic wells in the village; a shallow one near the village headman’s house and another at the trading centre (Kerr 2002: 315). Other techniques that were used in the play included arguments between characters and character dilemmas, which allowed the actors to throw questions to the audience and elicit solutions from them (Kerr 1995). At the end, the TfD team asked community members to remake the play. Kerr (2002) explains that this was an adapted form of Augusto Boal’s Forum Theatre technique and it appears it was used only at Mwima. During the community’s performance, it became clear that the well located at the trading centre was owned by the shopkeeper, who only allowed regular customers to draw water from it and refused to let it be cleaned or have a cement apron. At the end of the play, the community actors decided that they wanted to perform the play at the trading centre. During that performance, the owner agreed to let villagers maintain his well (317).

Augusto Boal (1931-2009) on participatory theatre. An interview. Courtesy of Lida Shao and Brecht Forum

By 1987, there was a feeling among the TfD team that the dialogue driven sketches that had been performed at Mwima and Mbela were not close to any indigenous art forms. They, therefore, began incorporating cultural forms into the structure of plays in ways similar to the work of the Chikwakwa Travelling Theatre. The thinking was that if local cultural forms (proverbs, riddles, folklore, dance and songs) were used it would help in encouraging audiences to actively participate (Kerr 1989).

In July 1987, a folklore workshop was conducted at Mulangali Primary School in Zomba, near Lake Chirwa— also the location of Chisi Island. The workshop at Mulangali began with research on health problems in the area as had been done at Mwima and Mbela. Afterwards, participants were introduced to improvised drama. On the second day, the participants shared—through performance—their folk art among each other and with the TfD team. From there, an improvised play was created using the research findings and incorporating the collected folklore. For example, local songs were used for scene transitions and for the beginning and the ending of the play (Kerr 1991b: 57). The play also borrowed structural motifs common in local proverbs and folktales like “the trickster hare, who is reluctant to work, and the newly married husband who breaks the mother-law avoidance taboo” (57). In Malawian nthano (fables) the narrator begins by inviting the audience to the session, saying panangotelo (once upon a time), to which the audience respond tilitonse (we are listening).

From the outset, the decision to use community diagnosis (research) to solicit issues from the community made the approach more participatory. The creation of the plays reflected the issues as they came from the people and made the plays relevant to the communities. At the same time, the incorporation of local indigenous cultural forms in the structures of the play made the work truly popular and invested in the ideals of collaboration between communities and facilitators.

Another achievement of the PHC plays was their ability to use theatre as a channel for democratic debates at the community level in a country where spaces for deliberation were generally non-existent. An important feature of the PHC project that made these plays a success was the fact that it was sustained. The TfD programme ran from 1985 to 1987 and, as a result, enabled the TfD team to go into the villages on a regular basis, which helped in forming closer links with the communities (Kerr 1991a: 65). However, despite its successes, I would argue that the PHC TfD process was not without problems.

From the beginning, the creative process remained largely in the hands of the team from Chancellor. For instance, at Mwima, Mbela and Mulangali the plays came about after a basic sketch had been prepared by the team and was taken to the community. Later on, the Village Health Committees at Liwonde made a play. Chris Kamlongera explained that the TfD team did not establish any theatre groups and that the play at Liwonde was the group’s own creation (Kamlongera, Personal Communication, 2016). He further explained that “any groups created were done so solely by the communities which were inspired by the PHC and the travelling theatre experience.” According to Kerr (2002), when the village drama groups began performing it was noted that the “Mr Wise and Mr Foolish” formulae started appearing in their plays. He further explains that some of the VHC members were party loyalists and used the plays as a tool for pushing MCP ideology (66). Although this might be a possible explanation, I am more curious about the kind of training the village drama groups received; it seems as though the only training that went on was improvised drama at Mulangali.

Another problem that I have observed in the Liwonde TfD campaign was the framing of community participation in and through performance. It is said that participation was elicited through the use of “open ups” and cut-off points or dilemmas. Kerr (2002) acknowledges that this technique led to communities responding in a chorus, with a “yes” or “no” often coming from the women and children. In my observation, such methods of community engagement and participation do not give practitioners complex narratives of the real problems in the community. Moreover, within those communities where class, gender and social differences are obvious in everyday life, it is often those members who occupy higher social status who tend to dominate group discussions (Chisiza 2012). Neither Kerr (1991a; 2011; 2002) nor Kalipeni and Kamlongera (1996) give an indication of which gender or age or social status group dominated the discussions.

In many ways, the PHC plays were an attempt at making meaningful and relevant participatory theatre. David Kerr (1991: 58) explains that the PHC plays restored, temporarily, a form of democratic deliberation, which had been repressed under the Banda regime. For instance, during the performances, the traditional authorities (village headmen and local party chairmen) were openly criticized for their failure to ensure that people accessed clean water and that the local clinics were well staffed. Despite initiating deliberation at community level, it was observed that communities tended to focus on providing solutions to the health problems, but failed to see how their oppression was encouraged by wider sociopolitical structures.

In his article “Community Theatre and Public Health Malawi,” Kerr (1989) explains that, although the PHC process attempted to raise the consciousness of the villagers, it was often compromised by the presence of the one party ideology at the grassroots level. He further says that while the plays had revolutionary potential, the MCP hegemony made it impossible “for any non-violent, but combative countervailing movements to take root” (484). The villagers’ discussions did not address the issue of state power or the link between government and the causes of local underdevelopment the plays exposed, unless they were pointed out by the TfD team (484). The failure of the PHC plays to enable communities to examine their condition beyond the scope of primary health care was because of the repressive political atmosphere the TfD team was operating in. It is understandable that for TfD practitioners like Chris Kamlongera and David Kerr making socialist theatre in Banda’s totalitarian state would have been dangerous for all concerned.


[1] Unlike travelling theatre at Chancellor in the 1970s, the focus of Chikwakwa Travelling Theatre from its formation (1969) was to create a local language popular theatre through theatre workshops in the rural areas of Zambia (Kerr 1991; 1995).
[2] In the mid-1970s, the Chikwakwa Travelling Theatre had greatly been influenced by the pioneering work of Leadza Batanani (see Kerr 1991b; 1995; Byam 1999).
[3] The third sketch, Nzeru Zayekha (Mr Know It All), was about modern farming methods. It pitted the superstitious, Mr Chakufwa, who believed in using charms for a good harvest. Following a visit by the Agricultural Instructors in the community, his friends adapted modern farming methods and produced good crops. Chakufwa’s garden fails and he accuses his friends of casting an evil spell on his crops.
[4] During the Mbalachanda workshop, a Chichewa and Tumbuka version of Timpunza Mvula’s The Lizard’s Tail was adapted and became an instant hit in urban areas.

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*Zindaba Chisiza is lecturer in Drama in the Department of Fine and Performing Arts at the University of Malawi, Chancellor College. He recently received his PhD from the University of Leeds entitled Deadly Masculinities: Towards a Theatrical Toolbox for Exploring Identity and HIV with Young Malawian Men. In his study, Chisiza examined how various participatory theatre-based techniques can be used to enable young men to interrogate how hegemonic masculinities increase their HIV risk, and that of their partners, and how change might be negotiated. His current research interests include participatory theatre, young people’s theatre, masculinities, arts-based HIV prevention and health and development communication.

Copyright © 2017 Zindaba Chisiza
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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In Search of Theatre for Development in Malawi: a Modern History
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