Malawi Aids tales get set to music

April 28, 1995

When Kondwani Phwandaphwanda was accepted as a music student at Malawi's prestigious Chancellor College he was excited at the prospect of moving from his home village to the sophisticated town of Zomba, and vaguely anticipated leading a cultured urban lifestyle mixing with his country's intelligentsia.


It came as something of a shock to learn that in fact he would be spending much time back in the rural areas, writing songs about such down-to-earth topics such as Aids prevention, immunisation and diarrhoea. "At first I guess I was a bit surprised," admits Kondwani. "But now I realise that music is a very strong tool, and it's important that we help communicate these messages."

Chancellor College's pioneering music syllabus was developed by American ethnomusicologist Mitchel Strumpf. Before coming to Malawi 12 years ago Dr Strumpf worked in universities and music colleges in several African countries, and was impressed by the imaginative ways in which many governments and aid agencies all over the continent used music and drama to communicate developmental messages.

When he was appointed to head the music department at Chancellor, Dr Strumpf decided it would be interesting to try something similar in the context of an academic department.

For their first two years the students at Chancellor follow a fairly conventional western-style music syllabus, learning harmony, counterpoint and theory. After that community work forms a big part of the course, and the students are sent out on a regular basis to visit remote areas and live alongside the villagers composing songs and writing plays for them.

When the students arrive in a new village they spend some time just getting to know the inhabitants. This often means changing out of their smart city clothes and getting down to some hard physical work.

"The male students might help in the fields or play football with the menfolk," said Kondwani. "The girls do domestic work - like pounding millet." The students also ask to listen to some of the villagers' own music and drama, and spend time talking to their performers.

Only once they have become part of the community do the students begin to discuss more serious issues. "The villagers are encouraged to speak freely," says Kondwani, who is quick to stress that the idea is to listen rather than to lecture. "It's not us giving them information, but rather a discussion to which everyone is encouraged to contributed."

When they have discovered the issues and problems most affecting their lives, the students start to write plays and compose songs for the villagers. Here too they encourage participation. "Maybe we include a few of their musicians and actors," says Kondwani. "This gives people confidence and helps them to feel part of things."

One subject which crops up all too frequently is the problem of Aids. It is estimated that a tenth of Malawi's population, including a third of all sexually active urban adults, are HIV positive. The students hear countless tales of people infected with HIV, and see all around them the devastation caused by the virus.

"Where is my mother, where is my father?" go the words of one particularly haunting song. "How did it happen that I became an orphan? I remember my father and mother very well and I know that no one can love me like they did. I don't want to be an orphan."

By the time they leave an area, most of the villagers are wandering around humming these very catchy tunes; Kondwani said a sure sign of success was "when people sing our songs this means they are repeating the messages in them".

People regularly vow to change their lifestyles. He said: "One man we worked with admitted to me that he was very promiscuous, but after he heard us perform he said he was sure that he was going to change, because he wanted to protect his wife and children from Aids."

As well as serving an altruistic purpose, this opportunity to see rural life at first hand also helps the students in their own artistic work. "If we want to convey a message which will really touch people, then it makes sense to incorporate into our songs and plays some of the things which happen in real life," said second-year arts student Stella Hauya. "I don't think it would count for anything if we just learned from books."

In addition to the community work, Chancellor College aims to act as an outreach centre for artistic talent throughout the country. Every year the music department spearheads a nationwide choral workshop and competition, sponsored by Unicef, which brings together around 300 Malawian choristers and composers to write "Songs for a Better Malawi". The music is played on the radio, recorded and published for circulation throughout the country - and often subsequently adopted by choirs, churches and community groups.

In the developing world this two-way learning process is clearly a good idea; Dr Strumpf thinks that western arts departments might be well advised to try something similar. "At the moment I'm in the process of proposing to music schools in the United States that they might like to incorporate community work into their courses," he told me. "Maybe some of the skills we have worked on and developed here could be transferred for use in western universities."

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