They have an uncanny ability to study other people’s every act, and without exercising any sense of judgement— as in condemnation— make fun of life’s situations through ‘borrowed’ voices.
During the performance, the artist— in this case the mimicker— thinks like the individual he mimics but, according to Frank Naligonje, the trick, or rather skill, lies in thinking like the mimicked but then discarding the mimicked public figure’s characteristics the moment the artist jumps off the stage.
This is what Kenwood Sambalika, Naligonje, Snowden Tembo and Sambani Petros have mastered to do in Malawi.
As they say, giant steps start with child-like steps. In the case of Malawi, Tembo was the first one to throw himself into the ring of mimicking.
Originally a poet, who would cut across the performance stage like a scythe, prouder of his verses, he decided one day that he could manage to feel prouder but in someone else’s voice.
“And, with my little understanding, it hit me that I would not land myself in trouble if I started mimicking a public, former or active, figure. I wanted to focus on someone who had, at one point or another, been taken care of through taxes which we all pay,” Tembo says.
That is how former president the late Bingu wa Mutharika became his choice of public leader.
Tembo knew that there was no physical resemblance
between him and Mutharika, which did not come as a surprise to him because Tembo grew up knowing that there is much less variety in life, no more so when it comes to human faces than human species.
“However, while similarities, in terms of faces, get rapidly exhausted, this is not true of voices. One can maintain their own voice after puberty for ages to come. One can also master someone else’s voice and, through training and continuous practice, perfect the act. This is what I do everyday,” said Tembo, whose mimicking name is Mr Malawi.
Maybe mimicking runs deep in artists’ blood for, after observing that Tembo was becoming the centre of attention at performance venues as well as the country, Naligonje decided to try his luck.
“I learned, through experience, that not all people can love the same person all the time. This is even more applicable to public leadership than other spheres of life. Not all people can love a leader. Others loathe leaders; others love the leader that others loathe.
“So, I opted for former president Dr Bakili Muluzi as the one I would mimic. We, in the country, are lucky that we have had over five presidents since 1994 and this means we have a wide pool of leaders to choose from,” Naligonje said.
That is how he became known as Atcheya.
The Atcheya name is derived from Muluzi himself, who became United Democratic Front chairperson after serving the country for two, five-year terms, the maximum the Republican Constitution allows.
And, like Malawi’s growing legion of presidents since Malawians opted for a shift from one party politics to multiparty politics in 1993, followed by the elections of 1994, the mimicking profession has embraced a diversity of faces.
In this diversity is Kenwood Sambalika, who made it a point to bring former president Joyce Banda to the performance stage.
But, parting ways with tradition, Sambalika did not opt for names such as Bingu and Atcheya; he went for a completely strange name of Aunt Geti.
That is not all. Despite that he is male, he mimics a female president, which calls for more command of the vocal chords because making the voice of Banda come through is no mean task.
“Training. That is the secret,” he said.
Then, there is Sambani Petros, the Salima-based man who mimics Peter Mutharika, Malawi’s most immediate past president.
At Kaputu Primary School Ground in Salima District, Petros mesmerised audiences during a performance in Salima District.
“I know I can make it big. I do not think it is good that almost all mimickers in Malawi are based in cities. Actually, not cities; a city. All the mimickers we know are based in Blantyre. I want to change the narrative. A mimicker can come from anywhere. A mimicker can mimic anywhere,” he said.
Whatever the differences, there is one thing uniting them all: Inactivity due to the Covid pandemic.
Fortunately, Arts Minister Michael Usi says he appreciates challenges that artists are facing and has sensitised the government to the seriousness of the situation.
He says it is the government’s wish that artists prosper not only on stage, but in the pocket too.
One only hopes that, as mimickers are on mute and the government is strategising on how to bail them and other artists out, someone’s heart is, like a loud drum, throbbing on their creative faculties so that they can join the growing art of mimicking.