Malawians in the arts industry seem addicted to hunting 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 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.
No wonder, Film Association of Malawi (Fama) President Ezaius Mkandawire is on record to have said, while arts and other festivals could become a useful developmental tool when well-planned, their meaning could easily be diluted when they are employed with a freedom or frequency beyond reason.
“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,” Mkandawire said.
Indeed, experience in Malawi has shown that 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, ” Mkandawire said.
Of course, Musicians Union of Malawi (Mum) President Gloria Manong’a observes that musicians in the country would have benefitted more from festivals than at the moment had it been that they get their value’s worth.
At the moment, as Covid-19 restrictions remain in force, musicians can only take it as an opportunity to reflect on how to come back with renewed faith, hope and energy.
Former Mum president Reverend Chimwemwe Mhango said festivals, especially where international artists patronise, accord local artists the opportunity to network, hence festivals are a necessity in Malawi.
At one point, for example, local comedians Izeki [now late] and Jakobo and their Zambian counterparts Dikiloni and Difikoti chalked an agreement to promote their game, thanks to a meeting that took place at one of the arts activities in Malawi.
He said musicians should also take the opportunity to work on collaborations because, on their own, local artists can pull audience members in droves.
That way, festivals that have become almost forgotten, such as Likoma Islanders, could be resuscitated.
Solomonic Peacocks Director MacArthur Matukuta, whose organisation has been organising Easter Arts Festival in such cities as Lilongwe and Blantyre, said artists could take advantage of the break to become masters of economy and other things that may help them make the best out of their art.
“From our experience with the Easter Arts Festival, we have learned that the economy benefits in a number of ways. Among other things, 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,” Matukuta said.
Organisers of Likoma Festival— which Likoma Islanders spearheaded, when it started in August 2014— lamented lack of collaboration in the industry for the activity’s on-and-off nature. In fact, it has been over five years since artists from far and wide attended the event.
However, there was a glimmer of hope when, at one time, Lake of Stars organisers 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,” Mkandawire said.
But, with Covid19 restrictions on song, it may be long before artists from far and wide converge in, say, Likoma District, Nkhata Bay District, Mangochi District or Salima District, where some of the country’s well known festivals have taken place.
In the meantime, according to Culture Minister Michael Usi, the government is doing its best to keep the flame of hope alive in the arts industry, a typical example of this being the K20 million that the government has set aside to give artists a boost.
The package is meant to help artists create Covid-19-related messages so that, together with the rest of the population, they can rid the country of coronavirus.
Meanwhile, no one can form a precise estimation of when activities such as festivals would return.