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Giving culture back its venom

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How many of you know where Kungoni Centre for Culture and Art is? Not many people know and yet it is a centre which is doing quite a lot for the country as far as preserving culture is concerned.

Kungoni Centre for Culture and Art is one of the important places that could have been utilised by the government in promoting tourism.

The last time I visited the place was in August this year when the centre which is situated at Mua in Dedza hosted an annual open day which was special in that Kungoni was celebrating its 40th anniversary.

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The free event attracted a huge audience which included people who had come all the way from Europe to be part of the celebration.

Some people, who came from Scotland, indicated during random interviews that they have been to Kungoni several times and that they always value the place because it is a heaven of cultural beauty.

The road to Kungoni established in 1976 is dusty which would keep one off but once you get to the centre, you would realise its richness and that it is no ordinary place.

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It is a centre that is preserving culture and through its different activities it hosts, has taught different people the important of culture and that without it “we are as good as a dead society.”

Father Claude Boucher nicknamed Achisale is the brains behind the creation of the Kungoni Centre for Culture and Art.

Boucher has spent a lifetime to enter into the hearts of Malawians, into the world of their own and convinced as he was, that what he was experiencing could be explained by people’s history and by the intricacy of their own tribal cultures.

This is why he spent 50 years among them, witnessing and studying their rites of passage, their songs and dances and among their many dances, a great deal of time went to the study of Gule Wamkulu, the great dance of the Chewa people.

Boucher, who speaks fluently in Chichewa and is proud to be called Malawian, arrived in the country in 1967 from his native Canada as a priest of the Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers).

His entry into the country’s cultures goes back to 1967-1968 when he did his apprenticeship of the Nyanja-Chewa language in Lilongwe.

He battled for six months with the strange vocabulary and multiple grammatical forms that could hardly stick to his mind.

During that period he was introduced to the geography and the cultures of Malawi.

The following six months were spent in the rural area of Linthipe in Dedza where he was initiated to the pastoral work and had to test his ability to talk and understand the local language.

In December 1968, Boucher was shifted to Ntcheu District among the Anthumba-Ngoni people where he was to live for the next five years and half until 1973.

Here at Nsipe, Boucher did not have to learn another language since there was only one national language. Apart from some expressions and slight differences of pronunciation, the language remained basically the same.

After a few years in their midst, Boucher became known as Bambo Chisale, a native Ntcheu, who spoke the local language fluently and with no trace of a foreign accent.

According to him, people said that if they did not see his face they could not tell that he was from foreign origin.

Life for him at Nsipe was very challenging and the intensity of Nsipe experience initiated his interest into liturgy and catechetic.

His cultural research and his being an artist led him into training painters and carvers, who became the first generation of the Kungoni artists.

The following years Boucher went back to school to be more efficient in what he already started at Nsipe. He went to Uganda in 1975- 1976 to read anthropology, liturgy and catechetic.

He later went to London University where he mastered in anthropology, religious studies and art. He was back in Malawi in 1976 with a masters and an open door for enrolling himself a PhD.

But he declined the offer and pledged that he was going to do his PhD in the field.

The studies done had equipped him with the necessary tools for starting a brand new venture at Mua that later came to be known as Kungoni Art and Craft. Cultural research took the foreground and art became its handmaid and the project became known as Kungoni Centre for Culture and Art.

The Chamare Museum was born from such interaction and the period that followed the creation of the museum opened a whole range of new activities for the centre. Kungoni later started offering cultural courses for various organisations and brought together families to be trained as permanent members of a cultural troupe as ambassadors to their own cultures.

The third initiative was to launch an annual festival in August that celebrates culture and perpetuates the memory of “our ancestors both in faith and in cultural values.”

The creation of a cultural troupe and that of the establishment of an annual festival served as a tool for inventory and revival of traditional dances that are quickly disappearing.

Born in 1941, Boucher’s story and that of Kungoni has travelled like a rocket outside the country no wonder he gets different invitations to speak about himself and the centre.

And on Tuesday he took another journey to La Caverna in Blantyre with some of the members from Kungoni to speak to members of the Society of Malawi.

Boucher was the centre of attraction during the gathering and his talk was titled 40 Years of Kungoni Activities: Theatre for Reculturalisation.

Chairperson of the Society of Malawi Carl Bruesson said they hold gatherings and this time around they thought of hosting Boucher and Kungoni team.

“It was important because the main reason was to appreciate the treasures of Mua Mission, well known to everybody. There is a lot that we needed to learn and sometimes you need to bring the village to the city, there is a lot we have learnt in terms of culture and there were messages and concerns,” Bruesson said.

He said every month they hold a series of talks by someone in Malawi on issues of culture and heritage and that these talks are always different and that their members can learn a lot on where Malawi has come from.

“We need more Malawian members in the Society of Malawi, Enjoy the facilities at Mandala House which is rich, there are a lot of books, knowledge that we need to be reminded of,” he said.

Boucher said the two decades that he has spent introducing various international participants, including Malawians to local cultures and his skill in animating the cultural troupe have equipped him with unique experience hence sharing his story and that of Kungoni.

He said the tentative title given to his talk Theatre of Reculturalisation, the word theatre was put in inverted commas because the word is not to be understood from a Western perspective but from the Malawian setup.

“Malawi theatre makes use of dramatization, mimes, singing and dancing. Such plays are innovative and are meant to mobilize the local communities and motivate them for action and change,” Boucher said.

He said the message voiced by the theme of the year comes from the community and goes back to the community that is constantly experiencing cultural changes.

He said although the activities of Kungoni are focused on culture, culture does not exist in isolation.

“I would like to set for you an example based on the last two years of our country being hit by drought and famine. Such outcome touching the majority of the population could not be kept unspoken when one wants to celebrate culture,” Boucher said.

He added:

“They could not be swept under the carpet and ignored when everyone is feeling the pinch of its consequences. The theme for last year’s 2015 festival was therefore obvious. Malawi culture could contribute to the understanding of climate change,” he said.

Boucher said people realise that rain shortage has its own immediate roots in deforestation and charcoal burning.

He said the Kungoni group sat down and opted for one of the most known creation myth, that of Kaphirintiwa.

They dramatized the Chewa myth of origin with a particular focus on deforestation and disappearance of wildlife and according to him, the play was emphasizing the need for replanting trees and protecting forests to rejuvenate the land.

It was the same in August this year when they also inspired by a Yao-Nyanje tale introduced a young hero in the person of Kachirambe, who wrestled with the monster pumpkin that swallowed Malawi.

Boucher said this symbolic story was very fitting for the after effects of the two years of famine in the villages adding that the monster was not the famine itself but the behavior of the people, who have turned against each other and become inhuman.

The play focused on corruption among others as well as the killing of people with albinism.

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