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Learning the hard way as poets improvise in hard times

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ON LIVE-PERFORMANCE MUTE—Benedicto Okomaatani Malunga

It does not pay to acquire a certain greatness in an industry where, against common sense, those that join along the way become poorer and sadder than those that opened the way.

In an ideal world, even if that world were the creative sphere, painful lessons from the past must be enough to push players in any sector towards the stage of deep contentment; the type of contentment that jolts the mind into a wakefulness that sets one on the path to success.

However, this seems not to be the case with poetry at the local level, where money-generation chances are getting slimmer and slimmer each passing day.

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Especially with the Covid-19 pandemic, which has taken the fun out of public gatherings as no more than 50 people can share the pain, and the laughter, during public events.

“At first, we, poets, were crying foul that Copyright Society of Malawi officials were overlooking us when it came to the payment of royalties to artists.

“But we overcame that challenge by organising live events such as poetry festivals. In other words, we found an alternative way of generating income, in our own small way, which compensated for our failure to access royalties. Of course, musicians also stage live events, at a fee, but to us, as poets, being able to generate money through gate collections gave us some respite,” says Joseph Madzedze, one of the vernacular language poets in the country.

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Then came the novel coronavirus, with the first case being reported in December 2019 in Wuhan, China. Madzedze did not foresee a time when restrictions would be imposed on live events altogether, or when mild restrictions would be imposed so that live performances would be limited to a group of 50 people.

But this is the case now, after Presidential Taskforce on Covid-19 co-chairpersons John Phuka and Khumbize Kandodo Chiponda announced that, due to spiralling cases of Covid-19, it was necessary to protect Malawians from further harm by instituting containment measures.

“This means we have been cut off from one of our lifelines, namely live performances. To make the best out of the situation, some of us have been composing poems and sending them to our followers via social media platforms such as WhatsApp. Poetry lovers are encouraged to contribute something but it is not always the case that people contribute,” says Madzedze, who sends poetry lovers his works once recorded in the studio.

He is not the only one who is finding the going tough. Poets under Viripanganga Poetry Movement have stopped meeting for performances at Kwa Haraba Arts and Café in Blantyre.

Instead, according to one of the group’s leaders Yankho Seunda, they now mentor each other via WhatsApp groups.

“If one poet has an artwork, they post it there and members peer-review it and polish it up. That way, we are mentoring each other”, Seunda says.

As for others, the likes of Tawonga Taddja Nkhonjera, they have gone virtual. Through virtual technology platforms, they have managed to hold online poetry shows.

Last Friday, Nkhonjera held an online poetry show and ‘diplomatically’ asked for monetary contributions by announcing that those who would be game with the idea of treating the event as an actual live event replete with a gate-fee contribute money.

After all, a lot goes into hosting a poetry show online, among the costs being data fees. In fact, the artist must dress up for the occasion and embrace choreography.

To his dismay, the contributions were not as forthcoming.

“People loved the show and I received an overwhelming response but all this did not translate to [monetary] contributions.

“As such, we will make the next show exclusive. The link to watch it will only be shared with those that pay to watch the same,” Nkhonjera says.

Call it learning the tough way, but he has a point. It is not everyone who can be a wordsmith.

Language may be acquired with comparative ease, but turning common words, even if they were part of a common language, into weapons of meaning production—through poetry, short story writing, novel writing and other forms of creative expression— requires nothing short of daily exercise.

This [the need for daily exercises in words] may have been one of the reasons local poets came up with the idea of generating some money out of their artistic works.

Through festivals such as ‘Chitsinda cha Ndakatulo’, ‘Chiphweremwe cha M’tsangulutso’ and ‘Katambalale wa Alakatuli’, poets have managed to cart home some monies collected through gate fees, CD sales at event venues and other means.

Unfortunately, largely due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the wells of money generated through festivals has all but dried up and events held virtually— like Nkhonjera’s recent virtual outing— have no guaranteed monetary returns.

And, with each passing day of inactivity, the poets’ grip on language could be lost.

The last time ‘Chitsinda cha Ndakatulo’ was held was in 2013. Eight years down the line, nobody knows why all the excitement has died down.

And, like a fading pair of jean trousers, very few seem to remember how ‘Chitsinda cha Ndakatulo’ painted the poetry scene with the bright colours of hope.

As for Land of Poets Festival, it has been slowly but surely fading into the background of fresh memories.

And Covid-19 threatens to kill the memories altogether.

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