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Using art to protect environment

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Apart from entertaining people, art will always play a crucial role in the society apart.

It is a vehicle that is today very key in disseminating information on health, education and environment.

Actors have used their platforms to discourage people against cutting trees, explaining the consequences of climate change, among many other messages on environmental protection.

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A lot of mountains and other areas which used to be green with trees lay bare today.

In Blantyre for instance if you go to Soche and Ndirande mountains you will notice there are no trees.

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The trees have been lost to charcoal burning for energy.

Concerned with the situation, a Blantyre-based group Nkhokwe Arts, a group made up of ex-prisoners decided to come out and help by creating a play that goes deeper into tackling issues of conservation.

Not an easy feat to do for a theatre group especially in a space where politics has taken centre stage and people are so obsessed about politics and such issues are being ignored.

It is rare for theatre groups to come out full throttle and work on a production that simply looks at the issue of environmental conservation.

Nkhokwe Arts came up with a play courtesy of National Geographic.

Directed by renowned actors Mphundu Mjumira, Tawonga Nkhonjera and Effie Makepeace, the play titled Mapiri ndi Moyo stars actors such as Christopher Chinseu, Chimwemwe Foster, Numeri Kamwendo, Peter Kungwa, Maxwell Makande, Nicholas Malunga, Harrison Masangano, Bester Msasa, Patrick Mbvundula, Gaspar Phiri, Dinnis Shaibu and Kumbukani Tembo.

The other supporting team in the play which has toured places such as Phalombe, Mulanje, Lilongwe and Blantyre include Felistas Kamulonie, Kondwani Chamwala from Mulanje Conservation Trust and Adam Weymouth.

Mapiri ndi Moyo literary translated as Mountains are life is a play devised from an extensive research process including in-depth interviews with stakeholders and community members around the mountain, followed by a group research process on the mountain itself.

The whole group spent 10 days on top of Mulanje Mountain exploring the environment and speaking to those they met, from grass cutters to forestry officers to illegal cutters of the Cedar tree and tourists.

Mjumira, who has starred in several plays with Nanzikambe Arts and played a lead role in a play Fear Eats the Soul by Theater Konstanz, says the play uses these experiences to tell all sides of the story and ask questions, rather than giving answers.

This is a mature production that shows the best of Nkhokwe Arts where the actors showcase their acting skills in drama, music and dance.

“The play toured 10 communities in Mulanje where deforestation is impacting the community. In all the areas, massive audiences gathered to watch and crucially, discuss and debate the issues raised in the play feeding into the group’s understanding,” Mjumira says.

Nkhokwe Arts has also staged the play at the 2018 Blantyre Arts Festival (Baf) where they won the hearts of people.

From the word go, people followed the story which opens with a touching scene.

“In every community we visited, people identified with the play and the issues rose, loudly responding to questions and suggesting ideas for the protection of the mountain in the future,” he said.

During one of the performances at Migowi School in Phalombe, one of the traditional leaders could not hold it but shake hands with the actors after the play.

Bernard Joni also said the play went deeper into the issues affecting people in the area.

“I have followed this play with keen interest and it has been done well to connect with everyone. It is a piece which is so touching and I wish if we had officials from the government particularly forestry department, who are involved in some of these corrupt practices,” Joni said.

The opening scene of the play shows the future, a community facing floods and landslides after the mountain is left bare because of the cutting down of trees.

In the play we meet an old man and a narrator, who reminisces about the past, when trees were plentiful.

The good old days when spirits were close by.

Then the Cedar tree is discovered by the British colonials and immediate commercial exploitation follows, destroying huge amounts of ancient forest.

The other scene is even more interesting when people get to see the father and founder of the Malawi nation, the late Hastings Kamuzu Banda, who arrives and the Cedar tree is protected and named the national tree of Malawi.

But the coming of multi-party system of government, forests are being wiped out and the Cedar tree becomes less and less protected.

In another scene we also meet a group of Cedar tree cutters better known as M’banyas who know the mountain and forest in and out; they meet forestry officials, who are on patrol and instead of bringing them to book for cutting down trees and the officials end up being bribed.

Shifting from one scene to the other is not at all boring in the play as there is a fusion of traditional dances.

In the play we also get to meet a man, who is referred to as ‘Big Man’, who hires men around the area to cut down more Cedar trees and he has all the freedom having already used his money and power.

The play also takes us to the Mbanya family introducing the audience to the grandfather, son, daughter, father and mother.

A young man visits the Mbanya family with the hope of marrying their daughter and the family learns that the young man is also into charcoal business.

The young man, who succeeds in marrying Mbanya’s daughter, had moved from Mwanza to Mulanje in search of a proper forest for his charcoal business having finished all the trees in Mwanza.

But while the Mbanya family welcomes the young man with the hope that he will solve their problems through the charcoal burning business, their son is not happy. This leads him to arguing with the young man and even his parents.

We later also meet a local Non Governmental Organisation (NGO) in the community which is working with the forestry department to protect and conserve the environment in Mulanje District particularly focusing on the Cedar tree.

So many challenges come up later which forces Mbanya’s son to create a group with the aim of fighting those who destroy the environment.

But all this is not easy and the climax sees the death of the grandfather, whose spirit is destroyed by the erosion of the environment and the discord in his family.

“We would like to continue the work of Mapiri ndi Moyo – the members of Nkhokwe Arts have become truky passionate about the issue of conservation and protection of the environment. We want to harness this energy and the impact of the performance, expanding the play to address deforestation more widely and bring it to the whole nation,” Mjumira said.

And for all the entertainment that the play offers, Nkhokwe Arts has dug deeper to tackle an issue that Malawi has to address with urgent attention and as Foster and team sing at the end that if “we are not careful in protecting our environment we will experience floods”.

Carrying poles which they liken to trees, they sing izizi izizi zizachitikadi…

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