I am currently living in Malawi, writing a book about this beautiful country, which will be published by Scotland’s leading independent publisher Luath Press in 2020.
I am also filing a weekly Letter from Malawi for the Scotsman newspaper, still Scotland’s national daily. This one was published on 6th September 2019. You can read all of them here
The MC’s red bow tie glowed against his pristine white shirt, his electric blue suit merging into the even more startlingly blue curtains behind him.
“We were frightened when we had this idea, we didn’t know what to expect. Indeed, there were a lot of doubters, but VIP guests, ladies and gentlemen, they are here. The Temptations are here in Malawi!”
And with the cheers of some 500 people gently ringing in his ears, he walked off the stage, the curtains swinging slowly back to reveal a 10 piece band tuning up. In front of them, four microphones stood waiting.
My husband and I looked at each other. “Where are they?” I whispered. “Patience,” he smiled. “It’s the build-up.”
First ever USA pop group in Malawi
It had been a long wait. We bought our tickets in May, from our local off-licence, along with a bottle of Malawi gin and some sugar-roasted groundnuts. The gin was £4.20 and the (VIP) tickets cost £55 each – half our weekly budget.
We justified them as our joint birthday gifts to each other. This was a big night for us, and as it turned out, an even bigger night for Malawi.
“This is the first time a famous pop group from the USA has ever played in Malawi,” the MC told us earlier. It appears global rock stars are not in the habit of adding Malawi to their tour schedule, unless, of course, they are looking for an instant family to adopt.
Just as I was getting bored cheering, four old men shuffled on to the stage, silver lurex jackets strained over their bellies. The band struck up, and the intro to ‘Get Ready’ boomed out.
I would be lying if I said it was the best concert I have ever been to – that was David Bowie at the Barrowlands in 1997 – but towards the end of their 75-minute set, the men found their mojo.
Now dressed in shimmering gold lurex suits, they delivered a virtuoso version of ‘Papa was a Rollin’ Stone’ with all the verve and close harmonies that made them so influential. It was magical.
“It’s hot here,” grunted Otis Williams as they finished the classic number. He is the only original and surviving member of the line-up that shook first Detroit, then the world with their sweet soul music.
“That’s cos it’s Africa,” laughed his vocalist sidekick. “This is my first time in the motherland,” he roared, “We’ve been here for two days and we ain’t had no rest. Malawians like to party. You like to eat!”
Music is part of daily life in Malawi
Malawians also like to sing and dance. Music is as much a part of daily life as maize.
Church services are a joyous weekly event where people dance in the pews and choirs sing gospel, their glorious, unaccompanied voices soaring, it seems, straight up to heaven.
Even funerals are a time for singing. When my dear friend Homba died a few weeks ago, women gathered in her living room, now a traditional vigil room (nsiwa), where her body was to lie for 24 hours before burial.
They sang a constant stream of hymns the whole time, their poignant voices praising a god in whose arms they believed Homba now lay.
Contemporary Malawian musicians, from the Black Missionaries to Hazel Mak, are influenced by the sounds of reggae, hip-hop and soul, which of course have their own roots in the traditional music of sub-Saharan Africa.
Malawi’s ancient drums, banjos and zithers, made by hand for hundreds of years, are today’s ten-piece drum kits, electric guitars and electronic keyboards. The modern world dances to the ancient rhythms of Africa.
Missionaries almost destroyed music of Malawi
But the missionaries who flocked to Malawi in the wake of David Livingstone almost destroyed the music of Malawi.
Harry Johnston, Malawi’s first British governor, wrote in 1897, “There is evidence that before the coming of the white men to these countries, bringing the abominable concertina, panpipes, penny whistle and harmonium, the natives played more musical instruments of their own than they do now, and thought much more of native music.”
Indeed, according to John Lwanda, a Lanarkshire GP and expert in the music of his homeland, the missionaries regarded Malawi’s music as “inferior or heathen” and did their best to suppress it.
Even today, traditional music is not taught in Malawi schools, but as the new school term begins after the summer holidays, this is not what is at the forefront of people’s minds.
Finding the money to pay for school fees is what plagues most parents. Every child is entitled to free primary education, from age six to 13 years old, but secondary education comes at a cost.
High cost of education in Malawi
In the run up to the May election, the government announced an end to formal fees for public secondary schools, but these have been replaced by “development” fees.
The lowest of these are £30 a year, and with more than half of Malawians living below the official poverty line of £150 a year, secondary education is an unattainable luxury for the majority of the population.
And private secondary schools can charge upwards of £700 for a school session, well out of the reach of most people, even those in a formal job.
But parents will do anything to send their children to the best school they can afford. Our friend Gifted, who works at his local hospital as the head porter, grows beans and maize to sell for his twins’ education. “I will go without eating to save money for Comfort and Collins to go to a good school,” he says. “Education is our best hope of developing as a nation.”
Another friend Amos, who works for a Malawi NGO, spends more than half his monthly salary putting his three younger sisters through school. “It is my duty as the first born,” he shrugs, even though it means that he cannot afford to marry his girlfriend for at least another five years. “My commitment is to my family’s education,” he says.
But for most Malawi teenagers, their education ends at primary school. Less than one fifth of 14 to 17 year olds – only 300,000 youngsters – are currently in secondary education. The rest are married, giving birth, searching for work, growing food, living life much as their ancestors did before the white people came and tried to ban their music.
The week started on a high, and ended on one too, with the promise of a very generous donation from Tilhill Forestry towards our campaign to restore the glorious jacaranda trees to Mzuzu High Street.
“Woooh, that is good news indeed” messaged Alexander, my fellow campaigner and former mayor. “Very good news, tell them a big thank you from Mzuzu.”
So “yewo,” Peter and Jill. Tawonga chomene. We thank you very much.