Thomas Chibade was born in 1986, a year after the first case of Aids was reported in Malawi. For the next two decades, HIV and Aids would claim many Malawian lives.
Chibade released his first album at 19 in 2005 after experiencing personal hardships as an orphan and witnessing deaths caused by Aids. Hence, his music addresses societal issues and everyday life in Malawi during the 1990s and 2000s. They include death, orphanhood, intergenerational sex, property grabbing and domestic violence.
Although he was a school dropout, Chibade’s music released between 2005 and 2011 was relatable, thought-provoking and holistic, often made from the point of view of a counsellor.
Now that he is gone, his music serves as a historical archive of Malawi’s social, political, and economic histories in the early 21st century.
Chibade composed songs such as Edziyo, Kulibe, Samalani Moyo, Awa ndiwo Mawu Anga, Mufatse, Mukandipepesele, Kuziletsa and Ulova, all addressing the HIV and Aids epidemic. In all the songs, he laments the tremendous loss of life and the prevailing sexual immorality in society.
In Kulibe, he chronicles the adoption of antiretroviral therapy (ART) in 2004 and the fact that infected people were not physically noticeable anymore.
The lyrics open with “Chioneka dibwi dibwi chikamayenda koma nkati mwake chinawola, mwananga uzingopenya koma usatole” translated to mean “all that glitters is not gold, don’t get excited, my child just watch don’t pick it”, to emphasise the new danger that came with HIV medication which removed physical appearance as a factor in determining who was infected by the virus. Part of the chorus goes: “Tikapanda kudziletsa tonse tidzasowa otiyika ku masamba, koma pano chitetezo kulibe. Apanga mankhwala otalikitsa moyo, chinatha kufana ndi singano, pano chili dibwidibwi chabweleranso amayo. Kodi ndi mtendere umenewo?[If we are not careful, we will all die. They have developed life-prolonging drugs; she was so thin like a needle, but now she looks very healthy.]
The high mortality caused by the HIV and Aids epidemic, especially in the productive age group of 15-49, created a crisis of orphanhood in Malawi.
By the end of 2001, there were about 470 000 children orphaned by HIV and Aids. Such children, often taken care of by grandparents and other members of extended families, were vulnerable to many ills which he captured in Freedom Fighter, Dziko and Muziwaletsa. In Freedom Fighter, he narrates the struggles of an orphaned boy, likely himself, who has no parental protection and drops out of school because of poverty. In Muziwaletsa, Chibade recounts the experiences of orphans who sometimes suffered at the hands of their guardians. He pleads with those taking care of orphans to love the children in their care and understand them. The artist also addresses cases where orphaned children were exploited by being turned into labourers or forced to get married, especially for girls.
While he largely viewed orphans as victims, Che Nkhumba also portrayed orphans as potential perpetrators. This exemplifies how holistic he was in his commentary. For example, in Muziwaletsa, he talks about Mwandida, an orphaned adolescent girl who goes out with older men. He warns her against this behaviour and the pconsequences of death if she does not change. About 13 percent of Aids cases reported in Malawi in 1997 occurred among 15–24-year-olds, most of whom were women.
The high number of Aids-related deaths in the 1990s and 2000s worsened the challenges faced by women and children. As most women were not economically independent, a deceased husband’s family tended to victimise widows and orphans by grabbing the family property.
In Nkhondo, Chibade portrays the frenzy of a family vying for their deceased relative’s belongings. “Munali abwenzi amunanga alipo, lero apita nkhondo amayi” captures how widows were at the mercy of their husbands’ relations, in what can best be described as a war.
Beyond HIV and Aids, Chibade also commented on issues such as unemployment, crime, and poverty. In Ulova, he discusses high unemployment, crime rates in the early 2000s, and the fertiliser subsidy programme.
The artist also comments on the privatisation of State-owned companies such as David Whitehead and Sons.
He argues that this policy increased unemployment and poverty rates in Malawi. In Ndalira and Mukandipepesele Chibade sang about the criminalisation of poverty, such as the experiences of vendors who were chased from the streets in Malawi’s major cities and arrested between 2006 and 2012. In songs like Demokalase, Sitilola, Wandiliza and Zatukusira, the artist explored political questions relating to democracy, unfulfilled election promises, tribalism and political violence.
One of Chibade’s most popular songs is Mawu Anga, a love song alongside Ndimakukonda, Mpaka Liti, Nkhani Zovuta, Mukanditayire ku Nyanja and Ubatchala. In these songs, he expresses love to a loved one and addresses problems in sexual relationships such as infidelity and domestic violence.
Listening to Chibade’s music takes one on a journey through the history of Malawi in the 1990s and 2000s. The broader organising theme being Aids, Chibade addresses the epidemic, death, orphanhood, property grabbing, intergenerational sex, sexual immorality, and domestic violence.
Through his storytelling, Thomas Chibade has left behind an archive that will inform us of the prevailing circumstances of his time for generations to come.