The reopening of the French Cultural Centre in Malawiâ€™s commercial city, Blantyre, delayed by about two hours, thanks to a visibly unprepared team of engineers charged with reconnecting the venue and fine-tuning the sound equipment.
Touted as Blantyre’s entertainment mecca, the centre, which has suffered two years of looting due to disuse, was scheduled to spring back to life with the official opening of Blantyre Arts Festival at 5pm on Thursday. However, the stage was a forest of electric wires and a cacophony of
unintelligible sounds with engineers trying to put together the loose chips just in time for the guest of honour, Minister of Tourism and Culture Daniel Liwimbi.
This subjected a sizable crowd in the terraces to a seemingly endless sound check at an open theatre which stood like an island in the dark while BAF team battled to restore electricity.
The fire-fighting exemplified in haunting terms how much the organisers had underestimated the uncurbed vandalism which followed the closure of the venue in June 2010 as well as its messy K300 million handover from the French Embassy to the ministry.
It took award-winning musician Ben Mankhamba (now village head Chingalire) to salvage the situation. The seasoned artist subjected the equipment to a bit-by-bit scrutiny, at times lamenting lack of power.
BAF director Thomas Chibambo admitted “it was not easy to renovate the venue singlehandedly, but they had to partner other organisations.”
But the slow start contradicted festival coordinator MacArthur Matukuta’s assurance that the power system would be ready as early as Tuesday. Electricity Supply Corporation (Escom) only switched on the power shortly before the ministerial function-and equipment
owner Jai Banda said it was powered by a generator.
The minister arrived at 7pm, allowing DJ Ken Klips and Zambia’s Ready for Marriage 3 reality show rep Precious Kawanga to welcome the weary audience to the fourth season of BAF.
The laughs finally came when the Bemba-speaking Kawinga switched to Chichewa in keeping with the event as a celebration of Malawian culture.
Yet its marketing tone as a diversity of cultures came loud and clear in a drum-strewn opening act featuring Mankhamba, Beatrice Kamwendo, Fikisa’s front man Godffrey Thom and a European national. The well-choreographed set featured elements of drumming, dancing and martial arts–only lacking drama, poetry, visual arts and jokes to embody the spirit of the annual carnival.
In his speech, Blantyre City Council chief executive Ted Nandolo welcomed about 500 performers, 34 sponsors and the audience–congratulating organisers for making the festival a magnet for the very best in the arts such as Mali Great Salif Keita, Poetry Africa and locals.
â€œSince 2009, BAF has made significant contributions and we are grateful to note that two schools from Blantyre will be travelling to Germany for the World Youth Theatre Festival next year,” said Nandolo, lauding BAF as a tool for uplifting arts in Blantyre.
Representing the artists, painter Elson Kambalu urged parents and government to support arts which face a lot of challenges in the country.
“The major pressure on arts in the country is the family
which views art as inferior to other professions.
“Others include lack of marketing, networking, policy, training opportunities, sponsorship and information from the government. There are times I have received letters to go and attend a workshop that happened 10 days earlier and wonder whether the officer knew what they were doing,â€ he lamented.
The minister commended BAF for the prestigious event, saying government supports the arts as part of our culture and tourism marketing.
“If we want to excel, we must sell what we have. Thank you so much BAF team. Arts and culture is part of life,” said Liwimbi.
The launch was decorated by live performances from Mankhamba and Kanyenda mganda from his village in Lilongwe, gospel artist Allan Chirwa, veteran acoustic singer Giddes Chalamanda, former street kid Sila Bakali, visually impaired singer Peter Sumbrelo and comedian
Norwegian Ambassador AsbjÃ¸rn Eidhammer said Norway was proud to associate with the festival. Norway is also supporting the reform of the Censorship Act of 1962 as well as the digitalisation and preservation of ancient music recorded on reels at MBC.