Once upon a time there was a voice that echoed at Chirunga Campus through verse, mime, song, dance, paint and theatre. Once upon a time.
Today, silence resonates from the walls of Chancellor College as the hushed voice remains stuck in the nostalgic past. The lips of the creators that brought the arts alive have been sewn.
Once upon a time, there was the Chancellor College Travelling Theatre. That was the time the choral and writers’ workshops were vibrant, not only on campus but also made an impact on the Malawi society. Gone are the days fun lovers could flock to the open theatre and watch Udzu performances-—so-called for they were free. On the whole, the arts week died a natural death and the drama festival is gone to the river. Once upon a time visual arts exhibitions were not uncommon at the campus.
The tears drop from many an eye.
Ethnomusicologist Waliko Makhala sheds several. He remembers a time Chancellor College could bring out such performances as Growing Wings, Bongeni Ngema’s Woza Albert, Athol Fugard’s Sizwe Banzi is Dead, a play Fugard wrote collaboratively with two South African actors.
Even in the times of the legendary Du Chisiza Junior, there were times when the Travelling Theatre would come face to face with Chisiza’s Wakhumbata Ensemble Theatre.
“Those were the days! This is the time that some of us noted the poetic greatness of the likes of Benedicto Wokomaatani Malunga. Have the lips of the Chirunga creators been sewn or is it because we are now more free that the voice no longer matters?” wonders Makhala.
Constitutional law expert Edge Kanyongolo, remembered for his role in such plays as Sizwe Banzi is Dead andMchira wa Buluzi, feels that nostalgia. He agrees, to some extent, more freedom has suppressed the voice of decent at Chirunga.
With David Kerr and Viphya Harawa, Kanyongolo co-authored Growing Wings, which students took as far as Italy. It featured such versatile actors as Rowland Mbvundula, currently a High Court judge.
“I remember when we were acting Sizwe Banzi, which was attacking the oppression the blacks in South African were facing, we had a feeling the play was relevant as we were facing the one party oppression here. Oppression contributed, in a way, to the inspiration. On the other hand, one can reckon that even in great democracies like America, creative works are evident,” said Kanyongolo.
He recalls when the travelling theatre’s popularity was so immense. It was not just for entertainment but education as well.
“I remember one time we went as far as Mbalachanda in Mzimba to perform a play touching on tobacco farming. When we went to Kudya Entertainment Centre to perform Mchira wa Buluzi, half of the people who wanted to watch it were not able to enter the hall for it was full,” said Kanyongolo.
Kanyongolo observes that times have changed. In those days, he says, students had fewer distractions. With movies on the scene and an advanced social media scene, watching plays at the open theatre or the Great Hall is a thing of the past.
Reckoning the death of acting at Chirunga, drama lecturer Smith Likongwe said they are working to bring back the good old days.
“In those days, we used to perform for free, but now things have changed. To convince students to perform for free is no mean feat. It is worth reviving and one day, we will bring back the glorious day. It is not a one man’s show,” said Likongwe.
The tears are not only for drama. The writers’ workshop also vanished into oblivion.
Malawi PEN president Alfred Msadala, however, said the workshop is not dead; it is still on the operating table.
“In those days, the writers’ workshop was really vibrant with students from all departments tearing apart and discussing works. But to say that the workshop is dead would not be true for I, for one, have been there several times recently,” said Msadala.
There was a time the choral workshop had an impact on the Malawi music scene. At one point in 1987, Professor Emmanuel Mlenga who was then a rector at St Stanislaus Seminary, won a scholarship to study music under the Wagner Award. Judges were convinced Mlenga’s Nang’omba was captivating. It was a tour that changed his musical life.
Gone are the days when the Great Hall used to host performances by musicians like the Paseli brothers of the Napolo eminence and Tione Mwera.
The absence of a choral workshop makes Chancol music department head Dr Robert Chanunkha shed a tear. Nay two, three….
“We wanted the choral workshop like yesterday. It is our wish to bring it back for it helps bring into practice what students learn. For that matter, it brings together professionals who give talks on several aspects of music. The problem is funds,” says Chanunkha.
The tears keep flowing as companies, non-governmental organisations and government that used to finance the workshop tightened their wallets.
It is hazy what choked the Chanco arts throat. One thing that remains clear is the voice that once upon a time echoed at Chirunga Campus through verse, mime, song, dance and theatre is muted. The silence that has followed is deafening.