Fluffy pink feet appear in the red dust at the edge of our circle. Above them, a faded body stands about three feet from the ground, looking a little bedraggled by now. The mid-morning sun glints defiantly off the few remaining sequins that have not yet lost their sparkle. A unicorn onesie, no surprise in a festival setting.
What is slightly unusual is the chubby four-year-old face that peers out from beneath the horn topping this particular onesie. Even more striking is that the tiny unicorn is plodding determinedly through the dust of Dzaleka, a former political prison turned refugee camp in the Dowa region of central Malawi.
“It’s a very negative name,” explains hip-hop performer and poet Menes La Plume about the camp that has been his home for the past 11 years. “If I translate ‘Dzaleka’ literally, it means ‘I will never try again’ or ‘I will never do it again’. It’s about someone swearing that they will never do anything bad because they don’t want to go back to that place.”
This memory of Dzaleka carried through the 30-year rule of former Malawian president Hastings Banda, a time when political opponents were rumoured to find themselves fed to crocodiles in the pools of detention sites like this one. Such stories have been passed to the people of surrounding villages by their grandparents. Many of the refugees, fleeing conflict in neighbouring states for the relative stability of Malawi’s tentative democracy in 1994, know little more about the camp’s history than these dark legends.
Community organisation Tumaini Lethu hopes to shift such negative associations for future generations. For the past three years, a team of local volunteers drawn together by Menes has been organising the Tumaini Festival in this camp. Swahili for “hope”, Tumaini aims to promote intercultural harmony, mutual understanding, and peaceful coexistence through entertainment and artistic expression organised by Malawians and refugees together. “From desperation to hope and celebration, that’s the whole spirit behind Tumaini,” Menes says.
This vision runs parallel to the journey he experienced during his initial years at Dzaleka. Originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Menes found himself suddenly flattened out when the identity marker “refugee” became part of his character. He was stripped of the art and protest and people that paved the way here.
A depression set in that only started to shift when he began exploring small spaces in which the arts were flourishing in this new home: a choir meeting in the community hall, guitars being made by hand in the back of somebody’s room, groups of friends reading poems in their temporary shelter. Within the warren of brick structures that suggest more permanence than the people here actually experience, creativity became resistance against a loss of self.
“We are protesting, we are advocating, we are raising awareness and empowering a community through what we are doing. The music is just to spice up the event,” Menes says, explaining some of the limitations people are faced with in this country.
Malawi is a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, but it holds nine reservations to it. The result is that refugees here do not have freedom of movement, the right to employment or property, or the right to attend public schools and universities. More than 34 000 people live at Dzaleka with limited resources and little opportunity to pursue other options. “People are there and no one even knows they exist,” says Menes.
This is echoed by Malawian academic Catherine Makhumula in her exploration of the arts at Dzaleka. In a 2018 article, Makhumula describes the “history of secrecy and cartographic invisibility” that shrouds Dzaleka, a space scholars have noted barely features in national or international discussions of refugee flows and blockages in the region, despite it being Malawi’s only permanent refugee camp at present. Some have said that this deepens the marginalisation of voices emerging from that space.
A cosmopolitan space in contrast
In the middle of the festival, it is difficult to imagine this place as unseen. Fluttering chitenge flags chart an aerial map of the festival ground against a relentless blue sky. Beneath them, tides of bodies sweep from the Kwizera stage where Rwandan dancers twist, through the cultural ground and back toward the Elikya stage where an emcee translates fluidly between Chichewa, English and Swahili. Along the way, they swirl between stalls selling steaming chai tea and chapatis wrapped thickly around spiced meat, jollof rice and watermelon, in an organic cosmopolitan meeting point.
Yet it is also a space of deep contrast. Amahoro drummers leap powerfully into the sky, but most in the crowd watching cannot work freely to meet basic needs. Small businesses in the camp find new opportunities through the visitors who buy from their stalls, but the owners will need written permission to visit Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital, to pursue these opportunities. Children balance on tall poles silhouetted by a perfect sunset, but not a single tree breaks the horizon behind them. For organisers, these jarring juxtapositions are part of the point.
“We put people in the middle where they can balance to see the reality and to see what refugees can offer,” Menes says. “What they are missing and what struggles they have, and also [to] see what they can offer. I think we give that platform and that’s where the conversation starts.”
“Though we don’t have proper housing like everyone, we invite people to come stay with us and say in those houses we still have life, we still have minds and we still have positivity. We can even share that space with people,” he adds.
In a community rendered almost entirely dependent on foreign aid organisations, asserting the ability to give is a political act.
Back in the dusty circle, the little unicorn regards our scene solemnly. Clutching an older sibling’s hand, her brown eyes scan a large crowd of children and their three temporary entertainers.
In a six-week foray of several of Malawi’s major summer music festivals, nothing was quite like Tumaini. This place allows visitors to witness the country as more than its borders – to experience the permeable boundary that has always existed between it and neighbouring states in a history marked by so many footprints. Those here now will leave their mark as well.
“I make people understand that this festival belongs to refugees; … refugees at the front [take] … every decision,” Menes says, detailing the game of protest that has to be played to keep this project going. “To be honest, everyone has realised that our mission is to break the rules and to make sure that we work and give dignity to refugees and make sure refugees are in possession [of] and making decisions on what will happen with their festival … We manage every year to break rules little by little and ensure we make things according to our vision.
“The best way to live is to keep doing what you love and what makes you feel alive,” he adds, smiling. As the band is eliciting equally supportive roars from the audience by playing a single phrase continually, switching with each repetition from the instrumental tones of Nigeria to South Africa to the DRC and beyond, through all doubts about how the initiative may be received and thought through, the vision is convincing.