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The Problem with Theatre for Development in contemporary Malawi


By Zindaba Chisiza

The emergence of Theatre for Development in Malawi

In Malawi, Theatre for Development - earlier known as popular theatre - started off in 1981 when the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College Travelling Theatre led by Chris Kamlongera and David Kerr created improvised vernacular plays at Mbalachanda Rural Growth Centre in Northern Malawi (Kamlongera 1984, Kerr 1987).[1] Inspiration for vernacular drama at Chancellor came in 1981 when David Kerr directed a group of drama students in an improvised Chichewa play, The Eviction - despite the English title. From 1974, Kerr had been involved in the University of Zambia’s Chikwakwa Travelling Theatre (see Kerr 1991b). During that time, he had been responsible for taking groups of university students to rural areas of Zambia and making socially relevant plays in local languages, and using local folk stories as drama and adding local dances and songs into the structure of the play (Kerr 1991, 53). This was the experience he brought to his work in Malawi.

In July 1981, at the invitation of the Office of the President and Cabinet, the Travelling Theatre led by Chris Kamlongera travelled to Mbalachanda to entertain the community in a newly built community hall (Kamlongera 1984, 220).[2] They also conducted popular theatre workshops for eight days with participants from Mbalachanda. The participants consisted of primary school teachers and extension workers. The team created and performed two pieces; a sketch on modern farming methods and another on adult literacy. The workshop had several limitations. The use of teachers and extension workers, who were arguably community leaders, rather than ordinary people, meant the issues the plays addressed did not represent those concerning the community. The plays were used to promote messages from the state to the community including using pit latrines and adopting modern farming methods. Another problem is that the plays did not open up pathways for meaningful debate. For example, audience participation was limited to soliciting comments from the audience using questions, which did not really give room for any critical thinking. When discussions happened local leaders and Malawi Congress Party loyalists took over to reinforce the government messages (Kamlongera 1984, 392). Additionally, local art forms were not included in the play, apart from one local dance. Essentially, according to Kamlongera (1984), this was propaganda theatre, promoting state endorsed messages, rather than an attempt to foster critical thinking and empowerment.

A second iteration came in 1985 when the Chancellor TfD team was invited by the Liwonde Primary Health Care Unit to help in developing a communion campaign for a German Technical Aid (GTZ) funded primary health care programme targeting a group of ten villages in Machinga district in Southern Malawi (Kalipen and Kamlongera 1996). Led by Kamlongera again the team consisted of two lecturers (Kamlongera and David Kerr) and three drama students. After learning from the limitations of the first workshop they decided to make theatre that was far more participatory. They did this by gathering health problems through community-wide group discussions at the bwalo (communal gathering). Afterwards, the PHCU and TfD team discussed the findings and created a play that was then presented to the community. Three plays were made using this process and were presented to the communities. In 1987, the team felt that dialogue driven plays were not close to any local art forms and decided to conduct a folklore workshop at Mulangali Primary School in Zomba. Participants from the ten villages were invited and participated in the sharing of indigenous art forms. The thinking was that if local art form (proverbs, folklore, dance and songs) were used it would help in encouraging audiences to actively participate (Kerr 1989). An improved play about the health problems in area (Mulangali) was created and incorporated local songs for scene transitions, motifs taken from folktales; like the trickster hare who is lazy or the newly married husband who breaks the mother-in law avoidance taboo, were used for the play’s structure (Kerr 1991b, 57). Why did this change happen? In the early 1980s TfD practitioners in universities in Nigeria (Ahmadu Bello University), Tanzania (Dar es Salaam) and Lesotho (Maratholi Travelling Theatre) had begun to move towards more progressive practices — using local art forms and other participatory techniques like Augusto Boal’s Forum Theatre — with the hope that ordinary people could be engaged in critical thinking about their problems and strategies for possible action (see, for examples, Mlama 1991; Mda 1993; Kerr 1995). In 1984, Kamlongera, had returned from the University of Leeds where he had attained a PhD, with a focus on popular theatre in Zambia and Malawi. This exposure to other TfD practices coupled with Kerr’s experience in Zambia inspired the duo towards a more participatory approach.

The PHC project was a step forward for Malawian TfD, however, it was not without problems. From the outset, the process was largely controlled by the Chancellor team. For instance, all the PHC plays were created by the TfD team — though, later on, a local drama group emerged of their own volition. Chris Kamlongera told me that the team did not establish any groups because this was not the aim of the project.[3] Another problem was that audience participation was still limited to responses elicited through questions, and using cut-off points or character dilemmas, which did not give much room for meaningful debate and critical thinking. Kerr (1989) tells us that the PHC plays attempted to encourage critical thinking about the health problems in the community, however, these efforts were often undermined by the one-party loyalists who acted as gatekeepers and imposed a localised form of censorship.[4] It is of course important to recognize that in the tightly censored atmosphere of the time making truly dialogical and participatory theatre that examined the sociopolitical causes of community problems in President Banda’s dictatorship would have been dangerous for all concerned.

Theatre for Development at the University of Malawi

TfD was introduced at the University of Malawi, Chancellor College, after the Mbalachanda workshop in 1981. At that time, the course only focused on practice.[5] A theoretical component was introduced in the early 1990s. The model that was being taught was the one developed by the Liwonde TfD project (1985-87).[6] A former student, Smith Likongwe, told me that in the theoretical component of this course Freire’s ideas about conscientization and Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed were discussed.[7] However, Boal’s work was used to only draw comparisons with the ‘Malawian model’. The thinking was apparently that ‘what Boal was doing was relevant to his country and time’ (Likongwe, Personal Communication, 2015) — but not to the Malawian context. In the mid-1990s, Chris Kamlongera left Chancellor while David Kerr left in the early 2000s. After their departure Malawian TfD did not innovate and subsequent practice at Chancellor became of increasingly poor quality.

In my opinion TfD at Chancellor is in decline mainly because of a lack of engagement with various applications and ideologies of TfD on the part of academics. A drama lecturer, Lusizi Kambalame, claimed that students are introduced to Paolo Freire and, later on, Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed.[8] Another lecturer, Mufunanji Magalasi told me that Boal’s practice is discussed to underscore the role it played in development of TfD in Africa.[9] In 2015, I accessed a copy of the syllabus which did not have Freire’s important book Pedagogy of the Oppressed or Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed. In early 2016, I received a revised copy of the course description, which showed that Freire and Boal have been added. However, in neither the syllabus nor course description are there materials on important TfD programmes in Africa developed by Ross Kidd and Martin Byram at Laedza Batanai in Botswana, by Ngugi wa Thiong’o at Kamiriithu (Kenya), by Michael Etherton and Steve Abah at Ahmadu Bello University (Nigeria), or by Penina Mlama and Amandina Lihamba in Tanzania - and these are old - or any recent texts on TfD. In fact, the course only has a list of 12 books with the only notable authors being Augusto Boal, Chris Kamlongera, Kees Eskamp, Paolo Freire and Zakes Mda. This seems to indicate a lack of intellectual interest on the part of the academics.

The problem is further compounded by a narrow understanding of TfD as constituting only one model. For example, there is a confusion between TfD as a model versus TfD as an umbrella term. Out of the 27 respondents I interviewed for this article 98% thought TfD was a model rather than a catchall term for a range of theatre techniques that could include Drama in Education, Forum Theatre and Playback Theatre, to mention but a few. This confusion is laid bare by the naming of the courses at Chancellor. For instance, in Term One students are taught TfD and in Term Two DIE. Where does the problem begin? I discovered that many of the junior staff members had been taught by the senior staff. The staff members admitted that they had not been substantially exposed to any other techniques apart from the Kamlongera and Kerr model.[10] For instance, Kambalame said that when she taught the course she kept teaching the same old model because that is what she knew. Sharifa Abdulla said that although during her Masters she had been made aware of other practices, what she has been teaching students was the Kamlongera and Kerr model because even during her postgraduate studies this was what had been understood as TfD.[11]

Recently, other ideas have been introduced. For instance, in 2011 Forum Theatre and Drama in Education (DIE) were put on the curriculum. Although their addition has been a step forward in the teaching of TfD at Chancellor, the introduction has been piecemeal and not backed up by substantive practice. For example, a group of students I interviewed explained that during the 2013/14 academic year forum theatre did not involve any practical exercises in the community. Another group of students reported that in 2014 the DIE course did not involve any practicals - apart from classroom-based demonstrations.

The situation is worsened by the structure of the course; one term of theory including 3-5 days of practical experiments. This means that students take the course merely as part of an academic degree and what they expect at the end is a good grade. An academic whom I interviewed for this article told me that financial constraints often mean that they are unable to make work that is on-going. While this might be true, I think the underlying problem is that there is no real commitment from the staff to implement on-going theatre based projects, even with surrounding communities, which could function as learning and experimentation hubs for students. As a result, from the outset, there is no real commitment from students to engage with ordinary people in a process of critical thinking about problems and their structural causes. The fact that the practical part of the course runs only for 3-5 days is deeply problematic because this means that there is no time for students to fully grasp techniques and experiment with methods. Inadequate time for critical practice of TfD, according to Jane Plastow (2015), fuels the problem of copycats, who go out replicating TfD methods according to the set guidelines passed on by their teachers. This also means that there is no opportunity for students to fully develop a relationship as equals within the communities.

TfD at Chancellor requires greater intellectual stimulation and academic commitment. Until 2014, the department’s only experts in TfD have been David Kerr, who left for Botswana two decades ago, and Chris Kamlongera, who returned in 2007 and was not teaching for many years. Consequently, the country has been substantively cut off from a range of cutting edge theory and practice. This has meant that Malawian TfD is extremely limited in its thinking and application and this is impacting down the line because Chancellor is the place responsible for training all those leading in TfD work in the country.

NGO TfD Methodologies in Malawi

In 2015, I travelled to Malawi to conduct the fieldwork for my doctoral research. One of my objectives was to research the kinds of TfD practice currently being used in Malawi. I investigated two local NGOs: Story Workshop Educational Trust and Pakachere Institute for Health and Development and Communication. I draw on these examples to illustrate the current use of the form in Malawi and to demonstrate how poor quality practice at Chancellor influences Malawian TfD.

Story Workshop Educational Trust

Story Workshop Educational Trust (SWET) was founded in 1997 with the aim of using entertainment, particularly radio drama, for community development ( TfD was introduced at SWET in 1997. Initially, its approach used travelling troupes for message dissemination (Likongwe, Personal Communication, 2015). However from 2002, they adopted a model that emphasized training community drama groups to do TfD work, which has since continued. The groups were trained by a team of 2-3 SWET agency staff who went into the communities conducting training for 4-5 days (Likongwe, Personal Communication 2015). Participants were trained in research (through interviews and observation), issues and problem identification, play creation, performance and post-performance discussion.[12]

SWET drama groups members are selected by the community - though in some instances, the members volunteer to be part of the groups during a community meeting (SWET report 2013). Selection is based, solely, on interest in theatre and acting experience (SWET report 2012). Participants are trained for five days, with a performance on day six. The training focuses on drama skills (by this they mean acting, stage management and voice projection), research and audience participation through performance.[13] The training begins by equipping the drama groups with knowledge about the aims, objectives and messages of the project being implemented. This is followed by technical TfD training. Currently, trainers at SWET use a TfD manual that was developed by another local NGO, the Centre for Community Mobilisation, in 2013.[14] An examination of the manual shows that during the five days participants are taught the following: (a) how to identify a problem in the community that fits with the NGO communication brief; (b) how to come up with a story that fits with project messages; (b) how to develop a storyline, create a play and act for TfD (SWET TfD Manual). After the play has been created the participants rehearse for two days. During the rehearsal period they are taught how to facilitate post-performance discussions with the aim of asking the audience what lessons or issues they have seen in the play. The facilitator’s role is to guide the discussions so that the audience comes up with strategies for how the problem can be resolved in the community. On day six the participants perform in the play before the community.

Pakachere Institute for Health and Development Communication

In 2002, Pakachere was established with support from the South Africa based Soul City Institute: Health and Development Communication, which had initiated a regional programme in ten Southern African nations to build local capacity in health and development communication NGOs (Pakachere, General Organisation Information 2015, 1). In Malawi, Soul City partnered with Population Services International (PSI) Malawi. In 2008, Pakachere was launched as an independent NGO. From its inception, it has used mass media to promote health and development issues.[15]

TfD was introduced in 2013 under the USAID funded project, Feed the Future: Integrated Nutrition in Value Chains (INVC) project. This is a five year project and is being implemented in the rural areas of Lilongwe and Mchinji in central Malawi and Mangochi, Machinga and Balaka in southern Malawi.[16] Under the patronage of this project a TfD travelling troupe was established which consists of ‘six famous Malawian actors who have worked with Story Workshop as radio actors as well as TfD actors’ (Project Manager, Personal Communication, 2015). Agency staff stated that the recruitment of the team was based on their TfD experience, on recommendations from their partner NGOs and, more importantly, the popularity of the actors, because they wanted actors who could have a crowd pulling effect. Since its formation the travelling group conducts performances in selected Extension Planning Areas (EPAs) under the INVC project and also mentors community drama groups. In 2013, 17 community drama groups were established in the 17 EPAs and it seems all are still active (Quarterly Report, INVC Project 2014).

The travelling troupe and community drama groups received training in TfD conducted by three senior managers, all of whom were initially trained in TfD at Chancellor. Later on, two attended the Drama for Life MA programme at Witwatersrand University, the other had previously worked at SWET as a trainer and head of TfD.[17] The training runs for five days, followed every year by a one and half day refresher course (Project Manager, Communication, 2015). The aim of the refresher training is to ‘ascertain whether community drama groups are communicating project key messages’ (Programme Manager, Personal Communication, 2015). The training has two main components — malnutrition and TfD. The first part of the training introduced participants to the importance of good nutrition and projected key messages like good nutrition leads to healthier children who learn better and good nutrition leads to people who are productive. An examination of the training manual reveals that participants were instructed on the causes and effects of under nutrition and stunting (Pakachere TfD Manual 2013).

The practical part of the training focused on storyline and message development, performance preparations and facilitating post-performance discussions. We are told that participants were trained in a ‘magnetic theatre performance structure’ (Pakachere TfD Manual 2013, 13). Under this system participants learned techniques such as crowd pulling, the use of songs and dances to draw audience attention; ice breaking, and the use of comedic performances to create audience rapport. This was followed by learning the joker technique in Forum theatre for creating pathways for participation (Pakachere TfD Manual 2013). The final part of the training included teaching participants how to conduct post-performance discussion facilitation. Participants were told that after a performance had finished it is possible that audience members might have questions, which can then be discussed in detail or in some instances a community health worker can provide more information. Finally, participants had to create a play. For the play creation process participants were given steps for coming up with a good TfD play; these were: identifying a health problem within the project’s theme, its causes and effects; understanding what attitudes you want changed and what knowledge you want the audience to acquire and how to incorporate key messages that would result in attitude and behaviour change (Pakachere TfD Manual 2013, 15-17).

Problems with Existing TfD Methodologies in Malawi

TfD Methodologies

It appears here that the dominant application of TfD in Malawi is message-based theatre, promoting donor and NGO messages. Although Pakachere has adapted a form of forum theatre it is clear that its application ignores the fact that the oppressed should decide the topics in theatre making and actively participate in the making. A respondent from Pakachere told me that under their ‘Emergency Communication’ (2014) project TfD teams had dialogue sessions with the communities in order to identify issues. While SWET respondents explained that formative research, baseline surveys, and homesteading interviews are used to determine the issues TfD plays address. This is not enough as the key issues are decided by donors and discussion is limited to finding out how these issues are perceived by the target communities. It is obvious there is a misconception of TfD’s true purpose among these NGOs, or perhaps these NGOs are more interested in donor money. The TfD process is controlled by the outsiders, who set the agenda and decide the issues. Although local community drama groups are used the issues they engage with are predetermined by NGO project goals. The ordinary masses of people do not decide the agenda or identify the problems, but are expected to actively participate in post-performance discussions. Kidd and Byram (1982, 279) tell us that, ‘a villager may join in the songs and participate actively in the discussion, but this is a different form of participation than selecting the campaign issues and structuring how they are to be presented for discussion.’

The Malawian NGOs I investigated assume that if plays address problems of bad roads, or poor health conditions and communities are mobilized to come up with short-term solutions then their work is successful. However, Dale Byam (1999, 31) explains that a lot of TfD work often deals with such problems, but evades the wider sociopolitical structures that encourage such problems in the first instance. According to Jane Plastow, many organizations doing TfD in Africa today tend to sidestep the issue of ideology and claim that their programmes are non-partisan when, in actual fact, they seek to promote ‘social control or western views of what is good for the world’ (2014, 115). Zakes Mda warns that the problem with this kind of theatre is that it tends to focus on solving problems donors have identified as important, but ‘leave aside the structural causes of these problems’ (1993, 19). So, how can these NGOs, which rely on donor funding, make theatre that is meaningful to ordinary people? Steve Abah (1996) explains that TfD can only be truly transformative if it is made by marginalized groups dealing with their own problems, in their languages, using their local artistic forms, and created and performed by them. Although Malawian NGOs work with community drama groups it is obvious that they are acting primarily as agents for their donors and not for the community with which they interact.

Another problem is the quality of training programmes and the limited time participants have to test methods. I observed that these NGOs assume that their version of TfD actually works, based on community discussions, community actions plans and proposed community solutions, so there is no need to change or to include other techniques. However, I think that the trainers themselves do not know of any other techniques or are not competent to use any others. In her article, ‘The Faithful Copyist or the Good Thief’, Jane Plastow (2015) argues that many TfD training programmes in Africa often prescribe set rules for TfD making — as is the case in Malawi — which then produce copyists, participants who go out faithfully reproducing the methods they have learned. Patrick Mangeni (2013) observes that there is a tendency among practitioners who have participated in TfD workshops and recent TfD graduates to pose as experts. The result, he further explains, is a ‘downgrade of the applied theatre process to messaging and poorly facilitated improvisation’. As a result, this creates a scenario where TFD is misunderstood to be ‘creating a play showing your problem and then identifying the solutions’ (Mangeni 2013, 27). In Malawi, there is little evidence that after attending these training programmes participants do more than promote donor and NGO messages.

The time dedicated to training is also too short for participants to experiment with techniques. Participants attend workshops that run for 3-5 days and learn one particular method. According to Jane Plastow (2014, 112), training participants for 3-5 days leaves little room to test methods and when participants go into communities and meet new challenges they do not know what to do due to a limited toolbox of techniques. According to my understanding, the best application of TfD is when it stimulates meaningful debate and engages communities in a process of critical reflection on their problems and they themselves decide to take action (Abah 1996; Kerr 1995; Kidd & Byram 1982; Mlama 1991). For this to happen participants need to be exposed to more than one method and given enough time to learn and experiment with various techniques — but how can this happen when the field is filled with unqualified facilitators? It is concerning that these NGOs think that anyone can learn any form in this little time.

The situation is worsened by the fact that a TfD play will be performed only once in a community. Agency staff admitted that there are no cases of plays being repeated because there are no funds to support repetitions. Baz Kershaw (1991) argues that the efficacy of theatre to effect change is not based on one singular performance event, but on a ‘collection of practices’. That is to say, not just performance related, but linkage of activities to achieve an efficacious result. In the absence of long-term engagement with communities it is naive for practitioners of TfD in Malawi to think that community transformation can occur from a single performance. Although some agency staff admitted that this is a problem, the lack of on-going performances was justified by financial constraints.

Motivations for working in TfD

In Malawi, economic survival rather than a motivation to empower communities is the main reason practitioners get into TfD work. The problem begins right at the recruitment stage. The selection criteria used by NGOs do not aim to ascertain if facilitators’ or participants’ reasons for doing TfD align with the ethos of critical pedagogy and true participatory development. Answers from respondents showed that they were motived to go into TfD as a source of income or because it was part of their job. For instance, CRECCOM troupe members I interviewed said that many of them were motived to go into TfD because of the money rather than a commitment to empower ordinary people (Personal Communication, 2015). One member said: ‘sometimes troupes go in to the community for several weeks and the daily allowances range between $20 to $30 per day, which is a lot of money for many students.’ Noting similar trends in Kenya, Chris Odhiambo (2006, 192-193) says that many practitioners have got involved in TfD because it offered them an employment opportunity and ‘personal survival rather than a commitment to transform the disadvantaged communities’.

In my opinion this problem results from how arts-based NGOs are set up in Malawi. In other places, professional companies like the TFDC, Amakosi Theatre and DramAiDE have been set up based on seeing that there is a need and to empower disadvantaged groups (see, for examples, Abah 1996; Baxter 2013). In Malawi, the situation is that arts NGOs are formed often to fill a gap in behaviour change communication with an emphasis on mass education or message dissemination when an obvious funding opportunity becomes available. Against this backdrop, how can these organizations be expected to make work that is truly empowering? The philosophical basis of dialogical pedagogy is the missing link. In his seminal work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paolo Freire (1970, 79) argues that ‘authentic liberation - the process of humanization - is not another deposit to be made in men. Liberation is a praxis: the action and reflection of men and women upon their world in order to transform it’. This can only be achieved through, according to Freire (ibid), a problem-posing education — a process in which oppressed groups engage in critical reflection of problems and the sociopolitical structures that lead to them. Unless facilitators, change agents and NGOs in Malawi are motived to use TFD for problem-posing education rather than as a message dissemination tool there is little hope that the situation will change.

Survival Interests and Impact Assessment

Scholars (Marsh & Gould 2003; Mangeni 2013) agree that there is a tendency among NGOs that conduct creative projects to give accounts of success and impact which is often unsupported by evidence. Of the fifteen project and performance reports that I accessed for this article narratives of success and requests for continued support from donors dominate. Patrick Mangeni (2013) tells us that this a syndrome of survival interests, whereby TfD practitioners give accounts of success to ensure their paymasters do not shut the funding taps. The reports of these NGOs spell out how performances were done, how many people attended and how the audience was given information they did not previously know. I observed that there is a vague assumption of successful TfD interventions without any rigorous evidence. In the reports I accessed audience testimonials of change and impact are vaguely reported. For instance, there are claims by these NGOs that their arts work had resulted in increased awareness, knowledge and behaviour change. However, there are no hard facts that give any indication or prove that change has happened. It is obvious that these reports have been created to ensure that funders continue to finance these Malawian NGOs. What is worrying is that none of them provide us with any accounts of challenges they encountered when doing TfD work. It is as if TfD is a panacea for all community problems. Donors also share the guilt for not properly evaluating donor funded theatre based work. The problem, in my opinion, is happening because donor staff have no idea about meaningful TfD practices, and what strategies might be used for effective monitoring and evaluation. It is deeply problematic that donors take these claims of success contained in reports as sufficient indicators of impact.

Does a one-size TfD model fit all?

There is a perception among Malawian TfD practitioners that a whole community approach, with no consideration of community differences, will result in community change. I observed that this came from, firstly, a misunderstanding of ‘the community’ and secondly, the assumption that participation during post-performance discussions and forum theatre sessions - in the case of Pakachere - is sufficient for transformation. This is problematic considering that inequalities of gender, ages, economic status and class are evident in everyday life. France Cleaver notes that there is a tendency among participatory development practitioners to view ‘communities as capable of anything, that all that is required is sufficient mobilization and the latent and unlimited capacities of the community will be unleashed in the interest of development’ (1999, 604). This thinking is often informed by the assumption that ‘the community’ is a homogenous group, which produces homogenous local viewpoints (Cleaver 1999; Mohan and Stokke 2000). Unfortunately, what ends up happening is that those members who occupy a higher social status tend to dominate discussions and those with opposing views are often suppressed.

Who pays the piper calls the tune?

In Malawi, as in many African countries, there is the problem of donors influencing how local NGOs do arts work. Although agency staff in the NGOs I investigated claimed that they were using TfD because it ‘allows for people to realize the problem at hand and to offer their own possible solution to ending it’ (Project Manager Pakachere, Personal Communication, 2016), it is obvious that Malawian TfD is being used as a tool for transmitting donor and NGO agendas. There are two main reasons why this is happening: firstly, donor money often comes with preset agenda and, secondly, local NGOs take the money because they are engaged in a struggle for survival. A respondent from Pakachere said: ‘there is no funder who will give an organization funds without providing an agenda and so from the word go, as an organization, we do not use TFD for TFD’s sake, we do not go to a community without an agenda, we use TFD as a means to achieving certain goals within a specified timeframe’ (Senior Programme Manager, Personal Communication, 2016). Although this might be truth, I think the problem lies with Malawian NGOs, who are unwilling to state their case with donors so that the agenda and issues are determined by local communities. I was told that each project begins after a donor has identified a problem and asks the NGO to implement it. At the end of the project, donors will come in to evaluate whether the NGO has achieved its goals based on indicators that correlate with the issues identified by the donor. The director of SWET said that ‘local NGOs are competing for donor money and if we start arguing with them they will give funding to our competitors, but because one has to think of staff salaries we take the money and impose our ideas on people not because we want to do that, but because donors want us to do that’ (Director SWET, Personal Communication, 2015). This has created a crisis for local NGOs doing donor-funded arts work in Malawi. Do they stop taking donor money and demand that donors give them more funding for projects that will be long-term and owned by the communities or continue to make work that is always compromised?

This problem fuels the superiority complex among practitioners. The tendency is that practitioners often go into communities as experts with ‘preconceived notions of the nature of rural people and their problems’ (Abah 2004, 46). Chris Odhiambo (2006, 195) notes that practitioners assume that communities are an ‘empty vessel to be filled with knowledge by the teacher’ — what Freire calls the banking model of education (Freire 1970). I discovered that each NGO implements a project after they conduct research - baseline, content and formative - by themselves or in collaboration with their donors. A senior project manager at Pakachere stated that ‘it is important for us to use formative research because it is critical for us to know whether we are addressing real issues in the community’ (Senior Programme Manager, Personal Communication, 2015). However, this thinking is informed by an attitude which assumes that communities are incapable of examining their own situation and finding solutions. Agency staff told me that communities were being engaged through dialogue sessions as a way of identifying the problems in the community, but outsiders or NGO agents remained in control of the process, which was backed up by communication briefs or formative research. In Malawi, it is typical for TfD performances to use a technique where actors solicit answers from the audience through leading questions like ‘does this happen here?’, which is often met with a ‘yes’ in a chorus. In my opinion this does not give room for any real meaningful debate. The fact that performances are reliant on problems determined by agency staff and donors — though in some cases verified by communities’ members — makes this work patronizing and simplistic.

TfD in Malawi is in desperate need of a complete overhaul and I would argue that needs to begin with the courses at Chancellor. There is also a need to bring NGOs on board, with the aim of exposing them to various applications and ideologies of TfD, through workshops and the development a handbook of methods for practitioners. Donors also need to be engaged on the problems with existing methodologies of the form in Malawi, which to a great extent are encouraged by them. Unless these problems are addressed there is little hope that truly empowering practice can emerge in Malawi.

Zindaba Chisiza is a Theatre for Development (TfD) practitioner and currently a PhD Candidate at Leeds University, under the supervision of Professor Jane Plastow. His research examines the effectiveness of various TfD methods as tools for engaging young Malawian men in analyzing how certain forms of masculinity place them at risk of acquiring HIV. His research interests are participatory theatre, masculinities and development communication. Since 2012 he has worked as a Lecturer in Drama at the University of Malawi, Chancellor College.


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[1] The travelling theatre was formed in 1970 with aim of taking theatre to the people. Before 1981, the repertoire of the group had been entirely English language literary drama.

[2] Chris Kamlongela, got involved in university drama in 1970s when he participated in first Travelling Theatre at Chancellor. Through the early ‘70s he had participated in Malawi Writers Group. He joined the Department of English as staff associate in 1974. From 1981, he and David Kerr pioneered the TfD concept in Malawi with workshops at Mbalachanda (1981) and Liwonde Primary Heath Care TfD project (1985-1987).

[3] Personal Communication, February 2016.

[4] From 1964-1994, President Kamuzu Banda and the Malawi Congress Party ruled Malawi as a one-party state. From the mid-1960s, he began to impose a dictatorial rule, through sedition and censorship law to silence critics.

[5] This was told to me by Chris Mphande, who attended Chancellor College 1985-89. He was part of the team that carried out the Liwonde TfD project. He told me that students were introduced to the idea of making community theatre, incorporating local performance forms and initiating participation. He further explained that the theories of Freire or Boal were never taught. Kerr (2003), however, tells us that some aspects of Boal’s Forum Theatre were introduced in PHC play.

[6] For a discussion on Liwonde TfD project see Kerr (1989), ‘Community Theatre’.

[7] Personal Communication, April 2015.

[8] Personal Communication, April 2015

[9] Personal Communication, April 2015.

[10] Smith Likongwe told me that he learned TfD from Kamlongera 1989-1994. Lusizi Kambalame said that she was taught by Mufunanji Magalasi, who had been exposed to the practice in South Africa - though it was referred to as community theatre. When I asked his former pupil, Kambalame, to explain the method it was identical to the ‘Malawian model’. Shariffa Abdulla, who received her Masters degree in South Africa, told me that her first encounter with the form was as a travelling troupe member of a local arts based NGO, and later on, at Chancellor where she was taught by Kambalame.

[11] An examination of the Drama for Life MA problem shows that students are taught a range of Applied theatre practices that include drama therapy, applied theatre in education and social context. So, I am quite surprised that this member of student had a parochial understanding of TfD.

[12] Smith Likongwe, left SWET in 2008 to take up a post as a Lecturer in Drama at Chancellor.

[13] SWET, Personal Communication, June 2015.

[14] The training at the Centre for Community Mobilisation is conducted by two senior staff, who received their TfD training from Chancellor (

[15] Personal Communication, February 2016.

[16] Personal Communication, March 2015.

[17] Personal Communication, February 2016.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 78 (Winter 2016/17), pp. 61-78]

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