Picture It

Finding Obama in Malawi

Posted in Malawi by stefaniegiglio on 21 September 2010

Last night, the television in the restaurant was turned to a news channel that was talking about Obama.  Some of the local men know that I am American, so they asked me for my opinion on the leader and his impact on the world.  When it was their turn to share, one man told me that he cried when Obama was elected president.

Snapshot of the Obama Optical Illusion Belt Buckle. Mtakataka Turnoff, Malawi.

Even though America has nowhere near the largest population in the world, the country still impacts the world in very real ways.  One of those ways is through who the citizens elect as president, because the president’s foreign policies affect people the world over.  As such, people all over the world, in big cities and small villages, are interested in American elections.  This election, from what I’ve heard from Malawians time and again, was particularly interesting because of Obama’s connection with Africa.

The man who told me that he cried tears of joy when he heard the news of Obama’s election also told me about the celebrations he witnessed in Malawi.  People danced, cried, and hugged in the streets, singing praises to Obama and the American people who freed not only themselves, but the rest of the world as well.  Those were his words, not mine, though I do agree with him.

Snapshot of some Obama bread. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

Around Malawi, I’ve only seen a few small pieces of graffiti about Bush, all of them casting him in a very negative light.  In place of most of the old graffiti, you can now find beautiful murals with Obama as the honored subject.  Besides the colorful walls in the market alleys, you can find Obama’s presence reaching deep into the culture.

I could continue to list sound bites from people who have told me of the joy and the hope they still feel when when they think of Obama and I could tell you about how, upon learning that I’m American, the non-English-speaking locals will throw out their arms, toss back their heads, and yell, “OBAMA!” with the biggest smile on their face.  But I think the best way to show how much the local people love this leader (who isn’t even theirs!) is to show you some of the ways they continue to pay homage to him.

Snapshot of Magic Obama Strawberry Flavored Bubblegum. Mtakataka Turnoff, Malawi.

At the bus stations, it’s not uncommon for some of the vendors who are wandering around to shout to the bus passengers that they have Obama for sale.  Other times, you’ll hear the passengers yelling first, bartering for an Obama or two.  The Obama that has become a best-seller at the bus depots is not a man, not even a figurine or a poster or a sticker; it’s a type of bread.  Two years ago, the bread was known by a different name, but in the last five months, I’ve never heard it referred to as a “Cocotal,” and I’ve only seen it written on signs twice.

In the small grocery stores, the cashiers often tell me that they also have chocolates, sweets, and Obamas for sale.  In this context, an Obama is a piece of strawberry-flavored bubblegum.  Some stores even call other sweets “Obamas,” even if they aren’t Obama-branded, because the name has such a favorable connotation and has become a great marketing keyword.  The gum has become so popular that I’ve even seen t-shirts advertising the “Magic Obama Strawberry Flavored Bubblegum,” complete with the smiling face of the American president across the front.

Snapshot of re-branded Obama sweets. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

T-shirts with his face or name are everywhere.  Nearly every time I visit Monkey Bay, Mangochi, or other larger towns, I see at least one Obama shirt, but more likely, I’ll see three or more.  Some shirts are obviously left-overs or donations from Obama’s 2008 campaign supporters.  Others simply praise the new leader.  Some depict him like they would a rapper with a rough’n’tough reputation, with a strong, powerful expression, styled and decorated with the type of font I’d expect to see on a Tupac shirt.  I’ve even seen a teenager wearing an old shirt on which someone had carefully cut out the letters from a piece of new material, then hand-sewed them onto this boy’s shirt.  I’m waiting for the day that I’ll find Obama’s face printed on a chitenje, or the sarong-like wraps that the Malawian women use as skirts.  (This idea isn’t too crazy either; I see the Malawian president, the pope, and various group leaders printed on these skirts already.)

Other items of clothing are Obama-themed, but they are more rare.  While riding in the back of a pickup truck, I saw one man wearing an old pair of cowboy boots on which someone had stitched the top with Obama’s name.  As cool as those were, my favorite was the belt buckle I found in a small road-side stall.  It was one of those optical illusions, so when you look at it from one angle you see a picture of Obama giving a speech in front on a plain background, but from a different angle you see him smiling in front of red and white stripes.  It was, by far, the coolest piece of Obama-impact I’ve seen so far, but I will still keep my eyes open for any other pieces of Africa’s Obama that continue to permeate the local markets.

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Art and Music in the St. Louis Catholic Church

Posted in Malawi by stefaniegiglio on 02 September 2010

Inside the church, the walls are covered in beautiful art. The choir leaders wait for practice to begin. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

On my last trip to Monkey Bay, I was wandering around with a friend who had not yet visited the town.  We visited a few shops and handed out some of the photographs that I was finally able to get printed.  Josephy (the bike mechanic) and the group from the mill were very pleased to see their faces smiling back from physical photographs that they could keep (as opposed to the back of a foreigner’s camera).  I know they were all surprised that I had followed through on my promise to get them prints.  I’m sure they have been promised the same thing hundreds of times before.

Since my friend had never been to Malawi, I showed her the local church since religion is such a large part of the lives of the local people.   I chose the church with the art that had so impressed me on my first visit to Monkey Bay, the St. Louis Catholic Church.  Even though I had told her that the outside, which is made of simple brick, is a stark contrast to the detailed art on the interior walls, she was still surprised when we walked through the open front doors.

I was also filled with renewed awe at the crisp color and detail that covered the walls.  It’s obvious that someone invested a lot of time and effort on the murals and relief sculptures on the columns.  The lights hanging from the ceiling, each one unique, are painted with the same bright colors of the walls below.

As a foreigner with a global perspective, I am able to pick out which culture each element of the art and decorations have come from.  The colorful paintings are probably the most Malawian parts of the whole building.  The style, while still having definite influences from the west, is typical of what I’ve seen in murals inside stores and along the alleys of the markets.  They have bold colors and bold outlines, with patterns and variations in color adding contrast and detail to the images.

A relief sculpture on the wall of the St Louis Catholic Church in Monkey Bay, Malawi.

Along the front of the building, near the altar, there is a selection of statues of Mary and Jesus.  These statues have soft features painted in pale pastels, and they are draped in billowing robes that bring to mind the art of the Italian Renaissance.  They have obviously been brought in from Europe, which is not surprising, considering it is a Catholic church.

Another statue near the altar, the only one of its kind, was carved out of wood.  One might be surprised that I consider this piece of art to be less Malawian, less African, than the paintings.  Long ago, there was a time when Africans made wood carvings to fulfill their hunger for art and creation, but now, the carvings only fill their need of making money by selling something, anything, to rich tourists.  I do sometimes see a local using a locally carved chair, or in this case, a locally carved statue, but I believe that if tourists stopped buying these carvings, the local people would stop making them because they no longer make them for themselves.  All that aside, the statue was still very beautiful and well-made.  I could see that the top of the statue came off, presumably to reveal a hollow interior in which something could be kept.  I did not want to open the top myself and the priests were not present, so there was no one who could open it for me.

A carved wood statue in the St Louis Catholic Church in Monkey Bay, Malawi.

A Western statue in the St Louis Catholic Church in Monkey Bay, Malawi.

The fusion of pieces of art from so many different cultures reminded me of the Malawian Muslim wedding I photographed a few months ago.  The ceremony had followed Islamic customs, but it still had a distinctly African feel.  The dancing (which sometimes interrupted the speeches given by the religious leaders) was spontaneous and impulsive, while still maintaining rhythm and order.  During the lectures and readings from the Quran, the women in the audience would randomly call out cries of affirmation and praise, which I have never seen in the religious ceremonies I witnessed in Turkey.

Sitting in the pews near the front of the church were a few men who were listening to someone playing a keyboard.  The keyboard was hooked up to a humorously large pile of speakers that reminded me of the exuberance you might see in a music video.  There were handmade drums stacked near the keyboard, which, as I was later told, are used when the electricity goes out and they can’t use the keyboard.

A small altar in the St Louis Catholic Church in Monkey Bay, Malawi.

I asked the man playing the keyboard if I could take his picture, and as I started pulling out all of my gear, a group of people filed into the church and sat in the pews immediately in front of the keyboardist.  I popped off a handful of shots before I realized that the people were gathering for choir practice.  As I quickly and haphazardly stuffed my gear back into my bags, the keyboardist motioned that I should follow him outside.

We sat on the front steps of the church (where I photographed the children playing so many months ago on my first trip to Monkey Bay) and chatted.  The keyboardist’s name is Allan.  Despite being around my age, he is still in high school.  He has been playing the keyboard for five years and was taught by Daniel, one of the choir leaders, who came over to chat with us and help Allan when his English failed him.  Allan told me that he learned to play the keyboard for the church so he could play for god.  He said that he will not use his musical talent for secular activities.  He is the main musician for the choir, which is 45 members strong.  They practice three times every week in preparation for the main service on Sunday.  Their songs, which are sung in Chichewa, Yao, Tumbuka, and Lomwe, are usually taken from a song book, but Allan and the choir directors sometimes write their own.

Despite his devotion to his religion, Allan wants to become a soldier, like Daniel, because he says he would be able to help his people.  He thinks that being a soldier would be fun, especially if he could work with his best friend, Daniel.  Daniel has been a soldier for a long time, so he is confident that he will be able to pull a few strings to get a job for Allan in two years when he finishes his schooling.

A book sitting on a pew in the church in Monkey Bay, Malawi.

The conversation soon turned back to the church, specifically the art inside.  The original church is located about 50 ft from where the main church currently stands.  The original building was a simple one-room house that had been repurposed.  The congregation grew very quickly, forcing people to stand outside and listen through the windows, so, eventually, it was decided that a bigger church was needed.

The current church was completed in 1978.  Priest Savala, who came from a different congregation in the Mangochi area, took a full year prior to the opening of the new building to paint murals and add the Stations of the Cross sculptures to the walls.  He also painted words of faith on some of the walls and decorated the light fixtures.  It’s unknown if any retouching has been done on his work, but from my uneducated inspection, I didn’t see any noticeable signs of retouching.  This surprised me because the colors are still so crisp and fresh.  There isn’t even any cracking or peeling, both of which are signs of aging I would have assumed to be present on work that is so old and located in a climate that varies between moderately cool and dry to very hot and humid.

Daniel, one of the choir directors at the St. Louis Catholic Church in Monkey Bay, Malawi.

Allan, the keyboardist for the choir at the St. Louis Catholic Church in Monkey Bay, Malawi.

In the last few years, the membership of the St. Louis Catholic Church has continued to rise.  Once again, the church, which can seat up to 400 people and has standing room for another few hundred, is forced to keep dozens of worshipers outside because there is just no room inside.  There is a brother church a few kilometers away, but that one, despite being much larger, is also more than full to capacity.

Allan and Daniel looked very pleased when they began talking about the number of people who attend their church.  They said that if you count the Christian denominations separately, the Muslims outnumber them, but with all the denominations added together, Christianity is the most popular religion in the area.

I have not seen any official numbers and it has not been as easy for me to gain access to a mosque, but I would love to hear the other side to this story.  I would also love to see if the art in the mosques is as much of a fusion as it is in this Catholic church and if they follow the very specific Islamic rules surrounding art and decorations.

Allan and his keyboard flanked by a very large stack of speakers. Monkey Bay, Malawi.