24 November 2015
|“As a refugee [myself] I try to make myself a voice for the voiceless. Every time I hear people complain, I become a channel through which they can get their message to a broader audience.”|
This story was originally published by The Guardian on the 17th November 2015.
Dzaleka, Dowa District, 17 November 2015 - Malawi’s Dzaleka refugee camp, a sprawling former political prison housing 20,000 internally displaced people, is an unlikely home for a vibrant arts festival.
The Tumaini arts festival’s Congolese founder, Menes La Plume, is clear in his ambitions: he wants to change the way refugees are perceived across the world, and he’s doing so by showcasing their creative talent.
For the second year running, musicians, poets and dancers came together for the Tumaini arts festival. This year’s edition featured 18 acts from Malawi, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
More than 3,000 people travelled to attend the event held at the weekend. It was organised as a sister event to the Lake of Stars, a much-celebrated festival and popular beach party that has generated more than $4.7m for the local economy in the 10 years since it launched.
La Plume is intent on dismantling the idea that refugee camps are always miserable and bleak places. He explains: “As a refugee [myself] I try to make myself a voice for the voiceless. Every time I hear people complain, I become a channel through which they can get their message to a broader audience.”
Dzaleka camp was established in 1994 in response to the thousands fleeing genocide in Rwanda, and wars in Burundi and the DRC. Some bands performing at Tumaini (which is Swahili for “hope”), such as Babu Bebe and the fantastic Amahoro drummers, live in the camp, while other Malawian acts such as the acoustic singer-songwriter George Kalukusha came from Blantyre, or the nearby capital of Lilongwe.
Bars serving Carlsberg have sprung up on Dzaleka’s street corners due to the festival. Meanwhile, generators imported especially for the event give the camp a much needed power boost, allowing electric guitar licks and frenzied late-night gigs to filter out through the camp’s evening air.
Amid the music, life for the locals continues as normal. Clothes are hung out to dry between the stages, while a makeshift school and health clinic runs the same as on any other day.
La Plume, a refugee from Congo, explains the festival’s distinct aim: to empower its residents as people in their own right, giving them a status beyond just being a refugee.
“No one sets out permanently to leave the place they were born,” La Plume says. “And to then go to a foreign country where they will know no one. Who chooses to be looked at as a lesser human being?”
An early highlight came from Burundi’s Amahoro Drummers, who whipped up a frenzy among the audience, made up of locals and tourists alike, while kids danced in close circles, kicking up red dust in appreciation.
Elsewhere, Menes’s poetry performance put a spotlight on the plight of many of the camp’s residents. “Imagine yourself between the hammer and the anvil,” he told to the audience.
“Those who beg today were rich like you yesterday. But from the summit where they were, the lightning of the human wickedness reached them and buried them in the margins of society.”
The crowd whoops in appreciation, and with Menes in charge, it feels like anything is possible for Dzaleka’s refugees.
This story was originally published by The Guardian
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