Interview with Robert Chiwamba, a Malawian Poet
A vernacular spoken-word poet, Robert Chiwamba arrived on the Malawian poetry scene in 2011 while he was a student at Chancellor College. There was a performance, he saw it as an opening and grabbed it. To date, he has three albums to his credit, the latest being Kuchokera ku Chanco ndi Kachirombo which will be launched on the 22nd of December 2018. From his early poetry days, he has since won the UN Women’s He for She Arts Contest, the EU Devco Communications Award with Ngwazi Zazikazi, a duet he did with Sangie, three Chancellor College awards between 2012 and 2014 and the Malawi Pen Chancellor College writers’ competition. In 2013, he was named Poet of the Year by Joy Radio. Since rising to literary fame, he has administered creative writing workshops for UNESCO Commission of Korea, Lake of Stars and CAN radio. He has also headlined poetry sections for Sand Music Festival, Lake of Stars Festival, Ovation Fusion Festival, Blantyre Arts Festival, Land of poets Festival and Ufulu Festival. Just recently, he was appointed the 2018 UNESCO and European Union’s Skills and Technical Education Program’s ambassador. In 2015, he was one of the judges in the World Bank’s Arts on Poverty Poetry Contest (Malawi).
Nthanda Review (NR) caught up with the poet (Chiwamba) for an interview concerning his poetry in general and the literary scene in Malawi, as well as his current project.
NR: What is your current poetry project about?
Chiwamba: My current project, Kuchokera ku Chanco ndi Kachirombo, has 58 poems, eight of which have already been released as promotional pieces. Recorded by Mvahiwa Hankey at Audio Clinic Studios in Naperi, the album has been dedicated to public university students who are struggling to make ends meet due to the unnecessary fees hiking. Among others, the project is themed around corruption, love, unnecessary marriages, sorrow, education, politics and culture.
NR: How does being a Malawian affect your poetry?
Chiwamba: Being a Malawian affects my work both in a positive and negative way. Positive in the way that the mediocre that we have become of as a country provides me with material to write on. At the same time, the peace that we have here means I am free to write on any issue I feel like writing on without fear. On the other hand, due to poverty levels and a culture of hand-outs, my work has been pirated and I haven’t reaped much from my sweat save for the awards and the name made.
NR: Following the rise of vernacular poetry in recent years, some literary critics have often rejected the concept of classifying most of the vernacular ‘poetry’, including yours, as poetry. I’m sure you’ve at some point stumbled on such discussions, where critics often label much of what is promoted as vernacular poetry today as simply ‘jokes’. What has been your reaction to such debates?
Chiwamba: My response has always been that Chichewa as a language is limited as compared to other languages. For instance, English classifies poetry into a number of types such as traditional and spoken word. Unlike traditional poetry, spoken word is not meant to be published and has relaxed rules than those which guide traditional poetry. However, due to the limitation of words in Chichewa, we call all these ndakatulo such that us, who do vernacular spoken word, are judged using rules for traditional poetry – which is wrong. According to Wokoma Atani Malunga in his book Kuimba Kwa Mlakatuli, poetry has elements that act as its building blocks. These however ought not to be present in their totality for a piece to qualify as poetry. If someone’s work has two or three of these elements it qualifies to be called poetry. In that case I consider my work spoken word poetry.
NR: Does your poetry serve a particular cause, or do you recite just for poetry’s sake?
Chiwamba: My poetry serves many purposes. First and foremost it’s an outlet on my thoughts on different issues. Secondly, it’s a mouthpiece of ordinary Malawians’ take on different issues affecting them. More importantly, it’s there for cultural preservation and entertainment.
NR: A lot of poets draw inspiration partly from their own personal experiences, is it the same with you? And, how do you express an experience other than your own?
Chiwamba: Most of my pieces emanate from my personal experiences in life. However, there are times where I write pieces from public outcries or issues that are hot in the public domain irrespective of whether I will benefit from them or not. In the case of these, I put myself in the shoes of the affected and try to write as them.
NR: In the course of writing, how would you describe your revision process?
Chiwamba: At times I find out that I have written pieces based on wrong information or have used very insensitive phrases so I go and revisit what I have written before going to studio and make amends. There have also been times I have erred in my writing and have been corrected right there in the studio. So I revise my work any time between writing and recording.
NR: Are you only into performance poetry or are there writing projects you are working on?
Chiwamba: So far am into performance poetry only due to the nature of my work. However, once I launch this album on the 22nd, am thinking of starting working on a book for very short Chichewa poems. I am hoping to be through by 2021 or 22.
NR: Do you sometimes feel threatened, that after writing a poem, you decide not to record it?
Chiwamba: Yes, this happens all the time. Releasing poetry for me has to be in line with the internal and external environment at the moment. Sometimes I have fear of the public’s perception on my stand on a particular issue. Sometimes, I fear politicians and more importantly God. This has made some pieces I wrote not to see the light of the day.
NR: The language you use is very clear, simple and straightforward. And sometimes you tend to borrow English words, how does this choice of words contribute to the experience and theme in your poetry?
Chiwamba: We are living in a life where you hardly hear idioms, proverbs etc. in people’s conversations. Further, I was born in that generation where people’s conversations are clear. My work reflects who I am and what my society is. We are also living in an era of fast life, where people don’t have much time to be investigating the meaning of your statements etc. I know my audience and how to target it. Let poets who were born in a time where proverbs and idioms were used a lot write using them and us write what we know as well. There is beauty in diversity.
Also, as I alluded to the challenge of Chichewa as language earlier, it is limited. There is no way I can invent my Chichewa words for WhatsApp, Facebook, Internet, etc. I use these and other English words the way they are. It’s time we accepted that some English words will be Chichewalised the way they are.
NR: We have noticed that you alternate between Malawian/African songs and very ‘English’ slow jams as soundtracks to your recorded poetry, how do you arrive at such choices considering your work’s targeted audience and the soundtracks’ contribution to the tone of your poetry?
Chiwamba: First and foremost, Malawian music has changed a lot. Fewer and fewer artists prefer acoustic music such that almost all acoustic music has been used as background to many poets’ work. Background music is not there to substitute the poets’ work, rather to complement and sweeten it. In this regard, background music should help to communicate the mood of and issues being communicated in the poem. I take my time searching for these songs. Since urban music is dominant now in this country and urban music is not ideal for our work, am forced to use international artists work and recognise them in my acknowledgements. For instance, my new album has used over 50 international background songs.
NR: What is new about the current project?
Chiwamba: What’s new in the current album are pieces that are romantic and a trial of a new way of recital of having a long chorus that I have been trying to perfect.
NR: You released about eight poems to give your audience a taste of what is in the album, and recently performed at a poetry event organized by Vilipanganga Poetry Movement. How have people responded to this album so far?
Chiwamba: We have a challenge that poetry is not as it used to be at its peak around 2015. Levels have gone down. This has presented a challenge in promoting our work. Instead of just relying on radios, I was forced to share on WhatsApp, Youtube and www.malawimusic.com as well where two of the three pieces I sent peaked on 2nd and 3rd position on their chart as well. Though this is not enough, I am satisfied considering it was my first time to send my work there. The three I sent have amassed a total of over 50,000 downloads and the two videos on you tube have a combination of over 15,000 views so far. Judging from these, the response has been positive.
NR: At the recent poetry event, you performed a very fine piece (in our own view) titled Tiye Kwathu Ku Karonga. Is it also appearing in this new album? What inspired you to craft that poem?
Chiwamba: Tiye Kwathu Ku Karonga was inspired by Wokoma Atani Malunga’s Mangochi Landire. I have been in Karonga for three years and I thought it wise of writing of my experience here. This is one of the pieces that have been taken from the book I am writing. It is part of this album which includes other pieces of such nature (short and moving) as Munali Kuti Pa 20 July, 2011 and Amangokayikira kuti anali Yohane. Unfortunately only the learned value such poetry and since arts is meant for the people we include the others as well.
NR: In Ndinabadwa mu Dziko la Anthu Akuda, wouldn’t we say partly it is a reassertion of the stereotypes we’ve often associated our blackness with through a colonial education? Wouldn’t we consider it drawing inspiration from the colonial concepts of all black is evil/all white is good?
Chiwamba: I don’t think this piece promotes these stereotypes as there are lines such as anthu okuda nti ntima omwe and particularly the one that states that bola anzathu anangoda nkhope yokha koma anthu kuno anada ndi ntima omwe. Don’t mistake kuda in this case as a comparison made to whites as there are other races that are not whites as well. The blackness in this poem is independent and a stand-alone.
NR: Back to your current project, where will the new album launch take place, and what does the line-up of performers so far look like?
Chiwamba: The launch will take place at Crossroads Hotel on 22nd December, 2018 from 7 PM. Tickets are going at MK8000 standard and MK15000 at the entrance whilst for VIP MK15000 and MK20000 at the entrance. Tickets are available at crossroads business centre, Cheza Cafe at Game Complex and Steers City Centre. Supporting artists include Nyamalikiti Nthiwatiwa, Mada Nyambo, Jedidiah, Phindu Zaie Banda, Yona Mlakatuli Gondwe and Fanny Mbewe.
NR: Final words?
Chiwamba: I would like to thank Malawians, the media and everyone who has given me support since I began reciting. I would like to ask them to continue supporting by buying tickets and attending the launch.