In November 2009, accompanied by Drama St Mary‘s lecturer Mark Griffin, Drama & Applied Theatre student Jack Taylor travelled to Lilongwe to observe Theatre for a Change in action and to gather information to report back to his fellow students.
“When the opportunity came up for a student from the Applied Theatre course to visit Malawi to be an ambassador for St. Mary‟s University College, I couldn‟t have been any more eager. How many students have this chance offered to them, and how could any student turn this opportunity down? After an interview with my lecturers and the Head of the Drama programme, I was overjoyed to be awarded the place. I was excited, but also a bit apprehensive. After all, before this trip, I had only ever travelled to Europe and Florida!
“I knew Malawi was going to be a completely different experience for me, and I wasn‟t too sure what to expect. As well as sorting out all of my jabs and tablets in preparation for the trip, I read lots of online resources and frequently checked in with my lecturer, to find out what I needed to know about the country and what to expect.
“When the time finally came to travel to Lilongwe, I headed to Heathrow airport still very excited, but even more nervous. Although I am a confident person, who enjoys meeting new people, I couldn‟t predict how I would manage in this country that I had never been to before and had only read about.
“My plane arrived at Lilongwe airport, and I looked out of the window; it was quite a large airport with grand flower arrangements. There were lots of people getting off the plane, and I wondered why they were coming to Malawi as I went through security and collected my baggage. I was still thinking, „What am I going to see in the next few days?‟
“As we left the terminal, we met the Theatre for a Change team. In the car on the way there, I got my first glimpse of Lilongwe proper: it was quite built up, there was a hospital and a bank, and there were many people sitting on the side of the road selling animals. I saw several billboards with the President‟s picture on them, and lots of open space.
“On my first day, we went to the crafts market, which was less than a five minute walk down the road from where we were staying. I was told to prepare myself for a lot of attention from sellers, and with good reason; it was like the stall owners knew where they could make a quick sale, and they all immediately headed my way. I had 10 people all around me, not intimidating me, just showing me objects from their stall, like jewellery, paintings and crafts, trying to make a sale. It was an experience I will never forget. They were so friendly, shaking my hand and asking me how I was. Even after I told them that I wasn‟t going to buy anything, they were still just as friendly and made me feel comfortable.
“We also made a trip to the local market, where it seemed as if you could buy just about anything you could wish for. When we arrived, I was fascinated by all the amazing fruit and vegetables on every stall. Some had things I recognised, such as tomatoes and lettuces, but some stallholders had vegetables that I had never seen before. The colours were extraordinary; I had never seen colours like this on vegetables before. They were much brighter than in England. This food was completely fresh, and, I realised, it was what I would be eating for the week ahead. I‟m not a huge vegetable fan – what 20 year old is? But I was excited at the idea of eating this beautiful food. I hoped to arrive home a little healthier than when I left.
“My sight-seeing done for the time being, it was time to begin observing and working with Theatre For A Change, and my chance to get started in Malawi with my favourite thing: Drama! I felt as if I fitted into Theatre For A Change‟s routine right away. They had a weekly plan for me ready and set, and my first port of call, for 3 days, was a trip to Kasungu Teachers‟ Training College. There I was able to see the work they were doing with training teachers first-hand, and I watched as some participants showed ways in which to avoid contracting HIV. These included how to handle situations where someone wants you to have sex, and you don‟t want to. The short devised pieces allowed me to witness these Trainee Teachers doing what they would do if they were faced with this situation in their lives. These participants were not Drama students, nor were they actors, but they were really keen to get up and participate in the improvisations.
“After Kasungu, I went back to Lilongwe and had the chance to work with the ABC Group – a group of former sex workers who work with TfaC. They meet every weekday morning and discuss ways of preventing HIV and how they can help other women who are stuck in the sex trade. All of these women were so friendly, and were very encouraging when I attempted to speak some Chichewa phrases. It was lovely to watch them performing, and passionately showing their work to the others. Their singing and acting were beautiful; they had all the skills they needed to be excellent actors.
“I was pleased to see the impact of Theatre for a Change‟s work in Malawi. They have really helped these women to find alternatives to sex work, and what‟s more, they‟ve also been trained to help others to escape the sex trade. By the end of my time in Malawi, I didn‟t want to go home! Yes, I missed my family – and yes, I needed to start my essays! – but I had only scratched the surface of the problems that Malawi is facing, and what Theatre For A Change is doing to help. I feel incredibly lucky to have started this relationship with TfaC. It is a wonderful privilege.
“When I return to Malawi in May this year, I hope to add to my knowledge of the country, of HIV, and of how to facilitate participatory theatre in a development context. I want to work with a school, and also re-visit the ABC group to find out how the work has developed since 2009. I‟m particularly looking forward to the trip because this time I will get to experience it with my peers, who are as excited as I am. I have told them all about what I learned on my first visit to Malawi, but I know that their own experiences there will actually be a hundred times better in real life than any of my descriptions.
“I am thrilled that we‟ll be taking our verbatim play, Turning Poison Into Medicine, to Malawi this year to perform to TfaC trainee teachers, staff and the local community. I am also looking forward to conducting interviews with Malawians for a second verbatim play about living with HIV in Malawi, to be performed upon our return.
“Malawi is a country that is eager to get stronger. Although at the moment it is facing great difficulties, the current government is committed to the development of better hospital care and a stronger economy. I hope that Drama St Mary‟s and Theatre for a Change can also help the people of Malawi in promoting equality between men & women, reducing HIV infections, and supporting the building of communities in which young people can grow up in safety and good health.”
Jack Taylor, February 2011