Malawi: The Popular Musician Who Left Everything Behind to Preserve Village Culture

The Malawian hit song, Moyo wa Mtawoni, meaning ‘the town life’, was released some 20 years ago by musician Ben Michael Mankhamba. It addressed the challenges of living in urban areas and praised the laissez-faire lifestyle of villages.

The song resonated with many – not strange in a country where the majority lives below the poverty line and where urban poverty is on an upward trajectory.

Fast forward a few years later: he was crowned the leader of Chingalire Village, outside Malawi’s capital Lilongwe, a development that would be a milestone in his life.

“When I was installed as a chief, I just accepted it and age-wise I was also mature enough to come to the village and take the position. But it was a tough decision to make,” Mankhamba told RFI’s Africa Calling.

Village homestay

Nestled inside a woodland, Chingalire village is very different from other villages, even though urban development is just a few kilometres away. Mankhamba has transformed the village into a centre for cultural preservation.

The idea is to expose visitors, including international tourists, to typical Malawian village life and Mankhamba describes it as “a great place to share village life and where a real exchange of knowledge between guests and villagers takes place.”

The homestay also preserves history by passing on folktales to the young people, as well as traditional dances.

“It’s a model cultural village where tourists or people who just want to know about the Malawian culture can come and learn a few things – maybe language, dressing, manners and food,” he says.

The centre has a women’s empowerment group, an under-five clinic, an amphitheater and a youth club where the young perform traditional dances.

In addition to performing at the centre, the dancers are hired to perform across the country.

Not only does this keep the young people busy and prevents them from getting involved in harmful behaviour. They also earn money too.

Dozens of the young people participating in the village told Africa Calling that they use the money to buy school supplies while others supplement their family’s income.

Some parents weren’t happy initially about their dedication to the dancing, but have come around to it, he says.

“The other thing is that we have elders from different villages who are storytellers and we invite them to tell stories about old folktales. It’s one way of also teaching and passing on history to the youth,” he added.

Cultural and environmental

The chief is also passionate about the environment and actively protects the woodland and the animals that are found at the centre.

As well as encouraging his ‘subjects’ to plant trees, he also trains women to make stoves that use less wood.

The establishment has 10 permanent workers and employs dozens more for short periods of time when there is a performance. Mankhamba said the people in the village are reaping the benefits of the centre from learning to plant trees in their household, as well as keeping the traditions alive.

Here’s a look at the hard work of making @Africa__Calling #podcast happen! #Malawi correspondent @charles_pensulo (L) interviews Ben Michael #Mankhamba, musician-turned-Chief & cultural guardian. Check out his report! 🎧https://t.co/W76qAtS3fg pic.twitter.com/SWlfqS7PIu

— Africa Calling (@Africa__Calling) May 27, 2022

The initiative is commendable, as youth are exposed to the traditional values at a time when this is scarce, especially in the urban settings, according to Mwayi Lusaka, a lecturer in history and heritage studies at Mzuzu University.

He notes that the dances performed at the cultural village are not specific to Malawian ethnic groups, but also comes from neighbouring countries from which these groups originated.

“In every culture there is a context and medium in which they express their identity, in which they communicate their cultural values,” says Lusaka.

“For example, the cultural values to do with initiation, teaching right conduct and behaviour among the youth who are graduating to adulthood and these dances are the medium through which these cultural values are transmitted. Apart from being a vehicle, they are also a signifier of identity and belonging,” he adds.

Metamorphosis of chief and village

Mankhamba’s new role entailed a change of his funky look, including chopping off his trademark dreadlocks.

“The elders thought it was not good for the community and I was forced to chop them off. It was really bad because it was like I lost my identity,” says Mankhamba, adding that no one recognized him on the street.

“People thought I had stopped performing and doing music which made me lose gigs because everyone thought I had quit music. Yet, I was still doing music and it is just that maybe my looks changed,” he says.

Today, although Mankhamba’s songs don’t receive massive airplay compared to the previous decade, the older generation still holds on to them dearly. He still performs for corporate functions and transfers the proceeds to his foundation.

But how does someone who was accustomed to the stage light and the bustle of urban life feel comfortable with country life?

“It was tough at first, but when I started doing what am doing in the village, working with the youth and doing cultural works, my passion for the project helped,” he says.

“I’m now proud and I don’t regret that I left the town and came here to the village.”

This story was originally heard on RFI’s Africa Calling podcast.

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