Presidential Celebration in Malawi Does Little to Help Struggling Newspaper

Jan 252011

Red carpet…a sea of tuxedos and dazzling, figure-hugging evening gowns…a phalanx of paparazzi looking for someone important or something offbeat to shoot.

But this black-tie event took place, not in Los Angeles but in a giant marquee on the lawns of Malawi President Bingu wa Mutharika’s State House in Lilongwe, the capital.

The event in question was an awards dinner hosted by the state-owned and government-controlled Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), dubbed “Our People, Our Pride.” It is an annual ceremony to honor Malawians whose deeds have touched the lives of many—ordinary people who never get to make headlines.

People like 82-year-old Etherine Nyasulu, one of 10 awardees who walked away with a glass plaque and a cash prize of K100,000 (US$657) on the night. She was recognized for composing over 300 hymns for the Seventh-Day Adventist (SDA) church. Some of her hymns are reportedly sung by SDA and Catholic congregations in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Tanzania.

“I have been meaning to take my songs into the studio and record them, but I couldn’t do so because I didn’t have the money. With the cash prize I have received, I can record them, protect them and make them available to everyone,” she said. Nyasulu said she composed her music to the glory of God, not for money but felt angry that some Malawian gospel musicians were “reaping where they have not sown” by stealing her songs and recording these as their own.

Another awardee whose contribution touched the hearts of many diners was Christian Kasinjeni, who drove a few to tears. Over the years, she has taken into her home and raised 21 children abandoned at birth at Kasungu District Hospital where she works as a lowly, poorly-paid ward attendant. The First Lady, Callista Mutharika, gave an additional K100,000 in appreciation of Kasinjeni’s noble efforts to provide a home for abandoned children.

And then of course, there’s Malawi’s own “Crocodile Dundee,” a fisherman by the name of Santo Manuel from Mendiramu Villlage in Chikhwawa. His claim to fame is rescuing a number of villagers from the jaws of crocodiles around the Lusuli Lagoon along the Shire River.

Predictably, MBC gave the biggest award of the night, the Lifetime Achievement Award, to the President—Bingu wa Mutharika. According to the MBC Director, Bright Malopa, the corporation decided to award the head of state for sending 21-year-old Zione Wiseman from Bvumbwe in Thyolo district for a heart operation.

He forgot to mention that Thyolo’s is the president’s home district. In a public show of gratitude, Zione presented Mutharika with a live chicken and a bunch of bananas.

On hand to entertain the audience were Afro-pop singer, Yvonne Chaka Chaka and the triple-Grammy award-winning group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo—both from South Africa.

The group, known for popularizing a Zulu acapella style known as isicathamiya, rose to international prominence after singing with Paul Simon on his 1986 album, Graceland.

But for all the pageantry, the good intentions behind the awards ceremony and the heart-rending achievements of the awardees, I left the State House with a wry taste in my mouth.

And no, it wasn’t induced by a glass of red wine too many.

Actually, the circumstances that led to my attendance at the dinner are indicative of the love-hate relationship that exists between the Mutharika regime and institutions of state and government on the one hand and Nation Publications Limited on the other.

The Nation spent about US$1,950 for a table of 10 editors and senior managers, me included, at the MBC awards dinner in what it hoped would be seen as a public show of support of government. Seven of the 10 people who attended the event in Lilongwe had to travel from Blantyre and be accommodated at a hotel where rooms cost over US$120 per night. Throw in money spent on fuel and food and the figures add up to a pretty sum a struggling newspaper can ill afford to spend on a night of banqueting and junketing.

From the point of view of management, costly as the whole enterprise was, the show of support could cause government to reconsider its ban on advertising in the Nation and its sister newspapers. In short, Nation Publications Limited made what it thought was a wise business decision.

Since the Mutharika regime banned government ministries and departments from advertising with the Nation, the company’s revenue has dropped by over 45 percent, affecting newspaper operations adversely.

But in spite of the newspaper’s show of goodwill, the government-controlled broadcaster, MBC, advertised the awards dinner in every single media except the Nation.

Interestingly, Nyasulu composes her music using an old battery- operated tape recorder that has seen many moons. She described her award as “a miracle” and explained why, in an interview shortly after she shuffled up to the high table to receive it, flanked by a choir of singing church women.