Radio and television drama can serve as important agents of social change, conflict resolution, discussion on human rights, democracy and gender issues among other things.
Having been on the acting scene for 42 years, legendary actress, Margaret Chikwembeya, popularly known for her Mai Magagula role on the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) radio play, Sewero la Sabata Ino, says it always gives her a smile when people testify to how the plays have changed their lives for the best.
“I am pleased when people stop to tell me that our plays have impacted their lives in a positive way. When we script the plays, our aim is mostly to teach. We look at things happening in society at a given time and tell stories out of them to help the masses make informed decisions on those issues,” she says.
The actress, now 70, notes that some people think that the plays are made just to make people laugh, but behind all the laughter she says there are lessons to be learnt.
It is unfortunate, she says, that some people deliberately choose not to learn from the plays.
“A good example is how in our plays we might advise people against selling their maize instead of keeping it for later, but still find some people selling their maize and regret in the end when they do not have maize to feed their families.
“At the same time, it is interesting to meet people who heed our messages and attribute their adherence to our radio or television plays. This gives us pride that we are making positive impact,” she says.
Chikwembeya has been playing the character of Magagula’s wife since 1974. Hers is one of the key characters in Sewero la Sabata Ino, along with other prominent characters such as Nantchatu, Magagula and Namukhoviwa.
Her strongest point is her ability to judge situations and react in a way that is dramatic.
“We don’t use scripts in our plays. It is all about understanding the theme and the objective to be achieved. The rest are our own comments, as long as they are in line with the topic,” she says.
Her journey into acting dates back to her youthful days, while growing up in Bembeke, Dedza with her parents and siblings.
“Acting is a talent. I started acting when I was young. I would act in school and church plays during Christmas and Easter. So, I got used to it. We would also perform simple plays with my brothers and sisters at home,” she says.
As time went by, she would meet other community members with a similar passion and they would perform together at community functions.
The mother of six says despite being exposed to several acting platforms during her primary school days at Bembeke, her talent was not fully utilised.
As she grew older, she says her passion for acting was declining and her aspirations switched. She wanted to pursue a career in nursing or computing.
Chikwembeya went into computer training at Clicord in Limbe in 1964, a few months after joining her parents in Blantyre from the village.
While pursing the computer course, she met her late husband, Martin Chikwembeya, and got married. Still relishing her nursing dream, she went to Nguludi School of Nursing, but withdrew from the course due to other glitches.
Lucky for her, that was also the time when she appreciated that there was really something in her for drama performance.
“I noted that I liked drama so much because I was feeling short of something from not performing and I blamed it on my marriage,” she recalls.
She looked for other employment opportunities; by first applying for a job at David Whitehead and Sons. Despite emerging successful in the interview, she was not offered the job because she was married.
“They wanted a spinister for the job; my performance alone was not enough, so I was not given the job. I was very upset, especially because my future was not defining. On my way back, I stopped by MBC offices, where I met Smart Likhaya Mbewe. As we chatted, other staff at the station joined us. I had no idea one of them spotted some speaking skills in me.
“I was surprised when Likhaya Mbewe called, briefing me that I was being requested to join the acting team of Pamajiga,” says Chikwembeya who played Mai Phiri in that play.
She took the opportunity, considering her passion for acting.
“I gave out my best and they were
impressed. They roped me into the team,” she says, adding that the vacancy came about due to the absence of one of the actors who had been out for some time.
To date, Chikwembeya depicts the character of Magagula’s wife in Sewero la Sabata Ino. The Magagula household is well off, with maize mills and cars. For them—poverty is something they only see in others. The family is boastful and inconsiderate of the poor.
“We are not like that in real life, so in the play we are rebuked for our bad conduct. The take-home message for our listeners is that riches are a gift from God and we need not use them to burden the poor.
“The poor have a role to play even in the lives of the rich. A good example is when a rich person dies and it takes poor men to dig their grave and bury them. So, even if we are rich, we need to live in harmony with those that have little,” she says.
Born on April 27 1946, Chikwembeya is a mother of two sons and four daughters. Among her children, one, Emma, followed her footsteps and performs in Kwathu Drama Group.
She advises on the importance of parents nurturing the talents of their children.
“As every child grows up, parents can see what they are good at. It might be playing ball, singing, acting, designing or anything. People out there have made names out of these talents.
“In the past, parents thought a child just needs education so that they can get employed in the end, but it is high time they realised that earning a living comes in different ways. So, it is best if parents help their children to enhance their in-born skills,” she says, adding that she is able to fend for her family from what she gets through acting.
For someone to make it in acting, Chikwembeya says they need to depict any character to the best of their capability, among other things.
“If you have to perform as a prostitute, you need to understand how a prostitute behaves and act like one,” she says.
She believes this is one of her own traits that impressed Michael Usi, producer of Tikuferanji radio and television plays to approach her to act in that play.
A member of St Pius Catholic Parish in Blantyre, Chikwembeya calls for public support for actors in the country so that they, too, can earn better, just like actors in other movie industries such as Hollywood, Nollywood and Bollywood.
“If we talk of sports, huge sums of money are invested to support sports players. Why not support actors in the same way? Acting is one of the most effective means of disseminating information to the masses. A radio or television play can reach a lot of people within a short period of time,” says Chikwembeya who esteems Nollywood’s Patience Ozwokor in acting. n