Some birds cannot just be caged. The high windows, thick barbed wires, hefty walls, tall perimeter fences of Chichiri Maximum Security Prison in Blantyre might have been contrived to cage people judged to have exacted the wrath of the law.
But some ex-jailbirds are out on a noble mission to show that no one can keep their talent confined.
Nkhokwe Arts is brimming with community experiences and lamentations on the annihilation of a green treasure of Mulanje Mountain as government officials cashed in, forestry officials accepted kickbacks from illegal loggers and a self-styled conservation organisations plundered vast pine plantation in the name of protecting the Mulanje cedar.
On Saturday, the unchained theatre minds unleashed a cast of 13 in a performance at the highly plundered Blantyre Cultural Centre, the 13th stop in a green tour to awaken the nation to the way some people wiped out the Mulanje cedar in the country’s tallest mountain.
The offshoot of Nanzikambe Arts prison outreach has become the preferred stop for prisoners leaving the prison.
Thanks to their candid new play, Mapiri ndi Moyo, the theatre group positions itself as friends of Mulanje and the voice of voiceless communities surrounding the massif who feel short-changed by wealthy elites who cashed in on the cedar exclusive to Mulanje.
In July, the cast spent 10 days atop the towering tourist attraction and interacted with local voices in 18 neighbouring villages to get a bird’s view of laxity that loomed large when axes and chainsaws were sending the national tree crashing to the ground.
The result of this lofty adventure is a play which squarely puts selfish elites on the firing line for plundering lush cedar forests.
The cast takes no prisoners as they expose how the aroma of the hardwood had founding president Hastings Kamuzu Banda declaring it a protected national tree in 1981. This lured rich and powerful traders in a rush for money and local chiefs who could not decline moneybags trickling into their territory.
What follows is utter anarchy and annihilation of a national treasure as mountaintops that had lush cedar forests on the cusp of the country’s independence in 1964 is denied of the most treasured tree which ‘only Kamuzu tried to protect.
Studies by the Forestry Research Institute in Zomba shows nearly two million cedar trees were still standing in 2004, but the number had dropped to 63 000 by 2014 and just seven last year.
The researchers only counted two this year.
Having visited the remnants on their fact finding mission, the actors, from Nkhokwe Arts, come on stage carrying logs as axes and chainsaws fell the few trees with uncurbed intensity.
“What happened in Mulanje Mountain will happen again if we don’t conserve the environment,” sings the cast in a solemn citation to the 1991 disaster which killed about 1 000 people in Phalombe in 1991.
The tragedy, which has gone into history as Napolo, hit after torrential rain and villagers at the bottom of the hugely forested slopes remember they felt like the whole mountain was coming down on them as flush flood and landslides sent boulders falling and trees tumbling down with the muddy overflow that swept away homes, crops, livestock, bridges and virtually anything on its way.
Nkhokwe artistic director Mphundu Mjumira put the scenes in context: “This is a true story. No disclaimers. Everything in the play is based on our experiences and findings during the study we carried out in the mountain and surrounding villages where we encountered all characters that you see on stage, except Kamuzu and that colonial elite who are dead and buried.”
The study was bankrolled by the National Geographic Channel and spearheaded by former Nanzikambe Arts co-founder Effie Makepeace.
“We leave it to people to decide what to do about it. We are only creating debate,” says Makepeace.n