William Kamkwamba is becoming a household name at last. When the local media houses first reported him the early years of 21st century and when I referred to him in my articles a decade later, not many people in Malawi had heard about him.
Even when he published a biography of himself with the help of the American journalist Brian Mealor, very few Malawians followed his story. He remained a celebrity abroad, but a non-entity at home.
Now that his book, titled The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, has been turned into a film, the awareness of Kamkwamba is slowly beginning to balloon in Malawi. Books do not have as many enthusiasts as films do. People find it easier to watch films, which, almost without exception, do not tax their brains a great deal because all the sounds and pictures are already packaged together for anyone to consume. Reading a book, on the other hand, stretches the mental faculties of the reader as the brain has to construct the sounds the actions in the course of reading. Experts tell us that reading is by far more beneficial for mental development than watching, because when you read, the brain is called upon to perform harder work compared to when you simply watch a movie.
I have had the best of both worlds because I have read the book and have also watched the movie. The book describes William’s exploits in great detail and leaves the reader with a good grasp of what life in Kasungu is like. The movie is equally captivating, except that the language falls short of giving an accurate description of life in Kasungu.
For international viewers, the language is not an issue. They would follow the story by reading the sub-titles. For a Malawian or Zambian viewer, the joy of watching the movie is quite critically curtailed by two aspects of the Chichewa language used in the film—translation and accent.
Some of the translation does not sound well because the Chichewa used is a literal translation from English. After William’s friends fail to convince the father to release his bicycle to William, for example, they unceremoniously leave the Kamkwamba home and urge William to come along. The Chichewa used is ‘Bwera ndi ife’, which is a literal translation of ‘Come with us’. This expression is never used in Chichewa. It should simply have been Tiye (Let us go).
An illicit relationship develops between Annie, William’s elder sister, and a Mr. Kachigunda, a Science teacher at William’s school. The relationship culminates in the two deciding to elope. The father gets mad when he learns that his daughter has disappeared. Frantically, he repeatedly asks, ‘Ali kuti mtsikana wanga?’ (Where is my girl?). A seasoned Chichewa speaker would hardly use the word mtsikana in reference to his or her daughter. The natural word to use is mwana. So, the more appropriate question should have been, ‘Mwana wanga ali kuti?’
The foreign actors are, by any man’s standards, excellent actors, but their Chichewa accent prevents the Malawian viewer from fully enjoying the film. Some people have played down this problem. Before I viewed the film, even I thought the problem was exaggerated by those who reported it.
When you are watching a scene from rural Malawi, with elegant gule wamkulu characters in the background, and you come across somebody who is supposed to be a local character speaking like a missionary, it does not sound natural at all. A foreign language is never easy. Many of us have been speaking English for many years but we do not sound like those who speak it as a first language. It would be nothing short of a miracle if somebody from Nigeria or Kenya would, within a few months, acquire a natural or near natural Chichewa accent. In short, the accents of the foreign actors in The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind leave a sour taste in the ears of the Malawian viewer/listener.
The film is already shot and it cannot be ‘unshot’; yet, in my view, the problems described in the preceding paragraphs need to be fixed. Searching within Malawi, we will be able to find scores of people who can help the film producers to voice over the speeches of the foreign actors.
Malawians have mastered the art of voicing over what actors say in foreign films. At every trading centre, there are mini theatres where foreign films, originally shot in English or other foreign languages, are screened in Chichewa. It would not take the mastery of rocket science to voice over the unnatural bits of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. n