Posts Tagged ‘Malawi’

Selling Lost in Malawi

July 5th, 2010 | Jonathan Gray

By way of contextualizing info, I’m currently in Liwonde, Malawi. It’s the second time I’ve been here, doing fieldwork once more (indeed, I posted some observations last time, but my Net access is poor enough that I hope you’ll pardon the lack of hyperlinks — just go look for Malawi tags instead). I’m primarily interested in what films, television, and music are here, how they got here, what’s popular, and what people think of the media around them and think of with that media.

Part of my fieldwork therefore involves hanging out in marketplaces and talking to folk who sell DVDs, CDs, VCDs, etc. I like to see what’s available, usually buy something to make the store-owner comfortable with me, then chat about what people like, whether what I bought is good, and so forth. Indeed, given all my work on parataxts and extratextuals, I’m especially fascinated with how Hollywood and Nollywood are sold in a town in Malawi.

Well, the other day I found a gem. Alongside the usual suspects of CSI, Prison Break, wrestling, and 24 that I got used to seeing two years ago, the latest show to hit the stands is Lost. Yet, I should explain that action does extremely well here — the “video shows” (rooms that fit anywhere from 20 to 50, and that play movies and television on tiny televisions for an admission price of about 3-5 cents) exhibit a lot of Nigerian soaps, but when it’s Hollywood, it’s nearly always Van Damme, Schwarzenegger (and I don’t mean Twins!), Stallone, Cruise, Snipes, Seagal, and friends. With that in mind, it was interesting to see the copy on the back of the DVD package for Season 5 of Lost (spoiler alert):

“Phil and the gunmen showed up, and Jack plotted his course toward the swan. Phil spotted Jack and started shooting at him. Jack shot back and the rest of the group provided cover for Jack by driving him by in the van and shooting. Sawyer snuck up behind Phil and held him at gunpoint, ordering him to tell everyone else to drop their guns. Sawyer told Jack to do his business. The drill wouldn’t shut down. Jack held the bomb over the hole, looked back at Kate and Sawyer looked at Juliet. Jack dropped the bomb and … nothing happened. ‘This don’t look like LAX,’ Sawyer said. Metal objects started being pulled into the hole. Jack was knocked about by a metal box, Chang was trapped for a moment by a piece of scaffolding and Miles helped pull him free. Phil was about to shoot Sawyer, when another piece of scaffolding knocked him over, then a series of metal pipes shot toward him, with one of them hitting Phil in the chest, presumably killing him.”

Just in case you wondered what genre Lost was, we now have an answer, for Malawi at least: it’s full-on action.

Maybe later I’ll type up the waaaaay cooler notes for Season 1.

Apologies, in the meantime, if formatting is messed up here. I can’t access the rich text editor in WordPress here, and my knowledge of html is strictly limited.

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Cultural Imperialism and “Newness”: More on Malawian Media Consumption

September 14th, 2008 | Jonathan Gray

I now return to some early observations about Malawian media consumption, based on my research there in June:

One of my research goals was to interrogate the cultural imperialism thesis in a developing country.

Being a non-American who grew up watching huge amounts of American television, and whose non-American friends are mostly in the same boat, I’ve always found the cultural imperialism thesis to have considerable intellectual purchase, but only to a point, whereas many of its proponents take it beyond that point to the offensive extreme of imagining that all us non-Americans are so devoid of cultural roots, so easily swayed by images of Pamela Anderson (a Canadian, for the record) running across a beach in a swimsuit, and so ready for foreign programming (in all the senses of that word) that Americanization occurs easily and unproblematically. I worry that American companies hold many a media outlet’s purse-strings, I worry that resulting economies of scale make it easier for American saturation of media outlets than to develop local content that tells local stories, I worry that many of my country’s best actors are poached by Hollywood, and I’m aware that despite George Bush’s best efforts to undo its work, American PR is so much louder and better than most other nations’. So by no means do I consider cultural imperialism a mere bogeyman in the closet. But I also believe in the complexity and sophistication of audiences, and the complexity and sophistication of various national cultures enough to resist the simplicity and clumsiness of a pure cultural imperialism thesis.   More after the fold …
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Malawian Media Consumption, Part III: Music

July 19th, 2008 | Jonathan Gray

Music is all over the place. A lot of villages don’t have wired electricity, but batteries can do a lot in Malawi, and radios are pervasive. The country has several radio stations, and picks up others from neighboring countries. Beyond this, tapes are alive and well in Malawi, with many music stalls selling tapes before all other formats. CDs exist, though CD players were nowhere near as pervasive, and when I gave a friend a CD that my wife and I gave away at our wedding, he was very confused about how to make it work, suggesting that the technology is still largely for the wealthy. VCDs, interestingly, were almost as popular, since they carried videos of the performers. And discs with mp3s were better currency in many situations, as mp3 players seemed more plentiful than CD players.

As with film, much of what sells is pirated. CDs cost more than some people make in two weeks, so pirating is a necessity for many. One hardly feels for Eminem or Usher when one sees them pirated, but it is worth noting the really harmful effect this has on local acts. Newspaper articles often discussed the lousy economics of being a musician in Malawi, and indeed, one of the interviewers working for a Penn project in Malawi was a well-known Malawian musician whose videos had been on television … yet he still worked as an interviewer for about $10 a day to make ends meet. Moreover, given that Chichewa is a fairly localized language (shared only with Zambia), Malawian music struggles to get play outside of the country, meaning that the market is too small to reward its best artists.

More after the fold …

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Malawian Media Consumption, Part II: Television

July 16th, 2008 | Jonathan Gray

Only in very wealthy areas does everyone have a television. Communal watching is more common, therefore, either at a successful neighbor’s house, or at a bar or restaurant. To give you an idea, none of the interviewers I met (all of whom are high school grads, around 16% of the country, I’m told) had televisions at home, Or to come at this another way, when Malawi and Egypt were playing an important qualifying soccer match, I took the first half as an opportunity to walk through town to listen out for where televisions existed. The video shows did great business, the bars and restaurants were packed, but that was about it: everywhere else had radio or nothing.

Malawi only has one television station of its own, TVM, which plays a heck of a lot of political coverage – ranging from the sometimes boring, sometimes very exciting parliamentary coverage (I heard on the radio a segment where they were debating whether the president had raped the country, whether a country could be raped, how one could rape a constitution, etc.) to simply placing the camera at an official dinner, without the mic anywhere relevant. It also plays Malawian music videos and other local stuff such as soccer games, news, or ceremonies, or religious programming (more below). So for anything else, one needs satellite, which is relatively cheap compared to the States, but still often prohibitively expensive for Malawians.

All the same, I was told that successful people may get satellite and share costs with others, or allow neighbors to watch, collecting a small fee when particularly important or popular events are on, such as an English Premiership match (in case you’re counting, Arsenal boasted the most fans, given their relatively large number of African players). Different satellite packages exist, and clearly a lot is available, since my first (Indian-owned) hotel had a few Indian channels, while the Korean-owned hotel that I stayed at in the capital, Lilongwe, had several Korean stations. More commonly on, though, are South Africa’s sports stations (especially with Euro 2008 on while I was there, these were constantly on during game time), BBC World News, a few South African music video stations, Botswana TV, movie channels, Sky News and/or CNN, and God TV.

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Malawian Media Consumption, Part I: Film

July 10th, 2008 | Jonathan Gray

I am now back from Malawi, where I’ve been for the last month. It was a fantastic trip. I’ll spare you the long, rambling travelogue here, instead focusing on Malawian media consumption. I’m aiming to write three descriptive posts, on film, on television, and on music, and a fourth post with reflections and analysis.

Just to situate things a bit, though, this is drawn on observations from myself and from my research assistant. I was in one town (Liwonde) in the South for two weeks, with small visits to Balaka, Mangochi, and Monkey Bay, then in another town (Rumphi) in the North for another two weeks. I hired my research assistant, Stanslous Ngwire, in Rumphi, and hired him for a month of visiting video shows (more on these below), places where television is played, and CD/DVD stores/stalls, and to conduct, translate, and transcribe interviews in English, Chichewa, or Chitumbuka (the first two being Malawi’s national languages, the third the main language in the North). Stanslous has experience interviewing and is a marvel. But I also chatted a heck of a lot with many people: Malawians are some of the warmest people I’ve met on the planet, and anytime I walked anywhere, I would often end up with someone accompanying me on an ad hoc basis, simply to chat. That said, I’ve yet to really dig into the interviews yet, so these are rudimentary observations. And they’re not based on years in Malawi, so take everything with a grain of salt, yeah?


Movies in Malawi are seen either via satellite, or in “video shows.” Both usually involve small televisions (ie: if you’d consider it for the foot of the bath, that’s the one). The video shows are usually in a one-room mud-brick building with a few plastic crates or planks of wood for the adults to sit on, and a piece of cardboard for the kids. A few that I went into shared the space with a rat or two, and with the occasional hornet or wasp nest. They usually house around 20 to 30 viewers at any given time. Admission is either 5 or 10 kwacha (3.5 or 7 cents). Usually, “show times” are outside, with a makeshift piece of cardboard telling you the times and the DVD or VCD covers telling you what’s on. You pay to walk in, not for the show, and I found it rare for people to arrive dutifully on time, instead walking in or out as time commitments or interest dictated. Malawi only has five films of its own (I’ve yet to confirm this, but about 6 people gave me this number independently), so almost all movies were American or Nigerian, in English (English is widely spoken in Malawi, though not at an advanced level). English subtitles were usually left on, which helps because the sound systems are pretty awful and cranked up to the point of creating audio crackle. People tended to watch observantly, the quiet in the room interrupted only by occasional comments, by kids coming in to sell snacks such as beans or sugar cane, or when the funny-looking azungu (white person) entered the room, becoming cause for intense amusement and curiosity.

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I’m Outta Here

June 5th, 2008 | Jonathan Gray

Though I may get occasional text-only access, I’ll effectively be away from Internet access for the next month. So no blogging from me. I’ll be in Malawi (the missus does research there, so I’m following in tow, and will do a little research of my own). Not Maui, as a friend misheard — the two have a slightly different vibe. But to answer the most common question I get of “where is Malawi?”, see below, and for the curious-’n'-studious amongst you, here’s the CIA World Factbook’s page on Malawi.

The country has a population of about 14 million, is just a little smaller in size than Pennsylvania (though a very different shape), it’s often listed as the poorest country in the world, it’s a multiparty democracy that was once a British colony, the key languages are English and Chichewa, it should be a nice temperature this time of year, Lake Malawi is by all accounts a beautiful sight as are the nation’s many hippos at play, and though, as in Kentucky, tobacco is a key part of the economy and Dolly Parton is one of the most popular musicians (no, seriously), with only 2.7% of the population aged 65 or older and a median age of 16.8, unlike Kentucky there probably aren’t many Hillary voters there. I’ll be back in mid-July.

Africa map with Malawi