A recent phenomenon in the Malawi blogosphere has been the growing presence of women journalists setting up blogs. Not too long ago a search on Blogger.com for Malawian blogs turned up virtually no women bloggers from Malawi. That has since changed. In this write-up we follow four Malawian women journalists who are establishing a cyber presence for themselves, writing about matters that matter not only to themselves but to many other Malawians as well.
The journalists are Eunice Chipangula, the erstwhile highest ranking woman at Malawi’s state broadcaster, Pilirani Semu-Banda who writes features for InterPress Services News Agency, (IPS), Penelope Paliani-Kamanga who writes for The Daily Times, and Stella, a first-name-only blogger working at an unnamed radio station.
Eunice Chipangula and two Malawian firsts
In February this year Eunice Chipangula started her blog, named Standing Upon God’s Promises. Chipangula inaugurated her blog with an entry introducing herself. She wrote about being the first Malawian broadcaster to win a British Chevening scholarship, which enabled her to go and study for a Masters degree in journalism at the University of Wales, Cardiff. Chipangula returned to Malawi, and rose through the ranks to become the Deputy Director General of Malawi’s national broadcaster, the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation. She was the first woman to assume the post in the history of MBC. Chipangula also mentions in her first post how she was transferred from MBC in January of this year, without an explanation, first to the Ministry of Foreign and International Cooperation, and later to the Ministry of Labor as Deputy Secretary.
What may come as a surprise to Malawians not too familiar with Chipangula is that she is, in her own words, “an ordained Pastor of the Oasis of The Lord International Ministry, overseeing Malawi.”
Since February Chipangula has published 9 posts on her blog, nearly all of them describing gender inequality and sexual harassment in Malawian homes and in the public sphere. Two posts are on topics outside gender; one on widening the provision for legalized abortion in Malawi, and the harmonization of labor policies in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region to deal with illegal immigration. A number of her posts are commenting on new changes suggested by the Malawi Law Commission, which held a constitutional conference in April 2007.
On the labor immigration issue Chipangula writes:
“The bottom line here is therefore that a lot needs to be done in terms of harmonization of national policies, legislations within and among states if the region and the world are to effectively manage migration and reap benefits for both migrants and states that will result into successful integration. Since cross-border labour migration is one of the most visible forms of migration, it requires significant attention within and between states in the region. Regional structures, mechanisms need to be put in place to manage or regulate labour migration between member states through a joint collaborative regional initiative or bilateral and multilateral arrangements.”
Chipangula adds that laws, policies and regulations for SADC states address labor and migration separately, and that no country has a harmonized approach to labor migration. She concludes her post by suggesting that SADC “and the world over need more and better migration policies- not more and better controls and policing.”
Semu-Banda and Malawi’s marginalized
Another female journalist peopling the Malawi blogosphere is Semu-Banda. In fact Ms. Semu-Banda started her eponymous blog in 2005, but only posted a profile and photos for the next two years. Starting in March 2007 Ms Semu-Banda has been posting on her blog some of the articles she writes and publishes for the African section of the InterPress Services News Agency, (IPS).
Unlike Ms. Chipangula, Ms. Semu-Banda has not provided an introduction as to who she is and what she does. Arguably Malawi’s best known feature writer outside of Malawi, Ms. Semu-Banda’s signature style is to write about Malawi’s poor and marginalized and their daily struggles. In a March 2007 posting, she wrote about two Malawians whose diminishing profiles exemplify the relentless poverty that is trapping many Malawians, despite adulatory praises coming from the International Monetary Fund, Jeffrey Sachs, and other high profile economic interlocutors.
Semu-Banda’s feature on poverty focused on Grace Kafere, an administrative officer who was laid off and was quickly reduced from above-poverty affluence to one-meal-a-day desperation, and Jackson Malire, a night watchman who has had to sell his bicycle and now walks long distances to work and other errands as his personal finances keep losing their economic power. Writes Semu-Banda:
“The dismal experiences of Karefe and Malire are not confined to their neighbourhood. Most Malawians are struggling in similar ways as poverty has worsened in Malawi, according to the most recent Human Development Report released by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).”
Semu-Banda goes on to point out how Malawi slipped from the 10th to 11th poorest country in the world, from 2005 to 2006. “The country is ranked 166th out of 177 countries on the UNDP’s Human Development Index.” A decade earlier, Semu-Paliani says the country’s rank was only slightly better, at 161st place, indicating a slippage of five digits in the last 10 years.
A case of gender marginalization that Semu-Banda writes about is that of Chanju Mwale, a young female lawyer working as legal officer for the Malawi Defence Force, the first female to hold the rank of captain since the Defense Force opened its gates to women officers in 1996. Semu-Banda writes about how in 2004 Captain Mwale was severely beaten by a male officer, a lieutenant, junior in rank to Mwale, after Mwale rebuffed the lieutenant’s sexual advances at an end-of-year party. According to Semu-Banda, Mwale was dissatisfied with the way the Malawi Defence Force handled the assault, awarding her a miserly US$72 as compensation. Mwale took the matter up in the courts, and was still pending as of March 2007. Semu-Banda quoted Captain Mwale explaining the gendered nature of the assault she suffered:
“The problem is that the army is a male-dominated institution which does not take kindly to women being in high positions. The Malawi Defence Force was used to being an all-male team until 1996 when women were allowed to join the army. They just cannot accept that a woman is capable of working as hard as they do.”
Captain Mwale expressed her determination to fight from within, rather than quit, telling Semu-Banda:
‘‘People thought I would leave the army following the assault as I was badly injured and got little support from my superiors but I am staying. I will work at changing the perceptions. I know it is an uphill battle but I will not tire.”
Semu-Banda’s other features on her blog explore matters of human interest to ordinary Malawians, such as dwindling fish supplies from Lake Malawi, turning human waste into fertilizer, and the real, lived consequences of the seemingly eternal wrangle between Malawi’s former president, Dr. Bakili Muluzi, and current president Dr. Bingu wa Mutharika. From her posts we learn quite a few things of relevance about Malawians’ dietary needs. She informs that 1.6 million Malawians depend on the fishing industry, out of a population of 12 million, and that “fish provides Fish provides over 60 percent of the dietary animal protein intake of Malawians and 40 percent of Malawians’ total protein supply.
In another posting Semu-Banda describes a new initiative by farmers to turn human waste into fertilizer, observing that “faeces and urine, combined with wood ash and soil, are serving as a replacement for chemical fertilizers. This came as farmers who could not afford the standard fertilizers went in search of alternatives to increase the size of their yields.”
Even when she writes about Malawi’s politics and its leaders, it’s the ordinary people she trains her eye on. In addition to the Muluzi-Bingu rivalry causing a commotion in parliament during which then Speaker of Parliament Rodwell Mnyenyembe collapsed and died days later, in June 2005, the national budget has been held ransom to the never-ending quarrel, and several court cases have been pushed aside while the judiciary system handles political cases arising out of the duel of the “elephants.”
Coming to America: Paliani-Kamanga and her American dream
Penelope Paliani-Kamanga, our next subject, is another Malawian female journalist who has also set up shop in the cyberworld. Paliani-Kamanga’s blog, creatively named “PP COOL JAY cooler as the swimming pooler”, appeared on August 1, 2007, a month after her arrival in the United States to participate in the International Center for Journalism Exchange Program.
She is able to confirm her long-held picture of the United States as a glamorous and dream-achieving place, before encountering a side of the United States that would only be understood by a personal presence. Paliani-Kamanga writes the following about her first impressions:
After going through marathon daily boardroom briefings about a whole range of aspects of life here in the United States, I have come to revisit my perception of America. This is not merely the land of great opportunities, but the land of the free and the brave.
She finds that the American press is “free and is protected by the first amendment no one at all can create rules on how the press should operate.” She contrasts this, perhaps too stereotypically, with the Malawian press, saying “I feel if the media back home had such freedom there would be chaos. I am mesmerized by the way the press here stick to ethics despite the absolute freedom.”
A little later, reality begins to sink in, and she starts to observe, almost reluctantly, hidden aspects of the United States of America. Some of her perceptions begin developing question marks. “When I came here I could not imagine that some people in America are homeless or living on government support.” She finds that the United States “still battles with ethnicity and racial tensions on the individual and social levels, something one would consider Africans.” She also learns of crime in American cities: “Crime I am told is still rampant in most cities of America, as it is in Africa. Drug trafficking and gangs are major causes of insecurity amongst the African-American neighborhoods.”
Paliani’s blog has other entries, on how men in other countries are turning on the gains made in gender equity and claiming that men too are victims also, a new vaccine against cervical cancer, and another posting on men and gender.
Smile; you’re still on air
The last subject of this write-up is a Malawian female blogger introducing herself as Smiling Stella, who names her blog “Nambewe”. Her lone entry, dated October 6, 2007, takes readers into a frustrating day when Stella, a broadcaster, is forced to wing it, so to speak, on a live radio show after a computer malfunctions.
Learning everyday. Yes we learn everyday and anytime especially when we are stuck. I was on air some minutes ago and then one computer programme went off. Since I am new to the software, I did not know how to proceed. This made me to do the next live radio programme without help of the text messages. I know I angered the listeners who expected me to read their text ,messages. I can only say sorry. I have not yet fully figured how the software works. I hope to know that next week. Uh, lessons, lessons and lessons. What a day!
Besides journalists, there are several other Malawian women pitching up tents in cyberspace, who will be covered in forthcoming write-ups. For now, the female journalists are taking to cyberspace with a prominence that male Malawian journalists are yet to match.