My best friend and I set off northbound out of Lilongwe, our capital city, past a small town called Lumbadzi. Soon after the town centre we turned right onto a tarred road for a further 15-20 minute drive in the countryside before spotting the large orange Tumaini roving billboard. The drive took a little over 45 minutes from Lilongwe.
We pulled up into a wide field of reddish brown dirt which served as the parking lot. Spotting space next to one of the few trees, we tried to park next to it to shade our car, and a woman in a reflector vest hurriedly approached us. She dissuaded us from parking so close to the road in case of inebriated drivers and once safely relocated, ushered us into the camp and festival.
There was a long row of stalls to our left, with brightly coloured wares from beaded jewelry to wooden sculptures to paintings, chitenge (the brightly patterned fabric so loved across the continent) and luckily for me, sun-hats. We made our way slowly along this route, as the field to our right opened up to a field hosting the main stage and theatre section.
Most of the festival goers appeared to be camp residents, and it seemed to me that the point of Tumaini, meaning hope in Swahili, is to throw a huge party for them. We outsiders just happen to be invited. The camp is now home to over 34,000 people from more than 9 countries, and this weekend they enjoyed performances from 17 nationalities. The festival sets itself apart from other notable events at the camp which have a formal tone filled with official speeches. For camp residents, the festival hopes to provide an “avenue to enjoy artistic expression, to separate themselves from the difficulties of their lives and to foster pride...we want to change public perception towards refugees and to empower them through arts”
Supported by the UN Refugee Agency, PLAN and the Malawi Government, the festival is free to attend. There were so many languages being spoken, and we turned to technology to bridge the gap, using translation apps to communicate better. Sometimes this wasn’t needed as so many of the residents were multilingual. My friend tapped a young woman’s shoulder to tell her she was pretty. She indicated she hadn’t understood, so I mimed instead by framing my own face, and then giving her a thumbs up.
I know tourists often wonder what to wear to Malawi and my rule of thumb is you should dress modestly and sensibly. It’s hot, so select natural fibres, and protect your skin from the sun. Chances are you’ll be sharing your holiday pictures with friends and family. Keep your aesthetic, but do not be vulgar or provocative. A lot of second hand designer items end up at the Bend Down Boutiques, you will not offend by wearing something nice.
I was surprised to see a lot of Chapati accompanying the food at the stalls, which had an array of dishes from across the continent. The meals were reasonably priced, and cold drinks (soft or alcohol) were available.
We wandered off down a narrow street across from the sports field. The street was filled with market stalls and was not part of the festival area but gave us a glimpse into the normal day to day lives of residents. We saw the most brightly colored mop assembled from strips of cloth, a wonderful mural outside a beauty salon and graffiti artists at work on a converted container. We refrained from taking pictures out of respect to the residents, after all, we were in their home.
There is a homestay program available in the camp although spaces are limited. You can stay for one night, or depending on your interests, you could volunteer at the festival if you stay for three nights. One daily meal is included in the rate, and this can be prepared by the guest alongside family each day. This is a real opportunity to immerse yourself into the lives of your host family, to live as they do and find out more about their past, and aspirations for their futures.
We enjoyed performances from artists new to us, in languages we don’t know but my personal highlight was seeing Danny Kalima in his element. He’s especially remarkable when he sings in falsetto. We listened in to a young woman performing her poetry in a hall to a rapt audience, speaking of lost love and renewed hope.
Tumaini Festival was quite unlike any other I’d ever been to, in Malawi or elsewhere and I can safely say it is a festival with a big heart.
When to Go:
First weekend of November
The camp is about 45 minutes from Lilongwe, along M1 and M7.
Where to Stay:
You can stay in Lilongwe and do some day trips, or you can opt for the festival’s homestay program.
What to Do:
Watch poetry, theatre, acrobatics, fashion and music shows.
What to Bring:
A friend, your favourite hydration flask, translation app, sunscreen, spending money and hand sanitzer. Buy food, drinks, sun hats, art and more on site.