Chanco graduate’s film Umunthu revamps debate on gays in Malawi

Umunthu – a 30 minute film by Chancellor College’s drama graduate Mwizalero Nyirenda, currently being showcased in institutions of higher learning across the country – has revamped the long-running debate on the controversy surrounding Malawi’s stance on homosexuality.

“It is a participatory documentary,” Nyirenda told Nyasa Times in an exclusive interview.

“It seeks the views of a psychologist, pastor, secular humanist, journalist, two human rights activists and ordinary Malawians.”

During a premier at Mzuzu University (Mzuni) recently, Nyasa Times learnt that through the lens of Umunthu – a pan African philosophy of tolerance – the film traces the complexities surrounding gay rights in Malawi and gives viewers a chance to question their previous assumptions.

With voice-overs by the film-maker, the film poses the question of tolerance – tolerance of gay people and tolerance of people who have differing views and opinions.

Nyirenda: Umunthu film producer

Nyirenda: Umunthu film producer

Nyirenda, currently working as Program Officer at the Art and Global Health Centre in Zomba, said the film was inspired by a class debate on homosexuality in Malawi.

“I later started asking questions and reading. As a young liberal minded Malawian, I have followed the events and discourse in the country in recent years, and have wondered why the issue is so emotionally charged and highly politicized,” he said.

He added: “In discussions I’ve had with my peers on this topic, I came to realize that while there is a fair amount of tension surrounding this topic, Malawian youth are inquisitive and want to know more about this issue but are lacking a platform for an informed debate.”

Nyirenda argued that political parties and all Malawians must engage in a more thoughtful and nuanced debate on the issue.

He said: “The reasons are complex. Perhaps it is because of sheer misunderstandings of each other’s views, or maybe because many Malawians haven’t been exposed to other ideas which challenge their beliefs. Perhaps the issue has been wielded as a wedge in this time of political instability.

“I believe that many Malawians haven’t had the opportunity to try to understand these various viewpoints because there has been little space for dialogue. In my opinion they are starved of the much needed information.”

He said his idea of touring the country’s universities and colleges emanated from the fact that he feels universities are places where people are educated to think about and debate different issues in society.

“The film attracts deep conversations about the issue of homosexuality in Malawi. I wanted to have a controlled space where everyone after watching the film is able to contribute to the discussion. A college classroom setup offers an excellent space for a sober and open discussion.”

With funding from Art and Global Health Center Africa – a Zomba-based NGO, the film has so far been premiered at Domasi College of Education, Kamuzu College of Nursing in Lilongwe, Mzuzu University, Malawi’s College of Medicine and at the Malawi College of Health Sciences in Zomba.

The trailer of the film can be found on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AQWuykScVY8.

Homosexuality is illegal in Malawi and attracts a maximum charge of 14 years imprisonment with hard labour.

In 2010, two Malawian men were arrested and charged with public indecency after saying they were getting married.

The prosecution drew international condemnation and led to some donors withdrawing budget support – a major blow to one of the world’s poorest countries.

The then-president Bingu wa Mutharika – who died of a heart attack in 2012 – pardoned both men on “humanitarian grounds” but said they had “committed a crime against our culture, against our religion, and against our laws”.

However, Mutharika’s successor, Joyce Banda, told MPs shortly after taking office that she wanted to overturn the ban on homosexuality.

In her first state-of-the-nation address to parliament, Banda said: “Some laws which were duly passed by the august house… will be repealed as a matter of urgency… these include the provisions regarding indecent practices and unnatural acts.”

Umunthu the film scene at Chanco

Umunthu the film scene at Chanco

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