Arts in Malawi


What are the local arts practices in Lilongwe, Malawi? The Culture and Bodies project aims to work with communities to identify how arts can be used to spread awareness of how people can reduce their risk of non-communicable diseases such as hypertension and type 2 diabetes.

We wanted to work with people in Area 25 Lilongwe, so I set out to find out more about local arts practices and learn from the residents how we could attract people to take part in our upcoming Culture and Bodies workshops and events.

We drove around the area to get a feel for the place, noticing that many of the shops and grocery stores had been branded using paintings. We identified two artists at a sign-writing stall along the road and had chat with them.

They told us that they were fine-art artists, who ran a sign writing business to make a living. There was a more substantial demand for signs than there was for general artworks.


On the second day as I was chatting to another artist at the local Nyamithambo Arts Palace, I noticed a group of about five youths, listening to music on a portable Bluetooth speaker just outside the gate.

I spoke to one of the older youths. He explained that he and his friends were part of a dance group that danced to mostly dancehall and hip-hop genres. They were waiting for some of their friends, so they could rehearse at Nyamithambo .


I also saw various groups of men in different parts of Area 25 converging around games of Bawo, a traditional game evidently very popular in the area. Residents I spoke to also talked about Bawo.

Other local arts

I also wanted to know what other forms of arts were popular in the area.


This came out in the discussion with the two artists. One person mentioned that his brother made flower pots from clay as a business, and gave me some pictures of the various pieces.


In most of the discussions, residents spoke about music.  People mentioned local bands, and how many people played and even recorded music for various reasons including fame, money and just for fun.

Bracelet-making, crafts

We also found out that some people make and sell all sorts of bracelets. Pictures of these were again shared with us.

Attracting people

How could we attract people to our events? People suggested we use a very common local advertising technique with project members walking around the community blowing whistles and screaming out the details of an event.

Someone also suggested that we make T-shirts and have a designated day where people would wear them to walk through the markets to generate intrigue and curiosity from marketgoers. They would then be given information about the project, including specific workshops and events we wanted them to attend.

Other ideas put to us were sticking posters up around the markets, and broadcasting digitally-recorded messages through PA systems on the back of a minibus or pick-up truck.


Bagamoyo Workshops – Angel’s Experience

Dr Angel Dillip is a social scientist and epidemiologist who has extensive experience in public health research. She works for the Ifakara Health Institute in Tanzania and has an interest in grassroots development interventions.

Along with Dr Sally Mtenga, Angel facilitated three arts-based workshops in Bagamoyo that took place in February and May.

Angel said: “Type 2 diabetes [T2D] is a major issue in Bagamoyo. When we sought out people to take part in our workshops, we worked with the ward executive officers and all of them mentioned diabetes as a health concern in the area. This came up time and time again.

“Our creative workshops backed this up—with both the men and women’s groups agreeing T2D was the non-communicable disease they wanted to focus on. They debated between diabetes and hypertension , but  all participants came to an agreement that diabetes was more problematic, which was why they chose it.”

Angel and Sally heard from plenty of people who had personal experience of T2D through relatives or neighbours, and many of them had a good understanding what the condition entailed. Many people knew, for example, that being overweight was a risk factor for T2D.


There were 897.000 cases of diabetes in Tanzania in 2017. Total adult population : 25,039,000. Prevalence of diabetes in adults : 3.6% Total cases of diabetes in adults : 897,000. 2% of all deaths*

Verbalised senses activity

“What I found most interesting,” Angel added, “was the verbalised senses exercise we did with participants, where they described sight, sound, touch, taste and smell and how they are related to the condition.

“People described T2D as looking like a snake that goes through your body. The snake bites you and the poison once you get it is very dangerous, more so even than HIV if you can’t control it properly.

Angel added: “What we wanted our participants to do was come up with an arts activity they thought could best explain T2D—that could include anything from a poem to a play. The activity was to be used to explain what can cause T2D, risk factors and what its consequences can be.

Poems describing the impact

“Our different groups focussed on activities such as a poem which described the impact of diabetes where the disease isn’t treated properly, and the risks such as amputations.

“Another group came up with a drama which they performed. In this, a son spoke to his father about diabetes, trying to persuade him to reduce the amount of sugary drinks he [the father] drank.

“I found the group’s activities very interesting to watch.”

Angel enjoyed the final workshop—where men and women came together to discuss what had happened at the previous workshops, the interventions they had come up with and what they thought would be the most effective activity.

Addressing misunderstandings

Angel and Sally also used the opportunity to work with the participants on their understanding of diabetes, its causes and the measures you can take to prevent it. They also had the chance to address any misunderstandings.

During the final workshop, the facilitators divided the participants up into three groups, asking them to come up with an intervention activity based on the risk factors for diabetes and what can be done to address each of those risks.

The first group opted to emphasise the important of regular exercise. The second group zoned in on the eating smaller meals. In Tanzania, there is a tendency for people to help themselves to big portions of rice with their meals.

The third group wanted an intervention that had highlighted the over-consumption of sugary drinks.

Angel continued: “We told the three groups to come up with different ways to communicate their messages. Our first group wanted to use posters. The second group weren’t quite as sure what to use for their message of eating smaller meals, but thought story-telling posters might work, while the third group wanted to use drama.”


“We are currently analysing the data we got back from all the workshops and working with a local arts teacher to help the participants develop their intervention activities—how they spread the message and making their activities more focussed. We’ll buy any equipment the groups need and look at other ways to publicise what we are doing—T-shirts perhaps?”

The intervention activities are to take place in the first week in July. Participants identified the market place as the best venue for performances/activities as a lot of people come to the market.

Angel is looking forward to seeing what the participants come up with. “Ultimately, we want our intervention activities to encourage people to change their behaviour, so they can reduce their risk of being diagnosed with T2D.”



*Sources – the International Diabetes Federation, and The World Health Organization.