Young people in rural Malawi are getting into the digital age with the same enthusiasm as the rest of the world, but without all the same equipment. In Malawi many people are using their cell phones as television sets.
Each small town, and even some of the villages, now has a computer person, called a â€śDJâ€ť who has a PC, assembled in-country from imported parts. The DJ is usually a teenager or a 20-something who uses freeware to convert videos into a format that phone memory cards can read. Farmers drop into the DJâ€™s small shop (called a â€śburning centerâ€ť) and request Hollywood action flicks, or Nigerian or Indian movies. The films dubbed into Chichewa are a big hit, whether they follow the original story line or ad lib a new one. There are even Malawian movies made by artists like DJ Sau (Only you, a 90 minute love story), and standup comedy in Chichewa by Mr. Jokes and others. Malawian gospel music videos are quite popular. Very few of the DJs have internet. But they visit each other and swap material.
The customers take their cellphone home and watch the movies in the evenings with their families, on the screen of the phone. If the room is very dark, several people can actually watch a movie on a screen the size of a match box. If the village lacks electricity, folks can have their phones charged while in town (at a shop that offers phone charging for a small fee).
Few if any of the farmers have smart phones; they are simply watching films and music on regular, inexpensive hand-sets.
Kids in northern countries make short video clips and share them via the social media. The rural Malawians have their own dense network, largely disconnected from the internet. Some of the DJs make music videos and films with inexpensive cameras and swap their movies with each other. The films then circulate around to the other villagers, who watch them at home.
Many of the DJs give themselves names like Super DJ Andy T Man, who lives on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, on the way to Lake Chilwa. Andy has made several music videos for a prosperous farm family, the Chigulumwas, who suspected that a neighbor was envious of their success, and wanted to harm them with magic charms. (This should ring a bell with ethnographers).
The song was composed and sung by Francis Masiye, of Phalombe Town. Masiye praises Mr. Chigulumwa, who grows good rice and sells it in the market. The video has shots of people hoeing a field, and the farmer paying them. The handsome couple and their teenage son dance on camera. The song says â€śI take care of my workers, and I work hard. And you are jealous of me and you use charms to try to hurt me.â€ť
The aim of the song is to convince the jealous neighbor to stop trying to use magic against the Chigulumwa family. Everyone in the village has now seen the video and hopefully the jealous one got the message.
Digital technology is not just the straight and narrow path to globalized hell. It is also a way for rural cultures to express themselves, fire their imaginations, and communicate among themselves.
Acknowledgement. Many thanks to Ronald Kondwani Udedi, ICT specialist at the Polytechnic, University of Malawi for his insights, Chichewa-English translation and for having the creativity to notice the DJs, and the warmth to let them tell their stories.