Monday, November 12, 2007

Politics, fun on Malawian chat forums

A decade or two ago, Malawians who had relatives and friends abroad had few modes of communication at their disposal. If you wanted to communicate with loved ones abroad, you had to rush to the nearest post office and get an air form and jot your letter.

Or else, you would buy some foolscap, put your pen to paper and when you were done, you would put it into an envelope with red and blue stripes, labelled: by air mail. Once sent, the letter would take a fortnight or so to reach its destination in Europe, America or the Indian subcontinent. To get a response, then, meant another fortnight of impatient expectation.

For the Malawian in the diaspora, news from home was scarce. Apart from letters from relatives, it meant they were way behind events. The only available option was the fax machine or else, they had to wait until another friend or relative brought news from home.

Today, with the coming of the Internet, communication by e-mail has proved to be a worthwhile means of communication for Malawians not only locally but also internationally. E-mails have, over the years, become our very identities and, apparently, if you have no e-mail address, you are seen to be old fashioned. The greatest strength of e-mail communication is that it is instant; within seconds, you can communicate with someone in the remotest corner of the earth.

It is common today for Malawians to ‘chat’ by texting instant messages to fellow Malawians at home and abroad. Those with access to the Internet can ‘talk’ to their friends by simply writing each other short messages, similar to the popular SMS’s on the mobile phone.

Over the years, Malawians who use e-mail for communication have found other uses of the facility and not just communication to friends and relatives. This saw the mushrooming of Internet discussion forums. Currently there are discussion forums like Nyasanet, Malawiana, Freenyasanet, MalawiTalk where politics is the main subject of discussion. Malawian subscribers, who are scattered across the globe discuss politics and other social issues affecting the country.

Other forums cater for a particular sector of the society. An example is the one run by the National Media Institute for Southern Africa (Namisa) Malawi Chapter. It is a discussion forum solely for Namisa members who are journalists and other media workers.

With the coming of such forums, Malawians abroad no longer have to wait for a fax or letter from back home to know what is affecting their kith and kin. They now know of events at home as they unfold, even before many people on ground zero know it, thanks to such forums.

According to one time Malawi Writers Union (Mawu) president Steve Sharra, who is currently based at the Michigan State University in the United States of America and has been a Nyasanet subscriber for a decade, the forum is a repository of knowledge.

"Nyasanet serves as a repository of the various skills and capacities Malawians at home and around the world possess. It also has the power to reconnect lost Malawian friends, former classmates and work mates and other Malawians one would otherwise not have dreamt of ever meeting," said Sharra.

Although Malawians at Nyasanet discuss a lot of issues, the main thrust is politics and at times squabbles prop up. There is also a fair share of baseless rumours, political mudslinging and deliberate misinformation.

Observed Sharra: "You can have lots of unreflective political partisanship, which some people find time-wasting and a nuisance. But, as elders say, walira mvula walira matope, I take the squabbles as a normal thing in a society."

He observed that Nyasanet is an important tool to help ‘Malawianise’ the Internet, while at the same time, helping Malawians share knowledge.

"Knowledge must be made accessible to everyone, especially those who need it most. It is this knowledge that our society needs to develop," said Sharra.

John Lwanda, a medical practitioner based in Scotland, says discussion forums like Nyasanet have helped him get news from home.

"There is so much politics on the forum, but as (Ghana’s first president) Kwame Nkrumah said, Africa should sort out its politics first and everything would follow. Indeed there may be a lot of politics, insults and jealousy in there but many ideas about Malawi’s social scene are floated," Lwanda, who is also a book publisher, said.

Malawians, he said, should use Internet discussion forums like Nyasanet as a bwalo [play ground] in the village setting.

"These forums are a more advanced bwalo not a school yard for insults. Readers must sieve facts from rumours. This is neither a scientific nor an academic journal," Lwanda said.

For some Malawians at home and abroad, politics is not one of their major worries or needs. This has led to the booming of discussion forums that concentrate more on the lighter side of the Malawian at home and abroad. Subscribers to these light-hearted forums share jokes and experiences about their lives at home and in the diaspora. Most importantly surfers for these groups make new friends.

One such group is Sekeletsu where Malawians at home and those abroad share humorous stories and remind each other of the past and the present state of affairs.

"I like surfing the Internet and I like laughing, socialising and making new friends. That is why I joined the forum, since I wanted a forum that is not dominated by politics. Here, no political matters are discussed," said Tapiwa Banda, a Malawi-based Sekeletsu subscriber.

Another light-hearted forum is Pamudzi, a brain child of Kiko Mapunda, who is based in South Africa. Here Malawians at home and scattered abroad share tit bits about their lives. They share their joys and sorrows, sandwiched with anecdotes about the past.

"I came up with the idea for the forum to create a stress-free environment. It brings many Malawians together and we share a lot in common. We circulate among ourselves a lot of funny stories, but sometimes, we give each other encouragement when one of us has lost a relative or friend. It’s a close Malawian community on the Internet," Mapunda said.

For Joana Chagunda, a secretary and creative writer, forums like Pamudzi help relieve stress.
"Pamudzi saves me from stress and depression. Everyday, I look forward to telling and laughing with friends I have made there. It’s part of my daily schedule," she said.

Sekeletsu subscriber Robert Chirambo shared the same feelings: "Sometimes, I wake up not enjoying anything that is happening around me but when I interact with my friends on the forum, all my worries turn into laughter."

Another thing worth noting is that sites like Malawiana helps Malawians living in the diaspora to get connected. Malawians invite each other to their weddings and parties in the foreign lands they live in. Such parties can be on anything, including the Independence Day celebrations.

Also of note is the existence of hi5, where Malawians and other Internet users worldwide can upload their personal profiles. Then, they can invite other surfers who share the same interests to become their friends. In some cases, one can have 300 friends. You may also make get in touch with friends of your friends.

Here you can make friends with personalities like Malawi’s Big Brother Housemate Code Sangala, former Miss Malawi Mable Pullu, and others.

The coming of the Internet, indeed, reduced the world into a global village. For Malawians in the diaspora, and those at home, that is clear, if the existence of forums and other tools is anything to go by. Malawi has its own lane on the information super highway.


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