Like millions of other young people around the world, 24-year-old student Maggie Mkandawire found herself living with her parents again when Malawi went into a Covid-19 lockdown last year.
When her music academy in the city of Lilongwe closed in March 2020, students were ordered home and Mkandawire grabbed a few clothes, her bass guitar and jumped on a bus for the 12-hour journey to her home in Karonga in northern Malawi.
At first, she enjoyed the slow pace of life in her village, set in an oasis of green near Lake Malawi. Her days were spent posting videos on Instagram — clips of her songs, her workout routines and even cooking demonstrations.
But soon she was bored. “I wanted to be around people safely. I sat down with a friend and we talked about what we could do,” she says. “People were complaining that they could not afford masks, others were ignorant and they didn’t want to wear them. ”
The price of disposable surgical masks was beyond the means of most people in her area, and they could not afford to throw them away and buy new ones.
Mkandawire and her friends established a project called Pamoza Na Chifama, with the aim of protecting people from Covid-19. They pooled their resources and bought four metres of chitenge, a cotton fabric worn locally, and made 36 face masks to donate to vulnerable people.
The project gained momentum and sponsorship from the Breuckmann Foundation meant they could scale up their efforts. They travelled by motorbike around villages, inviting tailors and chiefs to meetings where they taught them how to make the masks, reaching thousands of people.
“They would sell them for 100 kwacha (about R1.85) so people could afford them. Not many people were wearing masks and if they did, they were dirty — but now they were able to wash them,” Mkandawire says.
The young people realised that misinformation was a big problem — some people refused to believe the Covid-19 was real and others believed in false claims spread on social media on how it could be cured. When the Covid-19 vaccine arrived in Malawi in March this year, fake news about its side effects led to scepticism about the jab and a batch of more than 19 000 doses nearing expiry was destroyed.
“As we started teaching local tailors and also donating some masks in schools, in the community and in churches, we thought it would be better that we broadcast this information to a larger scale,” says Mkandawire.
The project expanded to the local stations, Radio Dinosaur and Radio Tuntufye, with weekly programmes on how to prevent being infected with Covid-19.
“When the vaccine just came, people said we are afraid to go to get the vaccine, because they heard from social media, they read stuff from social media saying if they get the vaccine, a year from now they will die. So they were all afraid,” says Tuntufye radio presenter Gomezghani Mhango.
“I can say it plainly, clearly … through the programmes that we have been airing, people were able to understand and appreciate the benefits they can get from the vaccine,” she adds.
A dearth of vaccine supplies has hindered the roll-out in Karonga, says Elias Phiri, a senior health officer at Karonga District Hospital, but the broadcasts on the region’s most popular radio stations have gone a long way to combatting vaccine hesitancy.
“In Karonga we have vaccinated about 13 000 first doses and then we have 1 020 people with second dose of the Covid-19 vaccine.”
“Pamoza Na Chifama, which Maggie was chairing as a project, has helped us a lot in clearing the myths and possibly in preventing or controlling the pandemic itself,” Phiri says.
Even before the project began, Mkandawire was already defying the expectations of how a young Malawian woman should be.
A singer-songwriter using the stage name Kaadrum, she plays bass guitar and combines traditional Malawian music with Afro jazz and pop.
“I try to write empowering songs about being human and how we can live. At first I wrote a lot about being a girl in Malawi, how we are not supported in our education, ” she says. “My parents didn’t want to accept me doing music studies.”
Last year she started a dance group called My Body Speaks and, dressed in Lycra, she posts workout videos online. She also teaches people to cook with ingredients that aren’t part of Malawi’s traditional diet.
Her activism has made her bolder, she says, and she wants to use her voice to help others to cut through misinformation and emerge safely from the pandemic.
“Whatever we do, if we take good care of ourselves we would do the same to other people and learn through others, not just be ignorant for no reason so that maybe we have a reason to argue or fight with people,” she says.
“Let us learn and understand things and go to the right people so we can actually have the same information.”