Malawi: a quiet revolution?

There is a subtle and yet very pronounced move towards political reform.

The world's eyes are set on the revolutions of the Arab world and yet Malawi, the small landlocked African nation is trying to achieve its own, more quiet political transition.

Malawian civil society and church leaders this week postponed planned marches for the second time in two months, in favour of a stay-at-home vigil, which halted businesses on Wednesday. The decision came as a response to the high court decision to ban the protests and the fear that the marches could end in bloodshed, as proclaimed by one of the civil society leaders, Billy Mayaya when speaking at a press conference.

The demands by Malawi's civil society groups include attending to the country's economic woes such as the acute fuel and foreign exchange shortage, dealing with issues of corruption within the government and guaranteeing political freedoms, by for instance revising the newly enforced media censorship bill.

The call for people to stay away from work and pray or reflect in the safety of their homes, comes two months after demonstrations on 20 July which left 19 people dead - a shockingly high number for an otherwise peaceful and close-knit society. As Rafiq Hajat, a civil society activist and director of the Institute for Policy Interaction explained to me, the decision to call off Wednesday's marches was taken due to the fear of inadequate preparations which 'could lead to a chaotic situation that could easily get out of hand.'

Unfortunately the quiet protest and the suspension of the civil society dialogue with the government, also come at the cost of intimidation: the court ruling against the protests, police and military patrolling of the roads, scenes of machete wielding youth touring the streets of Blantyre the commercial capital, in the run up to last month's protests and the fires in the office of Rafiq Hajat and the home of Reverend MacDonald Sembereka, which are still unaccounted for. According to Hajat, non-governmental organisations were warned by the government that they would lose their licences if they participated in the protests. The online news site Malawi Voice reported Deputy Minister Nicholas Dausi to have said:

'They have no mandate whatsoever to declare a public holiday and telling people not to work is tantamount to sabotage.'

Meanwhile the Malawian government's response to civil society's demands has been mixed. In the last month, President Bingu wa Mutharika dismissed and reshuffled the Cabinet, encouraged vendors who's shops where disrupted and destroyed by July's protests to side with him and warned Malawians not to insult him on internet forums such as Facebook and Twitter.

Aside from the decision to give their government a quieter nudge towards political change, the Malawian protests cannot be seen as a simple tag-along in the shadow of the 'Arab Spring'. Political dissatisfaction and poverty have been seeing a long gradual build-up over the last years, from the tax increases, to fuel shortages, to the expulsion of the British High Commissioner in April due to a leaked comment on the President Mutharika's increasingly authoritative tendencies and the subsequent withdrawal of British aid to the country.

Protest organisers told members of the press (AFP), that they believed they had sent the government a powerful message about their grievances.

What this soft form of protest can achieve is yet to be seen. However the fact that more and more Malawians are voicing their views on social and political issues both on the web and through political action, certainly points towards a subtle and yet very pronounced move towards political reform.

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Ariana and the Arianators: "We really are like a family"

The pop star provides her fans with a chance to express themselves joyfully - their targeting was grimly predictable.

Ariana Grande’s concert at Manchester Arena on 22 May began like any other. Children and teenagers streamed through the doors wearing pink T-shirts, rubber wristbands and animal ears (one of Grande’s signature looks). They screamed when she came on stage and they sang along with every song. It was only once the music had ended, and the 20,000-strong audience began to leave the venue, that the horror began – with a bomb detonated at the main entrance.

The show was just one date on Grande’s Dangerous Woman tour, which began in Phoenix, Arizona in February, moved across the United States and Europe, and had stops scheduled for South America, Japan, Australia and Hong Kong. (Since the Manchester attack, Grande has suspended the tour indefinitely.)

Since releasing her debut album in 2013, Grande has successfully transitioned from teen idol to fully fledged pop star (all three of her studio albums have sold over a million each) with a combination of baby-faced beauty and Mariah Carey-style, breathy vocals. Her most popular records are bubblegum pop with a Nineties R’n’B influence, a combination also expressed in her fashion choices: Nineties grunge meets pastel pinks.

She entered the limelight at 16 on the children’s TV programme Victorious, which ran on the Nickelodeon channel, pursuing her musical ambitions by performing the show’s soundtracks. Many of the young people who grew up watching her as the red-haired arts student Cat Valentine on Victorious would become fans of her pop career – or, as they call themselves, the Arianators.

As she outgrew her child-star status, Grande’s lyrics became more sexually suggestive. Recent songs such as “Side to Side” and “Everyday” are more explicit than any of her previous hits. She has repeatedly insisted that young women should be able to speak openly about sex and feel empowered, not objectified.

“Expressing sexuality in art is not an invitation for disrespect,” she tweeted in December. “We are not objects or prizes. We are QUEENS.”

Grande also has a reputation as something of a gay icon. She has advertised her records on the gay dating app Grindr, headlined shows at Pride Week in New York, and released a single and a lipstick to raise money for LGBTQ charities.

Cassy, a 19-year-old film student and fan, told me the fanbase is “made mostly of young women from 14-23, but I run into guys and non-binary fans all the time.”

“It’s pretty well known that Ariana has got a LGBTQ+ fan base. She’s so outspoken about it and that’s what draws us to her. Because she’s accepting of everyone, no matter who you are.”

Like many child actresses-turned-pop star, Grande has a fan base skewed towards the young and female: teenage and pre-teen girls are by far the majority of her most dedicated supporters. A writer on the Phoenix New Times described the typical Ariana Grande crowd as “pre-tween, tweens, teens, young gay (and fabulous) men, moms with cat ears, and multiple candidates for father of the year”. The Arianators form tight-knit groups on social media. I spoke to several over Twitter after the attack.

Arena concerts, which often have more relaxed age restrictions than nightlife venues, have long been a safe space for children, young people and teenage girls. They provide a secure place for concert-goers to dress up, experiment, play with burgeoning sexualities, dance, scream and cry: to flirt with an adult life still slightly out of reach. Glitter-streaked tears stream down the unapologetic faces of fans touched by an emotion bigger than themselves. It is appalling, if grimly predictable, to see children, teenage girls and young gay men targeted by agents of regressive ideologies for expressing themselves so joyfully. On 23 May, Isis claimed the attack.

Andréa, a 17-year-old fan from France, told me about her first experience of a Grande concert. “It was incredible,” she said. “Everyone was so kind, excited and happy. We really are like a family.”

The fans are devastated by Monday’s bombing. Thousands of messages appeared on social media to commemorate those who lost their lives. “As an Arianator,” Alexandre, aged 16, told me, “I’m really sad and I’m scared.”

“We’re all taking it really hard,” Cassy said. “We’re a family and we lost 22 members of that family last night.”

Ariana began her gig in Manchester with the song that has opened every night of her current tour: “Be Alright”. In it, she repeatedly reassures the crowd, “We’re gonna be all right.” It’s a phrase that her fans are clinging to after the attack. So, too, are the lyrics of “Better Days”, by Grande and her support act Victoria Monét, which was also performed the night of the explosion. “There’s a war right outside our window,” the words go. “I can hear the sirens . . ./I can hear the children crying . . ./I’m hoping for better days . . .”

“It’s hit us all very hard because we’ve lost some of our own,” said one Arianator who runs a popular Twitter account about the tour. “People we interacted with on a daily basis. People that just wanted to have a night of fun. These are dark times, but we are looking forward to better days.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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