Raising Refugee Voices at the Tumaini Festival
Thandi Dyani, Network Organizer, BMW Foundation Africa Region, and Trésor Mpauni, Founder, The Tumaini Festival
The Tumaini Festival is an extraordinary example of a large-scale cultural event held annually within a refugee camp. The festival began as a response to the cultural, social, and economic exclusion refugees face in Malawi.
In 1994, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) established the Dzaleka Refugee Camp in Malawi in response to a surge of forcibly displaced people fleeing genocide, violence, and wars in Burundi, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). For the past 28 years, the camp has received refugees and asylum seekers from those countries and from Somalia, Ethiopia, and others. As of April 30, 2022, UNHCR Malawi registered 54,405 refugees and asylum-seekers living in Dzaleka, which is only 45 km from Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital.
The lives of these people are greatly constrained. Malawi ratified the 1951 U.N. Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, but it declared nine reservations to the Convention. Malawi’s encampment policy, among other things, denies refugees freedom of movement, employment, the right to attend public schools and universities, and the right to start businesses outside the camp. This policy greatly isolates refugees, limits their financial capacity, and restricts their ability to access opportunities available to Malawians. Thousands of refugees have been born and raised in Dzaleka Refugee Camp and are now raising their own families and children subject to the same restrictions. This creates conditions of perpetual poverty and dependence on aid. Additionally, refugees are challenged by psycho-social issues, feelings of despair, and loss of hope. They are deprived of a sense of belonging and national identity. And they face various forms of discrimination due to prejudice and negative public perception, which has the potential to fuel xenophobic attacks.
To palliate these issues, the Tumaini Festival was created to open the doors of the Dzaleka Refugee Camp to the world. The festival builds bridges between communities and changes people’s negative perceptions of refugees.
It began in 2014 as a small event with one stage, ten volunteers, 20 performances, and fewer than 3,000 attendees, among which fewer than 300 came from Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi. Among the volunteers, only one came from the refugee community. The festival was crowdfunded with a budget of $3,000.
At first, the participation of the refugee community was meager, because the idea of a festival in a refugee camp was almost inconceivable. After the first one, however, the community got a sense of what a festival is like and what possibilities and opportunities might come from it. News of the festival started spreading all over Malawi and abroad. In the festival’s second year, both the refugee community and the Malawian community began to get more involved, and involvement has continued to increase in the years since then.
To date, Tumaini Festival has become the biggest festival in Malawi. Since its inception, over 159,000 people have attended the event, and 459 acts from across the globe have performed there. The Tumaini Festival has united performers from 20 different nationalities.
The festival has gained national and international attention. It has achieved a media reach of 61,200,000 people worldwide, presenting a genuinely different and positive story about refugees.
Despite financial challenges, the 2022 Tumaini Festival—the eighth edition—was a great success. The event hosted 80 acts performed on five different stages, over 50 businesses run by the refugee community, and over 30,000 attendees from all over Malawi and from other parts of the world. The festival involved various art forms such as music, dance, poetry, theatre, acrobatics, art exhibitions, film, talks, and children’s activities. This year’s festival has had a tremendous impact on the community’s economic, social, and psychological life.
The American Ambassador to Malawi was this year’s special guest.
Tumaini has become a community celebration where community leaders, zone leaders, faith leaders, and traditions leaders from the host communities are involved in the planning and implementation. The festival also boosts economic activities within the camp and offers a platform for the refugee community to sell their goods and services and get short-term jobs, which improve their standard of living.
Tumaini is not just a festival; it is a movement that raises the voices of refugees, creates a conversation, and transforms the host community into active advocates for the refugee cause.