By Lisa Gilman

The Dzaleka Art Project is a community-based collaborative project by and about the arts and artists living as refugees in the Dzaleka camp in Malawi. Enjoy the talent and creativity in the camp while getting to know the dreams and struggles of some of its residents. Please consider visiting the website that complements the book and share what you learn with others.

The Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi hosts more than 52,000 people from multiple countries—at present in April 2023, mostly from Burundi, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and some from Somalia. Though the conditions in the camp are tough, the camp is full of painters, dance-crews, musicians, poets, crafters, photographers, fashion designers, jewelry makers, dramatists, and digital artists.

We hope this book will bring visibility to the artists in the camp while also growing the numbers of refugee advocates around the world.

The Team

The Dzaleka Art Project book and website is a product of a collaborative and community-based effort by young artists living in the camp, me (a Professor of Folklore and English at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia in the United States), and graduate and undergraduate students at George Mason University.

Six young artists living in the camp make up the Dzaleka team who dedicated time in 2022-2023 identifying artists and art groups within the camp. Each team leader took charge of documenting the arts and artists for one category. The Team Leader for Music is Congolese gospel singer Giresse Ino, Visual Arts and Crafts is Congolese painter Serge Kasongo, Dance is Congolese popular dancer Nellyson_Deo, Poetry is Rwandan poet Angela Azibera, Photography is Congolese photographer Luanda Bauma Primo, and Inspirational Stories is Burundian Divine Irakoze. While “Inspirational Stories” includes stories about non-artists as well as artists, the team agreed with Divine that these stories were important to include. Biographies and photographs for the team leaders can be found at the beginning of the section that each took the lead on.

Team leaders identified artists and then collected and wrote short biographies for each. They took pictures of art, collected poetry, recorded performances, and otherwise found ways of sharing the work.

The US-based team collaborated with the Dzaleka team to prepare the materials for the website and book. George Mason University undergraduate Sulaiman Fofanah worked on the project from its inception and contributed to all steps. Originally, the project was just going to be only a book. Sulaiman, who is majoring in website development, was excited to take the lead in creating the website. Undergraduates Community Health major Audrie Bernard and International Studies major Brendan West have been involved from the beginning and have organized files, worked with the Dzaleka team on missing materials, and done some interviewing, writing, and editing. Creative Writing master’s student Asa Sutton helped organize materials, copy-edit files, and interviewed and wrote the biographies of two people featured in the project. Folklore master’s student Amanda Ellard worked on the final phase of the project helping to prepare materials for the book and website.

How the Project Came About

I teach courses in folklore, ethnographic research methods, and African Studies at George Mason University. I have been doing research in Malawi on various topics related to arts and culture since 1995. In 2021, I launched a new global research project on arts initiatives by refugees for refugees. As a first step (when the COVID-19 pandemic eased and travel was once again possible), I attended the Tumaini Festival in November 2021. The festival happens inside the Dzaleka camp, about 30 miles north of Malawi’s capital Lilongwe.

Originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, spoken word artist and musician Trésor Nzengu Mpauni [pen name Menes la Plume], who came to Dzaleka seeking asylum in 2008, founded the Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Tumaini Letu (our hope in Kiswahili) in 2012. There are several short and long documentaries available on YouTube about him, including Menes la Plume ( The NGO in collaboration with other camp residents, Malawians, and international collaborators organized the first Tumaini Festival in 2014. It has since become one of the top five annual festivals in the country.

The Festival’s mission is multifaceted. Tumaini offers opportunities for camp residents to showcase their arts, generate revenue, and have fun. It also uses “entertainment and artistic expression to promote intercultural harmony, mutual understanding, and peaceful co-existence” through bringing Malawians and foreigners into the camp to gain first-hand knowledge of refugee life, while having a positive experience interacting with and sharing talent with the camp residents Tumaini Festival.

This festival has significantly contributed to fostering the arts in the camp. Many of the artists featured in the book were motivated to do their art and/or have participated in the festival. Other camp residents have been inspired to create different festivals or other events to offer even more opportunities for artists in the camp. One of the most successful is the Makasi Festival, founded by John Kazadi (

Taking advantage of the festival’s Homestay Program, I had the opportunity to stay with Inspirational Stories Team Leader Divine’s family during my first visit to the camp. Attending the festival, spending time with Divine’s family, and getting to know so many camp residents who are artists was transformative. I was impressed by the extensive talent in the camp, and I was deeply saddened and disturbed by the conditions of refugees in Malawi and by the tragic stories that I heard.

I met numerous young artists who expressed frustration that despite the talent in the camp, artists who are refugees in Malawi have limited opportunities for displaying their art, grow their audiences, or make money because of the restrictions placed on refugees by the Malawian government, their tragic circumstances, their limited access to resources, and never knowing what their futures will hold.

Inspired by these conversations, I discussed some ideas with Trésor Nzengu Mpauni. I was interested in offering my position and resources to augment the visibility of the arts in the camp, provide opportunities for young artist leaders, and ultimately contribute to Tumaini Letu’s mission. Like the Tumaini Festival, this project is intended to counter stereotypes and offer a human perspective to the global and regional rhetoric about the “refugee crisis” by using “artistic expression to promote intercultural harmony, mutual understanding, and peaceful co-existence.”

Together with Mpauni and TakenoLab founder and director Burundian Remy Gakwaya, we organized what became the Team Leaders for the Dzaleka Arts Project in February 2022. Gakwaya helped supervise the team during the bulk of the documentation, and I kept in close communication with them via WhatsApp.

At around the same time, I brought together the US team. After returning from the festival in November 2021, I showed students in my “Voices of Africa” class a slide presentation about the camp and the festival. Sulaiman, a student in the class, raised his hand to share that watching the images and hearing the stories evoked for him the stories that his mother has told him about when she fled the war in Sierra Leone with him strapped onto her back when he was a baby. Moved by his story, I reached out to him in January to find out if he would be interested in joining the project. I then hired Sulaiman, Brendan, and Audrie through Mason University’s OSCAR Program, which offers opportunities for undergraduate students to work as paid research assistants. The three have been passionate about the project and have worked even when the funding for their pay dissolved and during holidays.

I returned to the camp in August 2022 with my husband John Fenn and two friends, Elizabeth Langran and Bruce Miller. During our short visit, we worked intensively with the Dzaleka team, providing documentation equipment, managing data, and doing some additional documentation.

In Fall 2022, Asa joined the team through a short graduate assistantship. Folklore graduate student Amanda also joined in the Fall and worked through the completion of the project, contributing her detailed organizational, editing, graphic design, and video editing skills.

The Dzaleka and US team members communicated with one another as much as was possible, offering each the opportunity to get to know one another across vast distances and life experiences, while all were building skills. One goal of the project was to create opportunities for youth in the US and Dzaleka to get to know one another as human beings, learn about each other, and create connections that we hope will persist beyond the project.


As much as possible, the content of the book is by and about the Dzaleka team and the artists who live in the camp. The Dzaleka Team leaders took different approaches to identify participants and writing their biographies, thus some biographies are a few short lines while others are multiple paragraphs. Camp residents wrote two of the essays about camp life. Digital artist Richesse Kabamba designed the banner for the website, and Primo Bauma Luanda contributed photography that is featured throughout the project.

I offered the organizational structure and guidance so that the materials collected could be used for the book and website: I produced a list of sample questions to guide the interviews, release forms, and guidance on photography specs. The US student team prepared the materials for the website and book. They did some writing of biographies, and we edited all the written material for clarity and comprehension while maintaining the voice and style of the original.

There is so much talent and creativity in the Dzaleka camp. This project is limited, with many gaps. The Team Leaders took advantage of their own networks, thus plenty of people outside their networks were not included. Language barriers, cultural differences, artistic preferences, and limited time and space further contributed to omissions. The number and breadth of artists featured is impressive, and we hope that this project will spark additional ones, just as the Tumaini Festival has fueled so much artistic activity in the camp.

Language, Naming, and Technical Issues

The logistics for this project were complex given that the team is divided between two continents and across multiple languages. The Dzaleka Team has struggled with inadequate documentation equipment, frequent power outages, lack of regular internet connectivity, time restrictions, health issues, poverty, and instabilities in their lives. The US team has struggled with figuring out what to do when there wasn’t always a clear plan, language differences, and juggling school and other obligations with the demands of this project. Yet, together, with a great deal of passion and patience, we managed to bring this project to fruition.

Most of the content in the project is presented in English because that is the primary language of the book and the website. Within the camp, people speak a myriad of languages, from those used to communicate across ethnic/national differences, such as Swahili, Chichewa, Lingala, French, and English to the multiple individual languages of specific countries and ethnic groups, e.g. Kirundi, Kinyarwanda, Kikongo, etc. All but one of the Dzaleka team leaders is fluent in English. For the most part, each translated biographies and other materials into English without offering information about original languages. Team Leader for Music Giresse does not speak or write in English. He offered his materials in French, which Audrie and I translated. Team Leader for Dance, Nellyson_Deo provided some interviews in Swahili with English translations. We include both versions, with the English edited but the Swahili left as is. Otherwise, different languages are peppered throughout in the poems, songs lyrics, and other verbal materials, representing the linguistic diversity and creativity within the camp.

The lives of the participants in this project are precarious; there are risks for some if their locations or stories are made public. Each participant designated what name or pseudonym they wanted us to use. Some are using their whole names, others a first name or artist name, and some prefer to remain anonymous.

The technical quality of images varies greatly. Team Leader for Photography Primo Bauma Luanda worked with some team leaders on their documentation. Others used phone cameras, some of which were old and of limited quality. Other images were provided by artists themselves, often sent through WhatsApp or other applications that condense images. We embrace the unevenness because it is reflective of the conditions in the camp. Ultimately, what is conveyed is the most important, and the technical variability represents the complex realities of camp life.

Contacting Artists and Learning More

Some artists have included their WhatsApp numbers or how to find them on social media. We invite readers to reach out to artists and others in the camp to engage with their arts and lives. Even notes indicating that you enjoyed their art would be appreciated, and financial and other types of support would be welcome.

Please contact us if you have questions, would like to contact any of the artists whose contact is not provided, or otherwise would like to reach us at

Please consider supporting and advocating for refugees and other displaced peoples in your own communities and anywhere in the world.