afrika aphukira

Midwiving the Afrikan rebirth. . . Views of Afrika and the world, on the path to the renaissance, from a social justice and an Afrikan epistemological perspective--uMunthu. Includes specific commentary on Malawi and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Misdiagnosis: Mother Tongue Policy and Poor English in Malawian Schools

There are good reasons why many Malawians are happy with the new policy for English to be the language of instruction in Malawian public schools. We Malawians use proficiency in spoken English as a product of a good education. If somebody speaks good English, they are seen as being educated. In many cases that is quite true. The more years one spends in Malawian schools beyond primary and secondary schools, the better one's English becomes. 

But there are cases when that can be misleading. The test lies in knowing when it is accurate to equate English proficiency with good education, and when it is misleading. It is accurate to equate good spoken English with good education when the substance of what one is speaking shows reasoning and problem-solving skills. English can also be an accurate measure of one’s education when one is able to read and write proficiently, analyse information, and make informed decisions from that information.

In this very rare class every student had a textbook. 
But it should be pointed out that every language of the world has these same attributes that can be an accurate measure of a good education. That is why most successful countries continue to invest in their local languages. A good education should enable one to put one's education to meaningful use in their individual life and in contributing to society. A country can only develop when the majority of the population have access to the knowledge that matters in changing their lives and their communities. When that knowledge is tucked away in a language only a tiny elite can understand and utilise, society stagnates. There can be no meaningful, equitable development.

In the current debate on the language of instruction in Malawian schools, we are misdiagnosing the causes of what we see as low standards of education. We think education standards are low because students come out of the system not knowing how to speak English. And we think this is happening because in Standards 1-4 students are being taught in local Malawian languages, instead of English. This is a false analysis. Malawian students are unable to speak good English not because they use local languages in Standards 1-4, but rather because English, which is taught as a language right from Standard 1, is not being taught well enough. 

There is one main reason why government schools are failing to teach spoken English well: schools do not have enough textbooks. And this is a problem across all the subjects. Most Malawian students in government schools go through the entire primary school cycle without adequate opportunities to interact with books. Those who spend enough time studying Malawian classrooms in the public schools know that there are very few copies of prescribed textbooks. Many students spend the entire year without touching a textbook. And this is worse in the early grade years, Standards 1-3, where class sizes average 150-300 per teacher. 

Statistics from the Ministry of Education show that in 2013 there were 1,030,834 students in Standard 1 across the country. There were only 350,095 English textbooks. That's a rough average of three students sharing one textbook. But the reality is that many classrooms have far less textbooks due to inefficient distribution at the national level as well as at the school level. It is very common in Malawian schools to find textbooks locked up in a cupboard because the head teacher is afraid that the books will get damaged, and there will be no replacements the following year. There cannot be a worse paradox than this. It is simply not possible for a child to learn how to read and write without touching a book.

In this school these boxes of textbooks
remained unopened in the headteacher's office for a whole year while in the classrooms twenty students shared one textbook
In deciding that the solution should be the use of English for all subjects from Standard 1, we have misdiagnosed the problem and we have prescribed the wrong medication. The problem of overcrowded classrooms and inadequate teaching and learning resources has been going on since 1994. It has become such a chronic problem that it has created a generation whose spoken English, and whose general knowledge for that matter, does not measure up to previous generations. Worse still, it has affected the English proficiency of many primary school teachers themselves.

Unfortunately the misdiagnosis has created a fertile ground for insults and innuendo. Those arguing for mother tongue instruction have been labelled hypocrites who want English for their children only. When some Malawians hear "mother tongue" their minds understand that to mean "no English." It is a huge misunderstanding and Malawian language researchers have a lot of work to do to clarify the issue in a way that the public would understand and appreciate what is meant by mother tongue.

Malawian private schools use English as the language of instruction for every subject. Malawian languages are effectively banned. Most children in urban private schools speak very good English, something parents are rightly proud of. Children in urban areas are exposed to English, that is why they are able to pick it up at school. They are also exposed to multilingual contexts. Parents of children in rural Malawi would no doubt want their children to also be fluent in English as a global language of power and prestige. Nobody should deny them that desire. There is need for research into whether the good spoken English of children in private schools is translating into good reading and writing, reasoning skills, and problem-solving capacity.

Last year we learned that Chancellor College expelled nearly one third of its first year class, and LUANAR expelled close to one fifth. Some university lecturers commented that students were coming to university with perfect spoken English, but very poor reading, writing, reasoning and problem-solving skills. Strangely, these students were able to make it past the University Entrance Exams. The government’s statistics show that 91 percent of Malawian university students come from the top twenty percent of the wealthiest families. This means most of them are coming from expensive private schools.

This is a fertile area for language researchers. Most Malawians speak more than one language. We are a multilingual nation. It has been proven many times over that children who are proficient in more than one language show superior intellectual performance compared to monolingual children. But there are also many monolingual people who have superior skills in their field. Their societies have invested in their languages. Most countries invest in the development of mother tongue languages because there is a direct correlation between knowledge and development. While privileging one language of prestige is important, it should not be done at the expense of local languages, spoken by millions of people. We need to develop long term thinking for the future of the country with knowledge production as a central concern.

We need to improve the way we teach English as a subject right from Standard One. But we should invest in multilingualism as well. That is the practice in most countries where education is truly contributing to development. We need to make sure there are enough textbooks for both students and teachers. We need to make sure there are enough resources for teaching not only English, but all subjects. And we need to improve the teaching of English in the teacher training colleges. We need to think more broadly about the millions of Malawians in rural areas who are craving knowledge that would transform their lives and their communities.

* A version of this post first appeared on the 'My Turn' page of The Nation of 5th and 8th September, 2014 as part I and II respectively, under a different title.

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Malawi at 50: Song & Dance, Tears & Laughter

These students had fun composing songs and dances improptu
In June this year I accompanied a team of educationists visiting a school in the eastern part of Dedza. I observed a Standard 4 Expressive Arts lesson in which students composed and enacted an impromptu song and dance. I would have thought this impossible, but not the students, nor their teacher.

It was clear from the expressions on the students’ faces that they enjoyed the lesson. The absence of a larger social meaning in the activity was more of a fault with the curriculum design than with the teacher’s purpose for the lesson. The lesson had achieved its purpose by giving students an opportunity to express their artistic skills in composing, singing ad dancing.

The children in this school came from a remote  part of Malawi. They were using a powerful medium of expression and knowledge-making. Although such performances of theatre, song and dance have become universal ways of disseminating what has come to be described as “civic education”, they also serve as a way through which communities engage and interact with social change. Communities use such performances to talk to authorities, subvert unequal power relations, and celebrate a vibrance and vitality that is easily missed in the top-down, one-way discourse of officialdom.

While Malawian artists have exploited these forms of expression in music, poetry, film, painting, and pottery, among others, aid workers and government departments have also used these art forms to disseminate civic information and development messages. The comedy duo of Chindime and Samalani  appear at public functions, on TV and in radio sketches to make Malawians laugh while conveying public service messages. Sadly, Samalani, real name Elias Chimbalu, passed away at the end of June. He was aged 40. Chindime ndi Samalani perfected the art of theatre for development in an arena whose other great performers include The Story Workshop, Timveni Arts,  and Theatre for a Change.

The current sensation on the Malawian music front this year has been Lawi. With Francis Phiri as his real name, Lawi adopted his nickname from ‘Malawi’ (Lawi singular, Malawi plural). The genius of Lawi’s music is expressed in the everyday persona whose mass collectivity accumulates into the many flames that shine the Malawian path.

His song Amaona kuchedwa burst onto the scene early this year, and has enjoyed playtime on practically every radio station, entertainment joint, engagement parties and weddings. But it is his other songs that capture the warm heart of Africa that is Malawi in a range of childhood memories, images of the capital city Lilongwe, and the beauty of rural livelihoods. Lawi’s golden voice has charmed the Malawian ear in a way no other musician of his Afro-soul genre has done in recent memory. His is a phenomenal  addition to a tradition trailblazed by Wambali Mkandawire three decades ago.

In poetry, there is a new generation of performers who have taken over the mantle from the generation that fought the one party dictatorship. That generation was represented by scholar poets such as David Rubadiri, Felix Mnthali, Jack Mapanje, Steve Chimombo, Frank Chipasula, among others. They mostly wrote in English and taught in universities. Today the poetry that is telling the Malawian story is in Chichewa, and is performed by young poets. Many of them follow Benedicto Wokomaatani Malunga in intonation and voice deflection, in deference to a poet who pioneered a genre.

As was with the earlier generation, there are still few women poets, but they pack an intellectual punch. Ovixlexla Bunya is a multi-talented artist who dabbles in TV, poetry and is also a student of philosophy. Days before the general elections on 20th May she released a recorded Chichewa poem that subtly laid bare the shenanigans of the major political parties that were contesting. Titled after a campaign slogan, ‘Dzuka, Malawi, Dzuka’ (Wake up, Malawi, Wake up), it is a rapid-fire narrative crafted in a powerful, moving lexicon that brings sobriety to the inebriation of blind partisanship.
Ovixlexla Bunya, poet, artist, TV personality

Malawian artists tell all. They have seen governments come and go. They have given artistic interpretation to scandal, crime and vice. They will continue reflecting the kind of society Malawi is. They will keep imagining and re-imagining the future. They will tell more Malawian stories through song and dance, tears and laughter. That is why the arts and the humanities need to continue being an integral part of the school curriculum from primary through to university, including teacher education.

* A version of this post first appeared as an article under a different title in The Malawi News of Saturday 26th July, 2014.

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Sunday, June 08, 2014

'Accountable to the people': Can President Mutharika be taken at his word?

Malawians lining up to vote on 20th May, 2014

There is one statement in Professor Peter Mutharika’s inaugural speech that will be the ultimate test on which his term of office will be evaluated. Taking over the reins of power at the Kamuzu Stadium in Blantyre on 2nd June, the president said: “Today, we are launching a government that must be accountable to the people. The central principle of democracy is that everyone must be accountable to someone else.” The president promised a “bottom-up approach” and “people-centred economic growth”.

This has never happened in Malawi before. Despite pronouncements and proclamations to follow the will of the people, we have never had a government that was truly accountable to the people. That President Mutharika chose this particular language in his inaugural address is nothing short of radical. And it should be a shock to those holding decision-making positions in a public sector that was accountable only to itself and ruling party cohorts.

The toughest choice facing newly-elected president Prof. Arthur Peter Mutharika is how he can steer the country in a new direction with the people who helped him win the May 20 elections. Malawians are ready for the “new beginning” Mutharika has promised. But can he deliver this “new beginning” with the same faces that delivered victory? How President Mutharika manages that feat will fore-shadow what his term of office is going to look like.

It is not an easy dilemma. No one needs to be reminded how the majority of Malawians viewed the individuals who formed the inner circle of the DPP until April 5, 2012. But the reality is that they are the same people who have engineered the DPP victory in 2014. They did not work pro bono. They are pregnant with expectation for political and economic rewards. Can Mutharika afford to give Malawi a “new beginning” without having to dispense patronage and appeasement?

Their hearts are pounding with excitement at the prospects of cabinet positions, embassy postings, seats on boards and numerous other political appointments at the president’s disposal, as a token of appreciation. Yet it is those very positions that Malawians are keenly awaiting to scrutinise for the slightest hint of patronage, appeasement and a perpetuation of the old DPP.  

For the second time in as many years Malawi is yet again presented with a ‘reset’ button. Going by the tone struck by the newly-elected president in his inaugural speech, it could be the moment we have been waiting for. But great speeches 
cannot be a substitute for tangible action.

There is a clear starting point for President Mutharika to make good on his promise to be accountable to Malawians. It is still not clear to many of us what caused the mess that happened on election day and during the counting of votes. It is understandable that many people want to move on and let bygones be bygones. But there cannot be peace without truth and justice. The truth of what happened with the election, even if it does not change the outcome, is of paramount importance.

There is a legion of voices joining calls for a thorough investigation of what exactly happened. In the words of Kizito Tenthani, Executive Director of the Centre for Multiparty Democracy, quoted in the Nation on Sunday of 8th June, “. . . it will be a great injustice to ourselves if we do not pursue and get to the bottom of what really happened so that we should avoid a repeat of the mess that was created.”

Dr. Garton Kamchedzera of Chancellor College in the University of Malawi adds that parties claiming they had evidence of rigging “should have pursued the truth, justice and righteousness for the sake of the nation, even if that could not have changed the results” (Nation on Sunday, 8th June). He is not alone. Another Chancellor College scholar, Dr. Blessings Chinsinga, says MEC itself indicated there were serious problems with the entire process.

Several MEC commissioners officially wrote a letter expressing deep reservations with the results. Dr. Chinsinga rues the eventuality that we may “never know for sure whether the electoral outcome reflected the genuine will of the people of the will of the courts.” (Sunday Times, 8th June). He adds that the conduct of the election raises a “serious question about the legitimacy of the new administration.”

Herein lies the perfect place to start demonstrating the accountability President Mutharika has promised. Not only would a process to establish the truth of what happened strengthen his legitimacy, it would also give him a genuine mandate and a clear conscience. If it turns out that it was the losing parties that connived to “hold the nation at ransom” for those ten days, to quote Seodi White, Malawians need to know the losing parties for what they are.

Fortunately or unfortunately for Mutharika, Malawians have taken note of his pledge of accountability, and have already started mobilising on how to hold his government to account. Siku Nkhoma, a social activist and researcher, has developed a monitoring tool drawn from the central tenets of the DPP manifesto. She has assembled a voluntary team of experts who will periodically provide empirical evidence on how the DPP-led government is doing in fulfilling or failing to fulfil its promises. The evidence will be there for all to see.

One innovation that will be interesting to watch is that of community colleges. Prof. Mutharika first talked about this idea towards the end of 2010 when he was Minister of Education.  Community colleges have transformed access to higher education in the US. They offer an affordable education to non-traditional students who dropped out before finishing secondary school, or want to learn a new trade. They cost about $2,500 per year, compared to $7,000 in a public university, and $26,000 in a private university. More than 40 percent of America’s higher education student enrolment is in community colleges.

If properly contextualised and adapted to the Malawian situation, community colleges could decisively end the severe challenges of access to higher education. We have more than 4 million students in primary schools, but at the secondary school level this number drastically drops to less than 300,000. More than 3 million youths slip through the gaping chasm between primary and secondary school in any given cycle. The total enrolment in tertiary education, combining university, technical and vocational colleges, is just above 10,000 but no more than 15,000.

More than 70 percent of Malawians do not have a secondary school education, according to the Malawi Demographic and Health Survey of 2010. As a matter of developing human capital, these numbers portray a national disaster in the making. Lack of opportunities for education has led many Malawians to view intelligence as innate, fixed and immutable, rather than flexible and contingent on environment and opportunities.

And our policies have taken their cue from such beliefs. Our public universities offer an automatic government scholarship to all selected students regardless of whether the student has the need for a scholarship or not. As a result, we have the highest per student expenditure in all of Africa, at 2,000 percent the average in the SADC region. Thankfully, MUST has pioneered a different approach.

If higher education is going to be of central importance in the new administration, it must start with the seat of government. Lilongwe is the only major capital city that I know of that does not have a public university. Public lectures and academic symposia are held in expensive hotels owing to the absence of a prominent university campus. The Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources does not have a presence in the city, depriving policy-makers, government officials, civil society and the citizenry at large an intellectual atmosphere to generate new knowledge and ideas.

While Malawi needs more universities as the DPP manifesto promises, there is a need for whole universities that offer the full gamut of intellectual discourse to include the sciences, the liberal arts, and the social sciences. It does not make sense to have a university of fish here, a university of rice there, a university of cotton at that other place, as Prof. Thandika Mkandawire jokingly advised in a public lecture in 2013.

Professor Mkandawire is the one who gave us the now famous line about what happens to some of Africa’s best intellectuals when they enter politics. He had seen some of these leading intellectuals become, wrote the professor, “unfathomable fools.” As a fellow internationally recognised and leading intellectual in his field, Professor Mutharika will have to work hard to dispel that damning spell.

Experience has taught us that all presidents come in genuinely wanting to change things for the better. Then politics sets in. Power changes people. But when the public takes up its duties and responsibilities, perhaps it might be the end of “business as usual” as the President himself has promised.


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Monday, May 19, 2014

What the future may hold for Malawi beyond May 20th

The person who wins this week’s election will need to thank Malawians for one thing: our capacity to forgive and give people a second chance. But if the Afrobarometer poll is anything to go by, it will be the weakest mandate a Malawian president has ever had. The Afrobarometer survey showed Peter Mutharika winning by just 27 percent of the vote.

If that turns out to be accurate, it will mean that whoever wins, whether it will be Professor Mutharika as predicted, or Dr. Lazarus Chakwera, or Dr Joyce Banda, or indeed Atupele Muluzi, will have been rejected by more than 70 percent of Malawians. That will be phenomenally unimpressive. It may in fact nullify the idea of Malawians’ capacity to forgive and give a political party a second chance because it will be such a small percentage of voters putting someone into office based on arcane interests.

What is evident is that there are very particular reasons that are driving attraction to particular candidates. Most of us are pinning our hopes and aspirations for the country on a candidate and a party we believe is best able to deliver. What I aim to address in this discussion are those hopes and aspirations, and the Faustian bargain people have to make in choosing a candidate. Many of us will need to draw upon our capacity to forgive or to ignore major blemishes.

I have restricted myself to the national scenario, but my conviction lies in a Pan-Africanist outlook that draws from and contributes to the global social justice agenda. The domestic interpretation of that outlook is a social justice agenda that would reduce the run-away inequality between the majority poor and the wealthy elites. As we mark 50 years of nationhood this year, everyone's thoughts must on what we would like the next fifty years to look like.

Many of the reasons for choosing a candidate and their party go beyond the ethnicity factor which has played a decisive role in some elections, and has been insignificant in others. The key factors range from the desire to achieve genuine structural reform, to hope for what has been termed transformational leadership going into the next fifty years. There are five overriding themes that I think form the core of the agenda.

Malawi: under construction

Foremost is the immediate anger over the cashgate scandal. Then there is the urgency over public sector reform. Third is the significance of the youth demographic that has made parties rethink their choices for presidential candidate and running mate. Fourth on the list is failure to transform agriculture into a formidable economic engine for the country has left Malawians exposed to extreme poverty. And last but not least is the squandered opportunity to harness natural resources and minerals that has revealed the extent to which foreign conglomerates collude with our ruling elites to plunder the country.


Cashgate and the rule of law: Malawians are extremely angry and want the culprits brought to book. They are even angrier with the pace of progress in prosecuting the cases. But cashgate as a mindset is a multi-generational scandal going back to the 1990s and affecting all the governments that have ruled since the onset of multiparty politics in 1994. Cashgate happened as the culmination of a loss of ethical responsibility and adherence to rule of law.  

There is an interesting schizophrenia about wanting cashgate dealt with, and deciding which political party and presidential candidate can best deal with it. There is a good chance the party that wins the election will itself be deeply implicated in an aspect of cashgate or other forms of past fraud and corruption.

The urgency of public sector reform: All the parties and their candidates have demonstrated their knowledge of what has happened to morale in the civil service and performance in the public sector. They have all promised to restructure the civil service, but no party has made clear what practical steps their government will take to prevent previous failures.

Education and the youth demographic: Three of the major parties, the United Democratic Front, the People’s Party and the Democratic Progressive Party have gone out of their way to court the youth vote by putting up a young person as either a presidential candidate or a running mate. There are hundreds of young people running for parliament and for councillor.

The debate has been how to energise the youth and offer them meaningful life chances through a good education and employment. Out of all the ills troubling our education system, the topmost priorities right now should be to increase the numbers of schools at the primary, secondary, teacher training, technical and university levels. Along with that we must attend to the academic and professional quality of teacher education and their remuneration.

It is disheartening that whereas we have over 4 million students in primary school, we have less than 300,000 in secondary school. This means that 3.8 million young people fail to proceed to secondary school every four-year cycle, creating a huge unemployment bottleneck annually.

Agriculture and the economy: Agriculture is a perennial problem. Just a few years ago we were touted as a global example of an African country that had succeeded in registering a food surplus and ending hunger. Today we are back to where we were with more than 1.6 million Malawians facing severe food shortages in 2013, according to the UN. The political will to find lasting solutions has always competed with unsustainable and expensive solutions aimed at winning popular votes rather than solving the problem once and for all.

Natural resources: There is a lot anxiety over the country’s natural resources. The country has been exporting uranium for a few years now but there is nothing in the economy to show for it. There is mounting interest in other minerals and on oil exploration in Lake Malawi, and people are anxious to see how these can benefit the country rather than the foreign companies that are given the contracts in collusion with the ruling elites.

These are but a few of the myriad issues the next government will need to pay serious attention to. But there is one thing I have learned from this campaign season over and above everything else. Everyone running for president and their political parties have in-depth knowledge of what issues the country needs to grapple with. Many of them have brilliant, if not radical ideas that could truly transform the country’s fortunes.

But having the knowledge and brilliant ideas have proved over the years to be insufficient, as was argued by Ephraim Nyondo in his Nation on Sunday column in March. It matters less what the issues are, argued Nyondo. It is the character of the leader we elect that matters more. Malawi needs a leader with integrity, a good temperament, patriotism, dedication and values. I could not agree more. For me the issue of character is best captured in the intellectual capacity of the leader Malawi needs.

Dr Henry Chingaipe observed on Facebook recently that the best leader Malawians want needs to have the combined characteristics of all the candidates put together. The twelve candidates running for president demonstrated knowledge, experience, ideas, eloquence, discipline, transparency, tenacity, boldness, ambition, compassion and even humour.

But no one candidate seems to have all the desirable qualities. Even the candidates themselves observed this during the debates. The one overriding quality the next president will need will be a type of charisma that can inspire Malawians to rise up and be part of the change they want to see. Many of us are stuck in a state of incapacitation. We know what the problems are but the best we can do is complain or ignore, thinking that it is someone else’s responsibility.

Another winding road for the next fifty years?

Each of the parties with a meaningful chance of winning the election has major character flaws, as was observed by Victor Kaonga on Facebook. Voters will have to do a juggling act to decide which qualities to prioritise and which flaws to compromise over. And that is where the propensity to forgive the past or to ignore inconvenient truths will come in, outside ethnic and patronage considerations.

Voters will have to choose between forgiving cashgate and ignoring the absence of a grand vision, or prioritising compassion and charity for the poor. They may have to choose between forgiving arrogance, nepotism, threats of violence and revenge, or prioritising boldness of grand development ideas and past glory.

They may have to choose between forgiving grand corruption and ignoring plunder and the erosion of ethical behaviour, or prioritising youth appeal, charisma and a disciplined campaign. Voters may have to choose between forgiving past political murders and ignoring decades of dictatorship, or prioritising trust in theological pedigree, clarity of purpose, and the most distance from last atrocities.

But over and above the dilemma of compromises will be the question of how power changes an individual. Whoever becomes our next president ought to go into State House with a plan for how to handle the overwhelming corrupting influence that comes with political power.


We have seen the best and brightest minds go into politics full of promise and good will, only to become inebriated with power and hubristic arrogance. How the next president handles this frightening, all-consuming black hole will be pivotal. He or she will need to inspire the creativities energies of Malawians to rise up to this challenge and take the country’s destiny into our hands. That way, Malawians can look forward to the next fifty years with hope, pride and determination.

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Thursday, May 01, 2014

In solidarity with Malawian teachers: Labour Day thoughts

This May Day (or Labour Day as we call it here) my thoughts are with Malawian teachers and their struggles. In particular my thoughts are with those teachers who defy the odds and make a difference in the lives of their students and in their communities. I would like to share a few stories on these teachers.

In October 2012 I received a Facebook message from someone who introduced himself as James Mitengo, a Standard 4 teacher at Mpeni Junior Primary School in Thyolo. He was looking for opportunities to extend a training programme he had developed on teaching using locally available resources, known in short as Talular. On his own initiative, James had managed to train up to 2,000 teachers in a number of districts in the southern region. He was looking to train more teachers.  Were there organisations that could fund him to extend the trainings to more districts?

I did not know organisations that could offer the funding he was looking for. But I could connect him to an online forum for teachers (Bwalo la Aphunzitsi), where he could network with other teachers. He did not succeed in getting the funding he was looking for, but he was able to achieve something else. He responded to an article I posted on the said forum describing how teachers in the United Kingdom were connecting their classrooms with teachers in Pakistan and Afghanistan. An official in the British Council office in Lilongwe, a fellow member of the forum, got in touch with him and invited him to a training in Liwonde on how the programme works.

James was able to get Mpeni Junior Primary School connected to a school in Scotland, and later to another one in England. But there was another problem. He did not have a laptop, nor did his school. James was able to make contact with fellow Malawian teachers, with the British Council and with schools in the UK using his mobile phone only. It worked, but did not provide his students an opportunity to connect with other students in Malawi or elsewhere. He needed at least a laptop.

I reached out to my network on twitter and facebook, and got a few expressions of interest and some pledges. One of the pledges came from Dr. Lisa Jilk, a friend and former classmate of mine, now a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, United States. She sent James $1,000, with which he was able to buy a laptop. James was now able to use a laptop in his classroom with his students. In July of this year James is going to Scotland to spend two weeks at the partner school. He will train the teachers there on Talular.

Teachers learning how to use a computer. Pic by James Mitengo
Mpeni Junior Primary School has no electricity; the school needs K100,000 (approx US$270) to get connected. There are eleven teachers at the school, but only two teachers’ houses. The school needs more classrooms to accommodate the large numbers of students. But by being creative and persistent, James is slowly developing his school and inspiring students and fellow teachers. He has the drive to reach out and network with other teachers and educators in Malawi and outside. But he is not alone.

In September 2013 I visited Nadzikhale Primary School in Dedza to observe a team of primary education advisers (PEAs) and head teachers conducting school evaluation. They were conducting what is known as School Performance Review, a school evaluation process developed by Link Community Development, which I work for. Nadzikhale school is located in a beautiful part of Dedza. From the school’s open ground you can see a vast open valley that stretches west to east, with blue hills in the distance.

One of the PEAs sat down with the head teacher of the school, Phillip James. I joined them on a bench under a tree shade. I noticed a bicycle leaning against the tree. It belonged to the head teacher, Mr James. It was an old bicycle, visibly worn out with tyres that had seen better days. Phillip told me he had used the bicycle for all the fifteen years he had worked at the school. The school has only two teachers’ houses, with a third house set aside for student teachers in the Open and Distance Learning programme.

Every day of the fifteen years Phillip has taught at Nadzikhale school he has commuted from the neighbouring village using the same bicycle. On this day the mobile phone network was very good, and I was able to go on twitter. Before we left the school I had a direct message in my twitter account. A friend who saw the tweets wrote and said he was touched by the dedication of this teacher. He was going to do something to express his gratitude. It was his conviction that such teachers, who worked hard for many years and never gave up, needed to be appreciated. He sent MK30,000 (approx US$75 in 2013), and today Phillip rides a new bicycle.
Phillip James's old bike and new bike

I have decided to share these two stories above because they defy the ubiquitous image of Malawian teachers who are demoralised and are always complaining of the conditions in which they work. No doubt, many Malawian teachers feel so demoralised they see nothing positive about the profession. And we cannot blame them. But there are a few who are not letting the problems they encounter paralyse them. Not only do they persevere, they actively seek solutions to problems their schools face.

The difference lies in the types of attitudes between teachers who feel hopeless and helpless, and teachers who actively pursue new ideas and seek solutions to problems. Most teachers graduate from teachers college confident that they will make a difference in the school and community they will serve. But many feel overwhelmed by the reality that hits them once they start their jobs.

As I have argued many times before, the model Malawi uses to train primary school teachers needs reform. Currently teachers are trained for two years, spending one year doing course work and one year doing teaching practice, in the residential system. In the open and distance learning system things are a bit different in that the student teachers spend the entire two years doing teaching practice in a school, only going for course work when school is on holiday.

The open and distance learning model was introduced in 1989, and I was in the inaugural class. Our training lasted four years; we did not graduate until September 1993. Throughout those four years I did not feel intellectually challenged by the content. So I went about buying books and novels that I read in my spare time. This was when Malawi had proper bookshops spread out across the country.

Today, much of the training is done through modules written by teacher educators who draw on materials produced by other educationists. There are no peer-reviewed books or journal articles published in a proper academic settings. Lecturers in our teacher training colleges are not required to conduct research and publish. The only new knowledge being introduced in our teacher education system is through donor-funded workshops and projects. None of our universities has active involvement in the education of primary school teachers.
The Deputy Headteacher at Mpeni working on the donated laptop.
Pic by James Mitengo

There were efforts a few years ago to integrate teacher training colleges into public universities so that primary school teachers should be undergoing a more academically-rigorous university-level teacher preparation. I do not know how far that discussion went, as no one mentions it anymore. It has been argued that training primary school teachers up to university diploma or degree level would end up solving the wrong problem – that of teacher shortage in community day secondary schools.

But that problem would only arise if there were no improvements in remuneration and conditions of service in primary schools. Teachers, as is the case with any workers, will go where the pay and conditions of service are better. If salaries and conditions of work in primary schools are made attractive for highly educated teachers, they will stay and will improve the quality of primary school education.

There have been major changes in the teaching profession in Malawi since my days as a teacher. There were no teacher development centres during my day, and inspectors were based at the district office rather than at the zone. Schools now get annual grants for school improvement projects, and the amounts are doubling each year.

But the mentality amongst many teachers remains stuck in a beggar-mindset, possibly because the needs are too great and the pace of change is very gradual. A group of teachers I met in 2013 told me their school had not used their grant from the previous year, and they were about to get a new grant. They had no idea what the funds would be used for; they were appealing for help from “well-wishers”.

We need to develop a system to recognise, support and reward creativity, innovation and hard work amongst our teachers.  Teachers who have innovative ideas need to know that they can be supported and rewarded. In other countries teachers are recognised by national teacher of the year awards at various levels. We need to develop our own system starting at the school level going up to the national level, including primary education advisers and district education managers. That will be the best way of motivating teachers and educators, and injecting authentic pride and dignity into the teaching profession.

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Sunday, March 30, 2014

Choosing a president: Intellect, character and Malawi’s leadership

I have lived in the city of Lilongwe for close to three years now, and I have no idea who the MP of my area is. I do not even know the name of my constituency. Whoever is the MP here has never been to this area to talk to us the constituents in the three years I have lived here. If they have, I never heard about it. Now in addition to voting for an MP and a state president on 20th May, I will also have to vote for a councillor. I have no idea what the name of my ward is. Worse still, I do not know a single candidate who is running for councillor in this ward.

This afternoon I passed by poster on a tree just outside the main entrance to the African Bible College campus. The poster had a name of a candidate asking to be voted for as councillor. The poster named the candidate’s party, and that was all. I have never heard of this person before, and the poster did not saying else. I do not even know if the place where I saw the poster is in my ward or not; it is some two kilometres away from my house.

I probably have myself to blame for having no knowledge of the names of my ward and my constituency, and who is running for councillor and MP. But it is also the case that the candidates running in my ward and constituency are doing little to inform voters like me. There are two or three names with vibrant campaigns for councillor in Lilongwe city wards, but with no knowledge of how wards and constituencies are drawn in the city, I have no idea if these people will be on my ballot paper or not.

Kamuzu Palace: Intellect and character needed for Malawi's leadership
In contrast, I know a lot more about candidates running in other parts of the country. Some of them I know because they are running in my ancestral home, others because they have a very vibrant, creative campaign strategy on social media, on radio and in the newspapers. Some are even my friends. In this campaign season, my eyes and ears are trained on which party and which candidate, at all the three voting levels, demonstrates the most comprehensive understanding of what lies at the roots of the problems this country is facing.

Some weeks ago Frederick Ndala, editor of the The Malawi News, showed the candidates what it means to demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of Malawi’s problems. In an opinion piece titled “Who will get my vote?” (Sunday Times, 16th February 2014), Ndala called upon candidates to “address real national issues with practical solutions.” Ndala’s exhortation hinged on why it was not enough for candidates to repeat what everyone knows already; insecurity, food crises, bad economy, unemployment, poor education. Rather, candidates need to suggest practical solutions to these problems, argued Ndala.


In this campaign season, I am going a step deeper. I am looking for an outstanding analysis of what exactly has caused the problems, why they have become entrenched, and what strategies have not been tried before. Anything short of this is not going to be good enough.

There is something about politics that turns perfectly good, well-meaning, honest, reasonable, intelligent people into “unfathomable fools,” to quote a candidly spoken and oft-repeated description from Professor Thandika Mkandawire a few years ago. And this happens not in Malawian politics only, it happens everywhere. Too many wonderful people have been transformed into paragons of mediocrity it has become clear there is something fatally wrong with the system. A candidate who fails to grasp this fundamental aspect and to articulate how to change it has no business running.

In their pastoral letter read out in all their churches a few Sundays ago, the CCAP’s Nkhoma Synod expressed grave concern “with the secrecy in the way matters of national interest are dealt with.” For me this is of paramount significance. Thanks to unsung whistle-blowers, we have been made aware of top secret, underhand deals that go on in the confines of State House meant to profit the president and their inner circle, at great detriment to the national cause.

Shrewd business people and agents, both local and international, know this too well. They expend unmentionable amounts of largesse to curry favour with the president. This is the reason why declaring one’s assets has become as unthinkable as drawing water from a rock. A presidential candidate who wishes this country well will need to demonstrate a critical understanding of this problem and have a clear plan for how address it.

We cannot afford to continue having presidents who are bought by the highest bidder. We have barons in this country whose sole aim is to continue multiplying their wealth and tightening their economic stranglehold on the country. I am looking for a candidate who can deal with this vice in a decisive manner. This country needs more whistle-blowers, with full legal protection.

The crux of this problem, wrapped in presidential power and privilege is impunity, singled out in the Nkhoma Synod pastoral letter as well as in the Catholic Bishops’ earlier pastoral letter in December 2013. In his Sunday Times column of 23rd March Levi Kabwato says it this impunity that propelled cashgate. He writes, and this is worth reproducing in full: “The rogues who unashamedly participated in robbing our national vault did so with the full knowledge that they would not get caught. In the unlikely event of being caught, they had the confidence that nothing would happen to them because, somehow, they are untouchable.”

Disregard for ‘inconvenient’ laws starts with the presidency and becomes the norm for everyone else. Rule of law has become a tool to be unleashed on opposition parties and on powerless citizens while the ruling party and powerful elites are exempt from it. While there is no single solution that can heal Malawi and chart a new path to a new and better future, restoring rule of law and ending impunity has to be top of the agenda of any candidate who wants my vote.

Without a sophisticated understanding of the depths of impunity and lawlessness the country has sunk into, it does not matter which party or which candidate wins the 20th May election. There will be a zero chance of giving Malawians new hope for a better country. I am looking for a candidate that can analyse the root causes of this problem, why it became entrenched, and what solutions have not been tried before.

Reforming the civil service was a huge topic in the first running-mates debate in Lilongwe. The running-mates demonstrated varying degrees of understanding of what ails the civil service and how to reform it. But without knowledge of what reforms have been tried before, and why they failed, we are doomed to more experiments that will not lead to any meaningful reform.

Performance appraisals have been on the agenda for as long as the civil service has existed, but they have never been implemented. I will vote for candidate who will go beyond the rhetoric and demonstrate a profound commitment to reforming the civil service in ways that have not been attempted before.

There have been numerous studies on how to restructure salary scales in the civil service, and they have all ended up on shelves, baking in the infamous Lilongwe dust. The results have been there for all to see; severe demoralisation whose worst effects have manifested themselves in what has become a “cashgate mindset” in the entire public and even private sector. The education system has been made to bear the most visible of these effects.

And it is in education where the effort to rebuild Malawi must begin. Education has featured very little in the political discourse thus far. In this campaign season I am looking for a party that can astutely analyse causes of the current problems facing the education system. The candidates and their teams need to lay out long-term, well thought-out, feasible and practical plans to revive Malawi’s education system as the bedrock for future development.

Why should I vote you?
We have now had a generation of disgruntled, disempowered and disappointed teachers who have so much bottled-up anger. A country whose teachers feel hopeless and helpless cannot inspire the young generation. That country will be doomed to perpetual mediocrity.

In the final analysis, no one president or running-mate can turn Malawi around single-handedly. What I am looking for in this campaign season is a candidate who has thought long and hard about Malawi’s complex problems, and has a plan for how to inspire Malawians to become active citizens in understanding our conditions and offering solutions.

This will be a candidate able to provide what Edge Kanyongolo, in his Nation on Sunday column (30th March, 2014) calls “straight answers to straight questions on specific issues.” Kanyongolo poses six questions to which he wants "clear, unambiguous answers." These range from cost of living versus minimum wage, the Labour Tenants Bill, homosexuality and abortion, the National Land Policy, accounting for past human rights abuses, to implementing Section 65.

But over and above the in-depth understanding of Malawi’s problems that I am looking for and the "straight answers" Edge Kanyongolo is asking for, Ephraim Nyondo makes a compelling case to scrutinise the “character” of the people who are asking for our votes (Nation on Sunday, 30th March). Nyondo argues that “the country's direction is not being driven by how conversant and articulate our leaders are on issues affecting Malawians, but rather, on the character of the person holding the presidency.” He suggests that it is character that is more important, defined through “integrity, temperament, patriotism, dedication and values . . .”

While agreeing with Nyondo, I suggest that we need a leader who has both an in-depth understanding of the issues, as well as character capable of bringing about the kind of change previous leaders have failed to bring. I am looking for a candidate able to inspire Malawians towards self-empowerment initiatives and taking responsibility for our destiny. That calls for both intellect and character.

Note: A shorter version of this article appeared in The Malawi News of Saturday, 22nd March, 2014, under a different title. It has been updated and revised to reflect on-going discussions on what to look for in a president.

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Monday, March 24, 2014

In defense of Malawian languages: The case for multilingualism in our schools

Thanks to students majoring in Education at the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College, the Ministry of Education’s decision for English to be the language of instruction starting from Standard One has become a national debate. I would like to congratulate the students for their active participation in a matter of national significance.

The significance of this issue goes beyond the classroom. It is about national development, national identity, and national aspirations. And as the students have emphatically argued, it is also about class and social inequality. This is why the matter of language of instruction in schools awakens latent passions that lie deep down our hearts.

Thus far the debate has been restricted to the merits and demerits of English as the language of instruction from Standard One. What has not been discussed yet is the process the Ministry of Education has used to come up with the declaration, in the first place. While the main justification for the declaration, as quoted in the media, has centred around the importance of spoken English and grammar, that is not the whole story.

Young children exhibit remarkable creativity

As the Minister of Education, Dr. Lucius Kanyumba explained, the declaration is based on the New Education Act, 2012, which replaced the old Education Act of 1962. The process to come up with the New Education Act goes back to 2002, when the Ministry of Education requested the Law Commission to review the 1962 Education Act and come up with a new one. In August 2003 the government instituted the Special Law Commission, which undertook the task of reviewing the country’s laws.

The Special Law Commission embarked on wide consultations, including inviting submissions from various stakeholders on various aspects of the country’s laws. The issue of language of instruction in public schools came up during these consultations. A larger debate was going on amongst Malawians on the place of Chichewa as the national language, and the effects of having a national language on minority languages. There were those who argued that rather than having a Malawian language as a national language, giving it superiority over other languages, English would be an ideal alternative as a neutral foreign language.

By the time the Law Commission finished its work in 2010, it had drafted the New Education Act. The Commission issued a report titled “Report of the Law Commission on the Review of Education Act”, which was released in March of that year. One of its recommendations was the use of English as the language of instruction in schools. The report was silent on the rationale for this recommendation.

The issue of language of instruction is found in Section 78 of the New Education Act, which has two subsections 1 and 2. Subsection (1) is unequivocal in mandating English as the language of instruction. However it does not mention that this should be from Standard One. Subsection (2) is less unequivocal. It says “Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (1), the Minister may, by notice published in the Gazette prescribe the language of instruction in schools.” The use of the word “may” is somewhat circumspect, but the Minister has obviously used powers vested in his office to make the prescription, including the declaration that this should start in Standard One.

In making the declaration, the Ministry of Education has pleased sections of Malawian society who use proficiency in spoken English as a proxy for quality education. But this prescription goes against global trends and volumes of research findings that argue for the importance of mother tongue in the development of cognitive skills. That said, it is understandable why many parents view good spoken English as representative of quality education. There is a lot of prestige attached to English, and it gives one a global passport. It is an important language that bestows glamour on those who speak it.

What gets buried inside the debate is the recommendation for bilingual instruction, the practice of teaching in the mother tongue while introducing one other or more languages. The Chancellor College students are very right in arguing that children who develop a deeper functionality in their first language find it easier to learn a second language.

Teachers and lecturers in our secondary schools and universities are observing a trend in which students from private schools speak perfect English, but their reasoning, writing and problem-solving skills are not well developed. This is even as the Independent Schools Association of Malawi (ISAMA) is reporting reporting that 80 percent of students selected to Malawian universities are coming from private schools.

Language researchers have also found that children who speak more than one language exhibit better academic performance than children who know only one language, regardless of what that language is. This is why our language of instruction policy needs to promote multilingualism, and not monolingualism. Just a generation ago most Malawians were multi-lingual, speaking two or more languages on average. Today’s generation knows two languages, English and Chichewa, on average. If we do not enact policies to develop our local languages, the coming generations of Malawians will be reduced to only one language, English.

Monolingualism encourages insularity, a restricted worldview in which the only knowledge available to one is from one linguistic source. The danger with the new policy, as it stands, is the damage it can potentially cause to Malawian languages. The new policy will mean that as a country we will allocate more resources to English at the expense of nurturing and developing local languages.

Language familiarity facilitates expression in children
As the students have eloquently argued, this will benefit the children of the elites while disadvantaging children from poor families. But it must also be pointed out that this inequality is already prevalent with children of wealthy Malawians able to attend better schools than children of poor Malawians. Those of us who went to school in the 1970s and 1980s had Chichewa as the language of instruction in the early standards. We learned English as a subject. And our English proficiency has turned out to be alright.

Contrary to popular opinion, all languages have an inherent capacity to evolve and grow. Human knowledge has developed from the thousands of languages spoken across histories and geographies rather than from one language alone. Languages grow based on how much knowledge is generated in that language, and how much resources are being allocated to it.

Language is more than communication. It is about identity and cultural pride. It is also about national development. One key reason why our country registers slow growth and development is because new research and knowledge are predominantly in a language only few Malawians use. Our local languages are deprived of new knowledges which remain beyond the acquisition of the majority of our people.

The majority of our people remain poor and disempowered because they are denied an opportunity to participate in knowledge-making processes due to language policies that denigrate a core aspect of our identity. It is for these reasons that we must come up with language policies that promote greater knowledge-making, national confidence and civic participation amongst our people, without depriving them of knowledge available through foreign languages. This is why we must promote multilingualism, and not English only.

Note: A version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times edition of Sunday 23rd March, 2014

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Angry teachers: class and contempt in Malawian society

One September morning in 2013 I was walking into my office building in Lilongwe when I noticed a huge crowd swarming around the notice board. My office is located inside a district education office, and teachers visit on a daily basis. But the young people crowding around the notice board on this day were not teachers. 

They were prospective student teachers. They had applied for openings in the Open and Distance Learning (ODL) teacher education programme, and had come to find out if they had been selected. This district office was the nearest centre they could visit to find out their results. Some of them had walked long distances on foot, others had used their hard-earned money to come by public transport.

I went on twitter and asked if there were computer programmers who could come up with mobile phone applications that would save these teachers long kilometres of walking or hundreds of kwacha for transport. A number of programmers expressed interest in the idea, and we agreed to meet. Using Facebook, we extended the invitation to teachers, and two female teachers joined our meeting.

We held our second meeting a few weeks ago. We met at the school where the two female teachers teach. Out of twenty teachers on the school’s staff, nine attended. The purpose of the meeting was to learn from the teachers what kinds of solutions they would like to explore with the use of technology, using mobile phones or computers, to make their classroom work easier. I was in for a bit of a surprise.

Although it is located a short drive from the centre of the city of Lilongwe, in a relatively wealthy, medium-density location, this school has never had electricity in its entire nineteen-year history. Needless to say, there is not a single computer at the school. Nothing surprising there. Having become a ubiquitious feature in classrooms in wealthier parts of the world, computers are non-existent in classrooms in poor countries such as ours.

A Primary Education Adviser supervising a teacher
While each of the nine teachers who came to the meeting had a cellphone, only one was able to go on the Internet. She was the only one on Facebook. The majority of the children who attend the school are those of maids, garden boys, guards and other menial workers. The children of the residents of the area go to expensive private schools.

It soon became pointless to talk about educational technology for classroom use, so the meeting turned into a free-for-all session in which the teachers let loose about their anger and frustrations:

Teachers in rural areas receive hardship allowances, but we in urban areas have worse hardships. The little salary we get goes to paying for minibuses or kabaza. We have too many children for one teacher. Too much record-keeping we have no time to prepare lessons. Rents are very high in cities.

We have served for eighteen years without a promotion. The few that get promoted wait for two years before their new salary is effected. When we try to go the ministry to enquire all receive are insults. Newer teachers are being promoted before our very eyes. No loan scheme. No medical scheme. I have bad lungs from inhaling chalk dust I need expensive specialist medical care twice a year and I can’t afford it. Reforms are imposed on us by senior officials who copy things from abroad where they go and eat fat allowances.  

We can’t even attend workshops locally. We introduce new ideas and others take credit for them. We nurse sick children, tend to injured students, handle blood, settle cases amongst students. Nurse, judge, teacher, all in one, no recognition. Now they are bringing the community to come and monitor us. Parents are entering classrooms and demanding to see our lesson plans and other records. . .

The first time I got a sense of how sore with anger Malawian teachers are was in 2004. I was doing field work, and I spent seven months talking to primary school teachers about conditions of their work. On my first day with these teachers in 2004, I had set aside two hours for the teachers to open up and describe the conditions in which they work. They were unstoppable. We spent the entire day on the topic, and they were only getting started.

Fast forward ten years, and the anger feels as raw as it felt in 2004. I realised, ten years ago, that our teachers have so many issues they keep bottled inside them and they are hungry for a chance to air them out. That is exactly how the teachers I met recently felt also. The past ten years have changed nothing in the way our teachers feel about the conditions of their work. They feel not only hopeless and helpless, they are convinced that nobody cares about their plight.

Even after I had explained twice that I had come during the lunch hour because I was not visiting them in any official capacity as I did not work for government, nor was I visiting them on behalf of the NGO that I work for, it did not matter. When I explained that my hope was for us to discuss things that we could do for ourselves as teachers, rather than waiting for someone to come and help us, I got some nods of agreement.

One thread that ran through the issues the teachers raised was one of disempowerment. They feel powerless to change anything. As if they have not had enough disrespect and disempowerment from everyone else, parents are now being empowered to come into the classroom and demand to see the teacher’s lesson plans. This is the lowest things can go, they said. Did they spend two years in college and ten years in the classroom only to end up reporting to a semi-literate parent who knew nothing about teaching? This they cannot take.


It was at this point that it started dawning on me the extent of the problem of accountability and class in this country. We are a highly segmented and class-divided country we refuse to be accountable to anybody we consider to be beneath us. This is a common human trait, and we are no exception. But our moral institutions have become too weakened to provide any framework for accountability to people we are expected to serve. If they are beneath us, they have to bow down to us, not the other way round. More problematic is that our political leaders excel at the rhetoric of humility when they fully know that in practice they expect us to worship them.

This is why many Malawians are pessimistic about the prospects of anything coming out of the on-going cashgate investigations. It is probably what was going on in the minds of those who partook of cashgate loot. With nobody to be accountable to, what was there to fear? This was best expressed by Watipaso Mkandawire in response to the article titled ‘Kudya Nawo: How Cashgate Became aMindset’ (The Lamp, February 2014 issue; also posted here).

Student Teachers from a DAPP TTC
Mkandawire argued that graft, greed and corruption were human problems that occurred even in countries where inequality is not as pronounced as it is in Malawi. “Our main enemy in Malawi,” wrote Mkandawire in a comment, “is our inability to create and maintain governance systems and enforcement [mechanisms] of those systems.”  He went on to give the example of how in countries where governance systems are observed and respected, being caught over-speeding or drink-driving results in a penalty. In Malawi, you can palm-grease the traffic police officer and get away with no penalty.

A society in which the teachers think of themselves as being at the bottom rung of the social ladder is a society in danger of cannibalising itself. If teachers cannot feel appreciated and see the rewards of hard work and dedication, they cannot teach hard work and dedication to their pupils. If a society cannot decide what values to inculcate in their children, and demonstrate those values in deed, that society cannot offer much inspiration to the next generation.

But it need not be that way. It is up to those Malawian teachers who understand the roots of this problem who can take up the mantle and begin to change things. It begins with how teachers are taught, and how they are valued. The DAPP Teacher Training Colleges are a good example of how teachers can be taught to be self-empowered problem-solvers. Empowerment is a self-authored process. Nobody can empower you. You can only empower yourself. For a fresh start, let us begin with the children, and those who teach them.

Note: A version of this article appeared in the Malawi News edition of Saturday 8th March, 2014

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