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.

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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Sunday, February 16, 2014

'Kudya Nawo': How Cashgate Became a Mindset

A lot of Malawian pundits and commentators have pointed out that cashgate symbolises a larger malaise affecting Malawian society. To these commentators, cashgate happened because we are a “rotten” society ruled by corrupt leaders; because we have lost our moral compass as a nation. If this is true, does it not then follow that many of us, to some extent, have what we can term a “cashgate mindset?” Does it also not follow that this “cashgate mindset” can be evidenced in every sphere of our daily lives?

Despite a few revelations of how much money has been looted thus far and how IFMIS was at the centre of it, forms of plunder at the scale of cashgate have gone on before in the history of the country. Only that past perpetrators managed to get away with it. There is need to continue asking what really caused cashgate, and what needs to be done to ensure it does not happen again. Short of that, we should brace ourselves for more of the same.

In what follows, I discuss the extent to which a “cashgate mindset” has been in the making since we won our independence. I suggest that our failure to tackle inequality and improve the lives of the majority of Malawians lies at the root of the greed that has led to the unprecedented levels of the plunder that we have recently sees. I conclude with a thought for the brave Malawians who have played key roles in bringing out this scandal.

The Malawi Parliament

Categories of plunder
The revelations from how cashgate was perpetrated reveal two categories of plunder. The first category was a means for fundraising for political parties. Many pundits have observed that this goes back to 1994, when we adopted a multiparty system of government. I contend that it probably goes back to the one-party era, albeit in a different format.

The other category of the plunder was straightforward thievery; people selfishly enriching themselves at the expense of everyone else. There have been three common denominators in both categories of plunder. First has been the economic inequality that has been the bane of modern Malawi, preceding the independence era. Wealth in Malawi has always been controlled by very few individuals, be it during the colonial era, or the post-independence era, or the multi-party era.

The second denominator has been a shift in the perception and understanding of moral ethics. What in the past would have been seen as taboo, the wanton looting of public funds, came to be seen as normal and acceptable. Even when people knew it was wrong to steal from public funds, many people who should have stopped the theft either simply looked away, or became involved themselves; “tidye nawo.” 

The third denominator has been the greed mentioned above; grotesque self-enrichment at the expense of others, through uncouth means, including funding for political campaigns through illegal means. Greed has always been with humankind, and it knows neither geographical boundary nor historical era. But in a society where inequality is blatant and moral ethics are shifting, the desire to curtail malpractices can easily give way to nihilistic irresponsibility.

Cashgate in historical context
A cashgate mindset did not take hold of the Malawian psyche overnight. It has been a gradual process in the making for as long as we have been an independent nation. During the one-party era, the only party in power, the Malawi Congress Party, controlled all the resources and did not have the need to worry about how they would fund election campaigns. Wealth was concentrated at the very top. It was a form of a cashgate mindset, although only those close to the corridors of power had access.

When the multiparty era arrived, ushered in by the coming to power of the United Democratic Front in 1994, a different type of cashgate mindset crept in. Allowed to compete in elections for the first time in decades, parties now had to work hard to look for campaign finances. The depravations of the one-party era meant that those newly in power in the multiparty era had sudden access to what they saw as a ready cash cow that could be milked anyhow. For once, politics became the fastest way to accumulate wealth without having to work hard or be accountable to anyone.

With the economy still undeveloped, there were not many rich individuals who could fund political parties from private wealth. The public purse became an obvious target. With international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund insisting on the privatisation of public assets, ruling party politicians found an easy way of transferring wealth from public control into private pockets. Malawi lost national assets such as the Malawi Development Corporation, the Malawi Book Service, the Malawi Railways and numerous other institutions. This was a cashgate mindset at work.

The curse of low salaries
Malawi has always had low salaries in the civil and in the public service. That this was a problem was not obvious during the centralised economy of the one-party era which prohibited individuals from amassing excessive wealth. In the early years of multiparty the UDF government made an attempt at restructuring salary scales in the government. Erstwhile president Dr. Bakili Muluzi commissioned an inquiry, whose findings became commonly known as the Chatsika Report (1995). The report recommended new salary structures, but it also recommended trimming the size of the civil service.

The government warned that it would have to reduce the size of the civil service of almost 120, 000 at the time by half in order to be able to increase salaries. Chairman of the Cabinet Committee on the Economy at the time, Dr. Cassim Chilumpha, was quoted as saying the government would have to raise US$ 660 million (K1 billion at the time) “to fully implement the recommendations of the Chatsika Report” (Malawi News Online, April 1997). Dr Chilumpha, who was also Minister of Justice and Attorney General at the time, argued that pumping such a huge amount of money into the economy would “trigger high inflation” and would render useless the Chatsika recommendations. Most goods, he warned, would be too expensive.

Even worse, warned Dr. Chilumpha, the country would be burdened with borrowed money and accruing interest, discouraging investments and savings. The UDF government's position was that it was better to “share the little there is and retain most of its work force.” There were obvious merits in the government’s argument at the time, but it is up to economic historians to put into perspective the consequences of that decision.

In a 2005 article titled “Public Finance Management Reform in Malawi” economists Dick Durevall and Mattias Erlandsson from Göteborg University in Sweden argue that numerous efforts to restructure civil service salaries failed over the decades due to entrenched elite interests. Many top civil servants were paid salaries close to those in the private sector, and restructuring the salaries would benefit low and middle level civil servants more than they would benefit top civil servants. Durevall and Erlandsson dispute the recommendation made in the Chatsika Report to cut the civil service by half, arguing that Malawi’s civil service has always been much smaller than that of comparable countries in the region.

In an Economics Association of Malawi (ECAMA) lecture he gave in August 2013, Professor Thandika Mkandawire pointed out that while other countries had ratios of 1:12 for civil servants and the total population, Malawi’s ratio was more than 1:100. Professor Mkandawire’s observation about the small size of Malawi’s civil service supports the argument by Durevall and Erlandsson, raising the question of how the country has been unable to have adequate numbers of civil servants while paying them well.

What has happened instead has been a cashgate mindset at work. Groups of elites have set about changing the salaries and benefits regimen for their own benefit, leaving behind those beneath them. Durevall and Erlandsson point out in their article that in 2003 only 35 percent of the civil service wage bill was made up of salaries, while 66 percent comprised allowances. International travel allowances are particularly generous, by far dwarfing monthly salaries. No wonder international trips are a big motivating factor for top civil servants, and a huge cause of resentment amongst low level civil servants who are effectively barred from such benefits.

The private sector was able to carry out salary restructuring, with the result that profitable corporations now offer salaries and benefits that are much more attractive than civil service salaries. It must be pointed out however that such attractive salaries and benefits are the preserve of elite managers and senior employees. Employees in lower ranks are paid low salaries, with huge gaps between the top and the bottom levels, even when educational qualifications are not significantly wide.

Inequality as a root cause
Such discrepancies in salary structures both in government and in the private sector have led to unprecedented levels of social and economic inequality. The inequality has created enormous amounts of resentment, which find expression in the most unexpected ways. Inequality in remuneration leads employees to engage in money-making ventures, including setting up businesses and travelling to commercial centres in and outside the country when they are supposed to be working for their employer and for the public.

Government employees demand bribes to do routine jobs such as issuing passports, drivers’ licences, or business permits. Lowly paid police officers demand bribes to work on cases, or to issue police reports. The cash system of paying for traffic offences on the spot makes it easy for one to pay a small bribe and get away without having to pay an unreasonably exorbitant penalty.

There was a time in Malawi when strangers would come to one’s rescue; today people demand payment for the simplest help. It is not that people have become heartless for no reason. They have seen others become inexplicably rich while they have continued to wallow in poverty with no hope of ever seeing their economic lives improve. Such inequality breeds a type of insidious anger clueless elites find difficult to understand. As some seem to prosper while others stagnate, there has gradually emerged a culture of “tidye nawo.”

Those elected into public office have been in the forefront of promoting the “tidye nawo” culture. Having no fresh ideas for how to find long lasting solutions that would improve the lot of Malawians, they have found it easier to canvass for their own interests. Hardly a year passes by without the Malawi parliament moving a motion to increase their salaries and perks. Instead of benefitting poor Malawians and graduating the country out of perpetual food crises, the Farm Input Subsidy Programme has become a cashcow for entrenched elite interests.

Ironically, their failure to enact a better remuneration package for government workers and to address problems of poverty in their constituencies comes back to haunt them. Malawian parliamentarians spend a good chunk of their money giving hand-outs to poor people for school fees, medical expenses, funeral expenses, wedding expenses, hunger relief and other forms of charity. 

No wonder many parliamentarians choose to live in urban areas away from their constituencies, only coming back during campaign time. Many of those clamouring to run for parliament live in towns and cities but want to represent people living in remote villages.

It is not surprising that the government and the political leadership have sought to cash in on cashgate. While Malawians were perplexed with anger and bewilderment, the government and the leadership were busy claiming that cashgate was a “breakthrough”, a testimony to their efforts to stamp out corruption. But Malawians know better.

Unsung heroes
Thus far the untold story has been of those who decided enough was enough and it was time to stop looking away. These unsung heroes include ordinary Malawians who tipped off the police and assisted them in investigations. They include police officers who rose to the call of duty and made daring arrests, uncovering some of the stolen money and property. They also include government employees, low level, middle level and top level, who knew it was time to act and put a stop to the runaway train of elite robbery and executive impunity. The media and civil society took a leading role in exposing the travesty for the world to see.

These are Malawians who have not been corrupted by the “cashgate mindset.” They work against the current, taking on high profile individuals who mastermind fraud and deception and hope to get away with it. These are Malawians who prove that it is possible for Malawi to turn around for the better and address the entrenched inequality that is tearing the country asunder. They know that it is possible for the country to exorcise the cashgate ghost that has controlled our minds for decades. They inspire the rest of us in taking our respective roles and doing what is in our capacity to make Malawi a better place for everyone.

Note: This article appears in the February 2014 issue of The Lamp Magazine.

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What happened to creative writing in Malawi?

The Nation newspaper has raised the alarm over the quality of creative writing in the country. Judges in several national writing competitions have pointed out the quality of entries is very poor it is clear something has happened to creative writing in Malawi.

In order to find a more satisfactory answer to the question as to what has happened to Malawian creative writing, it would be a good idea for the Malawi Writers Union (MAWU) to team up with an English Department in one of the prominent universities to do a study of this phenomenon. A starting point would be to survey a few hundred creative writers, young and old, and ask them about their reading and writing habits and contexts.

I must confess I don't read or write as much fiction as I used to. One reason is because there's a lot to read nowadays online. A lot of my writing nowadays is expository; feature articles and opinion pieces for my blog and for op-ed pages. And that's what drives my reading habits also. I read a lot of expository writing; essays, articles, and opinions. Some of it is also for work purposes in the form of reports.

If I can offer some informed guesses why creative writing is facing problems in Malawi, it could be due to the question of what young Malawian writers are reading these days. Reading is fundamental to writing and thinking. The quality of what is available for reading could be a big factor in what has happened to creative writing in Malawi. I can think of four factors to elaborate this point.

The late Chinua Achebe and Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka:
Are young Malawian writers reading some of Africa's and the world's best writers?

The first factor could be the availability of well-written literature by writers from Malawi, from the Southern African region, and from the rest of the world. Let's face it, our bookshop industry collapsed. This happened due to neoliberal policies introduced soon after we adopted multiparty politics in the mid-1990s. The bulk of books one now finds in the few bookshops we have available are for study purposes; for people studying all kinds of programmes, the majority being business management and finance-related fields. There are Malawian bookshops that do not carry a single Malawian fiction book, new or old.

The second factor is the quality of teaching in secondary schools, colleges and universities. The roots of this problem lie in the general problems Malawi's public education system has been facing due to large classes, poor teaching and learning resources, low salaries, and low morale amongst teachers. Most school libraries have very few books outside the syllabus. Even some of our best secondary schools don't stock enough copies of books on the syllabus. One English teacher recently told me she has six copies of one literature title for a class of 60. What this means is that we have students who sit MSCE without having read a single literature book in its entirety.

Of the many private universities that are mushrooming across the country, very few offer humanities courses where people can study languages and literature, creative writing and literary criticism. The University of Malawi has been operating without a university bookshop for some eighteen years now. Funding problems in the universities mean that even the university libraries are unable to stock new literature.

The third factor is the abandonment of research in Malawian languages: The deliberate policy to exclude Malawian languages from official business in government and in public life, and in the economy means that local languages are not developing. They are stuck in the past. Creative writing benefits from language development, and the development of local languages influences writing and publishing in other languages.

A fourth factor is the poor incentives for good writing. Malawi does have very good writers in local languages and in English, but they have to put food on the table first. Writing does not pay well enough to allow these writers to spend time developing good fiction. So we have lots of young people populating the fiction pages in weekend papers and in competitions without the guidance of expert writers and good writing.

What can we do to improve the quality of creative writing in Malawi?

It is useful to point out that MAWU and other individuals are doing a commendable job encouraging students and organising competitions. But there is need to do more trainings and workshops alongside these competitions. There is a thriving creative culture amongst a few individuals in cities such as Lilongwe. The Living Room hosts open mic readings every Wednesday evening, although this is a niche for a small group of people. The launch of the Story Club by Shadreck Chikoti is an excellent initiative, and more such clubs appear to be on the rise. In 2012 Caine Prize finalist Stanley Onjezani Kenani launched Malawi Write, a website that publishes high quality Malawian writing.

There is a big need to incentivise creative writing. As weekend newspapers are the commonest medium for publishing fiction, newspaper publishers need to take a special interest in creative writing. They could invite particular, well-known writers to write good stories and pay them attractive amounts. The more Malawians are exposed to excellent creative writing the better the creative writing that Malawians will be producing. That was the idea behind the website Malawi Write. The newspapers can consider sponsoring established writers to hold workshops for young writers. They can also organise literary contests.

We must augment efforts to promote the teaching of language and literature in schools and universities. Schools need to emphasise the importance of language and literature in cultivating critical minds. Students should be encouraged to read more books beyond what's on the syllabus. Private universities need to include language and literature in their curricula, and to develop university libraries that stock good Malawian and world literature.
Publishers have always complained that Malawians don't buy books, and so literature is a loss-making venture for them. It's a chicken and egg situation. Publishers need to support schools and libraries in promoting reading and writing. The more Malawians become interested in reading and writing the more sales publishers will realise, thereby promoting reading and writing.

We should also work on government policy. We need government policies that can promote the availability of reasonably priced books in the bookshops. Tax on books and imported paper should be reduced so as to bring down the cost of books and newspapers. The absence of a prominent public university in the capital city deprives Lilongwe of an intellectual culture that can drive both the arts and the humanities, and science and technology. The government needs to make the construction of a big public university, or the expansion of existing public University of Malawi colleges in Lilongwe, as a priority in higher education.

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Reclaiming the Youth Space: The Next Agenda for Young Malawians

Keynote address given at the Youth Consultative Forum's National Consultative Meeting and Annual General Meeting
6 February, 2014, Crown Hotel, Lilongwe

Youth Consultative Forum annual general meeting
6 Feb 2014, Crown Hotel, Lilongwe
It is interestingly fitting that the Youth Consultative Forum is holding its Annual General Meeting exactly one week after Malawi hosted the BBC Africa Debate at the University of Malawi’s College of Medicine in Blantyre. Is it by design? That debate last week focused everyone’s mind in Malawi and in the BBC’s global listenership on issues of youth and what is being termed the ‘demographic dividend.’ As you may recall, the debate’s question was: ‘Africa’s youth population: opportunity or risk.’

The debate’s moderators, Nomsa Maseko and Nkem Ifejika, opened the debate by asking for a show of hands: how many people in the audience saw Malawi’s youth population as an opportunity? How many people saw it as a risk? A rough count of the hands showed an overwhelming response for the risk part. Many in that audience felt that Malawi’s growing youth population was a risk. I raised my hand for the opportunity part, although as the debate wore on, I modified my thinking and felt that Malawi’s growing youth population could be both a risk and an opportunity.  The difference lay in what policies were enacted, what resources were made available, and how much space young people were able to claim for themselves.

I got a chance to speak towards the end of the debate, and said that the statistics were depressing: Malawi has 4.2 million primary school learners. Out of a population of 14-15 million, that means more than a quarter of our population is in primary school. Now comes the depressing part: from 4.2 million in primary school, we come down to only 260,000 students in secondary school. And it gets worse. Out of 260,000 students in secondary school, we have only 13,000 in the universities, public and private combined. That is 0.4 percent of the appropriate age-cohort. The technical and vocational schools have even less, at 9,000 students.

What these numbers paint is a picture of alarming inequality in Malawi; we have an enormous gap between the rich and the poor. The education sector is both a reflection of this, as well as a catalysing factor of this inequality. Less than half of primary school learners, that is 38 percent, finish primary school. For girls, it is 35 percent. The majority of these are in rural Malawi and among the ranks of the urban poor. The most educated 10 percent of Malawians use 73 percent of the resources available. In the universities, 95 percent of students come from the wealthiest 5 percent of Malawians. Private schools dominate university selection; 80 percent of the university population is from private schools.

It is not surprising why most people in the BBC debate saw Malawi’s growing youth population as a risk. As a country, we have not invested much in the youth. At the debate, the Secretary for Youth was unable to say what the budget for his ministry was. It was both a lighter moment, as well as a serious one. The conclusion most people reached was that the budget for the Ministry of Youth is so small that it would have been an embarrassment to mention it to a global audience.

Now to be fair to the Secretary for Youth, the amount of money and resources allocated to his ministry is not representative on the total amount spent on the youth in the country. There are other amounts spent in other ministries, as well as in other initiatives, that also go to the youth. Ministries such as education, gender, health, trade and industry, and initiatives such as the Malawi Rural Development Fund (MARDEF), the Youth Entrepreneurial Development Fund, allocate money and resources to the youth. As the Secretary told the BBC debate audience, some of the ministry’s funding also goes straight to districts.

As well-meaning as are these efforts and initiatives, the investment in the youth is still very minimal, owing in large part to the small size of our economy. And then there are gargantuan inefficiencies, caused by both capacity problems, as well as politicisation and lopsided prioritisation processes. The net effect of these problems has been a massive loss of self-confidence and paralysing cynicism, understandably so. 

But this is where the youth of Malawi have realised they have to step in. This is where the Youth Consultative Forum is leading the effort to reclaim the youth space. And your work is cut out for you as you strategise on how to “Give Back to Mother Malawi.”

The country needs a different kind of engagement with the youth. The youth of today are different from the youth of the previous generation, yet the mindsets of older Malawians remain unchanged. There is a generation gap manifesting itself in a clash of mindsets. The institutional culture remains stuck in a mindset that treats young people as a tabula rasa, an empty mind that needs filling with adult advice and supervision. Unfortunately, this includes the education system.

Despite curricular changes in the education system aimed at engaging students in a more meaningful and more participatory way, many educators still believe in lecturing to young people and telling them what to do (if I seem to be doing that in this talk, it is for purposes of debate). You can see the results of this disconnect in the system itself. Hardly a week goes by without hearing of students vandalising their own school and disrupting their own learning. In the larger society, the loss of confidence in our institutions has led to an escalation of mob violence and destruction of police stations.

The challenge is for young Malawians to take charge and claim their space in a way that is constructive and forward-thinking. This was reflected in the views expressed at the BBC debate. The most important way of doing is through self-education. And the starting point is familiarisation with current research and policy formulation so as to reclaim your space well-informed and well-prepared.

Your contributions to the problems of unemployment need to be cognisant of the fact that this is one of the biggest global policy issues today. It is therefore important for you to know what the research is saying, both domestically and globally. Your contributions need to focus on how to increase the productivity of the youth. Economists say that the only way for an economy to grow is for more people to be productive. For Malawi, the question is in what ways can young Malawians be economically productive? The answers are not easy, but the type of education available to young people is the key issue.

You have to deal with the national confidence crisis. While it is true that many of us feel hopeless, not everyone is paralysed by the cynicism and hopelessness. There are Malawians, many of them young people, who are doing a lot to make Malawi a better place. It is important to identify these Malawians and celebrate them. This is the best way of inspiring ourselves as a nation and re-injecting national confidence into our society.

You need to engage with the question of what really caused the cashgate crisis, in both its historical context as well as in its current manifestation. And you can not analyse the root causes of cashgate without discussing social and economic inequality, which has reached crisis proportions. If we do not learn lessons from cashgate, and what lies at the root of the problem, we are bound to have more cashgates generation after generation. It does not need to be that way.

You will need to engage in the national discussion on girls’ education, which is now taking centre stage. While the numbers I presented earlier are very bad for most young people, they are worse for girls. And they translate into a bigger gender problem. We are a very sexist society, as is much of the world. Do not jump onto the bandwagon of painting all women with a single brush of paralytic cynicism based on what is said to be the performance of one woman.

Nor should you join those who are making the sweeping statement that in the fifty years we have been independent the country has achieved nothing. That statement is made out of understandable frustration, but if you entertain that thought you are bound to let your sadness about the country’s state of affairs paralyse you into further cynicism and inaction. Paralysis of thought impedes progressive thinking. No doubt the country has not lived up to its potential in the 50 years of independence, but it is you young Malawians who can change that and usher in new thinking and new realities.

Lastly, May 20 is approaching, and there will be a lot of drama. It has been very encouraging to see a lot of young Malawians getting involved in the process. Be mindful of the ever-present danger to get co-opted into orthodox thinking and perpetuating failed practices and beliefs about politics. 

In closing, I would like to thank the YCF executive and secretariat for working very hard to make this annual general meeting a reality. I would also like to thank Action Aid for providing much-needed sponsorship. Special thanks go to all of you who have come today.

I wish you a great time of reflection, strategizing and reclaiming your space.

Thank you very much!

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Sunday, January 19, 2014

What's the matter with Malawian universities?

When a university student performs poorly and is withdrawn, the problem is with the student. But when 132 students perform poorly and are withdrawn, then the problem is no longer with the student alone. The university itself has a problem. When it is two universities, then it is not just the universities that have a problem, it is the broader national educational system.

It is instructive to scrutinise the numbers. The number 132 comes from the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR), out of a first year class of 700. Granted that a few were withdrawn from second and third years, but LUANAR authorities are on record to have said the majority are first year students. That figure, 132, is almost one fifth of the class; 19 per cent, to be precise. From Chancellor College the number withdrawn is said to be 116.

In the 2012-2013 academic year, the group speculated to have yielded the mass weeding, Chancellor College admitted 399 students. This is based on records uploaded on the University of Malawi’s website on 25th September 2012. If these numbers are accurate, 116 out of 399 is 29 per cent. 

A few theories as to how such numbers could be withdrawn in one year have dominated commentary on social media, in newspaper columns, and on the street. The list includes: the results of cheating at MSCE; the quota system, poor preparation in secondary school, capacity problems in the universities in question, and students entering university too young, among others. Both LUANAR and Unima say they have investigated the causes of this massive performance failure, and will be releasing reports. So it is difficult at this point to pin down any single cause.

Will the new Malawi University of Science and Technology 
herald a new approach to higher education?

But some of the reasons thus floated are less likely to be causes of the problem. Cheating at MSCE is less likely a cause of the poor performance because selection into either Unima or LUANAR is not based on MSCE results only; students sit an entrance examination. Selection is based on an aggregate of both the MSCE and the entrance exam. If an exam is the problem, then it is both the university entrance exam and the MSCE.

The quota system is also an unlikely single cause. The majority of students entering Unima and LUANAR these days are coming from elite schools and well-to-do families. Joseph Patel, president of the Independent Schools Association of Malawi (ISAMA) says private schools contribute 80 per cent of students entering Malawian universities every year.

Researchers Stella Kaabwe and Lillian Kamtengeni estimate that 91 per cent of university students in Malawi come from wealthy families. Poor families send less than one per cent. The remaining eight per cent are from somewhere in the middle. The double bar system of two exams means that whoever ends up getting selected has merited their place.

Most of these students will have gone to very good secondary schools. If you are in doubt, next time the university selections are announced just look at the full-page congratulatory advertisements from elite schools listing their students who have been selected. And many of these students will have received specialised university entrance exams coaching. For most students, you have to come from a well-to-do family background to afford an expensive private school, and the exams coaching. 

If cheating at MSCE and the quota system are not plausible explanations, the other suggested causes have a higher likelihood: poor preparation in secondary school, capacity problems in the universities, and students entering university too young. Let’s briefly examine each in turn. Poor preparation in secondary school sounds counter-intuitive, considering that many of the students are said to be coming from elite secondary schools. One lecturer, quoted in a Nyasatimes article, said many students struggle with English, while some students speak perfect English but have very poor writing skills.

This raises the question of what the MSCE and University Entrance Exam measure. Do they measure what a student knows? Or do they measure a student’s reasoning capability and aptitude? Or both? Is it possible for one to be coached perfectly and pass the entrance exam when their aptitude cannot withstand the rigours of higher level reasoning?

Many students these days are learning to speak perfect English without grasping the fundamentals of reading, writing and reasoning in that language, let alone in their mother tongue. The reason for this, as argued by language education researchers, is that learners learn best using a language they are familiar with. Learning in a familiar language facilitates not just learning but reasoning, writing and problem solving.

Our problem in Malawi is not that we are introducing English too early, no. It is that we are abandoning the familiar language too early, before children have developed important faculties such as reasoning, arguing, writing, problem solving and discovering. The best education systems in the world teach their children using a language they are familiar with, and then add a second language such as English for non-English speaking societies.

What Malawian private schools are doing, abandoning local languages very early in a child’s development stages, is going to affect intellectual aptitude in later academic life. The stipulation in the new Education Act to make English the language of instruction from Standard 1 is a big mistake. It has no basis in language education research. It is Malawian children who will pay the price for this mistake in later life. The solution would have been to introduce a multi-lingual policy, with a deliberate provision to strengthen local languages. This needs resources, but it is a worthy national investment decades down the line.

At the secondary level, our secondary schools are going through a troubled period, an extension of poor preparation in early childhood and primary school. Secondary school teachers in government schools report large, overcrowded classrooms. There are very few books such that in some cases ten students have to share one copy. Reading is the foundation for intellectual development. We have students who finish Form Four without finishing a single prescribed literature book.

Another explanation offered thus far has been capacity problems in the university. As Dr. Boniface Dulani of Chancellor College told me in a private conversation, accommodation problems in the universities and in surrounding areas mean that some students reside in conditions that make it difficult for them to concentrate on their education. Some are residing in houses with no electricity or running water, far from campus. Dr. Dulani also bemoans the unpreparedness of those that come too young. At 14 or 15, one is too young for the university, unless one is a certified genius. There are geniuses and child prodigies alright, but it cannot be everyone.

Some classes are very large and are a burden for the lecturers, as Dr. Dulani indicates. Without a system of Teaching Assistants or Graduate Instructors as is the case in US universities, students have no opportunity for extra help. The culture of consultancies also means that attention to individual students has to compete with attention to a lecturer’s other responsibilities and needs.

The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology is quoted as having received reports from the universities on what has happened for such large numbers of students to have performed so miserably. There are a number of questions one hopes the reports have provided answers to: What are the percentages of students withdrawn from particular years? What is the ratio of male to female students withdrawn? What is the proportion of those on the parallel system to those on residential? What disciplines have been most affected?

We will also need to know what support services are available to students, from their lecturers and from their respective administrations. How many of these students came from private schools? How many from government schools? How about community day secondary schools? How many received coaching for the entrance examinations?

Only a holistic analysis can provide answers to these and other questions. This is more than about the students alone. It is about the entire education system and its recent history.

Note: A shorter version of this article was published in The Malawi News of 14th December 2013 under a different title.

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Saturday, January 11, 2014

Where is the 'holy anger' over cashgate?

A wide section of the Malawian punditry has been arguing that there has not been enough anger expressed over cashgate. Some are going as far as suggesting that there has not been any anger at all. I sympathise with the argument. However I wish these pundits could take the lead and demonstrate exactly how they would like Malawians to express their anger over the scandal. It is very possible that they have specific ideas about how we ought to express the anger.

My own view has been that there has been enough anger expressed by those who have followed the scandal closely. But these are only a small fraction of the Malawian populace. These are Malawians who have regular access to the Internet and are on Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp and Nyasanet. They read Nyasatimes and the other numerous online sources. These are Malawians who have access to the daily newspapers, listen to the radio regularly, and watch TV. In other words, these are Malawians with the means: a formal job, successful entrepreneurs, urban-based, educated up to secondary level and beyond.
Urban Malawi 
The statistics tell us that the above-described Malawians are a minority, no more than 10 per cent of the population at most. And that’s being on the generous side because even for urban dwellers, a huge majority of them earn far too little to be able to afford the daily paper, a TV, and Internet access. Confounding this picture is the exclusive use of English as the dominant language of the daily newspapers, business, parliamentary deliberations and communication, higher education and research, and social media. This is made even more dire by our extreme donor dependency.

Out of a population of about 15 million people, the highest print run for our newspapers does not go beyond 50,000, and we are talking of the weekend papers, the most widely read. Even when you factor in the mukawerenga-mupatse-ena effect where several people read the newspaper in a household, a workplace or an entertainment joint, the number of Malawians who have access to newspapers on a regular basis hardly goes beyond a quarter of a million people.

The radios reach far more people, and use far more Chichewa and other local languages than the newspapers. However MACRA’s attempts to quantify the figures go only as far as percentages of listeners per radio station without giving actual numbers for each station. According to the most recent available data from Internet World Stats, only 4.4 percent of Malawians (whose total population they estimated to be 16 million in 2012) have access to the Internet; the actual number being 716,400 as of 2010.

For Facebook, the number is much less, about 204,000, or 1.2 per cent of the population. The figures are clearly out-dated, but there has not been a major economic or technological transformation enough to bring about drastic changes. The business of numbers of ICT users is an area where MACRA’s initiative is conspicuously lacking.

The picture being presented by the estimates above points to a nation with inadequate information and intellectual infrastructure to muster nation-wide interest in national issues. The ‘holy’ anger summoned by Malawian civil society over cashgate has thus far been restricted to what is known as ‘clicktivism’; Internet activism by the mere click of a computer mouse. The few activists who have managed to galvanise action have only managed to reach the tiny population of newspaper reading, English-speaking and Internet-accessing urban-dwellers.

Even the term ‘cashgate’ is an English term; there has been no attempt to come up with a succinct, evocative local language term to capture the essence of the scandal. With the exception of the Catholic bishops’ pastoral letter and position on cashgate (which they later undermined with their response to the Peter Chinoko saga), there has been no attempt to provide a comprehensive local language explanation of what happened and what the effect of the scandal has been for the ordinary people. The hearings the Public Accounts Committee of parliament held recently were exclusively in English.

All these factors make it impossible to create a critical mass of outrage and ‘holy’ anger enough to make cashgate a turning point for Malawi. I am personally complicit in this failure; there is nothing I have written in a local language over the issue. Although I have a Chichewa name for my blog, I blog exclusively in English.  And I am writing this opinion piece in English.

The failure to generate a critical mass of national interest goes far beyond cashgate. It pervades the entire development edifice of the nation. Malawians are having very different conversations between urban and rural spaces. President Joyce Banda knows this, as did her predecessors and all politicians. They benefit from it, and therefore do everything in their power to perpetuate it. Unless this changes, it is difficult to imagine a significant transformation happening in Malawian politics and development anytime soon.

Rural Malawi
There are precedents of past mass movements to learn from. The independence struggle being one of them, and the transition to multiparty being another. It behooves the punditry, including myself, to go beyond the rhetoric and point to actionable methods of bringing this discussion to as many Malawians as possible.

To paraphrase the late Chinua Achebe some four decades ago, we have been given the English language, and we are going to use it. We cannot suddenly stop using English. But we need to invest more in multi-lingualism. We need to develop a greater capacity and expertise for translation between English and the local languages. This should be a two-way process. There is a lot of knowledge being created in local languages which remains unrecognised and unutilised because of our retrogressive language policies.

There are a few attempts at harnessing this new knowledge developed in local languages, through local language publications such as Fuko by Nation Publications Ltd, and Mkwaso, from Montfort Media. Some radio and TV programmes are also contributing to this new knowledge, but the effort is far less than the resources poured into maintaining the dominance of the English language.

For changes to happen, we must begin with our daily newspapers, parliament, higher education, research and publications, and social media. Only then can we begin to hope to bridge the chasms between the Malawi of the urban people and the Malawi of the rest; the Malawi of the rich and that of the poor.

Note: A version of this article appears on the opinion page of The Malawi News of Saturday 11th January, 2014.

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