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.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Malawi at Fifty One: The Education Legacies of Malawi's Presidents Hitherto

It is a noteworthy paradox that while the seventy years Malawi was under colonial rule from 1894 to 1964 there was no university, within nine months of independence, Malawi had one (Cuthbert Kachale, 2015). In ensuring that Malawi got a university just months after independence, the founding president of the country, Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda made clear the pioneering role that higher education was going to play in the development of the country.

However the advances our higher education system has accomplished have not been optimally used to improve the overall education system and classroom practices. I argue in the ensuing discussion, as we mark fifty one years of independence, that the failure to use the higher education system to improve the quality of teaching and the teaching profession has cost the country in development terms. 

When schooling is fun
The road to independence was tortuous and meandering. The first Malawians to become cabinet ministers were sworn in four years before independence. That year, 1961, Malawi’s population was 4 million people, according to the late Kanyama Chiume (1982), in his eponymous autobiography. In that year, the country had 30 university graduates, 7,100 Standard 8 candidates, and 500 secondary school spaces. As the first Minister of Education, Chiume knew that enrollment needed to rapidly increase at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels of the education system. He devoted the short time he spent as Minister of Education to pursuing that goal.

The efforts paid off. As independence came and Malawi poised herself to enter the decade of the seventies, enrollment at the primary level was expanding exponentially. According to Harvey Sindima (2002), by 1970 Malawi’s primary school enrollment had shot to 333,102, while that of secondary schools has increased to 9,686. A total of 977 Malawians were attending the University of Malawi. For the next two decades, the numbers kept doubling, as did the national population.

By 1990 Malawi had 1,325,453 primary school students, 16,432 secondary school students, and 1,620 university students. Expansion at the primary level did not correspond with expansion at secondary and tertiary level, leading to the lowest higher education enrollment rates in the world fifty years later (Government of Malawi, 2014). But Kamuzu’s penchant for prestige was best personified in the magnificent Kamuzu Academy, founded in 1981. An elite secondary school, it has educated a significant number of Malawians providing leadership in the public and private sectors, and internationally.

During Kamuzu Banda's reign, civil servants, including teachers, were posted to any part of the country, according to need. It did not matter where one came from. In 1989, Kamuzu Banda announced at a political rally that some teachers teaching away from their districts of origin were not dedicating themselves fully. He decreed that with immediate effect, teachers who were teaching away from their home districts should relocate to their home districts.

Most districts in the country were affected by this decree, as some lost huge numbers of teachers. Some have argued that teachers from the northern region of Malawi were the most affected. Thousands of them had been teaching in the central and southern regions, and were forced to return to the northern region. But there were also schools in the northern region which lost teachers as well. Some believe that the quality of education was drastically affected by this decree. In the absence of a substantive, detailed analysis, the jury is still out as regards the merits and demerits of the decree.

In terms of keeping pace with the population and providing quality education to as many Malawians as possible, doubling enrolment rates over the decades was insufficient. There was need for much more rapid rates of increase. That was left to Dr. Bakili Muluzi, the man who succeeded Dr. Kamuzu Banda to become Malawi’s second president. Muluzi pledged universal primary education, which entailed removing school fees from primary education and making it free. It became his first major education reform as soon as he was sworn in as president in 1994. The number of primary school learners went up from the 1.9 million it had reached in 1993, to 3.2 million in 1994. The Muluzi government recruited 20,000 new teachers that same year to become student teachers, teaching during the school year, and undergoing training in college during the holidays.

It was during Muluzi’s presidency that teacher development centres (TDCs) were introduced, numbering 315 across the country. The school inspection system was transformed from district-based inspectors to zone-based advisers, also numbering 315 to match the number of TDCs. Regional education offices (REO) were turned into education division offices, led by Education Division Managers (EDMs). The number went from three regional offices to six divisional offices.

A very ambitious plan to expand access to secondary school education envisioned the construction of 250 community day secondary schools. This would have increased the primary to secondary school transition rate from the erstwhile 11 percent, to 70 percent, according to Roy Hauya (1996). The country was able to establish new community day secondary schools, but not numbering the promised 250. In higher education, Muluzi’s administration gave Malawi its second university. What was Mzuzu Teachers’ Training College was converted into Mzuzu University, and became operational in 1999.

By the time Muluzi left office and was succeeded by Dr. Bingu wa Mutharika in 2004, the education system had come to be characterised by failures resulting from the shock of UPE. Class sizes had ballooned into hundreds, particularly for lower primary, and teacher morale was very low. Teaching and learning materials became scarce, and physical structures were in a state of disrepair. Bingu wa Mutharika sought to stabilise the system by pledging to adequately fund the sector at all levels from primary to tertiary. In his first term, from 2004 to 2009, the system experienced relative stability.

Mutharika had big plans for higher education. Talk of a new university started in his first term, and in his second term construction of the Malawi University of Science and Technology started. The university had initially been intended for Lilongwe, the capital city, but Bingu decided to move it to his home district in Thyolo, on land he said he had donated for that purpose.  By the time Bingu died in April 2012, the university was still under construction. It would be completed and opened during the presidency of his successor, Dr. Joyce Banda, becoming Malawi's fourth public university.

During Bingu's presidency, Bunda College of Agriculture, a constituent college of the University of Malawi, became an independent university. That brought the number of public universities in the country to three. Private universities, which were almost non-existence during Kamuzu's time, began thriving during Bingu's presidency. The government also moved to start regulating the higher education system, and the National Council for Higher Education was formed, becoming operational during Joyce Banda's rule. 

The two years Joyce Banda was president of Malawi were not enough for her to leave large visible footprints on the system. However it was while she was president that the country witnessed an unprecedented emphasis on girls’ education, an idea she championed both in public and in private. Towards the end of her tenure the Ministry of Education, Science and technology launched the National Girls Education Strategy and the Girls’ Communication Strategy. It was a befitting moment for Joyce Banda’s efforts to highlight the importance of keeping girls’ in school and reversing the troubling trend of so many girls dropping out due to early marriages.

There was a visible attempt during Joyce Banda’s presidency to bring teachers’ welfare to the fore. This was seen by some as an attempt to placate teachers after Dr Banda had made remarks that teachers had construed as demeaning of them. On two occasions she had alluded to how cattle farmers made more than teachers, betraying a lurking contempt.

The effort to address issues of teachers’ welfare came toward the end of her presidency. Joyce Banda’s last Minister of Education, Dr. Lucious Kanyumba, toured the whole country and met teachers. He spoke about what the ministry was doing to end chronic problems of late salaries and low teacher morale. Teachers told him of their problems. Coming during the high campaign season, with weeks to go before the election, many teachers saw it as a campaign ploy.

When Professor Peter Mutharika took over from Dr. Joyce Banda in May 2014, he picked up from where he had stopped during his older brother’s presidency. As Minister of Education in the late Bingu wa Mutharika’s presidency, Peter Mutharika first introduced the idea of community colleges in 2010. As soon as he was sworn in, he set about accomplishing that task. Midway through 2015, some community colleges have already started operating. President Mutharika has already embarked upon a project to construct another new university, in Mzimba district.

However at the primary and secondary school levels, the problem of teacher morale, the most significant of the problems afflicting Malawi’s education system, is getting worse. Today, anger amongst Malawian teachers has become so pervasive it severely corrodes the education system. In the first of 2015, salary delays took a turn for the worse. Leave grants and rural hardship allowances went unpaid for several months and many teachers in many districts stopped teaching. With communication from the ministry not forthcoming, teachers resorted to asking fellow teachers on facebook groups for updates. It is frightening to imagine how these angry, bitter, frustrated and demoralised teachers are treating children under their care.

Despite the difficulties, there are many teachers who continue dedicating themselves. There are teachers who are unleashing their creative energies in their classrooms and schools, inspiring children. There are teachers who are so hungry for more education and professional development they are going out of their way to find opportunities. There are Malawian teachers using the power of the Internet to connect with other teachers in Malawi and around the world. Most of them remain unrecognised and unrewarded, but they continue, undaunted, aiming at a higher prize: national development.

Can Malawi afford to make teaching a high-prized, coveted profession?

The first fifty years of Malawi’s existence as an independent nation have had their highs and their lows. When few Malawians had access to education, the quality was commendable. When more Malawians were afforded the opportunity to go to school, quality plummeted. Quality and quantity need not be mutually exclusive. The starting point for improving quality while expanding access needs to be the quality and welfare of teachers. As we turn fifty one years old, this needs to be top of our educational agenda.

What we have learned from the best educational systems on the planet is that investment in teachers is the most important factor for national development. When the teaching profession is highly prized, prestigious, and rewarding, it can propel a country to greater heights. The creative possibilities from committed and motivated teachers are endless. They become a catalyst for development in many sectors. Malawi still awaits a president who will have a profound understanding of how an empowered and highly educated cadre of teachers, particularly at primary and secondary level, as well as at tertiary, can transform the nation. Will Professor Peter Mutharika be that president?

Note: A version of this article appeared in the April-May issue of The Business Journal (Malawi), published by The Student Media Group. I would like to thank Mike Chipalasa and Cuthbert Kachale for feedback that has resulted in updates to the article.

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Towards Agenda 2063: Pan-Africanist Education and the African Renaissance

The drama of the ICC’s determination to arrest Sudan’s president Omar Al Bashir played itself out exactly three weeks after the commemoration of this year’s Africa Day. That fact epitomises the thorny, rocky road Africa’s renewal will have to go through. Six weeks later, I am still basking in the after-glow of this year’s Africa Day commemorations, which was my first time to actually actively participate.

On May 25th I attended an Africa Day Expo at the Kara Heritage Research Institute, in Tshwane, South Africa, where African pride and determination were in full display. In the evening, I attended the 6th Annual Thabo Mbeki Africa Day lecture at the University of South Africa (Unisa), delivered by Nobel Peace Laureate and former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei.

Young Africans performing at the Africa Day Expo, 25th May 2015,
Kara Heritage Institute, Tshwane, South Africa

The day was observed and commemorated in several African countries. In South Africa, several cities and towns put on celebrations. The day set alight social media and the hashtag #AfricaDay2015 was trending in the African twitter-sphere. Across the continent, several conferences preceded the day, focusing on all things Pan-African. The watch words, in many of those conferences and commemorations, were Pan-Africanism, the African Renaissance, and Agenda 2063.

Taken together, these three ideas represent the conceptual landmarks guiding the path to the future Africa we want. I attempt to share, in this article, my reflections on what lies ahead in the gargantuan endeavour to shape an educational agenda for the kind of future that Africans are currently working on. This year’s Africa Day commemorations, and the conferences held in the lead up to 25th May, provide much of the impetus for my reflections.

One such conference was the 5th African Unity for Renaissance (AUFR), held on two campuses of the University of Johannesburg (UJ), Kingsway and Soweto, in South Africa. The conference’s theme was “2015 and Beyond: Engaging Agenda 2063”. I went to the conference looking to network with fellow educators on bringing the three concepts of Pan-Africanism, the African Renaissance and Agenda 2063 into classrooms in the Pan-African world. That means on the continent and in the diaspora.

I came back from the conference, and the Africa Day celebrations, with a zest and determination to play a role in making Agenda 2063 successful. Africa’s future is too important to be left to the African Union alone. The AU has ostensibly engaged high gear in taking on the enormous challenges the continent faces, but much more work needs to be done for ordinary Africans to own the process of Africa’s renewal and work side by side with the Pan-African body. For this to happen, it means every African has to decide what they are best able to contribute, and identify others with similar convictions. The bottom line is that the renewal of Africa, as expressed and articulated in the African Union’s Agenda 2063, must be driven by the people.

The opening night of the 5th AUFR provided a catchphrase that remained on the lips of everyone for the rest of the conference. Dr Elizabeth Rasekoala, founder and co-chair of the Pan-African Solidarity Education Network, argued that calling the new African Union’s vision “Agenda 2063 sounded as if the continent would have to wait until that date. That was too far away. “We need Agenda Now Now!” she declared, to loud applause from the audience. To be clear, Dr. Rasekoala was not dismissing the idea of a 50-year plan. She was just stressing the urgent need to get started with the agenda and use every single day to work toward it. The AU itself is not waiting until 2063.

Although it was Al Bashir who dominated the news at the 25th African Union Heads of State summit in Sandton, Johannesburg, South Africa, the actual agenda of the summit was women’s empowerment. The AU has designated 2015 as the “Year of Women’s Empowerment and Development Towards Africa’s Agenda 2063.” A significant part of the summit was expected to get started with developing the first ten-year agenda toward 2063, and placing women’s empowerment as a pillar for the agenda.

The role of women as being at the heart of Africa’s renewal is what Dr. Rasekoala says is the single most important thing for the continent. She confirmed this in the opening plenary session of the 5th AUFR. As the session was drawing to a close, director of ceremonies for much of the conference, Professor Chris Landsberg, UJ’s SARCHi Chair in African Diplomacy and Foreign Policy, had one question for all the three speakers on the plenary. “Is there one thing you think the AU needs to do as the single most important thing for the continent?”

In addition to Dr. Rasekoala, an engineer, the other two speakers were Professor Mammo Muchie, SARCHi Chair in Innovation and Development at Tshwane University of Technology (TUT); and Professor Adebayo Olukoshi, Director of the United Nations African Institute for Economic Development and Planning in Senegal.

Dr. Rasekoala did not hesitate to mention gender as the single most important thing. She said it was of pivotal importance to enhance women’s participation at the highest levels of public service, politics and business. For Professor Muchie, the most important thing was to stop the negative narrative about the continent. He said it was time to start focusing on the historical greatness of the continent, on what is working today, and on the Africa we want for the future. For Professor Olukoshi, it was to “open the borders. Let Africans move freely.” He added that he had been consistent on this for a long time.

The call to open up African borders seems to be growing in intensity. Speaking to South African youth on Tuesday 16th June, which is celebrated as Youth Day in South Africa, President Jacob Zuma singled out the borders issue as one of the major things discussed at the 25th AU Heads of State Summit. He tied the idea to the importance of South African youth learning about the rest of the continent and being proud of their African heritage. Following the continental outrage in the wake of the Afro-xenophobic attacks in South Africa in April, the country seems to be galvanising a new resolve and reconsidering its place and influence on the continent.

This was evident at the 5th AUFR conference as well. In his welcoming remarks, UJ’s Deputy Vice Chancellor Professor Tshilidzi Marwala evoked Pan-Africanism’s ancestry when he spoke of the importance of teaching young Africans what Kwame Nkrumah used to say that Africa was one people and one nation. That meant, said Professor Marwala, no African was a foreigner on African soil. And those sentiments were repeated by South Africa’s Minister of Home Affairs, Malusi Gigaba, who gave the conference’s opening keynote address. In a wide-ranging and frank accounting of the complexities of South Africa’s place on the continent, Hon. Gigaba said South Africans needed to respect all immigrants, including those in the country illegally.

Although xenophobia has openly manifested itself in South Africa, anti-foreigner sentiments are evident not only across the continent, but across the globe. The onus falls on every African country to deal with this problem and promote an African identity before a national one, as Professor Mammo repeatedly pointed out. Much of this work lies in school curricula and classroom pedagogy. It means teaching a different type of African history, one that digs deep into the contexts that have created the kind of Africa we have today. 

This is what was on the mind of Professor Adebayo Olukoshi on the opening night of the 5th AUFR. Professor Olukoshi situated his remarks in the opening plenary in Walter Rodney’s pioneering work, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Olukoshi argued that Rodney had provided empirical proof that before the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, Africa’s socio-economic status was at par with the rest of the world.

Not only did the slave trade depopulate the continent and set its economic progress back, it also robbed Africans of their dignity and self-worth. Africa was the only continent, observed Professor Olukoshi, where the world felt it had a God-given right to demand a seat at the table and dictate to Africans how to solve their problems. The argument being that Pan-Africanism is too important to be left to the Africans alone. And the ironies of Africa’s situation today are startling. In one perplexing anecdote, Professor Olukoshi noted how African leaders go to Europe and America for medical treatment, only to find that the doctor attending to them is a citizen of their own country.

What all this means is that knowing where Africa is today and the history that made the present is an inescapable part of the charge to chart the continent’s future. “We must begin with the children,” said Professor Mammo Muchie. But beginning with the children means changing the way the African Union’s Pan-African University idea is being implemented, an argument made by Professor David Horne, Chair of Africana Studies at California State University at Northridge in the USA. The focus needs to start with African children from their earliest education and be sustained all the way up to university education.

And young Africans must not be shielded from this history, a lesson shared on the second day of the conference, by Professor Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni. He is Executive Director of the Archie Mafeje Research Institute at the University of South Africa. Professor Ndlovu-Gatsheni was responding to a question as to whether this type of African history does not entrench an inferiority complex and prevent young Africans from actively participating in global discussions. Knowing who you are and being grounded in your history is what builds a foundation for the future, said Professor Ndlovu-Gatsheni. He added that he grew up in an African village, but he does not feel inferior.

For educators, the issue of what type of African history to teach is of central importance. Scholars such as Paul Tiyambe Zeleza and Pitika Ntuli have argued over the years that the history taught in African schools does not reflect the scholarship generated by African historians. The thrust of the curriculum remains Eurocentric, this in spite of the available knowledge of Africa’s history going back several millennia.

A compelling example of the kind of African history that is not reflected in the curriculum came from Dr. Diran Soumonni. A senior lecturer from the Wits Business School, Dr. Soumonni presented on Africa’s history and philosophy of science and technology, digging deep into Africa’s intellectual past, going to 4,000 years BC to when the Egyptians are known to have used a 30-day calendar. Dr Soumonni’s research demonstrates the feasibility of developing an education agenda at the heart of Africa’s renewal. 

Which brings me to what I see as the most urgent steps that those of us working in education, and those interested in the future of the continent broadly, must provide direction with.
A survey conducted by Jean Chawapiwa, Founder and Managing Director of Win Win Solutions 4 Africa consultancy firm, and presented at the conference, found that very few people have heard about Agenda 2063. Out of 327 respondents across the continent and beyond, 63 percent had never heard about Agenda 2063. Chawapiwa’s suggestions for how the AU can spread the word about the initiative need serious consideration.

Reaching out to as many Africans as possible will enable ownership of the agenda by ordinary Africans. It will enable grassroots participation, and will address the deeply felt grievance that the African Union is a dictators’ club out of touch with the needs of African people. It should be emphasised that there can be no grassroots ownership and participation if there is no translation of Agenda 2063 into local African languages.  The respondents in Chawapiwa’s survey made this clear.
African intellectuals have been unequivocal about this. 

Ngugi wa Thiong’o has spent more than three decades making this argument. Ngugi has said “African intellectuals must do for their languages and cultures what all other intellectuals in history have done for theirs. This is still the challenge of our history. Let’s take up the challenge.” The educational implications of such an ambitious agenda are, no doubt, enormous. It requires educators, teacher educators in particular, to participate at every stage. And this is why I argue that Agenda 2063 is too important to be left to the African Union alone, the one occasion when it is legitimate to say this. It is also why I suggest that African educators need to consider making Agenda 2063 required reading in their courses.

Al Bashir is not the only hot coal gnawing away at the AU’s cauldron. The very concepts of Pan-Africanism, the African Renaissance and African Unity arouse intense debate amongst Africans and Africa watchers. There are multi-layered historical and contemporary grievances, internal and external. There are intricate webs of elitism, exclusion, collusion with Western capital and global influence, deep inequalities, and simmering injustices. It requires a spirit of hope, optimism and determination to see the problems as surmountable rather than intractable and impossible. Education is a good place to start.


Governments on the continent and in the African diaspora need to adopt Agenda 2063 into their national plans, as the African Union has already pointed out. In addition to the agenda, contemporary Pan-Africanism and the African renaissance need to be integrated into national educational policies, and into school curricula and classroom pedagogy from primary to university. 

The three concepts also need to become part of teacher education programmes for new teachers, and continuous professional development programmes for practising teachers. The AU needs a unit specifically dedicated to education. If there are deans of schools or faculties of education on the continent or in the diaspora, who feel a passionate sense of urgency about this, there begins Agenda Now Now. 

Note: A version of this article first appeared in Pambazuka News on 19th June, 2015

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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

In the Valley, a Genius Rests: Remembering Raphael Kinn L Tenthani

Today, Tuesday 19th May 2015, Raphael Tenthani was supposed to be landing at the Sir Seretse Khama International Airport, here in Gaborone, Botswana. He was coming to attend a stakeholders meeting of the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), which is going to run from tomorrow 20th to 21st May at the Gaborone Sun Hotel. I was going to welcome Ralph at the airport, and he was going to bring me the latest Malawian newspapers and the current issue of my favourite Malawian magazine, The Lamp.

Tenthani interviewing John Tembo. Pic: Tenthani's Facebook Page

He is not coming. He was laid to rest yesterday, and is now peacefully resting in the bosom of Bwanje Valley in Ntcheu. That expansive valley is also my ancestral home, something I shared with him. My last whatsapp message to him was on Saturday 16th May, at 19:32hrs. I was asking him to confirm his itinerary and to assure me everything was in place for his coming. The single grey tick in my whatsapp means he never saw the message. Will never see it. He had probably just started off from his village at that moment, returning to Blantyre. And unbeknownst to himself, nor to us all, he was just a little more than an hour away from the catastrophe that would end his illustrious and extraordinary life, at around 9pm on Saturday.

It was all a malevolent type of de javu from an earlier false alarm. I remember calling Ralph’s younger brother Kizito in December 2011 when a car accident he had had then led to rumours that he had died. Kizito reassured me that he was not dead, but he was badly injured. On Saturday night 16th May 2015, there was no reassurance from Kizito. It was not even a rumour. The Malawian social media machine went into overdrive, and eye witnesses were confirming the dreadful news on Facebook, email forums and whatsapp, in real time.

Ralph and I became friends in our late teens. Some six months older than him, I finished school earlier and went on to Lilongwe Teachers’ College to attend a teacher training programme, then called MASTEP – Malawi Special Teacher Education Programme. We taught during the year, and went to college during the holidays. One month-end afternoon in 1990 or thereabouts I arrived at Ntcheu Boma to collect my salary. Ralph heard the news and sent word through our mutual friend Albert Kalimbakatha, the poet. I should not return to Chikande without visiting him, said the message. Visit him I did, and found that he had pleasantly arranged an impromptu meeting of the Ntcheu Secondary School Writers’ Workshop. There were quite a few eager students at that meeting.

Barely a year out of secondary school myself (I went to Nankhunda Seminary and later Police Secondary School, both in Zomba), I had managed to get myself published in a number of newspapers, and broadcast on radio. I had won an honorable mention in a Florida State University (USA) short ‘short story’ writing competition. A newly-launched Malawian literary magazine, WASI, had published the story. Ralph wanted me to talk about my writing, how I got started, what I was working on, what good writing looked like, and so on. We had a lively discussion that went on late into the night.

At that time Ralph himself had already completed a draft of a novel. His English teacher, a VSO volunteer, had it nicely typed and photocopied. Ralph gave me a copy which I took home and read. You could not believe it had been written by someone still in their teens. The English was not only superb, it was impeccable. He had an incredible talent for painting a scene you thought you were seeing live action. He was hoping to get it published in the then Macmillan Pacesetter series. It was what every one of us was reading at the time.  

Our interests went beyond the literary. We both loved listening to music charts on the BBC World Service. We never missed The Vintage Chart show, John Peel, and such other programmes. In 1993 the BBC World Service ran a contest and was awarding new releases as prizes. I won a new release of Paul McCartney’s album, Off the Wall. CDs were just coming into fashion, but I only owned the good old cassette player. I opted for a cassette tape.

My name was announced as one of five winners, with other winners coming from such far-away places as Malaysia, Argentina and Israel, I think. In Malawi the programme came on very late into the night. Everyone in my village in Mayera was asleep. I doubted there was a soul on the planet who knew me, who heard my name announced. Well, Ralph did. He astounded me with congratulations the next time we met. This was way before mobile phones or email.

It was no surprise then that after Ntcheu Secondary School, he did not struggle to find a job with a newspaper. As Peter Jegwa has movingly described the man and the era, Malawi was beginning to undergo transformative political change. The Catholic Bishops released their epochal pastoral letter on 8th March 1992, and Chakufwa Chihana made his triumphant return to Malawi. He would get arrested just after disembarking from the plane at Kamuzu International Airport on 6th April 1992. Ralph sharpened his pen on the politics of the time and became a first rate journalist in addition to being a first rate creative writer. In 1994 we formed the Malawi Writers Union, and Ralph was a founding member. I was founding treasurer, and later became president after Edison Mpina’s (RIP) sudden resignation in 1996.

In 1995 my children’s book Fleeing the War won first prize in the British-Malawi Partnership Scheme, locally known as the British Council Write a Story competition. It was launched in 1996. Both at the prize-giving ceremony and the book launch, Ralph was present and covered the events. When I gave my acceptance speech, I alluded to something about freedom of expression that was not there during the one-party era. When that statement appeared in The Nation newspaper, I became very apprehensive. The Malawi Congress Party was no longer in power, but the less courageous among us were still cagey with what we said about the regime. I called Ralph and told him I was uncomfortable with how the statement had come out. I asked if The Nation could issue a correction. They did.

In later years, I came to regret my fear and to admire Ralph’s courage. While my journalistic escapades were limited to the sports page in The Daily Times and the book review page in The Nation, Ralph was on the front page. When the late Poulton Mtenje called and invited me to meet him at Blantyre Newspapers Limited one evening, Ralph told me I was probably being offered a newsroom job. The intensity of the politics was too strong for me and I decided I was happier editing primary school textbooks at the Malawi Institute of Education, and writing fiction, poetry and plays. And contributing to the sports and literary pages.

Ralph’s decision to quit the newsroom and stand on his own did not come easy. Having been transferred back and forth between Blantyre and Lilongwe, he was reluctant to be transferred yet again. He toyed with the idea of quitting a full time newsroom job and becoming a stringer. I thought he was crazy. True to his character of making bold decisions and not looking back, he took the plunge. He soared to even greater heights, as he was now a correspondent for the BBC, The Associated Press and the Pan-African News Agency. He took on lots of big projects with global media icons such as Brian Williams and Lawrence O'Donnell. And he travelled the world. It became his classroom.

Back on home soil, he ruffled feathers. Political partisans hated him when their parties and their leadership found themselves thoroughly muckraked. He was muckraking even before he launched his famous Sunday Times column Muckraking on Sunday. Aside from his much publicised arrest on 15th March 2005, together with Mabvuto Banda, there were other run-ins with the authorities that he chose not to talk about, expect to his closest friends. Some months after that arrest in March 2005, Ralph got a call from the New State House in Lilongwe. The erstwhile president, Dr. Bingu wa Mutharika, wanted to see him.

The earlier arrest had come and gone and the issue had been buried. Why did Bingu want to see Ralph again? He alerted a few close friends and asked us not to publicise the issue. He boarded a coach and arrived in Lilongwe. He was driven to State House, and was taken to a waiting room. Unsure what was going to happen to him, we had come up with a plan should there be the slightest indication that some trouble had befallen him. We had gathered direct contacts of individuals and organisations, both at home and abroad, who would be informed instantly.

Thanks to mobile phone technology, Ralph was able to update us every few moments. He was anxious, but he was not daunted. He waited for hours, as we monitored from our computer screens. The afternoon went and evening came. He was finally told that Bingu was too busy for that day, he would see him another day. We breathed a huge sigh of relief.

But the irony of it all was not lost on us. On several occasions I argued and disagreed with Ralph on what I thought was an imperative for African thinkers to defend African leaders from unfair criticism, particularly from the West. Often, the African leaders themselves undermine this very imperative by attacking their own citizens who disagree with them, leaving them no option but to seek protection from the very West itself. Years later, I began to see things from Ralph’s perspective. Although it mattered what the West said about African leaders, criticism from African citizens was meant to spur change in Africa. It was well meaning, and did not depend on what Westerners thought to legitimise it.

Later Ralph’s relationship with Bingu warmed up remarkably, but it did not cloud his judgment. Bingu would call Ralph once in a while to chat with him about his column. One year Bingu invited Ralph to join him on a trip to France. That still did not affect his judgment, leading Bingu to comment one day that the Sunday Times had a column specifically aimed at him.

The last two years of Bingu’s rule were filled with political tensions across the country. People deemed critics of his presidency were receiving threats. There were mysterious fires, some targeting markets, others targeting houses and offices. The then University of Malawi Polytechnic final year student Robert Chasowa was murdered. Ralph’s house was broken into and some effects were stolen. He did not think it was politically motivated, and did not want to discuss the matter further. That was enough to have silenced an ordinary critic, but Ralph did not see himself as a critic for criticism’s sake. He was a patriot. His love was for Malawi first. Everything else came second.

There is a coincidence worth noting that played itself out in Ralph’s last days. Exactly ten years to the day of his arrest on 15th March 2005, Ralph got an anonymous phone call. This was on 15th March this year. “You are stretching freedom of expression too far,” he was told. He did not recognise the voice. And he did not want this shared with anyone. The introvert that he was, as Peter Jegwa has described him, he never wanted to draw attention to himself. But it did not deter him from still adding a joke. “If you hear I’m writing graffiti on some prison wall like the other guy, don’t be too surprised! Hah! Hah!” he messaged me on whatsapp. I told him I would send a tweet, but I would not mention names. He was fine with that. He hoped the issue would die on its own. Apparently, it did.

When Nyasatimes approached a group of us in December 2014 and asked us to nominate Person of the Year for 2014, and to explain why, this is what I wrote about Ralph:

For speaking truth to power. Tenthani is widely recognised as the most important Malawian journalist and columnist writing today. He is a walking barometer of the Malawian political mood. He analyses Malawi’s political leadership with an even-handedness that is as clear as it is penetrating. He is very cool headed, which makes his writing uniquely persuasive. He accepts and appreciates criticism and responds in a calm-headed way, never losing his temper or looking down upon his detractors. He is a walking encyclopaedia of contemporary Malawian political history, remembering facts that are easily forgotten by the public but that have a poignant relevance to day to day life in Malawi’s politics. Presidents have come and presidents have gone, but his talented pen and keen eye for piercing language have always provided level-headed reflections and analyses that speak for millions of Malawians.
His journalism made Ralph a global Malawian, and his death has reverberated around the world. As of a few hours ago Google was returning 50,800 hits on his name, and still growing. There are articles announcing his death in different parts of the world, in languages too many to count. I had hoped to see him again today and for the next two days, but pictures of his stately casket, and of the brown freshly dug earth, tell a different story. A story of a genius resting blissfully in the depths of Bwanje Valley.





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Saturday, December 27, 2014

A new national consciousness: Agenda for the next 50 years

We are winding down a year that marked two key milestones in our nation’s autobiography. We marked fifty years of independence, and we also marked twenty years of multiparty democracy and the end of one-party dictatorship. As we embark on another fifty years of national independence and another twenty of multiparty democracy, I want to ask a question: Do we as Malawians have a sense of national consciousness? A sense of Malawi being bigger and more important than our individual selves and interests?

Having a national consciousness is about putting one’s country above one’s personal, clan, ethnic, class, political and other self-serving interests. A national consciousness gives one hope in something greater than oneself. It grounds one’s optimism and protects a society from hopelessness, pessimism and paralysing negativity. But national consciousness does not originate itself. It has to be cultivated and nourished. And it has to be taught to the younger generation so they can nurture it further and carry it into the future.


The national heroes who fought for independence fifty years ago had a national consciousness that they held above personal and other narrow interests. They sacrificed their lives because they believed in something that was greater than them. They espoused a national, indeed Pan-African, cause for which they were prepared to die. And many indeed died. Kanyama Chiume, Henry Masauko Chipembere and others wrote autobiographies and other accounts that have taught us what sacrifices they made and what it took to achieve independence and nationhood. Their lessons still resonate today, if not more so.

So did the heroes who fought for multiparty democracy twenty years ago. They knew how dangerous it was to contradict the then Life President, Ngwazi Dr. H. Kamuzu Banda, and the almighty Malawi Congress Party. Some had been killed before, and others had been imprisoned indefinitely. Others had left the comfort of home and had gone into exile. Others simply disappeared and were never heard from again. Yet these heroes bravely espoused a national cause to liberate the country from one-party tyranny. Today, all that is being gradually eroded. That history is being methodically sanitised and purposefully forgotten. 

Something seems to have happened to our national consciousness. As Taweni Gondwe Xaba once observed in an online conversation, today Malawians have a very low sense of “national allegiance.” Personal, ethnic, class and political interests have taken over what was once an allegiance to the nation. When a society loses its sense of national consciousness, national amnesia, blind frustration and paralytic pessimism come in and occupy the vacuum. There are Malawians for whom the idea of a national consciousness does not exit. Bola zawo zikuyenda basi.

That is the stage Malawi is at today. There are hardly any national figures to look up to for optimism and inspiration. The few Malawians who still embrace national consciousness have the odds stacked against them in a society whose moral relativism favours personal aggrandisement or ethnic chauvinism. Instead, we have supposedly respectable people proudly boasting about knowing national secrets that are destroying the nation. But they choose to keep those secrets to themselves so as to protect individuals, at the expense of national progress.

We have people who have inside information about murders, massive theft and plunder, and other heinous crimes against the nation. But they choose to keep quiet. They hold their personal interests and narcistic considerations above the national interest. They have no sense of national consciousness. They selfishly hold themselves to be bigger than Malawi. They do not wish the country well. They are content to see mothers and fathers forever mourning their murdered children while the killers roam the streets as free people. They are content to see the country continue haemorrhaging economically, yet they have the knowledge of who stole what and how they did it. And that plunder still goes on today.

We have Malawians so beholden to the saintly image of their leader they are loath to any suspicions of impropriety by the leaders, even in the face of evidence. They comfort themselves in a false sense of righteousness and refuse to accept that their heroes are plundering the nation and need to be held to account. When you reach that stage where you defend your leader to the extent of absurdity, know that you have lost your sense of national allegiance. The same goes for ethnic, political, class and other types of unexamined allegiances.

But all is not lost. The two milestones we marked this year give us pause to reflect on how to change things and imagine a new Malawi. As Levi Kabwato is fond of reminding us, quoting Frantz Fanon, “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.” And we have the intellectual and ideological tools to do this. Our leading thinkers and philosophers have pointed the way. We still have Malawians we can look up to.

We must start with cultivating a culture of uMunthu, upon which our ancestors built their societies. As the psychologist Chiwoza Bandawe points out in his book Practical uMunthu Psychology: An indigenous approach to harmonious living, “to lose uMunthu is to lose our history and identity as people.” Which means, in paraphrase, to regain our uMunthu is to regain our history and identity as a people. That is the beginning point for the rebirth of a new Malawian national consciousness. Let us make this uMunthu-based national consciousness our mission to fulfil for the next fifty years.
Note: A version of this post appeared in The Malawi News of Saturday 27th December, 2014.

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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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