Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Transcendental Thandika: Tribute to a Global Pan-African Luminary


In 2011, the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) had planned to hold a colloquium in Malawi, to celebrate the lifetime contributions of Professor Thandika Mkandawire to global knowledge. The colloquium was being co-organised together with the University of Malawi, and the Archie Mafeje Research Institute of the University of South Africa (UNISA). The dates for the conference were 2-4th May. Three weeks before the colloquium, CODESRIA issued a statement announcing a postponement of the event. The reason for the postponement was “gross violations of academic freedom” in the University of Malawi. CODESRIA wanted to express solidarity with University of Malawi Chancellor College lecturers, who were on strike.

The strike was triggered by an event that happened on the evening of 12th February, 2011. Then Inspector General of the Malawi Police Service, Mr Peter Mukhito, had summoned University of Malawi political scientist, Professor Blessings Chinsinga. Professor Chinsinga was teaching a public policy course, and to illustrate a point, he used an example from the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, referred to as the Arab Spring. One student in the class, a police officer, reported Professor Chinsinga to his supervisors in the police service. The ensuing academic freedom strike lasted beyond an academic year.

The colloquium eventually happened five years later, from 11th to 14th April 2016, in Lilongwe. It was themed “Thinking African, Epistemological Issues: Celebrating the Life and Work of Thandika Mkandawire.” I had just joined the Catholic University of Malawi a month earlier. Participants came from different parts of the world, totalling 21 countries, according to the programme. There were 48 presentations, spread over 13 sessions. There were two keynote addresses, one by Thandika Mkandawire himself. It was my fifth or sixth time to meet Thandika in person, someone I had first heard about some 26 years earlier. The story of how I first heard about Thandika is one I feel compelled to narrate.

In narrating the story of my encounters with Thandika, I will describe how he brought me into his fold, inviting me to two of the institutions that shaped and defined his life’s work. I will discuss why Thandika’s work was important for Africa and the for the world, and conclude with thoughts on the legacy he has left for the engaged academy in Malawi and beyond.

At Sunbird Lilongwe Hotel, 2014

Let me start toward the end of my secondary school days. My secondary school English teacher, Mr Lot Dzonzi (who would go on to become Inspector General of Police, and later Malawi’s Deputy Ambassador to the UN), wanted me to think of myself as a serious writer. He would take me to his friends who were writers and were teaching at the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College. Through Mr Dzonzi I got to meet and know the likes of Wokomaatani Malunga and Garton Kamchedzera. He encouraged me to introduce myself to other writers as well. I met Prof Steve Chimombo (R.I.P.), who introduced me to Dr. Anthony Nazombe (RIP), both of whom were lecturers in the Chancellor College Department of English. I frequented their offices and showed them my poetry and fiction, which they generously gave feedback on. I was not a University of Malawi student, but they still welcomed me in their offices and in the Chancellor College Writers' Workshop. This was in 1989, and I was 18 years old. One such afternoon, I sat in Dr Nazombe’s office as he went through a poem I had written. We discussed several things, and at some point he mentioned the name Thandika Mkandawire, whom he said was Executive Secretary at CODESRIA. As a teenage secondary school leaver, this did not mean very much to me, until about a decade later.

In August 1997 I arrived in Iowa City, in the American midwest, to attend the University of Iowa’s International Writing Programme (IWP). It was the third time a Malawian writer was attending the programme. Edison Mpina (R.I.P.) was the first Malawian, in 1982, and Steve Chimombo followed in 1983. A Malawian who was finishing his PhD in Comparative Literature at Iowa, Dean Makuluni, introduced me to an email listserv for Malawians in the diaspora, called Nyasanet. These were very early days of the Internet. Dean Makuluni helped me open my first ever email account and subscribe to Nyasanet, the first ever Malawian social media space. I soon found that Thandika was a prominent voice on the forum, sharing all kinds of content on Malawi’s history, African politics, and global economics.

In 1998, Kofi Annan (RIP), then UN Secretary General, appointed Thandika as Executive Director of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD). It was very big news, and I wrote a news article on it. It was published by The Nation newspaper back home. Later in 1998 I started graduate school at Iowa, and began taking a strong interest in Thandika’s academic work. That interest continued throughout my graduate school years. We exchanged quite a few emails with Thandika throughout that period.

Back in Malawi working on a teacher professional development project, Thandika sent me an email, sometime in 2011. He was alerting me to a programme the London School of Economics (LSE) was establishing. It was the Programme for African Leadership (PfAL), and LSE was inviting applications for the first cohort of fellows. To establish the programme, LSE had received a generous donation from one of its alumni, Firoz Lalji, a Ugandan based in Canada. Thandika wanted to make sure I did not miss the opportunity. I applied, and in 2012 became one of the inaugural LSE PfAL fellows. Thandika was one of our lecturers, and he focused on an area he had done pioneering research in and had become globally renowned for, developmental states. We had lectures from other world leading scholars in areas that included social policy, human rights, climate change, women, gender and population, and leadership ethics.

In the course of the programme, Thandika took me to his office in the LSE Department of International Development, where we had long chats on various matters. One evening we took the tube and went to a fancy London restaurant where we had dinner and a long conversation. To date, PfAL has trained more than 400 young Africans, including three other Malawians. PfAL is now part of a larger initiative under the Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa at the LSE.

From November 2014 to December 2015 Thandika was Visiting Professor and Senior Fellow in Residence in the Building Bridges programme, in the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Development Policy and Practice (later renamed Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance). With the facilitation of Dr Marianne Camerer, programme director for the Building Bridges programme, Thandika gave a series of lectures, and ran regional workshops around the broader theme of African Economic Integration. The workshops were held in Dakar, Lusaka and Dar es Salaam, and involved up to 120 participants from 20 African countries. For the Dakar workshop, Thandika and Marianne invited twenty-one scholars, in October 2015. I was at the University of Botswana at the time, where one of the courses I was teaching was on curriculum and language policy in Africa. My presentation was titled “Breaking the Deadlock: Language, Integration and the African Renaissance,” in which I argued about the importance of African languages in the journey toward the African Renaissance.

In his reaction to my presentation, Thandika observed how African languages were enjoying a new lease of life, through mobile phone companies who used local language themes in various promotions of their products. Thandika was a firm believer in the importance of African languages in African development. One testimony for that is a 2005 book he edited, titled African Intellectuals: Rethinking Politics, Language, Gender and Development. Amongst the chapters in the book is one by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, on the promotion of African languages as the challenge of Pan-Africanist intellectuals in the era of globalization. Another one is by Beban Sammy Chumbow, on the language question and national development in Africa.

Before I left Dakar to return to Gaborone, I had a conversation with Thandika, in which he told me about why he had invited me to the workshop. In the course of the workshop, Thandika had shared several stories about his time in Dakar in the 70s and then again in the mid-80s through to the mid-90s. That was when he served as Executive Secretary of CODESRIA. Thandika wanted me to appreciate the role CODESRIA played in Africa’s intellectual life and research agenda. Having brought me to CODESRIA’s headquarters, it was important that I respond to and participate in as many CODESRIA events as possible. It would be a great thing for me to become a paid-up member, he added.

Thandika would repeat that exact advice about getting involved with CODESRIA when we met again, five months later. That was in April 2016, in Lilongwe, during the colloquium to celebrate his life and work. He said had wanted me to participate because it was another CODESRIA event.

I eventually paid my membership to CODESRIA in 2018. That year, CODESRIA held its 15th General Assembly, in Dakar, Senegal, a triennial event. When Thandika saw from the programme that I would be attending and presenting a paper, he sent me an email in which he asked me to bring recent issues of Malawi’s daily newspapers and magazines. I brought him copies of The Nation, the Daily Times and their weekend versions, and The Lamp magazine. He always kept up to date with what was going on in Malawi.

I arrived in Dakar on the afternoon of Saturday, 15th December, 2018. The following day, Sunday the 16th, David Nthengwe, a Dakar-based Malawian working for the United Nations, came to pick me up from my hotel. We joined Thandika and his wife Kaarina Klint, at Le Cabanon, a pleasant restaurant overlooking the shimmering, expansive West African Ocean (otherwise known as Atlantic). As we got up to go to the lunch buffet, I noticed that everyone left their phones and tablets on the table. I tagged at David and asked if it was safe to leave our gadgets on the table. "Very safe. Nobody would steal them here." He said. "You mean here at this restaurant, or..." Before I could finish, David replied: "I mean here in Senegal. People don't steal in this country." I was very surprised. "How do you build a country like that, with no thieves?" I asked. "Now that's a very good question. Let's ask Thandika."

We asked Thandika how it was possible that people didn’t steal in Senegal. Thandika thought it was because Senegal had not gone through the brutality and hardships other African countries had gone through. "When people are treated kindly by their governments, they treat each other kindly too. They do not become violent criminals" (paraphrased). We spent much of that afternoon listening to Thandika talk about his youth in Zambia and Malawi, his secondary school days at Zomba Catholic (Box 2), his active participation in the struggle for Malawi's independence, his journalism days at the Malawi News in the early 60s, and many other fascinating topics. He told us about how Aleke Banda turned down a scholarship to go and study for a degree at Harvard, opting to work on the forefront of the struggle for Malawi’s independence.

He told us about his studies in the US, becoming stateless in Ecuador during a research trip, and ending up in Sweden where he was offered citizenship. It was chilling to hear him say he still met, in Sweden, one of the people who betrayed him, leading to Kamuzu Banda’s order to strip Thandika of his Malawian citizenship. He retold a story he had told me back in 2016 in Lilongwe. While living in Dakar in the 70s and again in the 80s, a group of Malawian government officials came to study for their masters’ degrees. Thandika taught some of the courses in the programme.

On completing their degrees, the Malawians would not dare take their masters theses with them back to Malawi. Kamuzu Banda’s machinery was notorious for putting people into detention without trial for things they had written, even for research purposes. One of the former students from the 70s came to meet Thandika in Lilongwe in 2016. “Do you remember the story I told you about those Malawians who came to Dakar for their masters’ degrees, but left their theses behind for fear of Kamuzu?” He asked me, pointing toward a Malawian who had come to greet him. “He was one of them.” We all burst out into a loud laugh.

Amongst the most memorable sessions at the 2018 CODESRIA General Assembly was a tribute to the late Professor Samir Amin, an Egyptian Pan-Africanist and political economist who died on 12th August that year. Many scholars present spoke about Prof Amin and his contributions to African institutions, scholarship and freedom. An entire special issue of the CODESRIA Bulletin was dedicated to reflections on Amin’s life and work. As Director of the African Institute for Economic Development Planning (IDEP) in Dakar, Amin gave CODESRIA an institutional home and a foundation. He became CODESRIA’s inaugural Executive Secretary, and amongst the people he worked with in the early years, was Thandika.

That evening of Thursday, 20th December, 2018, the penultimate day to the end of the 15th CODESRIA General Assembly in Dakar, Thandika spoke last and closed the Samir Amin tribute session. He said no one had shaped his life the way Samir Amin did. He spoke about how he first met Amin in Stockholm, Sweden. As a student in Sweden, Thandika had penned a rather critical review of Amin’s book and sent it to Amin, not knowing Amin would be coming to Stockholm. Amin came to Stockholm, and Thandika invited him home. They discussed Thandika’s review, among other things. “Samir Amin was opposed to typologies but ironically he wrote the best treatment of typologies in African economies,” said Thandika.

He went on to say Amin was both Marxist and nationalist, something that was hard for the left, including for people like Kwame Nkrumah and Claude Ake. Said Thandika: “The worst sin you could commit with Samir Amin was not to be nationalist. You could be a bad Marxist, do bad class analysis, but you could set him off if you were not nationalist in the sense of defending Africa and Africa's interests. We will miss Samir Amin. The world will miss Samir Amin in that sense.”

At Crossroads Hotel, after Thandika's public lecture to the Economics Association of Malawi, August 2013. Photo credit: Levi Kabwato

As of April 2016, Thandika had ninety-one publications to his name, according to the programme document CODESRIA printed for the colloquium to celebrate Thandika’s life and work. There were twenty pieces he had written in various outlets; twenty-four book chapters; thirty-five journal articles, and ten books he had authored or edited. He published a few more works after that, but was spending much of his time working on a book which he wanted to be the most definitive expression of his overall thoughts on how international financial institutions had shaped development economics and African economies.

A good overview of Thandika’s thought over the decades can be found in two events. The first is his inaugural lecture when he became Professor and the first ever Chair of African Development at the London School of Economics. He gave that lecture on 27th April, 2010. Titled ‘Running while others walk: knowledge and the challenge of Africa’s development,’
it was a much-anticipated event. Thandika argued, in the lecture, that Africa’s development problems were problems of knowledge and the undermining of African expertise and experience. He argued for broader systems of education and knowledge, observing that human capital models and education for all campaigns were too narrow to deliver the transformation that Africa needed.

Thandika blamed the problems of African development on types of biases, including anti-education, anti-intellectual and anti-elite biases. The aid establishment had created a reward system that favoured consultancy reports over peer-reviewed journal articles, effectively sidelining home-grown African knowledge. “A people’s existence is not defined only by their material conditions but also by their ideas and moral views. Africans do not live by bread alone. That said, bread matters,” said Thandika in the inaugural lecture.

He argued that the crisis of African development, brought about largely by neoliberal policies, was related to the crisis of African universities. He called on Africanists at Western institutions such as the LSE to support their African colleagues “against the ravages of the consultancy syndrome that rewards reports over refereed academic papers.” He further asked Western academics to support African academics against what he termed the “criminal negligence” of African governments that gave way to pressures to commercialise education systems.

Another occasion that provides one with a brief yet comprehensive narrative of Thandika’s intellectual biography is an interview he gave to Kate Meagher, published in a 2019 issue of the journal Development and Change, from the Institute of Social Studies, The Hague. The interview was published under the title ‘Reflections of an Engaged Economist: An Interview with Thandika Mkandawire.’ In the discussion, Thandika articulated his views on what two decades of structural adjustment policies had done to African economies. He said compared to the American Great Depression of the 1930s, the period of structural adjustment policies in Africa lasted much longer. We should call it, he suggested, the Great African Depression.

Three decades after the SAPs, per capita incomes in Africa were yet to return to those of the 70s. The World Bank, he observed, had been expressing mea culpas over their policies on infrastructure, higher education, state institutions, sequencing of policies, and policy ownership, among others. “If you have that many mea culpas, you create an economy, and that economy behaves in a particular way. These are some of the legacies we should be looking at to understand African economies, not just colonial or pre-colonial legacies.” 

Thandika was equally critical of African governments as he was of “their peripatetic international advisers”. But there was a distinction: “The latter could always walk away from the scene of crime, while African policymakers were left with the smoking gun.”
Thandika said he was critical of both “Hopeless Africa” and “Africa rising” tropes, which he said neglected the history of their legacies and consequences on current realities. Whereas the Great Depression in the West had led to many new economic ideas, in Africa the neoliberal hegemony had blocked any new thinking. Arguing that SAPs had eroded capacities of African states to capture rents from commodity booms, he used the example of Chile which made $35 billion from copper, while Zambia made only $200 million from its copper. The erosion of human capital led to the neglect of higher education, resulting in the brain drain, and in the incapacitation of African institutions.

As currently practiced, Thandika was critical of social policy in Africa, which he said was largely donor-driven, and did not link to socio-economic transformation. He said donors had been very clever in “using the little money they give to leverage the entire policy regime.” He urged African governments to seriously focus on domestic resource mobilization. “No amount of foreign capital will satisfy the needs of the continent,” he said. The majority of global savings, 61 percent, goes to the United States. China was able to industrialise through domestic savings, relying on foreign investment only for technology, not capital.  SAPs had subdued Africa’s aspirations and had limited the continent’s visions, said Thandika. Thandika’s numerous works provide greater detail to this and many of his ground-breaking ideas, but it is not the purpose of this piece to get into that kind of detail.

At Le Cabanon, Dakar, Senegal, with David Nthengwe and Thandika, December 2018

As I draw to the conclusion of this tribute, I would like to return to my last meeting with Thandika, and then back to the 2016 colloquium and the legacy it created for Malawi’s academic space. My last in-person meeting with Thandika was in December, 2018. On the day I arrived in Dakar for the CODESRIA General Assembly, I bumped into him in the lobby of the King Fahd Palace Hotel, the venue of the conference. We exchanged greetings, and I handed over to him the newspapers and magazines I had brought from Malawi. I asked him about the book he had said he had been working on for some years. He beckoned for us to sit down on a chair. He took out his laptop, opened a document, and went to a page with a graph. That graph, he said, showed how much African economies had been growing from the time of independence, up to the time of the SAPs. The decline was dramatic. He said he still had some work to do on the manuscript before it could be complete.

After the colloquium to celebrate Thandika’s life and work in 2016, I returned to campus at the Catholic University of Malawi with a new determination. It had been a phenomenal week celebrating Thandika and engaging in fascinating conversations about higher education in Malawi and in Africa. There had to be a way of continuing with those conversations, at least for the Malawians.

On 28th April 2016, I sent out an email to twenty-five friends and colleagues working in universities in Malawi and abroad. I asked them if there was an association of Malawian university lecturers, and if there was an online forum where they shared ideas. It seemed there were none. I shared with the colleagues an idea about creating a google forum, to be called Higher Ed Malawi. A handful of them responded and encouraged the idea. “I think the forum is a brilliant idea but you may have to have a light touch moderation to avoid sectarian capture,” was Thandika’s advice. He became an active presence on the forum.

To date, the forum has just over 400 participants, drawn from universities and colleges in Malawi and beyond. In June 2018, Malawian academics from the forum organised the first ever international higher education conference, under the theme ‘Higher Education in the 21st Century.’ As the conference came to an end, the organising committee was reconstituted, and converted into a task force charged with the responsibility of creating the Universities and Colleges Association of Malawi (UCAM). The new committee is organising the next international higher education conference, to be held later this year.

Admiring the breadth, depth and originality of Thandika’s ideas, I have sometimes wished I had become a development economist myself. But Thandika was much more than a development economist. He transcended disciplinary boundaries. He was a transdisciplinary intellectual and provided penetrating insights into complex global problems. I have attempted to follow his path by being an eclectic reader and lifelong student of ideas.

As one whose main thrust is curriculum and the education of teachers, and latterly public policy, I have drawn insights from Thandika’s views on human knowledge. I have used epistemological lenses to develop a sociological perspective of knowledge production for the purpose that Julius Nyerere ascribed to education in Africa. Nyerere ascribed two purposes to education. One was the process by which a society passes on to the next generation the knowledge and values it holds to be important. The other was a duty to contribute to society and to the greater good of humanity. Thandika fulfilled both purposes, and he has passed on the mantle. May his kind, gentle and compassionate soul rest in peace.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

‘Wings of the morning’: Tribute to late Pius Adesanmi

Just how does one get over the fact of a friend posting Psalm 139:9-10 on Facebook with their picture holding a passport and a boarding pass, boarding a series of flights and, hours later, their last flight crashes, killing everyone onboard?

News of the crash of ET302 arrived through a whatsapp message just after 1030am on Sunday. It was from a colleague who was about to board a flight, with several other colleagues, from Nairobi to Lilongwe on 10th March, 2019. More posts on Facebook and twitter started streaming in, confirming news of the plane crash. Then just before 6pm, later in the day, a strange message appeared on the African Doctoral Lounge, a Facebook page for mentoring African doctoral students. The Lounge was founded by Professor Pius Adesanmi on 14th March, 2017.

The ominous message said: “Please will @Pius Adesanmi or anyone who has seen him react to this post please?” It came from Ajibola Adigun. Just after 6pm Kingsley Ewetuya posted: “I refuse to believe what I just heard regarding Prof Pius Adesanmi. Please tell me it's not true. Please!” At 6.30pm Hadiza Kere Abdulrahman posted: “Professor Pius Adesanmi please can you check in. Please?”

That changed everything.

Professor Pius Adesanmi, University of Johannesburg, 2015. (Copyright: Steve Sharra)
 Sometime in 2006 or thereabouts, as I was completing my PhD studies, I was invited by Professor Paul Tiyambe Zeleza to join the Zeleza Post as a blogger. I had followed the Zeleza Post from its inception, and shared Prof Zeleza’s posts on email listservs. That was before the era of smart phones and social media as we know it today. When I joined the Zeleza Post, I found two other active bloggers, besides Prof Zeleza. They wrote beautifully, argued powerfully, and engaged passionately in important African debates of the day. One was Wandia Njoya, a Kenyan literary scholar finishing her PhD at PennState at the time, and the other was Pius Adesanmi, a Nigerian professor teaching at Carleton University in Canada. After some years, Prof Zeleza discontinued the page, but we the bloggers had become good friends. Facebook was beginning to pick up then and that is how we mostly followed each others’ updates.

I wasn’t to meet Professor Pius Adesanmi until May 2015, on the Kingsway Campus of the University of Johannesburg. The university was hosting the 5th African Unity for Renaissance conference and Africa Day Expo, which began on the evening of 22nd May. I was teaching at the University of Botswana at the time and it was my first attendance at this annual conference.

Pius was slated to make a presentation on the opening plenary session, titled, in typical Adesanmi style, “Tragedy as Celebrity, Trauma as Diva: Communicating Africa’s Agency in the Age of Social Media.” Pius’ presentation was to come after opening remarks from Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, then Deputy Vice-Chancellor and now VC, University of Johannesburg, and Professor Mammo Muchie, South Africa Research Chair (SARCHi), Tshwane University of Technology.

In the event, Pius’ flight schedule prevented him from arriving on the opening day, so his talk was rescheduled to the following day. After his panel session, I approached him to introduce myself. I did not even have to tell him who I was. He greeted me the way you greet a brother you have known all your life but have not seen in a while. His warmth and enthusiasm were infectious, his laugh hearty. Later that afternoon he inboxed: “So great to see you today Steve! When is your own lecture?” I emailed him pictures of him that I had taken as he made his presentation.
Prof Adesanmi. Pic: Steve Sharra
 On Tuesday 17th July 2018 Pius was travelling in Oyo state, Nigeria, when he was involved in a car accident. He bled heavily and stayed for four hours without help, during which he feared the worst. He survived and recovered after hospital stays in Nigeria and Canada. I first saw news of the accident on the USA-Africa Dialogue google forum, posted by Professor Toyin Falola. It was also shared on the Africa Doctoral Lounge Facebook group. For several days there was no word from Pius, and there was palpable concern amongst members.

On 27th July I emailed him to check on him. I also wanted him to know that the University of Malawi College of Medicine had just held a week-long training workshop on PhD supervision. I was teaching at the Catholic University of Malawi, and attended the training. Could I invite the participants to the Lounge, I asked Pius? He responded on 30th July, the day he was discharged from hospital in Canada. “My brother Steve: Many thanks for yours. I was discharged from the hospital today. Absolutely, invite all of them to the Lounge. That's the idea!”

In December 2018 the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) held its 15th General Assembly in Dakar, Senegal. Pius was there, as was I, but for some strange reason, we did not meet. I arrived back in Malawi from Dakar on 23rd December, and three days later, on the 26th, Pius inboxed: “My brother Steve, we missed each other in Dakar. Are you able to join the Admin team of the Lounge? The place is expanding and we need new admin members.” I told him it would be an honour to join the team of admins. “Thank you so much my brother! Please send me a one-paragraph bio,” he responded.

I was transitioning between jobs so it took me a few weeks before I could send him the one-paragraph bio. Last week Friday, on 8th March, Pius posted on the African Doctoral Lounge Facebook page an announcement about the four of us whom he had invited to join as members of the admin team. It was his last post on the forum. The following day, Saturday 9th March, he posted a photo of himself at an airport, passport and boarding pass in hand. He appended the following verse from the Bible: “If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me - Psalm 139:9-10.”

It was beyond surreal. As discerned by another of this friends, Dr 'Tope Oriola, we will never know what went on in his mind as he chose that particular verse and posted it on his Facebook wall before boarding his flight. It was his last social media post, ever. We will never know what he intended, but it is, as expressed by Dr. Oriola,“one for the ages.”

Vigils and processions are being held in several Nigerian universities and in Canada. Tributes are still pouring in literally from around the world. That is how far Professor Adesanmi’s influence and aura travelled. His was a beautiful mind and powerful intellect; the leading scholar of World and African literature. “The most compelling public intellectual of his generation of exceptional African Diaspora scholars,” as Professor Zeleza described him. He was a Pan-Africanist in every sense of the word, whose brilliant thought penetrated the most stubborn obfuscation and clarified things with the sharpest of linguistic wit. According to CODESRIA, Pius was a key contributor to the African Union’s Agenda 2063, and he “took it upon himself to teach about this vision in the classroom.”

There will never be another Pius Adesanmi. Through his unmatched contributions, he has left the world a better place than he found it. May his wonderful soul take full wing into that eternal, blissful morning.

Monday, October 15, 2018

On the Petition Against the Gandhi Statue: Why Malawi Needs More Such Youth Activism

In a rather unusual move, on Thursday 11th October the Malawi Government responded to an online petition that has now attracted more than 3,400 signatures in a campaign to stop the erection of a Gandhi statue in Malawi’s commercial capital, Blantyre. The move was unusual because the only time the Malawi Government is moved to respond to anything is when people threaten to demonstrate on the streets. This time, it was a mere petition, online, and the government issued a response.

In a country known for what many consider to be docility and apathy especially on matters political, the kind of activism demonstrated by the young Malawians who have initiated the petition against the Gandhi statue is a burst of fresh air. If more young Malawians participated in this manner in issues affecting the country, perhaps the government and other responsible bodies and service providers would think twice before ignoring issues the way they are always perceived as.

I have identified at least eight reasons why many Malawians say they do not want the Gandhi statue. The first reason is that Mahatma Gandhi was racist toward Africans. The second reason is that Gandhi has nothing to do with Malawi, and Africa, for that matter. The third is that the Malawi Government seems to be accepting the statue from a position of weakness and poverty, coming as part of a package that includes a grant to construct an international conference centre in Blantyre, among other aid packages from the Government of India. The fourth reason is that the government has not consulted Malawians on the issue. Fifth, the Government of India is pushing an imperialist agenda, using its growing wealth and influence to position itself as a global player, at the expense of weaker, poorer nations.

Sixth, as former Vice President Dr. Cassim Chilumpha said on a panel discussion on Zodiak Broadcasting Station, the statue is being placed in a spot that is more prominent and visible than Malawians have honoured their own heroes. Besides, he added, the Malawian way of honouring people is to name roads after them, not building statues. And Blantyre already has a Mahatma Gandhi Road, he said. The seventh reason is that Malawians of Indian origin mistreat and look down upon black Malawians, and there are bad race relations between the two groups. The eighth reason is that, well, there is no reason. Malawians simply don’t want a statue of Gandhi, period.

A bust, looking like Kamuzu, in City Centre, Lilongwe (pic: steve sharra)

I would like to address the merits and demerits of each of these eight arguments, starting with the one that Gandhi was racist. The online petition against the statue makes generous reference to The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire, a 2015 book written by two South African academics, Ashwin Desai, of the University of Johannesburg, and Goolam Vahen, of the University of Kwazulu-Natal. The petitioners have selected several quotes in which Gandhi is caught in the act, so to speak. And the quotes are as unflattering as they are disturbing.

I heard of the book just when it came out in 2015, but I did not get a chance to read it until this past weekend. As I read through it, I was gripped by emotions of pain, disgust and disbelief. I came to appreciate where the petitioners were coming from, and found myself agreeing with their motion for the Gandhi statue to be stopped.

But I have been reading and teaching Gandhi since 2005, when my doctoral research, on uMunthu and peace education in Malawian classrooms, took me into the discipline of peace studies and the literature on nonviolence. I wondered why I had never read about this racist Gandhi, until now. Several questions ran through my mind as I read on. How far would the authors take Gandhi in their narrative? Would they follow him to his last days in 1948 when he was gunned down by Nathuram Godse, a fellow Indian who was opposed to Gandhi’s peace politics?

If Gandhi has stayed racist up until his last breath, how come he had become the global figure of peace and nonviolence the world holds him to be? Have we been fed a sanitised and politically correct version of Gandhi all these years, as Desai and Vahed claim in their book? If so, who was behind that, and what could their reasons have been? What will now happen to the discipline of peace studies and the practice of nonviolence once the rest of the world learns who the “true“ Gandhi was and what he believed about black people?

Before I knew it, Gandhi was saying his farewells across Durban, Transvaal and Cape Town, and the book was over. He returned first to Britain and then India in the second half of 1914, as the First World War was breaking out. The authors follow him to Britain and to India, where Gandhi continues serving the interests of the British Empire, helping to recruit Indian soldiers to fight on the side of Britain, and doing everything he could to impress the British that white people and Indians descended from the same Aryan race and should see themselves as close relatives.

Anybody reading Desai and Vahed’s book and stopping there will have no doubts about Gandhi’s racism toward Africans. However, Gandhi lived another thirty four years after returning to India. Desai and Vahed have little to say about those thirty four years, and although the title of their book restricts their scope to Gandhi in South Africa, the overall impression they create in the book is that Gandhi’s racist beliefs and attitudes about black people when he lived in South Africa remained with him all of his long life.

Not everyone espouses this perspective. In 1956 the Government of India embarked on a project to collect and compile everything written by Gandhi throughout his life. The result was 55,000 pages of 100 volumes of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. On 8th September 2015 the Indian Union Minister of Information and Broadcasting, Arun Jaitley, launched the e-version of the collected works. Desai and Vahed write in their book that they spent years consulting PDF versions of the collected works, and found material that had not been published hitherto.

In 2006 Indian lawyer and author Anil Nauriya published a book titled The African Element in Gandhi, whose purpose, he argued, was to unearth an  “underanalysed“ aspect of Gandhi’s stay in South Africa; that is, his relationship with Africans. Nauriya set out to answer a question that has been largely answered in the negative by Desai and Vahed: did Gandhi shed off his racism and evolve into a more sensitive, race-conscious and person who respected and valued African people?

Nauriya claims that Gandhi evolved, and that his evolution started in 1908, fifteen years after his arrival in South Africa. This may not be entirely accurate. Reading between the statements Gandhi made and continued making, but also his silences and omissions regarding Africans, Desai and Vahed retrieve material from the collected works that show Gandhi’s prejudice beyond his departure from the continent in 1914.

But Nauriya digs up material that does not appear to have been uncovered by Desai and Vahed. And read together with Gandhi’s campaigns against the British in the decades that led up to India’s independence from Britain in 1947, Gandhi evolved not only in his views on Africans, he also shed his long-held belief in the supremacy of the British Empire and Western civilisation itself. Whereas the British colonialists had arrested him no less than five times in his twenty one years in South Africa, they arrested him no less than nine times in the struggle for India’s independence. Desai and Vahed have not ventured into this latter-day Gandhi.

A piece of art also found in City Centre, Lilongwe (pic: steve sharra)

Another writer who also took up the task of uncovering Gandhi’s relationship with Africans and following him up to Inidia’s independence is Enuga Sreenivasulu Reddy, now 94 years old and retired. He has edited and published several books and articles under the shortened name E.S. Reddy. Reddy was born in 1924 in India but spent many years working as an international civil servant. He was a UN Under Secretary General and headed the UN Centre Against Apartheid. He worked with both the civil rights movement in the United States and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.

Because of his work with the UN and his involvement in anti-colonial struggles in India and in Africa, the longevity of Reddy’s work spans the last years of India’s independence, the civil rights movements in the United States, South Africa’s apartheid regime, and the full onset of independence struggles in Africa. He was there when WEB DuBois was part of the struggles both in the US and in Africa. These were struggles that saw leaders such as, Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Martin Luther King Jr, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Nelson Mandela, Kenneth Kaunda and many others lead anti-racist and anti-colonial campaigns in which India, the United States, and African countries were joined in one common cause.

This brings us to the second argument against the Gandhi statue, that Gandhi has nothing to do with Malawi and Africa. ES Reddy’s writings show that these struggles were intertwined and mutually reinforcing. We find these perspectives also when we examine what the afore-mentioned leaders wrote. They have been corroborated by Malawi’s own anti-colonial activists, including Henry Masauko Chipembere and Kanyama Chiume, as I will discuss in a little bit.

Illustrating how anti-racist and anti-colonial struggles intertwined and intermingled in a vortex that drew into the mix India, the USA and Africa requires going back to WEB DuBois and drawing parallels with the struggles that involved his contemporaries. As DuBois observed in an essay, nineteen months separated his birth date and that of Gandhi. DuBois was born in 1868 while Gandhi was born in 1869. Unrelated at this point but still relevant for the broader purposes of our discussion, then Nyasaland anti-colonial activist Rev John Chilembwe is believed to have been born in 1871.

It was only until after the First World War that DuBois “came to realize Gandhi’s work for Africa and the world,“ he wrote. With the Depression approaching, DuBois asked Gandhi in 1929 for a message for American Negroes, as per the language of the time. Gandhi obliged and wrote: “Let not the 12 million Negroes be ashamed of the fact they are the grandchildren of slaves. There is dishonor in being slave-owners. But let us not think of honr or dishonor in connection with the past. Let us realise that the future is with those who would be pure, truthful and loving“ (p. 91; W.E.B. Dubois: A Reader, edited by David Levering Lewis, 1995). DuBois published the message in the Crisis magazine.

In 1943 DuBois wrote in the Amsterdam News about his doubts over nonviolence, saying it worked in India where fasting, prayer, sacrifice and self-torture had been practised for three thousand years, and India’s population of four hundred million at the time was a force to reckon with. He believed these methods would be seen as a joke or insane if tried in England or in the US.

But when in 1955 Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on a bus to a white man, in Montgomery, Alabama, and black people went on strikes and boycotts that put an end to the discrimination, DuBois saw it as “a most interesting proof of the truth of the Gandhian philosophy“ (p. 92). He said this was more so as the protests were carried out by people who did not have knowledge of Gandhi and his work.

DuBois‘ own longevity overlapped anti-racist and anti-colonial struggles in the US and in Africa in a life that spanned 95 years. By the time of his death in 1963, he had renounced his American citizenship and was living in Accra, Ghana. He was buried there where his mausoleum is a memorial centre. Ghana had been independent for six years at the time, and Kwame Nkrumah had taken over the mantle of Pan-Africanism from DuBois.

Nkrumah was also an advocate of Gandhian nonviolence. In a speech he gave on 7th April in 1960, Nkrumah said “positive action,“ his term for nonviolence, had  “achieved remarkable success in the liberation struggle of our continent…“ (p. 48; Selected Speeches of Kwame Nkrumah, Vol 1, 1960). He went on to say “we salute Mahatma Gandhi and we remember in tribute to him, that it was in South Africa that his method of non-violence and non-cooperation was first practised in the struggle against the vicious race discrimination that still plagues that unhappy country.“

For a description of the role Ghana played in Malawi’s independence struggle, Kanyama Chiume’s autobiography (1982) is instructive. India itself played an important role, as described by Chiume, who met India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru in 1962. That was the time that former president Bingu wa Mutharika was a student in India, whom Chiume also met together with other African students. Chiume wrote that Nehru “executed all the decisions“ (p. 51) agreed to in their meeting, regarding supporting Malawi’s struggle, scholarships for Malawians to study in India among other arrangements.

On Henry Masauko Chipembere’s part, it is during his testimony to the Devlin Commission which was investigating events surrounding the 1959 State of Emergency that we learn of Gandhi’s influence on the tactics Malawians used to fight against British colonialism. Chipembere was regarded as a man who preferred the use of violence on the white colonialists and their “stooges,“ but he told the commission that the Malawians had discussed and utilised Gandhian non-violence methods.

He said he had personally decided on “something closer to Gandhi’s non-violence, bu with the difference that I would like to try negotiation first because Gandhi’s policy of non-violence implies action - that is passive resistance, but it seems not to include negotiation. I believe in negotiation first. If negotiation fails, resort to passive resistance“ (Chipembere: The Missing Years, p. 201).

Across the boarder from Malawi, Zambia’s first president, Dr. Kenneth Kaunda went as far writing an entire book on non-violence, which he titled The Riddle of Violence (1980). The first sentence in the book reads: “I was first introduced in a serious way to the ideas of Gandhi by Rambhai Patel, a Lusaka store keeper, who made rough and ready translations of some of the Mahatma’s writings, especially from his life story.“

Calling Gandhi his “mentor,“ Kaunda wrote that his own Christianity was aligned to Gandhi’s philosophy and it “deepened and broadened my own thinking.“ Kaunda said while he owed his faith to Jesus, “Mahatma Gandhi supplied the hope.“ And Zambia’s own independence struggle adopted satyagraha, the concept Gandhi had developed while in South Africa defining truth as a force driving the struggle. “So it was according to the principles of non-violence on the Gandhi model that the final stages of the freedom struggle in Zambia were conducted,“ wrote Kaunda (p. 18).

Having arrived at this juncture, contrary to the claims made by the petitioners and by Desai and Vahed, the sources discussed thus far point in the direction of Gandhi having evolved his views towards Africans over his long life. It should also be obvious, at this point, that Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence influenced anti-racist and anti-colonial struggles in South Africa, India, the United States and across Africa. Let us proceed to address the remaining arguments being made against the erection of the Gandhi statue.

It has been said that the Government of Malawi is accepting the offer of the statue because Malawi is a poor country and we are always pushed around by donors. According to the Gandhi World Foundation’s website www.gandhiworld.in, there are Gandhi statues in more than seventy countries around the world. When a Gandhi statue was unvelied in Abu Dhabu in February this year (2018), an Indian magazine reported that the number of countries with a Gandhi statue had now reached seventy five. As there are 54 countries in Africa, and many of them do not have Gandhi statues, there are both rich and poor countries around the world where there is a Gandhi statue. It therefore cannot be said that these are all poor countries being forced to receive Gandhi statues because of their poverty.

The argument that the Indian Government is using Gandhi statues to push an agenda to position itself as a global power merits consideration. Many rich and powerful countries use similar tactics to flaunt their influence. But the influence Gandhi had over anti-racist and anti-colonial struggles spread throughout the world from the 1950s to the 1990s even before India had the kind of wealth and influence it wields today. Thus that argument can also be dismissed.

The argument, advanced by former Vice President Dr Cassim Chilumpha, that the spot near Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital is unsuitable because it gives a foreign statue undue prominence over Malawian statues is rather amusing. If we want to give Malawian statues greater prominence than statues of foreign individuals, may I humbly suggest that we put our Malawian statues on the corner of Victoria Avenue and Sir Glynn Jones Road, in front of Mt Soche Hotel. That is a far more prominent spot befitting Malawian heroes. Another ideal spot is in the middle of Chichiri Roundabout. And for now, I will opt not say much about the names of these other streets in Blantyre.

Out of the remaining three arguments, one does not deserve a response, but two have merit and must be addressed by the Government of Malawi. There is nothing to say to the argument that there is no reason, Malawians simply don’t want the statue. But it is true that Malawians have not been consulted, and that needs to happen.

Thus far the debate has been quite acrimonious, emotional and fractious, especially on social media. Quite a few individuals have resorted to insults and innuendo against the idea of the statue and against individuals supporting the idea. Some have threatened that they will demolish the statue once it is constructed. Not very Gandhian.

A round about in Lilongwe City Centre (copyright: steve sharra)

The emotions must be acknowledged and action must be taken to deal with the grievances that are giving rise to the acrimony. It is an open secret that relations between black Malawians and Malawians of Asian origin are not the best. A University of Malawi lecturer interviewed by the BBC on the matter pointed out that there are simmering tensions between black Malawians and Malawians of Asian origin. Black Malawians feel that Malawians of Asian origin demean and undermine them, in ways that betray racist attitudes. This is both a perception and a reality, and it cannot be wished away.

Malawians of Asian origin have never fully integrated into the fabric that makes up life for ordinary Malawians. Most Malawians have never seen a Malawian of Asian origin teaching in a government school, working as a nurse in a government hospital, serving in the police service, vending in the streets, driving or calling a minibus, serving in other government ministries and departments and living the day to day lives ordinary Malawians live.

Yet Malawians of Asian origin are an integral part of the country and do serve the country in many roles, but these tend to be selective and specialised, and perhaps under-reported. There are historical, economic, cultural and political contexts that have created these fissures, and they need to be addressed if Malawians of all races and ethnic backgrounds are going to forge a better Malawi. We should not allow this moment to drift away and be wasted. We should use it to tackle these issues head on. We should also use this moment to start teaching ourselves more about the history of our continent and of our world, and the struggles that have given us the country we have today.

Gandhi’s greatest message was that there are a lot of ways of resisting, expressing dissent and bringing about change without recourse to violence. It is his teachings that gave birth to the exhortation “be the change you want to see in the world“. Strikes, demonstrations, boycotts, fasting, petitions (including the one that has brought about this debate) and such other methods of resistance draw from Gandhi’s non-violence philosophy. Hardly a school year goes by without hearing that students have destroyed a school; or that a community have set fire to a police station. Many times, these violent acts of destruction happen because non-violent methods have not been given a chance.

Malawi needs more of the activism demonstrated by the young activists petitioning against the Gandhi statue. I suggest that both the Indian High Commission in Malawi and the Malawi Government engage Malawians on this issue.

That petition itself is a Gandhian method of protest. Gandhi did not invent most of the non-violence methods now attributed to him, but he made effective use of them to the extent that they came to be associated with him. He was as human as any one of us and had his weaknesses. But he worked, throughout his life, to overcome them. He left the world a better place than he found it. That is a legacy worthy emulating.


Friday, July 06, 2018

‘That we be free from fear’: Thoughts on education and Malawi at 54

On 6th July 1964, fifty-four years ago, there were four secondary schools in Malawi, and not a single university. There was Blantyre Secondary School, Zomba Catholic Secondary School, Dedza Secondary School, and Mzuzu Government Secondary School. There were close to 360,000 primary school learners, and the country had between 3 and 4 million people. That year, 6,000 Malawians entered secondary school to start Form 1. The University of Malawi was opened exactly three months after independence, on 6th October 1964. Its first intake was 180 students (other sources put the figure at 90).

Fifty-four years later, there are over 1,400 secondary schools in Malawi and just over 380,000 secondary school students. About 100,000 students enter Form 1 each year. There are four public universities with about 20,000 students. The University of Malawi alone has 13,000 students. There are more than 28 private universities, accommodating what can be estimated to be close to 20,000 students, although the real number could be less or more than this. A Higher Education Management Information System (HEMIS) is expected by the end of this year, which should help with more accurate numbers.


The above numbers show what has changed on Malawi’s educational landscape since 1964. It looks impressive when compared to the numbers of fifty-four years ago, and puts to rest the argument that we rushed to become independent; that we should have allowed the colonialists to continue ruling over us so as to develop the country more rapidly. They ruled the country for seventy years, and the 1964 numbers represent what they achieved in that period. But compared to the potential that we have as a country, in terms of resources and talent, we could have done much more.

We have achieved gender parity in Standard 1 enrolment although we lose that parity starting from Standard 4. Selection to secondary school is also almost at par for boys and girls, although the pass rates both at Standard 8 and in Form 4 still favour boys. The MSCE results have been improving, especially in 2017. More boys and girls score 6 points at MSCE, which gives the impression that Form Four exams these days are not as hard as in the past.

My hypothesis is that kids today have wider access to general knowledge because of modern technology: smart phones, satellite TV, radio stations. Nutrition has also improved from several years ago, which has in turn improved academic performance. There are many more students sitting exams, a natural consequence of our population boom. When I sat my Form 4 exams in 1989, there were 13,000 of us. As I am writing, 209,000 are writing the 2018 MSCE. In statistical terms, the chances of more students scoring 6 points are far greater these years than they were in 1989.

We still have enormous challenges and are nowhere near where we should have been after 54 years. An incredible number of students who enter Standard 1 do not reach Standard 8. In 2017, just over 255,000 students sat the Standard 8 examination. When this class entered Standard 1 in 2009, they were just over 877,000, according to the 2013 EMIS (Educational Management Information System). Some 622,000 students did not make it to Standard 8, for one reason or another, usually to do with dropping out or repeating.

Of learners who enter Standard 1, only 16 percent go to secondary school, according to the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS) III. The total primary school enrolment currently stands at about 5 million, yet there are only 380,000 students in all of Malawi’s secondary schools. We have too many people out of the school system who should be in school.  A rough calculation of tertiary enrolment shows that there are not much more than 50,000 students in our colleges and universities. We have the lowest tertiary enrolment rate in the world, at 0.8 percent, as per the MGDS III.

We do not treat our teachers with the respect they deserve, especially primary school teachers. We have improved in paying them on time, but we are failing to pay some of them their leave grants. Each year many teachers are upgrading their qualifications but they are going for years without the government issuing them their well-deserved promotions.

When they upgrade, they leave primary schools and go to teach in secondary schools or teacher training colleges, because we do not have a structure for university-educated teachers in our primary school system. We deprive the primary school system of highly educated teachers, believing that primary school learners do not deserve well-educated teachers. This is a travesty.

We have finally began doing something about improving the education of primary school teachers from a two-year certificate toward a university diploma, and hopefully, eventually, toward a university degree. Minister of Education, Science and Technology, Hon. Bright Msaka, told parliament in March that consultations on this had started.

In fact, this has been on the agenda for the past ten years. It was provided for in the National Strategy for Teacher Education and Development 2008-2017, but not much happened in the ten years since that document became operational. The entry level requirements to go a teacher training college have been hiked to a minimum of four credits, a measure aimed at improving the quality of teachers.

Learners at January Primary School, Thyolo district
Infrastructure in rural schools, where the majority of Malawian children and youth are educated, remains in a state of disrepair. A few weeks ago the nation was shocked by the deaths of four learners at Nantchengwa Primary School in Zomba rural, crushed to death when a classroom block collapsed and fell on them. It had been constructed by the community in their desire to support their children’s education.

As has been the case for several years now, the education sector was given the biggest chunk of the national budget, at MK166 billion. In the 2017-2018 the education sector was given MK235 billion, which means that the 2018-2019 education budget is less than last year’s. This is surprising, considering that the 2018-2019 national budget has gone up from just over MK1 trillion to MK1.4 trillion (after a recent adjustment downward from MK1.5 trillion presented in parliament).

Youth unemployment has started dominating public discourse, a recognition of the dire straits many young Malawians are in. Because many youths do not have meaningful employment, they have become easy to manipulate and abuse for political purposes. With the 2019 elections approaching, it has been deeply disturbing to see youths being abused yet again, sent on political errands to terrorise journalists, civil society activists and others expressing their frank opinions about developments in the country.

Reports of people getting beaten up in the full presence of police, receiving death threats and having their rights to free expression and association violated are a throwback to the one-party dictatorship. It is as if the masses of unemployed youth are actually part of a deliberate plan to advance political interests.

There is a line in our national anthem that goes “join together our hearts as one, that we be free from fear…” One would think that in this day and era, we would have robust structures that promote debate and discussion over national matters in a free manner, devoid of fear and threats, but it would seem the closer 2019 approaches, the more steadily we are edging towards an abyss.

There is an urgent need to do something about the many Malawians who have been denied an opportunity for a decent education over the years. The Sustainable Development Goal for education stipulates free secondary school education, an idea that does not enthuse Malawians, owing to what happened last time we made primary education free. Today, primary education is free only on paper. In reality, parents and guardians of primary school children are paying for the education of their wards, only it’s not called school fees.

We have huge disparities between a few who can afford decent education in good private schools, and the many who go to poorly resourced public schools. We are a very unequal country, and that inequality distorts the discussion we need to have around providing quality education to everyone.

We need to seriously think of education as an investment that lays the foundation the country needs for development that is really meaningful for the majority. It is only when we can begin to address the inequality in our country, rooted in the disparities in educational opportunity, that we can begin to be truly free from fear.