Malawi can teach the world too, OK?
The news this week that a delegation from the east Asian country of Tajikistan has been in Malawi to learn more about the Malawi Social Action Fund (MASAF) bucks a trend common in the way some Malawians view their country. The delegation is in Malawi to LEARN from Malawians. Most of the times Malawians talk about learning from other people. Sometimes people will even reject an idea for no reason other than that no other country has ever brought up the idea before. During the campaign for last year's presidential elections, a People's Progressive Party (PPM) official was quoted on the 7 o'clock Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) news one evening as saying Malawi could not produce an independent president, because no other country had done it before. He went on to say it was inconceivable to imagine that Malawi could be the first country to do that. Malawi did not originate ideas, he said. Malawi copied other people's ideas.
It would have been a different matter had the official been regretting that Malawi didn't originate ideas, and urging Malawians to come up with fresh thinking. Rather, he was holding up this point as the way things ought to be. In other words, Malawi was a backward country and SHOULD NEVER see herself as capable of originating trends. Malawians should be content with being mere copycats.
Days after hearing that comment on the national radio, I discovered that in fact the politician was repeating an idea he had read in the newspapers. A political scientist at the University of Malawi, Chancellor College, had been quoted in an issue of the weekly Malawi News newspaper saying exactly what the PPM official said. It thus appeared that not only did we have a case of two elite Malawians constructing a myth for themselves and for all Malawians, and then fulfilling it themselves; the politician was indeed merely copying a statement emanating from elsewhere.
Politicians and academicians occupy important positions in society. The responsibilities they are entrusted with call upon them to exercise extreme care with what they say. They can represent people's opinions, but they also need to be visionaries and creative thinkers, rather than mere copycats.
The MASAF story ought to serve as an example to the rest of the nation as to how Malawians are highly capable people, and have unique perspectives that can teach other countries of the world. The leader of the Tajikistan delegation was quoted by The Nation newspaper as saying: Masaf was highly held by the World Bank during the conference as one of the most successful programmes in the world. That is why we thought of coming to learn how the fund operates." Regardless of the possibility that the leader of the delegation may have actually said "Masaf was highly HAILED" rather than "HELD," the message is quite clear.
The idea that Malawi should only learn from others, based on the assumption that Malawians have really nothing to teach other nations, is quite wide spread amongst Malawians, especially the elites. In his column in The Nation newspaper, Dr. DD Phiri on August 4 wrote about what Malawians and Africans ought to learn from the West. He titled his article "The best from the West," and concluded his article with the following statement: "People of the West continue to lead the world in inventiveness not because they are naturally superior to other people. They just happen to have a culture that nurtures genius. This is the best about [the] West that Africans can borrow. We must be achievers, not mere imitators."
The message from the learned Dr. Phiri was important, not least his dismissal of the belief amongst some Malawians and Africans that Westerners are naturally superior, and that by implication, the rest of us are naturally inferior. Equally important was his call for Malawians and Africans to "be achievers, not mere imitators." Unfortunately, the bulk of the ideas in the article was based on the same mentality that Malawians and Africans need to LEARN from others. There was nothing in the article on what Malawians and African can also TEACH the rest of the world. Thus on closer scrutiny, Dr. Phiri's article serves to perpertuate the very tendency he is advising against: imitation.
The Malawian and African media will make a major contribution to the image of Malawi and Africa, and to the Afrikan rebirth, by going out of its way to find stories such as this one, highlighting the innovations and fresh thinking coming out of Malawi and other African countries. This calls for taking a critical stance against politicians, academicians and thinkers who hold one-dimensional views of Malawians and Africans as people who have nothing to contribute to the world.