Prisons in Malawi, Africa: legacies of borrowed paradigms?
On the front page of today's Sunday New York Times (Nov. 6, 2005) is a feature article, by Michael Wines, on conditions in Malawi's prisons in particular, and Africa's in general (click here to read the article; you might be asked to register before proceeding; it's free).
I can predict, almost always, that such an article will, as a rule, catalog all the social ills visiting upon Malawians, and will leave me and most other readers sad, numb and angry. While my reactions are aimed at my country and our failure to solve some fairly common problems, they are also aimed at the pattern of reporting about Africa, by both the Western and the African media. As with Mr. Wines' article, most of the reporting manages to put a human face on an intractable problem, bringing out the voices of people the politicians and bureaucrats have shielded themselves from. And that's always a commendable job.
But because the articles do not go beyond the vivid portrayal of the problems to attempt an analysis of the contexts within which these problems occur, African problems are written about in a manner that portrays Africans as having no clue as to how to solve their own problems, and making no efforts to even understand how and why we end up with such problems. The elites quoted in these articles, such as prosecutors, activists, government officials, etc, are portrayed as having no deep thoughts on how to understand a problem with such historical, ideological and global contexts as prison overcrowding and the malfunction and dysfunction of the justice system in Malawi. For instance, one reads an article such as this one without ever having to consider the fact the the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, worse than Malawi's own rate. Granted, problems in those prisons are of a different nature compared to conditions in Malawi's prisons.
I do not discount the probability that we are all clueless as to how to solve a problem such as this one, but my wish is to see a bit more of deeper thinking, questioning and putting the problem in the larger contexts that surround it.
At what point do we begin questioning our adoption of a legal and judicial system designed to work in Europe, in historical, economic and social settings different from ours? At what point do we start wondering whether we might want to work with our indigenous judicial systems, more suited to conditions obtaining in our societies? Our capacity to borrow and learn from other societies is commendable, but should it come at the expense of energy and resources needed to move our indigenous, locally relevant systems with the times, and negotiate change and innovation on local terms, rather than on terms dictated by the ideology we are borrowing from?
This is where I find Hizkias Assefa's (1996) words, referring to countries caught up in this type of dilemma, telling: "For these countries, the goals of modernisation and economic growth became receding targets. Hence these societies are caught in a tragic situation--they have given up much of what they were, but are unable to attain what they aspire to. No doubt this frustration will be a constant source of disruption, conflict and disillusionment at both the individual and societal levels" (Peacemaking and Democratisation in Africa, p. 65).