Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Unleashing the Mind: William Kamkwamba, Malawian Genius, and the New Media

His is the most inspirational story I have read this year. In 2002 William Kamkwamba was unable to continue with his secondary school education, as his parents couldn’t afford the school fees. This was just after two terms in Form 1 (high school freshman), and he was 14 years old. But his desire to keep reading and learning led him into a library at a nearby primary school in the central region district of Kasungu, and to a book on how to make electricity. He went ahead and made a windmill just following the instructions in the book. The school library was donated as part of the Malawi Teacher Training Activity (MTTA), a USAID teacher development project that started in September 2004, and has involved teachers in four districts in Malawi, namely Kasungu, Machinga, Mzimba South, and Phalombe. MTTA involves partners who include the American Institutes of Research (AIR), Miske Witt & Associates (MWAI), and the Malawi Institute of Education (MIE).

I show later in this posting that Kamkwamba’s story holds an important lesson for Malawi and other countries about educational beliefs and practices, and their potential to either facilitate or kill emergent talent and creativity. In addition to William's story, I use two more examples to make the above point. I write about Andrews Nchessie, a primary school teacher also in Kasungu who is now a teacher educator, and whose own unique story shares similarly fascinating parallels with William. I also write about Nolence Mwangwego, a Malawian teacher of the French language who invented a writing script. I finish with two Malawian farmers who have made significant contributions to agricultural practices in Malawi by inventing new ways of irrigating farms: one is Friday Nikoloma of Thyolo, and the other is Dr. Chinkuntha of Dowa.

When the MTTA deputy chief of party, Dr. Hartford Mchazime heard of William’s windmill and its origins in the library donated by MTTA, he went to visit William. He brought with him journalists, and a story that appeared in the Daily Times was picked up by bloggers including Soyapi Mumba ( and Mike McKay ( Early this month the program director of the Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) annual conference, Emeka Okafor, himself a prominent blogger who saw William’s story on the above Malawian blogs, invited Kamkwamba to attend and talk at TEDGlobal, one of the world's largest technology conferences, held this year June 4-7 in Arusha, Tanzania.

Kamkwamba’s life has not been the same since. The 2007 TEDGlobal conference was also attended by the likes of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Larry Page (the guy who gave us Google), Phillipe Starck, Bono, and on previous occasions, Bill Clinton, and many other famous Who are Whos in the world. Two weeks ago he touched a computer for the first time in his life, opened an email account, and last week he started his own blog. Comments and congratulations are coming in from around the world, and in the words of one of the organizers at TED, there is a “firestorm” of interest brewing for Kamkwamba.

Not long ago stories like these used to appear once in a generation, but are now becoming more believable, thanks to the power of 21st century innovations and technologies. The theme of the African renaissance, expressed in the phrase Afrika Aphukira, gets full expression in young people such as William and Andrews, Nolence Mwangwego, and in farmers such as Nikoloma and Chinkuntha, in Malawi, Africa, and around the world.

There is one major coincidence in Kamkwamba’s and Nchessie’s stories that I can’t resist writing about. Some time in the mid-1990s The Nation, the second of Malawi’s daily newspapers, published on its front page the story of a primary school teacher in Kasungu (same district where Kamkwamba hails from) who had invented an early flood warning system. Being in the 1990s, there were no blogs at the time, and in Malawi the Internet was non-existent. Thus the story did not go as far as Kamkwamba’s has. That teacher was Andrews Nchessie, who became my best friend when I transferred to Police Secondary School in 1988, from Nankhunda Seminary where I had been expelled for not seeming to possess the priestly vocation.

Andrews Nchessie did not stop at the early flood warning system. He went on to introduce fish farming, wind vanes, and other scientific experiments with his primary school pupils at Kasungu Demonstration Primary School, on the campus of Kasungu Teachers’ College where he trained as a teacher. He even organized Open Days at the school, inviting members of the public, including journalists, to come and see what pupils at the school were doing. One time his class experimented with goat urine as a cure for an outbreak of scabies at the school, in a science unit that involved lab technicians at the Kasungu District Hospital. This news also made the front page of The Nation.

A scientist and curriculum specialist at MIE, the late Harold Gonthi, visited Nchessie at his school, and soon started inviting him to national research conferences for educational researchers in Malawi. Soon those invitations extended to international conferences in the region and beyond, and led to an international award for his innovative teaching. He visited universities and other educational institutions in Zambia, Mocambique, South Africa, Ghana, Togo, Ethiopia, Ivory Coast, and recently, Germany and Norway. After spending 13 months at various universities in Norway in 2005-2006, Nchessie returned to Kasungu Demonstration Primary School, and to his Standard 4 classroom (4th Grade). With him he brought more than a dozen computers and networking equipment, which he used to establish the first ever computer lab at Kasungu Teachers’ College. The administration recognized his efforts and promoted him from being a primary school teacher to being a lecturer at the teachers’ college.

There is one very important lesson that the stories of William Kamkwamba, Andrews Nchessie, Nolence Mwangwego, Friday Nikoloma and Dr. Chinkuntha which I talk about later in this article, teach us in Malawi but also in Africa and beyond. It is very tempting to conclude from the these stories that the problems affecting our countries, which we like to couch in the discourse of backwardness, originate in individuals not being committed enough, not working hard enough. If only every one worked as hard as William or Andrews, our countries would be very different today.

The problem with this perspective, and here is where the lesson comes in, is that it attributes the causes of the problems we always talk about to individuals, blaming them for not being diligent and hard working enough. And that is where the perspective misses the point. There is no denying that William and Nchessie are unique individuals who are serious and thoughtful in their outlook on the world. To get to where they are today, they have had to overcome insurmountable problems which many others in their community and in Malawi have failed to. While individual traits and character do play an important part in propelling one to greater realization of their potential, we live in a world in which many people are never provided opportunities through which their traits and character can blossom and shine for the world to see.

There is a conundrum here that is easy to miss. On the one hand, something is seriously wrong with a system in which somebody like William is unable to proceed with school because or lack of money for school fees, or, in Andrews’ case, unable to obtain university education because he failed to make it to the super-selective University of Malawi in 1990. On the other hand, it is not possible to tell with definitiveness whether William’s talents and hard work would have come out with such a bang had he been able to continue in a conventional secondary school. School systems can be places where individuals can indeed blossom and take off, but they are also known all over the world as places which can force one’s intellect into a conventional box and stifle one’s creativity and genius. This is a conundrum which is not easy to resolve.

In Malawi, a huge factor of the limited opportunities for enterprising individuals such as William and Andrews is the political economy and its vicious cycle of poorly equipped schools, poorly trained teachers, and very few opportunities for one to advance beyond basic education. The political economy of Malawi is tied to that of the rest of the world, and is affected by instabilities and fluctuations originating elsewhere in the world. To qualify for the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC), for example, countries like Malawi are required to maintain a specific ceiling on budgetary expenditure, which for some countries means putting a freeze on hiring new teachers, nurses, and other key personnel, and also on raising their salaries.

But historical factors also play a role, in how modern education came to Malawi and what that meant for endogenous ways of producing and disseminating new knowledge. All these factors have resulted in the adoption of a system that thrives on beliefs about knowledge and individual ability that label the majority of people as lacking, deficient, and undeserving of opportunities for advanced education.

We should be grateful for stories such as William’s, Andrews’, Nolence's, Friday's and Chinkuntha's, which from time to time renew our faith in our humanity and in our potential to contribute to the understanding of our own problems and the pursuit of solutions. They are young people who show us rare examples of what an excellent teacher looks like, and how an exceptional student needs the support of the broader global community in order to realize his or her potential. These stories should help us rethink how we can better restructure our economies and political systems so they can benefit more people rather than only a minority, elite few. More such stories might hopefully help us better understand how to also rethink not only our educational practices but also the beliefs that drive those practices and policies.

Therein lies the exponential potential of new media technologies, a point made astutely by Mike McKay in an email yesterday. An article appearing on the Daily Times website was easy to pass on and blog about, with links. The news spread from one blog to another, until it reached the eyes of somebody with enough influence to make things happen. It would be naive to promise that everyone else who has a remarkable story to tell will end up being recognized for it, but it is also true that without these new technologies, it is difficult to say how far the innovative hard work and achievements of William would have gone.

There are a few other stories of innovations and creativity, in addition to William and Andrews, that unfortunately have not received wider attention. Recently an article in The Nation, by Kondwani Kamiyala, described how exactly ten years ago this year Nolence Mwangwego, a teacher of the French language, launched his unique style of writing called the Mangwego script. The then Minister of Youth, Sport and Culture Kamangadazi Chambalo lauded the invention, and expressed that government was going to show interest. Although one would have hoped that the minister himself would consider his presence at the launch as government interest, and take the lead in promoting the invention, very little has come out of that interest.

In April this year I was told, by Bright Malopa, about a farmer in Thyolo who invented an irrigation system that propels water from a river and pushes it upland and irrigates his farm. Levi Zeleza Manda tells me that this farmer’s name is Friday Nikoloma, and he works with a team of four other farmers. No Malawian needs convincing about the vital importance of irrigation in Malawi, given the erratic rains we get from time to time which in recent years have caused severe food shortages. We are uniquely blessed with a huge lake, and a big river, which we have so far been unable to utilize for agricultural and food security purposes.

Another Malawian farmer who has also beaten the odds and sidestepped a stifling conventional educational system is Dr. Chinkuntha, of Dowa, said to have devised a farming system that also defies erratic rainfall. Dr. Chinkuntha never went to university, but his farming system is frequented by university researchers and students who come from beyond Malawi and the Africa region to marvel at his genius. The University of Malawi has recognized his achievements by awarding him an honorary doctorate.

I am sure there would be more stories of such type if one looked hard enough. Not all of them will receive the recognition they deserve, but without the opportunities new media technologies make possible, it would be even harder to know about these inspiring stories and learn from them. In taking advantage of the new possibilities unleashed by technology, a laudable goal will be to work hard at bridging the so-called digital divide. This entails bringing down costs and making it less expensive for more ordinary people to afford them. Such a goal needs the participation of not only government and its parastatals, but also institutions and individuals with a self-less spirit and a desire to encourage and promote less privileged Malawians, who are in the majority, and always working very hard. Thus the change we envisage in beliefs about educational practices needs to be embraced by us all in the way we understand our communities and what it means to use the spirit of uMunthu and appreciate how the success of one is the success of us all.

[In addition to William Kamkwamba's own blog, and many others that have picked up his story, the blog African Path is presenting developments in his life as they unfold.]

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