Building human libraries: Dr. wa Mutharika, food security and the Malawian elderly
The Nation newspaper in Malawi reports that its readers have voted the country's president, Dr. Bingu wa Mutharika, as the 'Nation Achiever' for the year 2007. Gracian Tukula, Editor of the Nation on Sunday, explains that the award is determined after a process that involves selecting a theme for that year, sending out nomination forms to a select group of people working in that focus area, inviting the general readership of the newspaper to also nominate their names, and having an independent committee sort out the nominations and count the votes. Following Dr. wa Mutharika's award, Tukula conducted an interview with the president, in which he expounds new thinking in Malawi about elderly and retired people. In the same interview the president also describes his government's recent success in dealing with a perennial famine problem .
Let's start with the issue of elderly and retired people. The elderly and retired people are the reason behind Dr. wa Mutharika's establishment of the Bingu Silver Grey Foundation. I have seen the foundation mentioned in Malawian papers and on the Internet a couple of times, but I never bothered to find out what it was. I don't know if it was because the foundation's name just didn't click with that part of my mind that lights up when something piques my curiosity.
Firstly, Dr. wa Mutharika's rationale for forming the foundation addresses one of the consequences emanating from the usually misleading concept of life expectancy, a concept that has never favored people from Third World societies. Bingu points out that the figure for Malawi has kept going down, plunging recently from 42 to 39 to 37. As a consequence, all the focus has been on young people, based on the assumption that there are very few Malawians living beyond those ages. Says the president: "This country has more people that are 60-plus than we ever knew."
Secondly, the idea behind the foundation lies at the heart of what I consider to be one of the most crucial indigenous modernity projects Malawi needs in order to cultivate better ways of understanding our problems and addressing them: knowledge production and dissemination. The foundation, according to the president, is aimed at bringing together the sum total knowledge reposited in the minds and experiences of elderly Malawians, making that knowledge deliberate, and sharing it with the majority of Malawians. We need to capture the president's thinking in full, with a lengthy quote: "We are here because these elderly people were here before us. They cared for us as we grew up. Therefore, we owe a deep debt of gratitude to them and we need to come in when they are unable to take care of themselves. As a matter of fact, some of the elderly have a lot of skills in various trades. Some of them were good doctors, scientists, singers, dancers and so on. So, I am trying to bring retired people together to ask them that why don't you transfer the vast knowledge and skills you have to the young people so that they are not buried with you. In the Orient — China, India, Thailand, Bangladesh and other countries — they have got things that they have been doing for 5,000 years and these were not written but were being passed on from one generation to another. After doing something for some time the father will teach the son and so on. I want Malawians to develop that spirit so that we can pass on the knowledge."
trained using these methods are, in comparison with the indigenous ones, appallingly small, leading to the exclusionary and elitist consequences we see in Malawi and other societies today. This results in restricted access to opportunities for social mobility and the cultivation of the human capital inherent in every breathing being.
Malawians are fond of accusing each other of jealousy and envy. Many people who single out these vices as the bane of Malawian society fail to bring the historical and sociological context knowledge production into consideration and as a result make this generalized accusation in a rather shallow, uncritical and unanalytical way. Unfortunately this includes President wa Mutharika himself, as when he tells Tukula in the interview: "The difficulty with our politics is that it is based on hatred, jealousy and envy. 'I don't like him and he must go.' We cannot progress like that."
historical, classist and socioeconomic contexts of jealousy in Malawi, we are advancing very few solutions to effectively deal with the problem. Would it be unreasonable to speculate that our failure to better understand the root causes of problems of jealousy in Malawi are partly a result of our failure to make use of the memories and experiences of our elders, who surely ought to be able to provide us with broader perspectives on the changes Malawian society has undergone over the last several decades?
While we are still on this question, it might also be interpreted as hypocritical, by some, that the president is talking about hatred and jealousy in Malawi amidst rumors that his government gave 2000 fertilizer coupons to each member of the president's cabinet, for distribution to supporters of the president's political party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), as alleged in the media. The allegation has also been repeated by Hon. John Tembo, leader of opposition in parliament and president of former ruling party the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), in an interview on his arrival from South Africa recently (Nyasatimes, Dec. 29, 2007). If such allegations pan out to harbor elements of truth, it will be difficult to take the president seriously in his comments about jealousy in Malawi.
One would want to learn more about the Bingu Silver Grey Foundation and what specific programs it is engaged in. But as is the practice with many Malawian institutions, they do not seem to have a place where one can make a first stop in the quest to learn more. One sees the foundation mentioned in many articles online, but no official website for the foundation comes up. As Victor Kaonga writes about the Internet in Malawi, many Malawian politicians are Internet shy and hardly make use of new media technologies. One hopes the foundation does have a website, or that they will construct one soon if they haven't already.
On a slightly different topic, that of the globally touted "Malawian solution to famine," the president tells Tukula that he is "encouraged to see people working hard to produce more food than just for their subsistence so that they can sell the surplus and use the money for other needs. That can only help the country's economy." He goes on to mention his government's program on irrigation, observing that so far the successes the country has registered have been made possible by good rains. The president says: "I am aware that if rain fails, agriculture fails and that means the economy also fails." Focusing on irrigation is a far more reliable way of consolidating the country's gains in food security that in fertilizer and seed input alone, for a drought-prone belt like the one Malawi lies in.
But there is one thing that might also need to be discussed in conjunction with food security in Malawi. From what I have seen lately in rural Dowa, Salima and Lilongwe districts, this farming season a lot of subsistence farmers have planted far more tobacco than they usually do. I don't have numbers to back this up, but it looks as if many farmers in these areas are planting more tobacco than maize, the staple crop. The reason is probably due to the good prices tobacco fetched at the auction floors this past market season. Should this end up being a widespread phenomenon, might there be a danger that come harvest time people will find themselves with an abundance of tobacco crop, and a deficit of maize? Apparently not, according to Dr. Thandika Mkandawire, who argues, in a Nyasanet response to this article, that venturing out of subsistence maize production into cash crops might be a sign that Malawi might be on the verge of turning the corner:
[It] would well be that now that we seem to have found a "technology" (or mini Green Revolution) to double maize output, we are ready to move beyond subsistence agriculture. Farmers who were barely able to feed themselves on less than two hectares may now be able feed themselves on half the land and use the other half for non-food cash crops. In some cases farmers may have considerable surpluses from the previous year to allow them to take the risk on commercial crops.Dr. Mkandawire goes on to observe that "the increased maize production may reduce risk aversion and may finally have provided a reasonable basis for venturing into other crops," adding that Malawi just has "to get [. . .] out of subsistence farming."
When Dr. wa Mutharika went ahead with the subsidy program for farm inputs, he was going against the stipulations from international financial institutions, who approve of farm subsidies for their own farmers, but not for Third World farmers. Dr. wa Mutharika has been widely praised for having brought food security to a country that was devastated by drought and starvation twice in a space of four years. By establishing a foundation to mobilize and utilize libraries of human knowledge stashed away in the minds of elderly and retired people, the president might also be seen as going against international trends which write off elderly and retired people because of a misleading socio-econometric measure. Dr. wa Mutharika will have to find ways of resisting the temptation to divert state resources and use incumbency power for the benefit of his private foundation. Otherwise, in the context of Malawian life, it can be debated whether it makes more sense to establish a foundation whilst in office, as opposed to when one has exited office. The president will also have to broaden the new thinking about the elderly and the retired, so as to involve more Malawian institutions and individuals in harnessing and utilizing the knowledge they have to offer.
What must not be lost sight of, however, is the anti-establishment pedigree that marks so far two ideas that Mutharika has put his mind to, and has defied so-called international convention. With the tendency to analyze African leaders and their countries based on how they measure up to European and American standards, Africa needs more leaders who can serve their people, in an informed, thoughtful and meaningful way, regardless of externally referenced criteria.