Thursday, July 24, 2008

Son of the Soil? Pan-Africanism & Third World Prospects in a Possible Obama Presidency

The exclamatory commentary that has accompanied Barack Obama’s ascendancy to the nomination of the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate has excited, beneath it, the question of what the nomination itself, and a possible Obama presidency, might mean for the Pan-Africanist world as well as the Third World. While much of the commentary has been laudatory, there have also been cautionary tones, not to mention ambivalent ones. Beyond the excitement, caution and ambivalence of what a possible Obama presidency might entail for Pan-Africa and the Third World, what Obama himself has said in his writing, and has not said, might prove to be revelatory in attempting to explore the discussion that has exercised many minds around the world. 

We take this exploration by examining some of the issues that have been raised by editorialists and columnists, bloggers and other commentators in Africa and beyond. We also delve into what Obama himself has said in his two best-belling books, as we ponder how the significance of a possible Obama presidency may be realized more in the symbolic transformation of perceptions of race, racism and racial identity in the US and in the world, than in what the office of the US presidency itself is capable or incapable of achieving.

First, a word about my use of the terms “Pan-Africa” and “Pan-Africanism.” The Pan-Africa I am referring to here is the one that builds on the ideological consciousness of the global historical experiences and identities of people of African descent, and others who share that ideology for political and solidarity purposes. It is a Pan-Africanist consciousness that draws from DuBois’s hope, back in 1897, that if Africans were to be a factor in the history of the world, it would have to be through a Pan-African movement. Thus when Ghana became independent from Britain in 1957, Du Bois, unable to attend the epochal occasion due to his passport being impounded by the US government, handed over the mantle of the Pan-Africanist movement to Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, through a letter that he wrote and had delivered to Nkrumah.

The 1966 military coup that overthrew Nkrumah as Ghana’s president dealt a big blow to a Pan-Africanist movement that had achieved a great deal for people of African descent, especially in Africa. The shared African identity and global consciousness spawned by Pan-Africanist ideology played a key role in mobilizing support amongst African and Third World regions in overthrowing colonialism. In the United States, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King both looked up to the Pan-African world for solidarity in overcoming American racism. With Nkrumah gone, the ideals of Pan-Africanism began atrophying, to the extent that in the 21st century today there is no discernible movement that concerns itself with the problems that afflict Africa and people of African descent around the world. But there is no question that such a movement is as necessary today as it was in the 1950s and 60s.

In his autobiography Dreams From My Father, Barack Obama has demonstrated his awareness of both a Pan-Africanist and Third World consciousness, but for the nationalist demands of American politics today, he has not made that awareness a part of his campaign platform. But those who know Obama’s autobiographical instincts in guiding his best judgments know that his upbringing and struggle to identify himself are a core part of who he is. And it is his autobiographical narrative that has appealed to people around the globe. Thus while heeding the call to be cautious in speculating what a possible Obama presidency might do for the Pan-African world, it is worth discussing the extent to which Obama’s narrative in itself has the potential to influence new visions and energies in the study of the Pan-African world and its future prospects. Those energies have been on display in many places around the world, not least in Kenya, where Obama’s father came from.

A June 5th editorial in The Daily Nation of Kenya, where Obama’s father, a Harvard Ph.D., hailed from, offered three reasons as to why Africans were celebrating Obama’s victory. The first reason had to do with Obama being “the first African American ever to win nomination to vie for the presidency of the world’s sole super-power.” Second, Obama was considered “a son of Africa” who has excelled in the world. And thirdly, Obama was “a son of Kenya,” since Obama traced “his roots” back to his fatherland, Kenya, in “the present-day Siaya District.” The three reasons culminated into one huge hope: Africans were hopeful that “with this win, ‘their son’ will implement Africa-friendly policies that could uplift the continent from poverty.”

In the June 8th edition of The Sunday Times of Rwanda, columnist Frank Kagabo also reflected Obama’s blood connection to Africa, observing that Obama had “relatives living in third world poverty,” a fact which would help African people feel “good and know that nothing is impossible no matter where you come from.” In the Malawian parliament, The Daily Times quoted opposition Malawi Congress Party member of parliament Boniface Kadzamira as congratulating Senator Obama, paraphrasing the parliamentarian as saying Malawi was “likely to benefit if he wins the presidential election this August” [sic]. Hon. Kadzamira was also quoted offering a snippet of how Obama’s foreign policy might look like “He says he is likely to move away from the policies of sanctions, which has hurt countries like Zimbabwe, to negotiation. He says he will have tough aid conditions and will move away from the weapons of mass destruction to mass reconstruction”.

The Harvard University-based blog aggregating project, Global Voices Online, housed in the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, has been culling blog commentary on the American elections from outside the United States, on a website called Voices Without Votes. Amongst the blogs the website is aggregating is The World Wants Obama Coalition, from where a link to the Caribbean World News announced a news item titled “Caribbean United Behind Obama”. Another linked blog, Globamania, sported the self-description, “Because the world believes in real change, too.” A round up of Kenyan bloggers by Global Voices author Rebecca Wanjiku was titled “Kenyan bloggers on Kenya’s most famous son, Barack Obama”.

But even amidst the hopes, adulations and expectations for what a “son of Africa” in the American White House could do for the continent, there have also been voices cautioning the hyped praise, and posing some searching questions. The Daily Nation’s editorial mentioned above asked: “But what is there for Africa in the American elections?” It went further still, asking: would Obama manage to “overcome the strong lobby groups that control American foreign policy and that have very little time for Africa?” More unflattering commentary came from Rasna Warah, writing in the June 9th edition of The Daily Nation, who wielded a sharp knife over the blood ties everyone was happy to evoke. Warah’s title was upfront and blunt: “We cannot lay claims on Obama; he’s not one of us”. Warah went on to state: “What everyone seems to be forgetting is that Barack Obama is an American, not a Kenyan. His roots may lie in Kenya, but he was born and raised in the United States, and his loyalty lies with that nation, not with ours.”

As evidence for her argument, Warah cited Obama’s own words spoken when he visited Kenya as a United States Senator, in August of 2006. She quoted Obama as saying: “As a US Senator, my country and other nations have an obligation and self-interest in being full partners with Kenya and Africa. And I will do my part to shape an intelligent foreign policy that promotes peace and prosperity.” As for Obama’s autobiography Dreams From my Father, which Obama wrote after returning from Kenya and graduating from Harvard Law School, Warah suggested that “curiosity about his roots” was the real reason Obama visited his fatherland for the first time ever, in the summer of 1988. It was “not deep love for this country,” said Warah.

By far the most authoritative statement of caution if not negation came from Dr. Makau Mutua, Dean and University Distinguished Professor of Law at State University of New York at Buffalo, and chair of the Kenyan Human Rights Commission. Writing in the Daily Nation of June 5th, Dr. Mutua started out by quipping that the reaction to Obama’s clinching of the Democratic nomination was as if Obama was “poised to become” the president of Kenya, or indeed Africa. The reasons, Dr. Mutua said, were three-fold: “national, racial, and ethnic pride that a black man can become ‘king’ of the empire.” Dr. Mutua then set out to demolish the expectations edifice by pointing out “the nature of the US as a state, and the character of the American presidency” as the reasons why he was urging caution to the hype of what Obama would do for the continent. 

Dr. Mutua contrasted between the way Africans and Americans see the office of the president as being responsible for the mounting expectations on Obama. “Africans think of presidents as omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent”, wrote Dr. Mutua, saying that in Africa that perception gave the president enormous powers which ultimately determined what citizens could gain or lose. It was what created what Dr. Mutua called “tribal barons.” Not so with American politics, in which “the American presidency is a highly circumscribed office that is subject to larger national interests on which there is consensus about the purpose of government.”

What would prevent a President Obama from being helpful to Africa then were the two core functions of the American presidency: to “develop and implement a foreign policy to enhance US interests and pursue a domestic policy that will bring economic prosperity to the nation.” It was in the service of those two functions that America’s role in the world had been historically shaped, and continued to be, limiting the scope of what an individual president could do, even as he or she brought his or her personality and individuality to what is considered the most powerful leadership position in the world. 

Here Dr. Mutua went deeper than anybody has been daring to, to expose America as an empire whose wealth and might have been built on a foundation that has dialectically entailed the exploitation and destruction of Africa. “Why am I pessimistic about the prospects of an Obama presidency for Africa?” asked Dr. Mutua. The answer, he offered, lay in America’s “structurally racist and exploitative relationship with Africa. In slavery – the brutal capture, transportation, sale and exploitation of Africans to build America – and the support by the United States of Cold War despots in Africa, lies the destructive relationship between black people and America.”

As an analytical insight, Dr. Mutua’s explanation went to the heart of a historical truth that has largely been avoided by most commentators, including Obama’s own positioning of himself vis-a-viz his identity. “It is partly because of these traumas,” explained Dr. Mutua, “that Africa is so underdeveloped and marginalised in global politics. That is why to America Africa has either been an afterthought or an object of pity and charity. It would require an ideological shift by the US to change its relationship with Africa to base it on equality, fair trade and investment, and a voice for Africans in global institutions.” As such, no individual American president can achieve the kind of paradigm shift that would turn around America’s image of Africa: “These are not steps that a president can take alone because they affect fundamental American interests, and would call for a realignment of US foreign policy so that it is not simply Eurocentric.”

Dr. Mutua’s realistic analysis of what the American presidency looks like and how its foreign and domestic policy mandates shape the scope and limits of what the American presidency can achieve points to an important distinction that has to be made between the president as an individual and the president as an institution. As an individual, we only have to hark back to Obama’s autobiography, Dreams From My Father. As I pointed out in my recent blog article on Obama, the personal importance of Africa to Barack Obama is not only evident in the book, it is profound to Obama’s own identity. The way Obama treats Kenya in Dreams From My Father leaves us in no doubt about this. 

In the book, Obama takes 450 pages to offer an intimate look into his life, from early days in Hawaii, Indonesia, Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, to an epochal homecoming in Kenya. The amount of detail Obama dedicates to his life in the United States and Indonesia, where he lived all his life hitherto, contrasts sharply with the one third of the book that he devotes to Kenya, where he only spent three months. His days at Harvard Law School are given a mere two sentences (p. 437).

Contrary to Rasna Warah’s suggestion that Obama went to Kenya more out of curiosity than love of the country, the answer to Obama’s deep search for identity is finally consummated and revealed in Kenya, right from the moment he steps foot on the soil. It is worth reproducing, again, the paragraph that puts Obama’s quest for identity to rest, when somebody recognizes his name in an instant:

“That had never happened before, I realized; not in Hawaii, not in Indonesia, not in L.A., or New York or Chicago. For the first time in my life, I felt the comfort, the firmness of identity that a name might provide, how it could carry an entire history in other people’s memories, so that they might nod and say knowingly, ‘Oh, you are so and so’s son.’ No one here in Kenya would ask how to spell my name, or mangle it with an unfamiliar tongue. My name belonged and so I belonged, drawn into a web of relationships, alliances and grudges that I did not yet understand” (p. 305).

However the reasons for caution in imagining what an Obama presidency may do for Africa and the Third World are equally sobering. By the time we get to the US senate and to his next book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (2006), Africa has pretty much disappeared from Obama’s narrative, replaced by distant references that characterize much of mainstream Western attitudes about Africa. Missing even from the Index, Africa is mentioned only perfunctorily, no longer as the place Obama spent a lifetime yearning for, but rather as the known poster child for the world’s worst maladies and disorder. “There are times when considering the plight of Africa—the millions racked by AIDS, the constant droughts and famines, the dictatorships, the pervasive corruption, the brutality of twelve-year-old guerillas who know nothing but war wielding machetes or AK-47s—I find myself plunged into cynicism and despair” (p. 319). 

But Obama is also aware of the progress Africa has made, citing Uganda’s success with the AIDS pandemic, and the end of civil war in countries like Mozambique. He observes that “there are positive trends in Africa often hidden in the news of despair, while at the same time clinging to an Afropessimism that warns: “We should not expect to help Africa if Africa ultimately proves unwilling to help itself” (ibid.).

Obama is also able to go beyond the average politician in his candidness about the ravages brought on Indonesia and other parts of the world by the ideological juggernaut of US foreign policy. In a chapter titled “The World Beyond Our Borders,” Obama dwells on how Indonesians find it puzzling that “most Americans can’t locate Indonesia on a map,” given the role that US foreign policy has played in the fate of Indonesia “for the past 60 years” (p. 272). Providing a brief historical account of this role, Obama describes how the CIA provided “covert support to various insurgencies inside Indonesia, and cultivated close links with Indonesia’s military officers, many of whom had been trained in the United States” (p. 273). The military then went ahead and “began a massive purge of communists and their sympathizers,” leading somewhere between 500,000 and one million deaths, “with 750,000 others imprisoned or forced into exile” (ibid.).

Obama’s candor continues throughout the chapter, noting that “our record is mixed—not just in Indonesia but across the world” (p. 280). He calls American foreign policy “a jumble of warring impulses,” at times farsighted and serving the mutual interests of both the United States and other nations, and at other times making “for a more dangerous world” (ibid.). His take on Iran ought to be enlightening in light of the current saber-rattling and familiar drum beat toward another a possible military strike: “Occasionally, U.S. covert operations would engineer the removal of democratically elected leaders in countries like Iran—with seismic repercussions that haunt us to this day” (p. 286). 

Yet Obama is no dogmatic ideologue, finding himself “in the curious position of defending aspects of Reagan’s worldview” in debates with friends on the left. He charges that progressives were eager to indict US complicity in the brutalities that took place in Chile, yet were less so in criticizing oppression in the communist bloc. Nor was he persuaded that US corporations and global trade “were single-handedly responsible for poverty around the world; nobody forced corrupt leaders in Third World countries to steal from their people” (p. 289).

Needless to say, such candor is as rare amongst US politicians as is knowledge of what US foreign policy has been up to around the world, in the general populace, according to several writers and thinkers, including John Perkins, Gore Vidal, Noam Chomsky, Carl Mirra, Stephen Hiatt, amongst others. Many of these thinkers have also pointed out how while some Third World leaders are indeed corrupt, Western multinational corporations, backed by a deliberate, strategic foreign policy, create the very infrastructure that facilitates the corruption, and are actually corrupt themselves. 

According to Perkins, Hiatt, Patrick Bond, John Christiansen, Amit Basole, Leonce Ndikumana, James Boyce, among others, this is done through debt ensnaring, off-shore tax havens, trade mispricing, and dubious advice from the IMF and the World Bank, whose complicity with foreign policy and multinational corporate interests has led to trillions of dollars being emptied out of Third World countries and poured into Western economies. This is the corruption and the looting of the Third World that has best been captured by John Perkins’ term “corporatocracy” in his 2004 book Confessions of an Economic Hitman. Stephen Hiatt’s 2007 edited collection of essays, A Game As Old As Empire shows how pervasive the nexus of economic hitmen has become, and how closely aligned the system is between foreign policy and corporate interests.

In the final analysis, the significance of an Obama presidency for Pan-Africa and the Third World will lie less in what Barack Obama may or may not be able to do for people of African descent than in the symbolic message that his ascendancy to the most powerful office in the world will do in changing black people’s perceptions of who they are in the world, and how others view them. That has been the underlying, implicit cause of the renewed hope in what has been said by the Kenyans, the Malawians, the South Africans, the Nigerians, Caribbean commentators, and in fact every one else around the world who has joined in the celebration. 

While the office of the US presidency may limit Obama’s actual impact on Pan-Africa and the Third World, as Dr. Mutua warns, the symbolic importance of the achievement is what has the potential to go much further in offering a paradigm shift in the self-perception of a people whose destiny, according to Frantz Fanon, represents the possibility to refashion a new vision for the world, one beyond the limits set by European rationality and the consequences, both good and bad, that the Third World has reaped there from.

For that to happen, Obama’s own notion of what race and racism still mean in today’s America and how some minorities are overcoming it could shine some light on the path this transformation might take. Obama devotes a chapter in The Audacity of Hope to the topic of race, in which he offers both a stinging and sensitive portrayal of the bane of America’s ethnic identity, as well as the prospects of what can be achieved in breaking down racial barriers. Obama’s philosophy of race indicts residual and institutional racism, but also celebrates white people and black people alike who are able to overcome the vice and chart a new path for society. Those lessons ought to apply not only to America, but to the rest of the world as well, in the apt description of the global face of Obama’s extended family as a miniature portrait of the world:

“As the child of a black man and a white woman, someone who was born in the racial melting pot of Hawaii, with a sister who’s half Indonesian but who’s usually mistaken for Mexican or Puerto Rican, and a brother-in-law and a niece of Chinese descent, with some blood relatives who resemble Margaret Thatcher and others who could pass for Bernie Mac, so that family get-togethers over Christmas take on the appearance of a UN General Assembly meeting, I’ve never had the option of restricting my loyalties on the basis of race, or measuring my worth on the basis of tribe” (p. 231).

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Visiting Hungary, Recalling Malawi’s Recent History


Unsure as to how much English the average Hungarian speaks, I prepare for my 2008 Global Voices Citizen Media Summit trip to Budapest, the Hungarian capital, by reading up on the country and the language. I start by googling two Hungarian playwrights, Körnel Hámvai and Pál Békés whom I got to know in 1997 as fellow Honorary Fellows of the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program.

In addition, I find a Lonely Planet pocket guide for the Hungarian language, and start learning a few phrases. I post a message to the Global Voices 2008 Summit listserv, asking how much Hungarian I should try to cram in before I board the plane. I mention a few phrases I have learned, just to show off. Paula, a Brazilian who blogs from London, responds and exclaims how starkly different the Hungarian she has been learning is from the one I have posted. She provides a URL link to a podcast (a recording posted on the Internet) for first time visitors to Hungary, which I listen to on the plane. When I later meet up with Paula in Budapest, I suggest to her that one of us has been learning the swear version of Hungarian—we’re yet to find out who it is.

Hardly have I put down my things in my hotel room, and introduced myself to my roommate, when the phone rings. It’s Victor Kaonga, with whom we cover Malawian blogs for Global Voices. Victor arrived earlier in the day, and he asks what I am planning to do for dinner. When we get out of the Novotel Hotel with a group of other newly arrived participants, Nicholas, from the Caribbean, leads the way to a restaurant a few blocks away. It’s around 8pm, and the sun is still up in the sky on this Hungarian summer evening. Victor comments that Budapest looks more like an improved version of Blantyre. The buildings look old, a few of them could use some maintenance. It’s unlike Sweden, where Victor has lived for the last two years. On her facebook page, another newly arrived participant posts her photos, with the caption “Budapest, no skyscrapers!”.

By Sunday, the conference has clocked three days, and a group of us take the tramway (metro train) to see the Danube River. In the background, I am hearing music I can not believe I am actually hearing. It’s the song Patapata, the version not by Miriam Makeba but the one by Dorothy Masuka, which is the one I actually love more. I nudge Juliana, a Kenyan who blogs about the environment from Chicago, and ask her if she knows the song. “Can you believe we are listening to Patapata on the tramway in Budapest!”

A few hours later while resting near a bridge by the river, Victor asks me if my cellphone’s ringtone is on. I pull the phone out of my pocket, and the inbuilt mp3 player is blaring Lawrence Mbenjere’s “Chikwesa.”

“Ah!! I hope it hasn’t been playing in my pocket all this time!! Gees!” Then it dawns on me. “I swear they were playing Patapata by Dorothy Masuka when we were on the tramway!” I was so eager to commend the Hungarians for their worldly taste in music, but now I’m not so sure anymore. I can’t believe the trick my cell phone’s mp3 player has played on me.

We have stopped on the bank of the Danube River to wait for another group which has gone in a different direction. Juliana steps closer and whispers to everyone, “Be careful. Those three young men over there--they have been following us.” In front of us is a gigantic, white, squarish building, with inelegant windows going up maybe ten floors. An elderly man who has been sitting on a bench across from us gets up and approaches us. He gets very close, and lowering his voice, asks us “Do you know about this building that you are standing in front of?” He asks in a cracking voice, with a Hungarian accent. “During the communist regime, there was a meat-grinder inside. The communists threw people into the meat-grinder, and their bodies ended up in the river.” I ask him how long ago this was, and he says he is not sure, as he was living in America at the time. “Maybe twenty or thirty years ago,” he says, before walking back to his bench.

We are stunned with the news. The other group returns, and the ever-cheerful Neha, an Indian blogger based in London, notices our mood. “Why is everyone looking so gloomy? You are so sad.” Victor turns to Neha and repeats to her the story we just heard. A few others on Neha’s heels close in to listen too. Everyone gasps in horror. “And it gets worse, Neha,” I say. “There’s worse news. I don’t know if you can handle it.”

“I can handle it.”

“It requires nerves.”

“I have the nerves. Tell me.”

“The fish we have been eating in the hotel? Comes from this river.”

Neha throws her arms in the air and shouts joyfully: “Thank God! I’m a vegetarian!” She is joined by Razan, a Syrian blogger who lives in Beirut. “I knew there was a good reason why I am a vegetarian also.” Everyone realizes I have been joking, and the mood lightens up again. “I thought you were going to tell her about the Shire River,” remarks Victor.

We proceed to walk by the riverside, watching passenger boats sailing under the bridge. We continue taking pictures as we approach an impressive neo-Gothic structure with a tall, cathedral-like dome standing above everything else on the Pest side of the Danube’s riverbank. “That’s the Hungarian Parliament,” announces Amit, a photo-blogger from India. “It’s one of the largest parliament buildings in Europe.” It was built between 1885 and 1902, as I later read in a guidebook, and is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Budapest. It is called Országház in the Hungarian language. Across the Danube on the Buda side is another impressive, historic site. It’s the Budavári palota, The Royal Palace. It was originally built as a fortress starting in 1235 AD, and reached its peak of glory between 1458 and1490, according to the Green Guide for Hungary and Budapest.

By 9pm, the sun is setting and a twilight sets in. We continue taking more pictures, and begin looking for a tramway station to return to the Novotel Hotel. Everyone is hungry, and Moussa, from Beirut, suggests a Pizza Hut he visited the other day. By the time we find it, the finals of the Euro 2008 championship have already begun, and the bars and restaurants showing the match are packed. Victor and I decide we will take our dinner back to the hotel and watch the rest of the match there.

On the plane back home, I continue reading Michael Korda’s Journey to a Revolution: A Personal Memoir and History of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, which I started before the trip. I am struck by the way history has dealt with the Hungarian people. Korda’s description of the communist era in Hungary reads a lot like the recent history of Malawi during the one-party dictatorship. Another similarity: the Hungarians ended their communist era in the late 80s and 90s, the same period that Malawi ended its one-party dictatorship.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

uMunthu, Peace and Education: On Malawi's 44th Independence Anniversary

One morning at a school near Lake Chirwa in Zomba in 1972, pupils entering their Standard 8 classroom received the shock of their lives. The portrait of then Life President Ngwazi Dr. H. Kamuzu Banda had been defaced. Someone had drawn into the portrait a pair of spectacles, and had written unsavory comments about the then president. The pupils informed the teacher, who informed the school's head. The head immediately convened a staff meeting. After lengthy deliberations, the school administration agreed on investigating to find out who did it. The Standard 8 teacher went back to the classroom and asked for the culprit to turn himself in. Nobody volunteered any information.

After further deliberations amongst the staff, a decision was reached. Mwandilakwira, a Standard 8 pupil, would be expelled from the school and reported to the then District Education Office (DEO). Mwandilakwira protested his innocence, but the school administration responded by saying since he was the one who sat directly underneath the president’s portrait, he was probably the pupil who did this. Mwandilakwira was ordered never to come back to the school, and his name was reported to the DEO’s office. Mwandilakwira was also told that he was effectively banned from attending school in the entire Malawi.

That was thirty six years ago. Malawi has changed a great deal since then, especially in the last sixteen years. As we celebrate yet another independence anniversary, it is right and proper to ask what 44 years of independence has meant for us as a nation. This particular year I would like to ask this question from the perspective of a teacher as a way of reflecting on the role Malawian teachers play in building the nation and setting the country on a more peaceful and prosperous course.

For me, two things stand out as the most important for a future Malawi, and indeed the world, to have. First, I envision a future Malawi in which the ideals of uMunthu form the basis of our identity, and shape the form that all our endeavors take. Second, I envision a future Malawi that is blessed with peace and social justice and bestows on everyone equal chances of success and opportunities for the affirmation of everyone’s potential and talents. I see uMunthu as an ideal that pervades through these aspirations, knowing that the success of one person in a community is beneficial for, rather than a threat to, the whole community. Our Malawian elders were not wrong when they observed that Mwana wa mnzako ngwako yemwe, ukachenjera manja udya naye (your neighbor's child is your own, his/her success is your success too).

It wasn’t until 2004 that I first started thinking about uMunthu as a serious theme in envisioning the future of Malawi and the world. The day was Saturday, April 17th. The Catholic Diocese of Zomba ordained a new bishop on that day, Rt. Rev. Fr. Thomas Msusa, to take the place of Bishop Allan Chamgwera who had retired. I witnessed the beautifully choreographed and spiritually touching event at the grounds of Zomba Catholic Secondary School. In his speech, Bishop Msusa, who had left Nankhunda Seminary a few months before I set foot there in 1988, spoke of the problems Malawi was facing, and how we needed to “become as one.” He said those words had always been his guiding biblical wisdom from his seminary days. “The African worldview is about living as one family, belonging to God,” he said. “We say ‘I am because we are’, or in Chichewa kali kokha nkanyama, tili awiri ntiwanthu (when you are on your own you are as good as an animal of the wild; when there are two of you, you form a community).”

Listening to the newly ordained Bishop Msusa that afternoon harked my mind back to former Anglican Archbishop of the Diocese of Cape Town in South Africa, Desmond Tutu. A Nobel peace laureate, former Archbishop Desmond Tutu led his country, at the request of then President Nelson Mandela, in the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). In his memoirs narrating his reflections on how he experienced the TRC, No Future Without Forgiveness, Archbishop Tutu explains uBuntu as the philosophical essence that propelled the TRC. In the book the former Anglican archbishop offers a list of examples where uBuntu was the driving philosophy for many southern African countries who chose forgiveness over retaliation against white minority regimes upon attaining independence. Included on the list are Zimbabwe, Kenya and Namibia.

Some people point out that South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation process did not solve South Africa’s problems, and instead merely created new ones. While that may be true, with regard to what has been happening in South Africa especially in recent years and in particular this year, it is important not to blame the TRC for something it had no control over. South Africa’s problems are much more complex and difficult to understand than many of us are ready to accept. The failures of recent years belong into the broader global economic order which South Africa has been forced into by institutions with far more power than African governments can ever hope to wield. This is not to exculpate South African elites from blame, as part of the path the country has taken has been a matter of unprincipled choices in times of difficult global dilemmas. Our own country Malawi is caught up in similar influences that promote neoliberal economic competition and privatization, leaving many unable to participate, and therefore bitterly resentful. It is not always that we pause to ask ourselves the roots of the violent crime we witness in our everyday lives right here in Malawi.

Before 2004, I was not even aware that uMunthu had been the subject of serious academic and intellectual inquiry by leading Malawian and African philosophers, theologians, political scientists, and many others. Several Malawians have written entire books on the subject. They include Rev. Dr. Augustine Musopole who in 1994 published a book titled Being Human in Africa: Toward an African Christian Anthropology, Rev. Dr. Harvey Sindima who in 1995 published Africa’s Agenda: The Legacy of Liberalism and Colonialism in the Crisis of African Values, and Dr. Gerald Chigona, who in 2002 published a book titled uMunthu theology: Path of Integral Human Liberation Rooted in Jesus of Nazareth. In addition to the above books, University of Malawi scholars Richard Tambulasi and Happy Kayuni have published an article on uMunthu in Malawian politics during the one-party dictatorship and the first multiparty government. There have also been several newspaper and magazine articles on the topic, as well as performing arts groups and forums using the concept of uMunthu to describe their focus.

In my interviews with several Malawian primary school teachers since 2004, I have learned that uMunthu is a subject fit to be taught in our schools, from Standard 1 all the way to the university. This is especially important for teacher training colleges and other tertiary institutions. The teachers argued that many of Malawi’s problems of structural violence, inequality, exploitation and injustice spring from the absence of uMunthu ideals in the inculcation of values. The education system has a crucial role to play in promoting uMunthu in our society because the violence and injustice we see in our communities is in fact facilitated by the education system’s failure to offer a coherent value system that affirms our humanity and identity.

The presence of rigorously researched and analyzed treatises on the topic of uMunthu, amongst Malawians and other scholars elsewhere is an exhortation for us to make it central in our education system. In my work with Malawian primary teachers over the years, we have explored ways of teaching the values of uMunthu-based peace and social justice, even in learning areas as unlikely as Mathematics.

The consideration to make uMunthu and peace education central features of Malawian education at all levels involves rethinking the ways we train our primary school teachers also. Having been a primary school teacher myself, I have come to appreciate the need to enhance our teacher education process, to align it with the needs of present day Malawi. The two-year teacher training program has been helpful up to this point, but it has become outdated. Today’s and tomorrow’s Malawi needs teachers who are much more highly trained, who are provided the best of what our intellectual heritage has to offer. This requires making our universities an integral part of the training we give our primary school teachers. None of this can be done overnight, but that is no excuse to postpone important decisions and put them off to an unforeseeable future.

Young Malawians are bustling with intellectual energies ready to meet any academic challenges thrown their way. That is what Mwandilakwira proved to those who expelled him and banished him from attaining further education in Malawi.

After staying at home for two years without going to school, Mwandilakwira changed his name and enrolled at another school several kilometers away. There he excelled, and was selected to one of the best secondary schools in Malawi. Today he is the head of an important primary school.

Equipping teachers with the best training we can afford will be part of the process to ensure the type of future we envision for our country. It will enable teachers to assume their important role in society, in ways that empower them to uplift young Malawians, rather than attempt to destroy their future, as was the case with Mwandilakwira in 1972. Let us use the occasion of our independence anniversary to ponder the kind of future, and the kind of peace, we want for Malawi, and how best to plan for them.