Thursday, August 06, 2009

Mourning an Inspirational Malawian: Henry Chabwino Malunda, an Obituary

I woke up this morning and was greeted by the shocking news, via an email listserv, of the death of Henry Malunda. Henry was my immediate boss at the Malawi Institute of Education (MIE) when I worked there between 1994 and 1998. He is the one who taught me how to use a computer, an Apple Macintosh; how to do desktop publishing, and how to be an editor. Everything I learned about educational editing and publishing I learned from him. One of the exciting things for me to learn early on was seeing how to manipulate text in PageMaker (in those days) and turn it into a column the way it appears in newsprint. Just weeks before joining the editorial team at MIE I had been a Standard 7 teacher at Gunde Primary School in Ntcheu, near the border with Balaka. As a primary school teacher, chances of learning how to use a computer were next to none, then as it is today.

When I joined MIE in April 1994, Henry had just returned from Canada where he had pursued post-graduate studies in editing and publishing. Henry was a wonderful human being, and very well liked by everyone who knew him. He taught me compassion by showing me how concerned he was with my personal welfare. He once told me "Steve, we can't expect you to perform well at work when we haven't helped you sort out your personal welfare problems." In my very first lessons on how to use a computer, he had me sit down on the chair and face the screen, as he stood over my shoulder. He would then demonstrate things by having me do those things myself. His method of teaching somebody was not to just tell them by mere words, or to just do it for them, but rather to have the learner do things for themselves while he gave guidance. It is by far the most effective teaching method I have learned, one I have gone on to use myself.

It wasn’t until ten years later that the lesson Henry had taught me about how to teach would bear testimony for itself. I had returned to Malawi in February 2004 after a six-year absence to do field work for my dissertation research. I hadn’t had a chance to check my email for about a month, so when I finally found a dial-up connection in the MIE library, a line formed waiting for a turn on the terminal. It was the only Internet terminal intended for everyone, a staff of over 100. In practice, only the professionals, as the high-ranking curriculum specialists and administrators were referred to as, got an opportunity to use the Internet. It was mostly everyone with a university degree and above. The rest, known as Clerical, Technical and Support Staff (CTSs), composed mostly of everyone else who did not possess university degree, did not even attempt, except for the library staff (MIE now has high speed broadband Internet in most offices and buildings, since some two or so years ago.)

One morning in 2004, one of the CTS workers, whose ranks I had been one of during my four years there earlier in the 1990s, approached me and asked if I could help him send an email. I took him to the computer terminal, asked him to sit on the chair, and took him through a quick lesson on how to use the Internet. I explained the functions, and had him make the keystrokes and move the mouse. I overheard him later that day exclaiming how the Internet wasn’t such a mysterious thing after all; if only the bwanas would give people a chance to learn how to use it. I remembered exactly who had taught me how to teach like that, and what effect it had had on me when I was myself learning.

Henry also taught me another lesson I have found very useful to this day: start your work day by reading the newspaper and listening to the news first thing in the morning. "I don't like starting my day without knowing what is going on in the world," he once told me. And so it was that on the morning that news broke out that my children’s novel, Fleeing the War, had won first prize in the British Council’s Write a Story contest, in October 1995, it was Henry who broke the news to the MIE community.

I had bought my copy of The Nation that morning, where the news was first published, with no prior knowledge that the results of the long forgotten competition, which I had entered back in January that year, were out. I saw the story on the front page, but was too shy to go about celebrating it to everyone. I arrived at work, got into my office and sat down to begin the day’s work. I had hardly settled down on my desk when Henry bustled into the room and shouted “Congratulations, Steve! How come you just came in quietly without saying anything, as if nothing of this magnitude had happened at all?” We laughed heartily, and he went about announcing the happy news to everyone at work.

Fleeing the War would later be published into a children’s book, and three copies sent to each and every primary school and a few secondary schools in Malawi. On visiting a number of Teacher Development Centres (TDCs) in 2004, I was pleasantly surprised on a few occasions to introduce myself to staff, and be told, “Oh, we have your children’s book here!” Whereupon they would lead me inside and take me to the library corner, where a copy of the book was on display.

Henry had learned before I joined MIE that I had a passion for writing, and that I was freelancing for a few Malawian newspapers. He offered his encouragement by not merely congratulating me, but also reading my stories and engaging me in discussions about them. He was an avid reader and writer himself, frequently writing lengthy analytical features for Malawian newspapers. He was convinced that as editors of educational materials, we had a lot in common with, and to learn from, journalism. He was an intellectual in his own right, very well informed about Malawi's movers and shakers, and about world affairs.

It was through Henry Malunda that I learned of the 1994 release of the much-awaited book by Dr. John Lwanda, Kamuzu Banda of Malawi: A Study in Promise, Power and Paralysis (1993). Henry read the book in one sitting and came to work the next morning profusely recommending it to everyone. He was particularly fascinated by how deeply insightful and knowledgeable Dr. Lwanda was about the inner workings of Kamuzu's dictatorship. Henry was even more impressed by how current the book was, describing how it captured the very recent Malawi Army rapid and thorough routing of Kamuzu Banda's paramilitary wing, the Malawi Young Pioneers, in Operation Bwezani. I knew I had to buy my own copy and read the book, one of the earliest intellectual manifestations that Malawi was undergoing profound political change.

When the Malawi Institute of Journalism (MIJ) became fully operational in the late 1990s, Dr. James Ng'ombe hired Henry away from MIE, where Henry excelled at training Malawi's new crop of journalists in the post-dictatorship era. I corresponded with him for a while, during which time he forwarded me news bulletins from MIJ Radio, which I happily forwarded onto to other listservs.

Some two years ago the MIE administration convinced Henry to return to MIE to his old post as Editor, which he happily did. I last spoke with him less than a year ago when a schools project I was working on needed professional advice on educational publishing copyright. And there was no better-qualified person to answer that question than Henry.

I am deeply saddened to hear about his death, but I am content to know that he is in a better place now. Several years ago as we communicated back and forth when he was at MIJ, I wrote him an email in which I thanked him for everything he had done for me from the moment I joined MIE to the time I left. He is one of the people who have played a very important role in my life, giving me a leg up on my professional and intellectual itinerary, allowing me to embark on the few modest accomplishments I can lay claim to.

During my time at MIE, he led the editorial unit and developed it into an operation with state of the art equipment and cutting edge desktop publishing capacity. He led the team in developing and designing a style manual for educational editing and publishing in Malawi. Under the managerial aegis of Wise Chauluka, then publishing manager and assistant director at MIE, Henry oversaw the editing, designing, typesetting and publishing of the entire stock of textbooks that Malawian schools, teachers and pupils used up until PCAR three years ago. He probably continued from where he had left off when he returned to MIE two years ago, as ably as he probably did when he trained a whole generation of Malawian journalists during the years he spent at MIJ. He touched those who knew him, and left Malawi a much better place than he had found it.