I have lost count of how many times I have heard the term “harmful cultural practices.” One would think that every aspect of what is supposedly Malawian “culture” is harmful, and must be stopped. The problem is not whether some practices are harmful or not, rather it is what constitutes our understanding of what we call “cultural”. A lot of what is called “cultural” in this particular context has nothing to do with culture. It has everything to do with gender-based violence and abuse fomented by economic, political, social and gender dynamics that masquerade as “culture” when they are not.
Notwithstanding the onslaught that is threatening to obliterate everything to do with “culture”, the country has seen an unprecedented proliferation of cultural preservation groups. While some of these groups have organised quietly and with noble goals, others have taken advantage of the political fortunes of their clansmen and women, and sought political mileage out of ethnicity. In critiquing how we define culture, we are not dismissing the existence of genuine culture and institutions that define a society. Rather, we are guarding against the abuses and excesses of the concept of culture and the tendency for political hijacking of government structures.
|Performing artist Masankho Banda performing a story at TEDxLilongwe, 25th May 2013|
It is difficult, but extremely important, to distinguish between cultural preservation and ethnic chauvinism. The difficulty becomes more prominent when we factor in the recalcitrance of our political class to observe separation of powers. Whenever you hear the cry “Bomaaaa” it is usually from party diehards who see their ruling political party and the government as one and the same. It is a hangover from the one-party era that we have failed to cure.
Cultural preservation is an important part of national development, and it must be supported by government infrastructure through constitutional provisions and educational programmes. Separated from political party machinations, government support for cultural preservation provides a level playing field for all ethnicities. We are coming from a history of ethnic chauvinism in which some ethnicities were privileged over others. That set the tempo for how successive governments and their ruling parties have treated the issue of ethnic nationalism.
The reasons why Malawian ethnic groups are clamouring to be recognised may sound counter-tuitive, at first glance. We are yet to deal with the legacy of colonialism which entrenched in us an inferiority complex about our culture, our identity, and our very being. Religions that were imported into the country succeeded on the back of the success of that campaign to inferiorise our very core identity. We have never recovered from that spiritual vanquishing.
It is this recognition that ought to guide the government’s role in restoring cultural pride. If colonialism defeated us on the basis of our identity, any rebirth we wish to initiate will have to be based on reclaiming our worth as human beings. This will be very hard, particularly for those of us convinced that nothing in our existential identity is worth salvaging.
We pay a heavy price for the inferiority complex imposed on us. Our political class has abandoned all sense of agency in taking control of our destiny. We see all social problems as beyond our capacity to deal with them. We scorn and abandon everything that reminds us of our ancient past, which we have been schooled had nothing to do with greatness. Even the efforts we are making at cultural revival are merely cosmetic. What they are achieving to revive are the outward manifestations of culture, in the form of dances, rituals and regalia. These do have their place in cultural preservation, but they do not form the complete cultural agenda.
For this cultural revival to be meaningful, we need to deepen our understanding of the bigger purposes of why we exist as a people. We need to go beyond the outward appearance of culture and identify beliefs and attitudes that affirm our existence and develop our sense of community. This calls for a critical examination of the structures we have inherited for governance and development. We have inherited systems that privilege very few people while marginalising the majority of Malawians. The development agenda in our country is in the hands of only those who can understand the English language, yet the majority of Malawians do not use that language.
This is why even after nearly five decades of independence, the majority of Malawians have not been afforded the opportunity of a meaningful education. A meaningful education does not confer upon one knowledge for the sake of knowledge only. Education entails a deeper understanding of one’s purpose for existing and for belonging in a community. Our guiding purpose ought to be making Malawi a better place than we found it, starting in our homes and in our community. An education that alienates people from their community and their culture is not only retrogressive, it is outright dangerous.
But cultural preservation does not mean holding on to beliefs and practices that have clearly proved to be harmful to individuals and to societies. Cultural development entails a critical outlook, learning about other societies and adopting new ideas. But this learning has to be on our terms, rather than on the terms of those we would like to learn from. This is where the government’s role in cultural development lies. We must never allow individuals to distort the essence of cultural revival by hijacking government structures for political ends. That will be our undoing.
Note: This article appeared in the Sunday Times Oped debate on 16th June, 2013, under the title Government has a role in cultural revival