Monday, September 23, 2013

Why I still believe in the African rebirth

Text of my talk at TEDxLilongwe, 25th May, 2013

Watch the Youtube video here

When I started blogging in 2005, I gave my blog a Chichewa name. Chichewa is my first language, spoken by more than 80 percent of Malawians. It’s also spoken in parts of Zambia, Mocambique and Zimbabwe. I gave my blog the name “Afrika Aphukira.” In Chichewa that translates as “Africa will have a rebirth.” It’s been eight years since, and every other African country seems to be undergoing a rebirth, with the exception of Malawi, if you ask the average Malawian.

Speakers at TEDxLilongwe, 25th May 2013

Two weeks ago, the Africa Progress Panel released the 2013 Africa Progress Report. The foreword, by Kofi Annan, chairperson of the Panel, starts with the following sentence: “Africa is standing on the edge of enormous opportunity.” Headlines from global media are salivating on new discoveries of mineral and oil deposits in the African soil. Sceptics have retorted with the line: Africa is rising but Africans are not. The same 2013 African Progress Report reveals that Africa is losing $34 billion annually from its mining and oil deals.

Researchers from Oxford University have given Malawi 74 years before the country can eradicate poverty. That gives us up until the year 2087. When I first saw this headline in the Daily Times of 22nd March this year, I thought of the millions of Malawians for whom daily life is a struggle. I thought of the glaring contradictions: glamorous shopping complexes facing the most dilapidated market squares, separated by a heavily potholed Devil Street.

I thought of this particular stretch in a busy part of Old Town Lilongwe: a bank, a superette, an expensive restaurant, a mobile phone company, and two upscale car dealerships. Look at the street running along these structures, and 74 years doesn’t look enough. Then I thought of those who had already had their poverty eradicated.

The African rebirth I am envisioning is not based on global media headlines. It is Africa-owned; it derives its meaning from the term ‘uMunthu.’ This word means personhood in Chichewa. uMunthu is about how our humanness is tied to that of others. We say “You are, therefore I am.” The question I always ask myself is: what would it look like if uMunthu were at the centre of social policy and governance? Let me illustrate this.

In June 2010 I met a group of teachers from several primary schools here in Lilongwe. The purpose for the meeting was to start what we hoped would be a forum where teachers would regularly meet and help one another become better teachers. A bigger goal was teacher empowerment; an attempt to address the helplessness and hopelessness many teachers feel about the conditions of their schools and their profession.

As I returned to my car at the end of the meeting, I was approached by one teacher. His name was Amos Matchakaza. Amos asked for a ride to a local college, where he was studying for his bachelors’ degree. I asked Amos how he was managing to pay for his bachelors’ degree courses from his teacher's salary. He said 90 percent of his salary went to pay for tuition. They had had their electricity disconnected because they couldn’t pay the bill. He was not eligible for any government loan, nor any form of support towards his higher education. He was only able to make it because his wife was also a primary school teacher.

That evening I tweeted about Amos. A friend of mine, and former classmate from primary school, sent me a direct message. His name was Hastings Fukula Nyekanyeka. He wanted to know more about Amos. Hastings promised to support Amos until he finished his bachelors’ degree. That was June 2011. In March this year 2013 Amos graduated with his degree.

On 10th November 2012 the weekly Malawi News published a story about Mike Demesterb Nkhoma. Nkhoma dropped out of Form One, first year of secondary school, because his father could not afford the school fees. He started working as a garden boy for a lecturer at the University of Malawi’s Kamuzu College of Nursing. Her name was Juliana Lunguzi.

Juliana sent Mike to a boarding secondary school. Mike scored distinctions in Mathematics, Agriculture and Biology, and was selected to the prestigious University of Malawi College of Medicine. Juliana kept supporting him, and in November 2012 Mike graduated as a medical doctor. Today Dr. Nkhoma is practicing medicine at Malawi’s biggest referral hospital, Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital.

Even more remarkable is the example Mike set for his sister. She had dropped out in Form Two, second year of secondary school, for the same reasons as her brother. She got married and went on to have four children. Her brother Mike’s story made her rethink her future. She went back to secondary school. She made it to the University of Malawi’s Kamuzu College of Nursing, and is in her final year of her bachelors’ degree programme. Then there is the story of William Kamkwamba, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.

The reason why many Malawians do not achieve their ambitions is how we look at human potential. We look at human potential as a fixed quantity. If one fails at school, they must be dull. This thinking leads to policies and practices that limit the potential of many Malawians. It has led to policies which favour heavy social investments in elitist structures, and little to no investment in the lives of poor people. That is why in Malawi today the government pays millions of Malawi kwacha every year to students attending public universities, while tens of thousands of younger Malawians drop out of primary and secondary school every year because they cannot afford the fees or the expenses associated with going to school.

In its Malawi Demographic and Health Survey 2010, the National Statistics Office reported that 70 percent of Malawians aged 18 years and above have never had a secondary school education. Some of the reasons for this are lack of resources and the size of the Malawian economy. But a less discussed factor is the assumption, prevalent in our policy making, that intelligence and human potential are limited.

The stories I have shared today confront these assumptions. These stories offer a beginning for us to define the rebirth of the country, and of the continent, on our terms. These stories are the reasons why I still believe in the coming rebirth of Malawi, and of Africa. They are the reason why I still believe in uMunthu. Thank you.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

What I saw the night Paul Mphwiyo was shot

I was in the Area 43 MASM clinic with three family members and a family friend when Paul Mphwiyo staggered into the ward we were in. It was around 11.30pm on Friday, September 13th. He was walking by himself, fully clad in his suit. He was holding a heavily bloodied bathing towel to his mouth. At first I thought the towel was brown in colour, but I realised it was the blood. A heavy trail of blood followed him. The nurses were directing him toward a bathroom that passed through the ward. The clinic’s water supply had stopped a few hours earlier.

Paul was talking, but it was inaudible. His wife and teenage daughter were following behind, together with a number of nurses. He went past us, and pushed open the bathroom door. One nurse instructed him to lie on a bed in the bathroom area. He was still trying to talk. I heard him say "I'm choking" a number of times. He was choking on his own blood. He was trying to cough out what I imagined to be one of the bullets. He was breathing painfully and unnaturally. It was extremely frightening.

At this point we didn't know who it was, but we heard the wife making frantic phone calls. We were able to piece together what she was saying on the phone and learned that he had been shot. We  asked the daughter who he was, and she told us his name. I immediately knew who it was, because he had been actively involved in the debate on whether to devalue the kwacha or not when Bingu was still alive. I also remembered the news item that announced he had been appointed as the new Director of Budget.

We asked the family if the police had been notified, and they said no. I dialled the "Ndakuona" number (0800900997). It went unanswered. I tried it several times, and nobody picked up. The wife asked for the number so she could also try it. Still nobody picked up. I then dialled the number of one Officer in Charge of a nearby police station. It too went unanswered. Several times. I then dialled the number of a CID officer I know. He answered. It was now exactly midnight. I explained to him what had happened, and that the Ndakuona number was not being answered for the entire half hour I was calling. He said he would call me back after a few minutes to give me other numbers to try. He called back after three minutes. He gave me numbers for a deputy Officer in Charge, and a CID head of a nearby police station. I tried both numbers; one went unanswered, the other was out of reach.

I sent out a tweet describing what had happened, and asking if there was a police officer on my timeline. I didn't mention the name. I tried Ndakuona yet again, still no response. Then I tried the two numbers one more time. The deputy officer in charge responded, and I gave him the details of the house, which Paul's daughter had given me.

Meanwhile, the nurses had put a call through to the doctor on call. He came within minutes. It was Dr. Hetherwick Ntaba. He took control of the situation, and managed to stabilise Paul's condition. He issued instructions to the nurses, and spoke to Paul in a calm, knowledgeable and authoritative voice. Dr Ntaba told Paul they needed to clear his air passage so he could breathe normally. Before long Paul stopped making the unnatural sounds. Had Dr Ntaba arrived half an hour later, I doubt Paul would still be alive. An ambulance arrived, and they quickly transported Paul to KCH. Another member of my family had asked Paul's daughter what their religion was, and she said they were Catholics. We called a friend in Area 43 and suggested they alert their parish priest. One parishioner drove to the priest's house and drove him to KCH. We left the MASM clinic at 1am.

When it was launched with lots of fanfare in 2012, the Ndakuona number  was a life saver. On three previous occasions when I have called the number, there has always been someone on the other end, taking calls. But the number has also been subjected to abuse. There have been reports of people calling the number not to report an emergency but to hurl insults at the police. Some have called the number and have sent police on false chases. The number fields calls from across the country, which I suspect might cause congestion and delays in sending out alerts to police patrols.

It is probably time to review the emergency response system for the police, hospitals, and other early responders. It was unsettling to know that Mphwiyo walked into a hospital that had no running water at that moment. The frantic scampering of the nurses indicated they were ill-prepared for that kind of emergency, but it was to their credit that they did the best they could before the doctor on call arrived.

One police emergency responder told me that the number is too unwieldy; you need to save it in your phone as it is ten digits long. Emergency numbers need to be short and easy to memorise. We have had 990 and 997 before, I am not sure why they were abandoned and replaced with a ten-digit number. In these days of GPS technology, it is possible to pin down the specific geo-location of a phone call.

People caught abusing the system need to face penalties. It may be time to consider ending the open system of acquiring mobile sim cards without having to register and submit one’s details. I realise this has implications for freedom of speech and rights to privacy, but what is the alternative, when the lives of Malawians are in danger?


In support of Malawian feminism

The debate Malawian women are having about gender and the political space is painful to watch, but it raises one question. Can this debate prove to be a turning point in the way Malawians discuss gender and politics? Regardless of how you answer this question, the challenge for men who don’t take gender as a matter of national importance, and women who don’t believe in the existence of patriarchy, is to respect the women engaged in the debate, and learn from them.

The most important lesson to have emerged out of the current discussion is that the women are holding an open debate about women’s role in leadership without men dictating the terms of the debate.  The debate is a practical application of feminism. It demonstrates that women can be free to disagree with President Joyce Banda, and can avoid falling into the uncritical position that they should vote for a president on the simplistic basis that she is a woman. Rather, the decision as to whether or not to vote for President Banda, as Jessie Kabwila and Seodi White argue, should be based on what she achieves for the empowerment of Malawian and African women.

This is a high order level of thinking, lacking in most debates Malawians have around our male presidents. As bell hooks (famous for preferring small letters and no capital letter in her name) writes in her book Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (2000), no other social justice movement has been as self-critical as the feminist movement. She adds that internal critique is critical to any political transformation. In my humble opinion, Malawian women are currently engaged in such an internal critique.

High order thinking

Since this debate started some weeks ago, I have heard from several women who disagree with Jessie Kabwila and Seodi White, the two feminists leading the argument about the need to vote based on achievement and not uncritical sisterhood. The point here is that the women who express the disagreement are themselves practising exactly the kind of critical analysis that Kabwila and White are calling for. These women are refusing to uncritically follow Kabwila and White on the simplistic basis that Kabwila and White are fellow women and therefore should not be criticised.

The intriguing thing is that some of the women I have heard criticising Kabwila and White are not doing it with the consciousness that they are in fact enhancing the terms of the debate and thereby helping change the way we conduct national discourse in this country. Some of them are expressing the criticism because they do find it objectionable that women activists are criticising a fellow woman occupying Malawi’s highest office.

Others are criticising Kabwila and Kapasula on the basis of political partisanship, seeing the criticism against President Banda as criticism aimed at their political party. A considerable number of women are worried about the tone set by Kabwila and White, seeing it as unnecessarily harsh and uncomfortably confrontational. Yet others are voicing their criticism for reasons of the very patriarchy that Kabwila and White are famed for waging battle against. It is not uncommon to hear women disavow the feminist label, drawing a distinction between a feminist and a woman activist.

The reason why some women are feeling scandalised and fatigued by the conduct of the debate is itself rooted in the very patriarchy Kabwila and White work hard to end. As the feminist saying goes, “well-behaved women seldom make history.” This saying should not be misunderstood to mean that women should be aiming at making history for the sake of it. Rather, it should signal to us the pressure many women feel to appear “well-behaved” in a society which defines women’s behaviour on men’s terms. This is the point that was picked up on by Kabwila and White from what President Joyce Banda said in her Nkhata Bay speech about the questionable marital status of some Malawian women activists.

The need for more women candidates in 2014

It is a pity that thus far President Joyce Banda is the only woman candidate in a field that is increasingly likely to be male-dominated, as it has always been. This is where the question being debated by the Malawian women activists comes in. It is a classic dilemma that has divided electorates across the world and across history: reducing the premise for choosing a candidate to a banal factor. In 1994, a lot of Malawians were reduced to this premise when they said “Bola wakuba yemweyo”, in reference to then-UDF presidential candidate Bakili Muluzi. In the 2004 presidential elections in the United States many Americans used the expression “Anybody but Bush”. In both elections, it was the candidate presented as the baser choice that won the election.

My personal preference for 2014 is to vote for a woman president. But there needs to be more women standing, otherwise the choice becomes constrained in the manner highlighted by this debate. This is not to say President Banda has no redeeming grace worthy people’s votes. A lot of international commentators are failing to understand why there seem to be two Joyce Bandas: the Joyce Banda causing so much debate and controversy within Malawi, and the Joyce Banda who has won the hearts of the rest of the world.

Presidency Banda’s ascendancy to the highest office happened at a time when Malawians were collectively re-evaluating their expectations of what Malawian leadership ought to achieve for ordinary Malawians. At the heart of that re-evaluation has been the question of whether the leadership this country has had since independence has been the key reason why development has been too sluggish. Add to that the problems in the economy and increasing socio-economic inequality between the tiny wealthy elites and the rest of us, President Banda’s presidency has been subjected to unprecedented levels of scrutiny.

In the early days of her presidency Dr. Joyce Banda sought to demonstrate a remarkable closeness to ordinary people, cutting a motherly figure with a strong African woman ethos. It persuaded some Malawians, and a lot of foreign observers, but not Malawian chauvinists, who were unable to imagine a woman taking charge while espousing the ethos of an African woman. Some observers detect a shift from the feminist ethos to a masculine tone that seeks to rival the streetwise machinations of her predecessors. The more she has resorted to that style, the louder the criticism has become.

Seizing the new moment

But the ascendancy of President Banda to Malawi’s highest office can be argued to be a fruit of the gradual shift in gains from the feminist and the women’s movements. Not because of the manner in which her predecessor vacated office, but because the occasion found her poised to assume the role. Despite his inner contradictions, the late Bingu wa Mutharika knew about the importance of women’s empowerment, even if he pursued it for his own political gain.

It is undeniable that Joyce Banda’s presidency has excited the echelons of women‘s leadership globally. Women leaders around the globe are organising themselves and planning to use her presidency as a turning point for how development is defined and delivered. This is a not conspiracy, but rather a serendipitous moment when Malawians and Africans are re-inventing the notion of development toward a more grassroots-oriented understanding of empowerment.

There are lessons to be learned from this debate. It is time Malawian men learned to respect women’s ways of debating, and to refrain from wanting to dictate the terms of those debates. To those men who are dismissing the debate as typical of women’s bickering, and to those women who are feeling embarrassed by the debate, take not that Malawian feminism is coming of age.


In the words of bell hooks (2000), “And even though trashing feminism has become commonplace, the reality remains: everyone has benefitted from the cultural revolutions put in place by contemporary feminist movement. It has changed how we see work, how we work, and how we love.” 

Note: A shorter version of this article appeared in the Malawi News of Saturday 14th September, 2013