afrika aphukira

Midwiving the Afrikan rebirth. . . Views of Afrika and the world, on the path to the renaissance, from a social justice and an Afrikan epistemological perspective--uMunthu. Includes specific commentary on Malawi and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Angry teachers: class and contempt in Malawian society

One September morning in 2013 I was walking into my office building in Lilongwe when I noticed a huge crowd swarming around the notice board. My office is located inside a district education office, and teachers visit on a daily basis. But the young people crowding around the notice board on this day were not teachers. 

They were prospective student teachers. They had applied for openings in the Open and Distance Learning (ODL) teacher education programme, and had come to find out if they had been selected. This district office was the nearest centre they could visit to find out their results. Some of them had walked long distances on foot, others had used their hard-earned money to come by public transport.

I went on twitter and asked if there were computer programmers who could come up with mobile phone applications that would save these teachers long kilometres of walking or hundreds of kwacha for transport. A number of programmers expressed interest in the idea, and we agreed to meet. Using Facebook, we extended the invitation to teachers, and two female teachers joined our meeting.

We held our second meeting a few weeks ago. We met at the school where the two female teachers teach. Out of twenty teachers on the school’s staff, nine attended. The purpose of the meeting was to learn from the teachers what kinds of solutions they would like to explore with the use of technology, using mobile phones or computers, to make their classroom work easier. I was in for a bit of a surprise.

Although it is located a short drive from the centre of the city of Lilongwe, in a relatively wealthy, medium-density location, this school has never had electricity in its entire nineteen-year history. Needless to say, there is not a single computer at the school. Nothing surprising there. Having become a ubiquitious feature in classrooms in wealthier parts of the world, computers are non-existent in classrooms in poor countries such as ours.

A Primary Education Adviser supervising a teacher
While each of the nine teachers who came to the meeting had a cellphone, only one was able to go on the Internet. She was the only one on Facebook. The majority of the children who attend the school are those of maids, garden boys, guards and other menial workers. The children of the residents of the area go to expensive private schools.

It soon became pointless to talk about educational technology for classroom use, so the meeting turned into a free-for-all session in which the teachers let loose about their anger and frustrations:

Teachers in rural areas receive hardship allowances, but we in urban areas have worse hardships. The little salary we get goes to paying for minibuses or kabaza. We have too many children for one teacher. Too much record-keeping we have no time to prepare lessons. Rents are very high in cities.

We have served for eighteen years without a promotion. The few that get promoted wait for two years before their new salary is effected. When we try to go the ministry to enquire all receive are insults. Newer teachers are being promoted before our very eyes. No loan scheme. No medical scheme. I have bad lungs from inhaling chalk dust I need expensive specialist medical care twice a year and I can’t afford it. Reforms are imposed on us by senior officials who copy things from abroad where they go and eat fat allowances.  

We can’t even attend workshops locally. We introduce new ideas and others take credit for them. We nurse sick children, tend to injured students, handle blood, settle cases amongst students. Nurse, judge, teacher, all in one, no recognition. Now they are bringing the community to come and monitor us. Parents are entering classrooms and demanding to see our lesson plans and other records. . .

The first time I got a sense of how sore with anger Malawian teachers are was in 2004. I was doing field work, and I spent seven months talking to primary school teachers about conditions of their work. On my first day with these teachers in 2004, I had set aside two hours for the teachers to open up and describe the conditions in which they work. They were unstoppable. We spent the entire day on the topic, and they were only getting started.

Fast forward ten years, and the anger feels as raw as it felt in 2004. I realised, ten years ago, that our teachers have so many issues they keep bottled inside them and they are hungry for a chance to air them out. That is exactly how the teachers I met recently felt also. The past ten years have changed nothing in the way our teachers feel about the conditions of their work. They feel not only hopeless and helpless, they are convinced that nobody cares about their plight.

Even after I had explained twice that I had come during the lunch hour because I was not visiting them in any official capacity as I did not work for government, nor was I visiting them on behalf of the NGO that I work for, it did not matter. When I explained that my hope was for us to discuss things that we could do for ourselves as teachers, rather than waiting for someone to come and help us, I got some nods of agreement.

One thread that ran through the issues the teachers raised was one of disempowerment. They feel powerless to change anything. As if they have not had enough disrespect and disempowerment from everyone else, parents are now being empowered to come into the classroom and demand to see the teacher’s lesson plans. This is the lowest things can go, they said. Did they spend two years in college and ten years in the classroom only to end up reporting to a semi-literate parent who knew nothing about teaching? This they cannot take.


It was at this point that it started dawning on me the extent of the problem of accountability and class in this country. We are a highly segmented and class-divided country we refuse to be accountable to anybody we consider to be beneath us. This is a common human trait, and we are no exception. But our moral institutions have become too weakened to provide any framework for accountability to people we are expected to serve. If they are beneath us, they have to bow down to us, not the other way round. More problematic is that our political leaders excel at the rhetoric of humility when they fully know that in practice they expect us to worship them.

This is why many Malawians are pessimistic about the prospects of anything coming out of the on-going cashgate investigations. It is probably what was going on in the minds of those who partook of cashgate loot. With nobody to be accountable to, what was there to fear? This was best expressed by Watipaso Mkandawire in response to the article titled ‘Kudya Nawo: How Cashgate Became aMindset’ (The Lamp, February 2014 issue; also posted here).

Student Teachers from a DAPP TTC
Mkandawire argued that graft, greed and corruption were human problems that occurred even in countries where inequality is not as pronounced as it is in Malawi. “Our main enemy in Malawi,” wrote Mkandawire in a comment, “is our inability to create and maintain governance systems and enforcement [mechanisms] of those systems.”  He went on to give the example of how in countries where governance systems are observed and respected, being caught over-speeding or drink-driving results in a penalty. In Malawi, you can palm-grease the traffic police officer and get away with no penalty.

A society in which the teachers think of themselves as being at the bottom rung of the social ladder is a society in danger of cannibalising itself. If teachers cannot feel appreciated and see the rewards of hard work and dedication, they cannot teach hard work and dedication to their pupils. If a society cannot decide what values to inculcate in their children, and demonstrate those values in deed, that society cannot offer much inspiration to the next generation.

But it need not be that way. It is up to those Malawian teachers who understand the roots of this problem who can take up the mantle and begin to change things. It begins with how teachers are taught, and how they are valued. The DAPP Teacher Training Colleges are a good example of how teachers can be taught to be self-empowered problem-solvers. Empowerment is a self-authored process. Nobody can empower you. You can only empower yourself. For a fresh start, let us begin with the children, and those who teach them.

Note: A version of this article appeared in the Malawi News edition of Saturday 8th March, 2014

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View blog reactions posted by steve sharra @ Monday, March 24, 2014

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