Thursday, December 15, 2005

Paul Theroux's 'mythomaniacs' and Malawian burden

In his op-ed piece in today's New York Times, Paul Theroux points out the destructive myths that portray Africa as a place that can only be saved by outside help. Using the example of Malawi, where he taught as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1960s, and where he recently returned for a short visit, Mr. Theroux argues that Africa needs its doctors and teachers, trained on the public purse, to stay and work there, rather than immigrating to the global North.

Mr Theroux describes an Africa that is, in his words, "much lovelier, more peaceful and more resilient and, if not prosperous, innately more self-sufficient than it is usually portrayed." But because it appears to be unfinished and different, it attracts what he calls "mythomaniacs, people who wish to convince the world of their worth." Giving the example of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie holding babies in Ethiopia, Mr Theroux says "White celebrities busy-bodying in Africa loom especially large," reminding him of Tarzan and Jane.

The results of such Western antics, Mr. Theroux observes candidly and impressively, have been "violence to Africa's belief in itself," yet for all the resilience Africans have shown, in the face of bad leadership, nobody has given credit where it is due.

If Mr. Theroux had ended his op-ed here, and not gone on to reproduce stereotypes about Africa and ignore the impact of debt and the role of the West in worsening Africa's problems, I would have considered his ideas rare and dignified, worthy of the attention of anyone interested in hearing views on Africa not found in mainstream discourses. But Mr. Theroux has gone on to call Malawi a "failed state", to characterize Malawi's current president as being no better than the two previous presidents, and he has said nothing about the destabilizing role the West has played in Africa over the centuries and decades.

While Mr. Theroux dismisses the idea that Africa needs debt relief, his reasons are not about the immoralilty of the notion of Africa owing the West money, given the contexts in which Africa found itself needing loans and aid from the West. He dismisses the idea of debt relief, in addition to the idea of sending charity money to Africa, because, he says, the money is never accounted for.

Mr. Theroux appears oblivious to the amounts of money in question, and the larger problems that debt servicing causes. On May 29 this year the Scottish newspaper The Scotsman reported that Malawi receives $90 million in aid each year, and pays $162 million to service debt. A 2004 report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development revealed, according to The Green Left Weekly (of Australia) of June 29, 2005, that between 1970 and 2002 Africa received $540 billion in loans, and paid back $550 billion. Ken Wiwa wrote on July 4 this year that Nigeria started out with a debt of $5 billion. Since then Nigeria has paid back $16 billion, and it still owes $35 billion.

Whether Mr. Theroux is aware of these issues or not, one is left wondering exactly who owes who here in the manner the issue of "debt" is framed. If we add to the mix the 70,000 highly trained Africans who immigrate to the global North each year, and the historical wealth that was systematically stolen from Africa and taken to the West, including the free labor that fueled the industrial revolution (Inikori, 1999, 2002), the question of who really owes who becomes more intriguing than enlightening. But these are issues people like Mr. Theroux and countless others in the mainstream, both in Africa and in the West, conveniently choose to ignore.

Mr. Theroux has done remarkably well to point out how Africa can in fact be self-sufficient, and is not given credit for its resilience, but his effort leaves one with the impression that all is well in the West. He talks about bad governance, corruption and rigged elections as if they are a peculiar African phenomenon, when in fact these very vices are alive and thriving in the West itself. Given the ills and inequality Hurricane Katrina uncannily stripped naked, talking of Malawi as a failed state takes on eerie, curious proportions.

Malawians love to beat upon their presidents, and rightly so. However Malawians also appreciate the complexities involved in being a leader, so much that it is almost disingenuous, if not prejudiced, to characterize the three presidents who have ruled Malawi as nothing but megalomaniacs and swindlers. I have little praise for Malawi's presidents myself, but to say that President Bingu wa Mutharika "inaugurated his regime by announcing that he was going to buy a fleet of Maybachs" is to perpetuate an innuendo characterized by exaggeration and inaccuracy. Of course Malawians were shocked when the ever-vigilant Malawi press uncovered the President's wish to replace his accident-damaged presidential limouisine with one Benz Maybach (not a "fleet" as Mr. Theroux suggests). Malawians expressed enough outrage and the President canceled the deal.

In the nineteen months President wa Mutharika has been Malawi's leader, Malawi's economy has reversed from a MK5 billion ($500 million roughly) deficit to a MK3.6 billion ($360 million roughly) surplus, according to the Reserve Bank of Malawi (Financial and Economic Review, Vol. 37, No. 2, 2005). Gross domestic product grew by 4.6 percent in the quarter in question, and money supply increased by 13. 4 percent. The World Bank and the IMF have released more amounts of "aid," and more is on the way. Several road and infrastructure projects have been carried out and completed, and several cases of high profile corruption are being investigated.

Of course there are new problems brought about by Dr. wa Mutharika's style of leadership and temperament, including allegations of corruption. Other problems involve political resentment from his opponents, while others stem from weakened structures and reccurent drought. The Malawi media has been fastidious, and has kept the president and his government in check. In other words, there are many positive and encouraging things that are going on in Malawi today, none of which merited mention in Mr. Theroux's description of Malawi.

His point about the credit that Africa deserves but does not receive might as well start with Mr. Theroux himself, otherwise he risks being lumped together with the rock stars who feel burdened with a conscience more from hiding the ills and roles of their countries than from the crocodile tears shed on Africa.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

'Yesterday' and the global HIV/AIDS discourse

Last night, Tuesday Nov. 28, I stumbled upon the new HBO movie 'Yesterday,' having forgotten that I had noticed an advert for it in the New Yorker of last week. I stopped everything I was doing and sat down to watch it. I came away from the experience deeply moved by the story, but unsurprised by the discursive entrenching of dominant paradigms and ways of thinking about global history, politics and contexts behind the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

'Yesterday' is an eponymous story revolving around the main character, 'Yesterday,' played by Leleti Khumalo, the talented South African actress who starred as ‘Sarafina’ in the 90s anti-apartheid movie by the same name. In the HBO film, we learn that her father named her 'Yesterday' because of his feeling that yesterday was better; today, things are not alright, or, as we would say in Malawi, "sizili bwino."

Yesterday lives with her preschool age daughter, Beauty, in the village, while her husband and father of her daughter works in the mines in Johannesburg. He comes home once a month, sometimes less frequently. Yesterday develops a bad, persistent cough, which forces her to walk a long distance to the hospital. The first time she gets there, she stands on a long queue, only to be told that the doctor is unable to see all the patients lined up. The cut off point is the person right in front of her. She walks the long, dusty distance back home without being seen by the one doctor running the busy clinic.

A friend she has recently got to know, a teacher new to the area, offers her money to take the hitch-hike taxi, what we call ‘minibus’ in Malawi, or ‘matatu’ in Kenya, and go back to the hospital. She arrives early, and is seen by the doctor. The doctor, a white woman who speaks perfect Zulu, tells her she needs to take a blood test, and asks her to sign her consent. Yesterday can neither read nor write, so the doctor goes ahead and takes a blood sample, asking Yesterday to come back next week to hear the results.

Upon giving her the results the following week, the doctor suggests she bring her husband to the clinic so he too can be tested. When she follows him to the sprawling, high rise metropolitan Johannesburg, he beats her up severely once she delivers the bad news. In time, he comes back to the village, and is sick. The village demands that he be taken out of their midst, lest he spreads the disease, but the hospital is full. Yesterday builds him a shack in the middle of the valley, away from the village, and takes care of him there, until he dies.

Yesterday comes out a very strong willed, dedicated and loving wife and mother. As the hero of the movie, she represents the dedication, strength and endurance of African women. This is perhaps the one fundamental message the story sends, amidst a backlash against women seen especially in Malawi, where, if you listen to some of the music performed by male Malawian artists, women are considered to be villains spreading the HIV virus to men (examples include 'Akunenepa nako kachilombo,' (they are getting fat from the virus, deceiving unsuspecting men); 'Tinabadwa osavala' in which the lyrics single out women as the ones responsible for tempting men; and such other songs).

Another powerful message from the movie is the Zulu language used throughout. English is used only in subtitles. The pride and depth of an African language in driving such a powerful social message should make African elites and policymakers think twice about their insistence on making English, a language used by a tiny fraction of the population, the lingua franca of policy, business, politics, administration, and education.

Being an HBO movie, the largest audience for 'Yesterday' will be mostly Westerners, who may or may not be shocked at the "ignorance" surrounding the disease in Africa. I feel this is not an honest message to send, given the awareness and publicity that has already been given to the AIDS pandemic. One would think that the larger, more significant debate now lies in the politics of global justice, where questions about why huge numbers of Sub-Saharan Africans bear the brunt of the epidemic, despite sexual promiscuity being equally rampant, if not worse, in the West and elsewhere, remain unresearched.

The movie leaves unmentioned issues such as the racist, apartheid era bio-war research suspected to have been aimed at blacks, dismissed as a conspiracy theory by dominant, mainstream views. Also unmentioned is the role played by the capitalist mining industry which sequestered male miners in hostels, away from their wives and families for months or years on end, a situation that facilitated the spread of HIV/AIDS. Thus the dominant ideologies keep framing the HIV-AIDS debate in the same terms of individual responsibility, ordinary villagers as ignorant and needing "education," and Africans as more promiscuous than the rest of humanity.

Even as Yesterday looks forward to the future and the education of her daughter Beauty, the dominant paradigm of education as panacea is entrenched, without questions about what kind of education is necessary, and what legacies meaningful education needs to confront for global peace and social justice.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Prisons in Malawi, Africa: legacies of borrowed paradigms?

On the front page of today's Sunday New York Times (Nov. 6, 2005) is a feature article, by Michael Wines, on conditions in Malawi's prisons in particular, and Africa's in general (click here to read the article; you might be asked to register before proceeding; it's free).

I can predict, almost always, that such an article will, as a rule, catalog all the social ills visiting upon Malawians, and will leave me and most other readers sad, numb and angry. While my reactions are aimed at my country and our failure to solve some fairly common problems, they are also aimed at the pattern of reporting about Africa, by both the Western and the African media. As with Mr. Wines' article, most of the reporting manages to put a human face on an intractable problem, bringing out the voices of people the politicians and bureaucrats have shielded themselves from. And that's always a commendable job.

But because the articles do not go beyond the vivid portrayal of the problems to attempt an analysis of the contexts within which these problems occur, African problems are written about in a manner that portrays Africans as having no clue as to how to solve their own problems, and making no efforts to even understand how and why we end up with such problems. The elites quoted in these articles, such as prosecutors, activists, government officials, etc, are portrayed as having no deep thoughts on how to understand a problem with such historical, ideological and global contexts as prison overcrowding and the malfunction and dysfunction of the justice system in Malawi. For instance, one reads an article such as this one without ever having to consider the fact the the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, worse than Malawi's own rate. Granted, problems in those prisons are of a different nature compared to conditions in Malawi's prisons.

I do not discount the probability that we are all clueless as to how to solve a problem such as this one, but my wish is to see a bit more of deeper thinking, questioning and putting the problem in the larger contexts that surround it.

At what point do we begin questioning our adoption of a legal and judicial system designed to work in Europe, in historical, economic and social settings different from ours? At what point do we start wondering whether we might want to work with our indigenous judicial systems, more suited to conditions obtaining in our societies? Our capacity to borrow and learn from other societies is commendable, but should it come at the expense of energy and resources needed to move our indigenous, locally relevant systems with the times, and negotiate change and innovation on local terms, rather than on terms dictated by the ideology we are borrowing from?

This is where I find Hizkias Assefa's (1996) words, referring to countries caught up in this type of dilemma, telling: "For these countries, the goals of modernisation and economic growth became receding targets. Hence these societies are caught in a tragic situation--they have given up much of what they were, but are unable to attain what they aspire to. No doubt this frustration will be a constant source of disruption, conflict and disillusionment at both the individual and societal levels" (Peacemaking and Democratisation in Africa, p. 65).

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Western wealth, African exploitation: Dr. Beckford's Channel 4 documentary

I set up this blog as a forum where I, and others interested, would share thoughts and ideas on the various topics that must be discussed and thought about as we continue envisioning the rebirth of Afrika. The Afrikan renaissance is a topic that hardly gets mention in the world media, let alone on the Afrikan continent. The reason is that most African elites in control of the media and other institutions that shape and reflect public opinion view the world from the perspective created by the global North, which they feel more of a part of, than the perspective obtaining among the majority of the Afrikan population.

Afrikans who worry about these issues are quite few, and they have an uphill task in trying to push an agenda that questions dominant views of how the world works, and the place of Afrika in the world. These few Afrikans are joined by an equally small number Europeans, Americans, Asians, and First peoples around the world, who also work hard to question dominant views, and expose the suppressed histories that have shaped the contemporary world.

Dr. Richard Drayton, of Cambridge University, UK, is one the few Europeans doing this type of work. Dr. Drayton's article in The Guardian's Saturday, 20th August issue has a title that immediately captures the interest of anyone concerned with the issue of global social justice for Africa, a continent that most people choose to analyze ahistorically, focusing only on the heat of the moment. Titled "The wealth of the west was built on Africa's exploitation," Dr. Drayton's article focuses on a documentary titled The Empire Pays Back, shown on Channel 4 in the United Kingdom, on Monday August 15, 2005, and produced by Dr. Robert Beckford, of the University of Birmingham, UK.

The issues being addressed by Dr. Beckford in his documentary, and being written about by Dr. Drayton, form what I believe to be the most important perspective necessary in envisioning the Afrikan Renaissance, namely, global social justice. Dr. Drayton writes: "There are many who like to blame Africa's weak governments and economies, famines and disease on its post-1960 leadership. But the fragility of contemporary Africa is a direct consequence of two centuries of slaving, followed by another of colonial despotism. Nor was "decolonisation" all it seemed: both Britain and France attempted to corrupt the whole project of political sovereignty."

Afrika pays a huge price for the lack of awareness on the history that has created the various contemporary crises in Afrika. Many politicians and elites have given up hope in the search for solutions to Afrika's problems; keeping up the hope that only they themselves and their circle of patronage can improve their lot.

This is the kind of thinking I see at work in the type of politics pervading Malawi right now, with the majority of Members of Parliament, mostly from the United Democratic Front and the Malawi Congress Party plotting to impeach President Bingu wa Mutharika for problems that could well be handled through already-existing mechanisms and channels. An impeachment is not a joking matter, especially when there are more urgent matters to attend to. The news on Malawi in the rest of the world is on how to avert the starvation that is threatening up to 4 million Malawians, while the news in Malawi itself is on the efforts by the disgruntled UDF and MCP to impeach the president.

It will take time to advance the debate on global social justice for Africa on the continent and around the world, but the work of Dr. Beckford, Dr. Drayton and others is crucial, and must be supported. Those of us who work with teachers and schools need to find ways of enriching teaching and learning to accommodate these issues of global social justice.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Farrakhan and the United States of Africa

The speech given by Minister Louis Farrakhan on Saturday October 15, at the Millions More Movement's 10-year commemoration of the 1995 Million Man March ought to give more impetus to the push toward the African Rennaisance.

Grand in its design and ambitious in its scope, Minister Farrakhan's speech envisioned unity for not only the Black world, but the rest of the poor, marginalized world as well. Farrakhan called upon African leaders to speed up the formation of a United States of Africa, and for a similar vision for the Carribean.

The call for a United States for Africa is not new. There was an active buzz about the concept at the turn of the 21st century, pioneered by the Libyan president, Muamar Gaddafi. Gaddafi promoted the concept at international gatherings, and on tours he udnertook across the continent. Unfortunately, Gaddafi's call has been caught in a web of geopolitical and religious suspicion.

It should be easy to mobilize support for the concept, but some of the countries that could take the lead on the continent are caught up in local wrangling, some of it externally induced, which makes the topic of continental integration and global Black unity not much of a priority right now.

Minister Farrakhan needs to mobilize Black leadership in the US, some of whose voices were heard loud and clear at the Saturday commemoration, and begin working with African think tanks, universities, associations, civil society and grassroots movements, if the idea is to move forward.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

New Orleans and the Third World

Since my last blog entry on Sunday, September 4th, there has been more attention to the race and class aspects of the tragedy. Not much, however, has been said about the likening of the disaster to the Third World, or to Africa, as several journalists and other individuals did. And so it was very refreshing to read Mukoma wa Ngugi's take on the issue, in his Znet article published Thursday, Sept 8.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Katrina, the "Third World", and the scripting of race

Hurricane Katrina has stripped a veneer off the American facade that hides class and race differences from the rest of the world. Of course, for most people who carefully follow these issues both in the US and around the world, there's no veneer. The effects of classism and racism around the world are bare and open for everyone with a discerning eye. Or perhaps, with an eye attuned to social differences, because there are many with a seemingly "discerning" eye who believe that racism doesn't exist, or if it does, that it's non-white people who are racist against whites. Or that black people are responsible for what befalls them.

There are specific things that have been said, that have the appearance of being off-the-cuff and spontaneous, yet on closer scrutiny, they are things many people have always wanted to say, but have not had the occasion to. Katrina has been that occasion. I'm in particular talking about two issues. First, disbelief that what has happened in New Orleans could not have happened in the US, with many journalists, from the BBC, CNN, etc, saying it is as if this is Africa, or somewhere else in the Third World. Second, that black people are to blame, either for having been too poor to own cars and evacuate, or for the leadership structure in New Orleans being largely black. One remark that I responded to on the Malawi listservs Nyasanet and Malawitalk, on Saturday, September 3, was by a Malawian who said black people deserve the bad public opinion they get, because they behave aberrantly.

While I am concerned with racism and its adverse effects on people of color around the world, I am also concerned about the lack of concern about racism amongst educated Africans both on the continent and abroad. Of course racism is abhorrent and has no place in society, regardless of who the perpetrator is. Nor am I arguing that blacks are blameless.

Other Malawians seemed shocked at seeing mostly black people taking the blunt of Katrina, compelling one Malawian, Walusako Mwalilino, to post on Nyasanet and ask: "Why are you surprised that the calamity in New Orleans has hit black people harder than whites? Where have you been?" The juxtaposed AFP and AP photos on Yahoo News that portrayed blacks as "looting" and whites as "finding" triggered a huge reaction in the US and abroad, forcing the AFP to ask Yahoo News to remove their photo from the website.

The likening of the tragedy unfolding in the wake of Katrina to disasters in Africa exposes a deep-seated, essentialist attitude about Africa and the so-called Third World. This is the attitude that equates Africa and the Third World with catastrophe, and nothing else, while the US and other so-called developed countries are associated with greatness and advancement, and nothing catastrophic. Underlying this attitude is a failure to understand what causes the catastrophes Africa is associated with. It is an attitude that assumes that there is something about Africans and Third World people that CAUSES the catastrophes, and not the other way round. My initial reaction has been to point out that this is happening right in the United States itself, why should it be likened to some place else?

It is the same attitude that one sees when some Westerners visit an African city which is as large and bustling like aby city in the world, and when they return they remark: it was more like Europe or America, not like Africa. I'm sorry, but Katrina hit the Gulf Coast of the US, not some pleace else in Africa or the Third World. And the disaster that unfolded there happened in the United States; you can not wish it away or liken it to another place. The veneer has been stripped, for those who have been in what can only be described as denial.

On NPR, National Public Radio (US), I caught the end of an interview with someone who said that after Katrina, everyone in New Orleans would now have an equal chance of rebuilding; everyone would have the same beginning point and it would be up to an individual to make the best of their future. Unfortunately I didn't hear who this person was, nor what else they said. But the bit I heard, understood as-is, is an unmistakable view held by people who apparently resent the criticisms leveled against racism. There was something in the subtext of what this person said that betrayed a simmering anger at anti-racist discourse, somebody who sounded as if they had always hoped for this moment when history would be erased and everyone would begin anew, on a fresh page, with no one having a headstart over others.

While I too would hope for such a moment, unfortunately Katrina is no such occasion. Katrina may have razed to the ground buildings and homes, but it certainly has not erased racism. I don't see much reason to hope that from now on, blacks, arabs, latinos, native americans and other minorities will be treated with the same favorable attitudes as whites generally are. It will not be the same for people who lost everything they owned as those who still have capital stashed away in banks and in social networks.

Later in the early evening I watched CNN's Lou Dobbs repeatedly asking guests and reporters why nobody was blaming the black mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, and the black "power structure." At one point, Dobbs said:

"It is also important, because Reverend Jesse Jackson, the Congressional Black Caucus, the NAACP have injected a straightforward and dramatic and perhaps even truthful charge that much of the failure here is because of race. But we should put in context, it seems to me also, that the city of New Orleans is 70 percent black. Its mayor is black. Its principal power structure is black. And if there is a failure to the black Americans who live in poverty and in the city of New Orleans, those officials have to bear much of the responsibility."

At another point, with another guest, he asked:

"Why has there not been, from the Congressional Black Caucus, the NAACP, other certainly well-meaning groups, focusing on the racial issues here, no mention of the fact that the mayor of New Orleans, who has to bear first responsibility in this, Ray Nagin, is himself black? That the power structure of the city of New Orleans is primarily black? The police department, the majority of which is black? Why has there been no focus on those facts and those responsibilities?"

Lou Dobbs went further to allude to differences in the way New York residents reacted to September 11, and the way "a few" New Orleans residents have reacted to Hurricane Katrina. "It's too easy to compare this to the way the people of New York City responded to September 11, and to look at the way in which some of the residents, certainly only a few, but some of the residents of New Orleans have responded," he said.

The entire program struck one as Lou Dobbs looking for support for his view that the mess brought about by the response that Bush called "unacceptable" was really the responsibility of black people in New Orleans. Even if he added that the federal government was also to blame, that had become common knowledge. His real issue was with the black people of New Orleans. Add to that his drawing comparisons between the looting in New Orleans and the absence of looting in New York, one saw a keen attempt by Dobbs to bring out a view he too, like the NPR interviewee, had long waited for a moment like this one to air. Missing from these kinds of views are any attempts to put events in a historical context to understand what has caused poverty in New Orleans, and the role racial relations in the US has played. It's as if everything just started today, and is therefore subject to the same type of critique.

Congressman Mel Watt, who chairs the Black Congressional Caucus, told Lou Dobbs class was more of an issue than race in the response to Katrina, and that there were differences between the 9/11 attacks and Katrina. "The difference here, it seems to me, was in New York, everything around the affected area of 9/11 was still intact. This is a whole city that's lost its infrastructure, and the local authorities really had no capacity to respond. So the federal government really had to bite the bullet and take the whole responsibility, and it just didn't do so early enough." While congressman was correct about the differences between tha attacks on New York, and the hurricane in New Orleans, his refusal to acknowledge the role of race was predictable of a US elected official.

When late in the evening CNN broke the news of the passing of the US Supreme Court's Chief Justice William Rehnquist, I began suspecting that the race debate shaping up in the wake of Katrina would go the way all such debates go--overtaken by new developments, and then buried and forgotten.

When such a debate ensued after Senator Trent Lott's comments on December 5th, 2002, at a 100th birthday celebration for Senator Strom Thurmond, now deceased, he was forced to resign as Senate Majority Leader, a move that killed the debate before it went any distance. Katrina appears to be such a strong hurricane whose aftermath, in its various forms, might linger around longer than previous events that expose the race problem in America, and in Katrina's aftermath, in the words of Lou Dobbs, "embarrassed a very proud nation". Kanye West, the rapper, decided to speak his mind and veer off a script prepared for him. This was the first time for me to hear that some of what we see and hear spoken on TV, by individuals apparently speaking their mind, is in fact sometimes scripted for them by the TV networks they appear on.

There's probably much more that is scripted in daily discourse in the US. With Katrina, one hopes more people will come out of denail, and veer off script.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

On President wa Mutharika's firing of deputy Chief of Staff

The two Malawi internet listservs I'm subscribed to, Nyasanet and Malawitalk, have since Wednesday August 17 been dominated by postings on what the president, Dr. Bingu wa Mutharika, is alleged to have said about Malawians from the Northern region of the country. The president is said to have fired his deputy chief of staff, Joshua Nthakomwa, and to have angrily told him in the process: "I don't want northerners around me! Get away from me, I don't want northerners around me!"

Contributions on the topic have been charged, some expressing shock and anger, and others questioning the source of the allegation. Some have suggested that the Northern region of Malawi, long marginalized in Malawi's political, should become sovereign and self-governing. Some have spoken with Mr. Nthakomwa himself, whom they report denying that the President said the words he is alleged to have said.

I've been hoping that I'll chance upon some tangible, credible evidence that President Bingu wa Mutharika uttered the words that have dominated postings these past few days. So far there's none. All that we have to go on for want of authenticity are unnamed sources quoting other unnamed sources, as has already been observed by others.

I do understand that the story can not be dismissed on the basis that it is originating from unnamed sources; we have had true, genuine stories broken out through unnamed sources before. However there does not appear to be any other evidence to corroborate the claim that the president did say those words. None of the major, credible newspapers in Malawi have printed anything on the issue so far. Mr. Nthakomwa himself has denied the claims that the President said anything close to what is reported. We will see if Monday morning brings any new, credible evidence.

In Malawi itself, people I have spoken with have expressed surprise at the news. "I'm hearing it from you," someone, my own credible unnamed source, told me this afternoon.

Others have expressed hope that the new Presidential spokesperson, Chikumbutso Mtumodzi, will come forth and issue a statement. Let's hope he will be able to do so. But as it appears, this has so far been a "made-for-the-internet" story, with the result that people in Malawi are not even aware of the existence of the story. Should this continue to be the case in the next few days, with no major, credible paper reporting on the story, there will probably be no official press release from State House, the issue not meriting any such action. But I could be entirely wrong; a few days of waiting won't hurt.

As has been pointed out already, there are a number of northerners in key, important and well-deserved positions in the Bingu government, such as Ralph Kasambara, Goodall Gondwe, Mary Nangwale, not to mention Zikhale Ng'oma, who was chief of staff himself until recently. As for Mr. Nthakomwa, he was in his position only in an acting capacity, and knew that soon the president would be appointing someone to fill the position vacated by Zikhale Ng'oma.

Until we see more evidence corroborating the words Bingu is said to have uttered, providing more details as to where and when exactly the event took place, there's a big chance that this story was in fact manufactured for specific strategic reasons. In the process, a few well-placed netters and talkers may have been used merely as conduits, unwittingly. A few days ago we saw reports to the effect that the Northern Region Parliamentary Caucus was reviewing its support for the President, accusing him of neglecting the North in terms of infrastructure and key appointments. The Caucus's secretary, Hon. Abbie Shawa, said he was speaking on behalf of the Caucus. Later we saw another report, quoting three MPs from the North who not only disowned the statements aired by Hon. Shawa, but also revealed that the Caucus never discussed the issue, and therefore Hon Shawa should clarify that he was speaking for himself.

Whatever the truth turns out to be, Bingu and his DPP are said to be enjoying a lot of support from the Northern region, a development which is troubling other political parties. We may have to poise ourselves for more of such reports, with some of us hitting the ceiling and making absurd, inflammatory suggestions. If there will be any credibility to these stories, they will have to provide more specific, credible, corroborating details.

In no way I'm trying to claim that the President can not have uttered those words. I'm just trying to show that such reports need to be analyzed in the context of opposition politics and the politics of ethnicity in Malawi.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Malawi can teach the world too, OK?

The news this week that a delegation from the east Asian country of Tajikistan has been in Malawi to learn more about the Malawi Social Action Fund (MASAF) bucks a trend common in the way some Malawians view their country. The delegation is in Malawi to LEARN from Malawians. Most of the times Malawians talk about learning from other people. Sometimes people will even reject an idea for no reason other than that no other country has ever brought up the idea before. During the campaign for last year's presidential elections, a People's Progressive Party (PPM) official was quoted on the 7 o'clock Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) news one evening as saying Malawi could not produce an independent president, because no other country had done it before. He went on to say it was inconceivable to imagine that Malawi could be the first country to do that. Malawi did not originate ideas, he said. Malawi copied other people's ideas.

It would have been a different matter had the official been regretting that Malawi didn't originate ideas, and urging Malawians to come up with fresh thinking. Rather, he was holding up this point as the way things ought to be. In other words, Malawi was a backward country and SHOULD NEVER see herself as capable of originating trends. Malawians should be content with being mere copycats.

Days after hearing that comment on the national radio, I discovered that in fact the politician was repeating an idea he had read in the newspapers. A political scientist at the University of Malawi, Chancellor College, had been quoted in an issue of the weekly Malawi News newspaper saying exactly what the PPM official said. It thus appeared that not only did we have a case of two elite Malawians constructing a myth for themselves and for all Malawians, and then fulfilling it themselves; the politician was indeed merely copying a statement emanating from elsewhere.

Politicians and academicians occupy important positions in society. The responsibilities they are entrusted with call upon them to exercise extreme care with what they say. They can represent people's opinions, but they also need to be visionaries and creative thinkers, rather than mere copycats.

The MASAF story ought to serve as an example to the rest of the nation as to how Malawians are highly capable people, and have unique perspectives that can teach other countries of the world. The leader of the Tajikistan delegation was quoted by The Nation newspaper as saying: Masaf was highly held by the World Bank during the conference as one of the most successful programmes in the world. That is why we thought of coming to learn how the fund operates." Regardless of the possibility that the leader of the delegation may have actually said "Masaf was highly HAILED" rather than "HELD," the message is quite clear.

The idea that Malawi should only learn from others, based on the assumption that Malawians have really nothing to teach other nations, is quite wide spread amongst Malawians, especially the elites. In his column in The Nation newspaper, Dr. DD Phiri on August 4 wrote about what Malawians and Africans ought to learn from the West. He titled his article "The best from the West," and concluded his article with the following statement: "People of the West continue to lead the world in inventiveness not because they are naturally superior to other people. They just happen to have a culture that nurtures genius. This is the best about [the] West that Africans can borrow. We must be achievers, not mere imitators."

The message from the learned Dr. Phiri was important, not least his dismissal of the belief amongst some Malawians and Africans that Westerners are naturally superior, and that by implication, the rest of us are naturally inferior. Equally important was his call for Malawians and Africans to "be achievers, not mere imitators." Unfortunately, the bulk of the ideas in the article was based on the same mentality that Malawians and Africans need to LEARN from others. There was nothing in the article on what Malawians and African can also TEACH the rest of the world. Thus on closer scrutiny, Dr. Phiri's article serves to perpertuate the very tendency he is advising against: imitation.

The Malawian and African media will make a major contribution to the image of Malawi and Africa, and to the Afrikan rebirth, by going out of its way to find stories such as this one, highlighting the innovations and fresh thinking coming out of Malawi and other African countries. This calls for taking a critical stance against politicians, academicians and thinkers who hold one-dimensional views of Malawians and Africans as people who have nothing to contribute to the world.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Professor Ayittey on Africa's governance problems

PBS documentary on Zimbabwean refugees in Botswana

Shown on PBS stations Tuesday, July 26, 2005

I missed most of this documentary, titled Border Jumpers and available online, but I managed to catch the interview which followed the program, with Professor George Ayittey, formerly of Ghana, and now Professor of economics at the American University, Washington, DC. Professor Ayittey is widely known for suggesting that African leaders and curruption are the root causes of everything that's wrong in Africa. Needless to say, he has his supporters, and he has his detractors.

My brief comments here are restricted to what Professor Ayittey said are the main causes of the Zimbabwean crisis in particular, and of African problems in general. I also take issue with Professor Ayittey's claims, made in the interview, that upon independence, most African countries rejected capitalism and democracy, which they saw as Western, and instead followed Marxist-Leninist ideology.

Many who follow African affairs will agree with Professor Ayittey that there is an extent to which President Mugabe can be held responsible for the crisis in Zimbabwe. Ordinary Zimbabweans are having to live in fear of party youths who are paid to antagonize citizens believed to be sympathetic to the opposition. The clamp down on press freedom has had worse affects on the local Zimbabwean media.

Professor Ayittey also makes an excellent point when he points to Botswana's economic and political stability as being rooted in the indigenous governance system that Botswana champions, ensuring the maximum participation of ordinary people in the running of the country.

Everyone agrees that corruption is a pernicious problem, and the professor makes a really insightful remark when he says corruption can never be completely eliminated anywhere; it can only be minimized. Equally astute are his observations on the problems with the decisions made around the G8 summit at the beginning of this month in Gleneagles, Scotland.

But completely missing from Professor's Ayittey's analyses of the Zimbabwe crisis is the role the West has played by wilfully and actively sabotaging Zimbabwe's economy, stopping all trade and monetary transactions with the country. Given the interdependency of all countries on the global economic system, sanctions against Zimbabwe by the global North are the single biggest factor in the collapse of the Zimbabwean economy. Unfortunately, it is the energies and vitality of the Zimbabwean people that have been most affected, while President Mugabe sits comfortably in his mansion. It is erroneous however to lay all the blame for Zimbabwe's problems on President Mugabe, given the actions the West has taken, mostly based on concern for the white farmers who were forced off the land.

Professor Ayittey goes on to argue that the main cause of Africa's leasdership and corruption problems is the rejection by post-independent African states of capitalism and democracy, seeing these as Western and therefore undesirable for Africa. He says most African governments, upon attaining independence, opted for Marxism-Leninism instead of free markets and democracy.

The problem with this argument is that it fails to take into account the fact that most African countries were colonized by the West, and not the East. Upon attaining independence, these countries continued with the structures left by the colonialists. Thus most African countries still use the languages of the colonialists as official languages. The entire structure of most African governments continues with the education system left by the colonialists. Judicial, economic and parliamentary systems are entirely Western, and very little of socialist or even indigenous systems can be seen, with the exception, as mentioned by Professor Ayittey, of Botswana.

Even for those countries which attempted Marxist-Leninist systems, or African socialism as in the case of Tanzania, the West never allowed these countries to succeed. Thus the West and apartheid South Africa encouraged military coups in countries such as Ghana and Zaire, supported armed rebellions as in Angola and Mocambique, and isolated countries like Tanzania. The problems seen in these countries can not be blamed on the rejection of capitalism and democracy, when in fact most of these countries continued with the systems left in place by Western colonial powers.

Professor Ayittey laments the fact that when things have gone wrong in Africa, African governments have blamed external factors instead of accepting their own incompetence. Without suggesting that self-blame is undesirable, Professor Ayittey makes African governments appear strange and unusual, as if the West has set an example where governments blame themselves when things go wrong.

When African governments are criticized outside the global and historical context of Africa's problems, there's an implicit impression thus created that pits the West as the model that African countries should follow. Professor Ayittey may praise Botswana's Kgotla system which mandates Cabinet ministers to attend weekly meetings in their villages, but his real model for Africa remains the West. This can be seen in his failure to contextualize the causes of Africa's leadership and corruption problems, which he solely blames on African leaders and elites.

I would have hoped that Bill Moyers, who acknowledges to have visited Africa several times, would have sought alternative views on the causes of Africa's problems to fill the gaps created by Professor Ayittey's one-dimensional views. It appears that even to left-minded journalists like Mr. Moyers, establishment views like those of Professor Ayittey are still far more preferrable than those critical of the global order.

The African rebirth is going to require a bold effort to expose the historical injustices that have come to shape global inequality. This will mean seeking out more and more views outside the mainstream.
Guns, germs & steel and the Place of Africa

When I first read Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond (1997) in 2000 or thereabouts, I felt he was asking questions I had myself been asking, but which I feared nobody else found important. I found the book eye-opening in its historical and geographical sweep, going back more than 10,000 years ago, and covering each continent. Although I had an eerie sense that Diamond was working with a hypothesis that used material products and military prowess as the ultimate measure of societal progress, I was reassured by his unequivocal thesis that inequality amongst the regions and races of the world can not be due to racial differences in intellect.

Now that I have watched the PBS video documentary series of Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, based on the book, the third and last episode of which aired on Monday July 25th, I find the omissions even eerier.

The third and final episode focuses on how guns, germs and steel come to Africa and collide with civilizations Diamond says were perfectly adapted to the geographical environment of Africa. But his focus on the 1838 Battle of Blood River in what is now South Africa is 3oo years late. The European plunder of Africa had already been underway since the 1500s when Africans were captured and taken away to the so-called new world as slaves. "They seize numbers of our free or freed black subjects, and even nobles, sons of nobles, even the members of our own family," Affonso, King of the Congo is reported to have written to Joao III, King of Portugal, on October 18, 1526 (See The BBC online series The Story of Africa). Diamond's argument might be that his concern is with the factors that made it possible for Europeans to have this military might in the first place. Fair enough.

But missing from the entire series is the scholarship surrounding the debate on ancient Egypt, which some scholars argue to have been an African civilization, 3,000 years BC. Scholars such as the late Senegalese nuclear physicist Cheikh Anta Diop, George James, Martin Bernal and several others have dealt with these issues in considerable depth. What was happening in Europe at this time?

We get a glimpse of the pyramids, but there's nothing in the commentary to explain the historical place of the pyramids and the ancient African civilizations they are believed to have been part of.

Another problem with the guns, germs, and steel theory is that is assumes that Europeans have been technologically ahead of everyone else for much longer than they really have. Stentor Danielson points out on his blog that "China and India were the world's leaders until very recently. Whatever caused Europe's rise must have delayed effects, or become relevant only with the emergence of industrialization."

Thus this selectivity to show only the period when Europeans arrived at the southern tip of the continent of Africa leaves out much that would complicate the linear, inevitable narrative Diamond employs. One such casualty of Diamond's approach is economic analysis, according to commentators such as Louis Proyect and Kerim Friedman. Friedman argues that rather than asking why it is that societies such as the US are so rich and societies such as Papua New Guinea so poor, the real question is: "Why is cargo distributed so unequally both within and between our societies?" In that way, we are forced to consider the role inequality within societies also plays, noting that there are individuals in Papua New Guinea who are much richer than average Americans.

Despite the reservations expressed above, this is an important debate, and Professor Diamond makes an important contribution to a growing body of research looking at global inequality in a geographical, global and historical context. The rebirth of Africa will to a large extent depend on bringing debates such as these to a wider audience, both in Africa and in other parts of the world, and on effectively critiquing some of the erroneous conceptions that have become conventional wisdom in the discourse on world civilizations.

It is therefore significant that the Guns, Germs and Steel series has triggered a scholarly debate on questions that have lately taken center stage, as did the recent media focus on the G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, and the announcement that the G8 countries have forgiven $40 billion of debt for 18 of the world's poorest countries, most of them in Sub-Saharan Africa.

For sober appraisals of the truth being hidden behind the media blitz, and the justice, rather than charity that Africa really needs, topics that Diamond does not dare touch, see Ken Wiwa, George Monbiot's article in the Guardian of June 14, 2005, and the Greenleft Weekly.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Teacher Education in Malawi: A Twenty First Century Agenda

[I originally wrote this and posted it to the Malawi internet listservs Nyasanet and Malawitalk . I got some feedback from a few people, and will be revising it soon.]

July 20, 2005

The decision by the Ministry of Education and Human Resources to fire "temporary teachers," as reported by Peter Gwazayani (The Sunday Times, July 10, courtesy MSN) raises a number of issues.

These teachers are reported to have served as temporary teachers for as long as 11 years, beginning in 1994 with the introduction of FPE. In this news item, they are reported to have failed "entrance exams" to go to the TTCs for a new teacher training program beginning soon. I'm probably getting mixed messages, because I have just been informed that all the teachers who were hired in 1994, aphunzitsi a povate, or aphunzitsi a bakili, as they were referred to, have all been trained by MIITEP (Malawi Integrated In-service Teacher Education Program). It is possible that these teachers failed to qualify during the 10 years MIITEP ran for, were offered the opportunity to enroll into the new program starting this year, and have also failed that entrance exam, I don't really know.

If they failed to qualify during MIITEP, and have also failed the new entrance exam, then it makes sense to let them go. They have probably done enough damage to the children they have been handling these past ten years.

Many of them are reported to have interviewed and qualified for MIITEP using fake JC and MSCE certificates. Some of them, I was told, loudly wept upon being told they would teach upper classes (5-8), pleading to be given lower classes. The issue of fake certificates has plagued even the secondary schools. I heard from one inspector of schools how somebody used a bachelors' degree certificate belonging to his late relative. He was discovered when a group of inspectors heard him making a mistake, in front of students, that they did not expect to come from a university-trained teacher. The matter went to the police, and he was fired. There were several cases of this type, I was told.

It's well and good to have measures that help determine who has the aptitude to go through the teacher training regimen, and who doesn't. However it is also necessary to put the issue of ineptitude into a bigger, broader context. If we currently have untrained secondary school teachers who used fake degrees to enter the profession, and given the general degeneration that has visited upon secondary schools in recent years, there's all the likelihood that a great number of secondary school graduates in Malawi have been denied a proper education. Because of the huge numbers of teachers FPE required, many of these poorly educated graduates ended up in primary school, teaching, with no training.

The problem is complicated by the thousands whose secondary education was done through MCDEs, some, not all, of which did not provide students a good education. It is important to note here that some MCDEs did such a marvelous job they produced Malawians who went on to achieve national greatness. I have in mind people like the late poet and hansard editor Ken Kalonde, and Hon. Lucius Banda, one of Malawians greatest musicians. But we also know that the majority of MCDEs were places one went only as a last resort.

In thinking of how to educate future teachers, we might want to do a number of things. First, begin with the primary and secondary schools. It is obvious that we need good primary schools to produce good secondary school students, but I'm talking about putting special emphasis on teacher education by perhaps introducing programs early in secondary schools, targeting students who might want to become primary school teachers. Second, we need to move beyond the 2-year teacher training program. It's time came, and it went.

Malawi today, and the world at large for that matter, is such a complex place it no longer makes sense to train a teacher only for two years, especially when the majority of the trainees are coming from secondary school backgrounds that deprive them of intellectual rigor. It is time to elevate primary teacher training in Malawi to the level of higher education, where a qualified primary school teacher has spent a good four to five years engaging with a rigorous academic and professional curriculum, earning a bachelors degree, minimum.

Obviously this entails re-training teacher trainers, many of whom are trained at the diploma level, and cannot be expected to produce bachelor level students. To re-train teacher trainers and prepare them to produce university graduates with bachelors degrees requires new ways of
conceptualizing teacher education in Malawi. New ways of conceptualizing teacher education in Malawi include equipping TTCs to become research centers, where lecturers see themselves as academics, initiating research projects and enhancing the scholarship of teaching and teacher education.

To turn TTCs into research centers where teaching and teacher educational are of focal importance, there's also need to do away with the diploma altogether. Many of the lecturers who hold diplomas were given a rigorous academic training in the University of Malawi, and even if they did only three years, they covered a lot of areas that in all honesty should have qualified them for a full bachelors degree. The same can be said of the diploma that Kamuzu College of Nursing offers. Minus one course or some other simple bereaucratic requirement, many of these students are offered a diploma and denied a full bachelors degree, consigning them to a lower professional status. I suggest that we do away with the diploma in all of the higher education institutions in Malawi.

Thus the changes necessary for the transformation of teacher education in Malawi are not needed at the training level alone; they are also needed at the institutional level, where people should have enough motivation and resources to initiate research projects and professional development programs for teachers in the schools.

One objection to elevating primary teacher education to a bachelors' degree level in Malawi might be that the teacher trainees are coming from a poor secondary school education background; how can they be expected to handle a university curriculum? Genuine though a concern this one is, the solution is what I have already stated above; namely, improving the state of secondary schools to begin early preparing students for primary teaching careers.

Though it did not prepare me enough to enter the University of Malawi, my own secondary school experience was so rich I believe it prepared me well for the academic demands I have had to meet since then. Besides classroom work, my secondary school experience allowed me to read outside class, write journalistically and creatively, and act in school plays. Much of this was because we had remarkable encouragement and support from one particular teacher, who himself went on to distinguish himself in the Malawi Police Service. But the point I'm making is that in rethinking how we train Malawian teachers, let us look at the whole education system as a whole.

The reason why some would fail the entrance examination to TTCs does not wholly lie with them as individuals. Rather, it is symptomatic of a system that is need of repair. The same support and encouragement I am calling for at the secondary level also goes for the TTC level. If my secondary school experience was rich, my teacher training experience was even richer. At Lilongwe TTC I found a group of other young Malawians who were as energetic as I was, and without waiting for the TTC administration, we launched a writers workshop where my identity as a writer was definitively formed. We were also supported by lecturers and administrators who found our initiative fresh and inspiring. The point is that young Malawians are full of ideas and initiatives which need to be recognized and supported, for us to develop a robust, effective teacher education system, which can in turn create an energetic Malawi society ready to tackle pressing problems.

I heard this week from one lecturer that TTCs have been on a long holiday, after the last MIITEP cohort left. Some lecturers have used the months they have been on "holiday" to initiate their own projects, working in schools, and participating in other educational activities. But these are very few. The majority have been happy to be on "holiday" while receiving full government pay. While they can be blamed for lacking initiative, it is also the case that Malawian TTCs are yet to embrace a culture of teacher education scholarship that empowers and emboldens teacher educators.

I hope the new minister of education, Ms. Kate Kainja, will consider teacher education a priority.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Why the name "Afrika Aphukira?"

The name of this blog, "afrika-aphukira," symbolizes my intellectual politics as of this moment. In my mother tongue, chiChewa, a Bantu language spoken mainly in Malawi as a version of chiNyanja, the words "afrika aphukira" translate as "africa will be reborn."

The purpose of the blog is to present an on-going account of my current thoughts on the state of the Afrikan Renaissance, in constructive and critical dialogue with others for whom Afrika is of central importance. Many of these thoughts use historical, global and political lenses, in a social justice and indigenous knowledge context. My audience is all those interested in carrying on dialogue on the condition of Africa, and what the future might hold.

Tiyeni ticheze-- let's chat.