Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Redefining ‘development’ in Malawi: beyond the pessimism

For Malawians who haven’t been in Malawi for sometime, the one question they never fail to ask someone who has just returned from the motherland is: So, how is Malawi? Being such a vague, general question, it takes some probing to get at the heart of the query: Is Malawi developing? Ten or so years ago I would have interpreted ‘development’ in a specific way: the sprouting of new, big and tall buildings, and new tarmac roads, in Malawi’s cities, towns and rural areas. In the last six or so years I have come to think of ‘development’ in different ways, to the extent that I have had problems defining it for my own purposes. A big part of that has to do with what I was reading in graduate school, in courses varying from literary theory to historiography to educational theory to epistemology, all of them gripped by what today seems more of a passing fad than a new paradigm. It is what Tiyambe Zeleza calls ‘the posts,’ propelled by what Thandika Mkandawire has called a surfeit of Western opulence, or some such term. But this should be another story for another day. Today I want to dwell on how I have retained the definition of ‘development’ as progress, as the erection of big, tall buildings, roads and other infrastructure in urban and rural Malawi (and for that matter, Africa as well). I say ‘retained’ because I have added new categories in the definition.

Development, as it is defined in general terms, is a source of both hope and frustration for many Malawians. When I landed in Blantyre on Tuesday October 31, I spent the next morning checking my email at MalawiNet’s wireless Internet cafĂ© (the wireless part didn’t seem to be working, yet). At MK60 for every 15 minutes (roughly US$0.45), it was quite inexpensive, at least for anybody who uses email as part of their regular routine. Later in the day I went to new Ryalls Hotel to board the afternoon Coachline bus to Lilongwe. The Coachline is Malawi’s top-of-the-line public transportation system between the three major cities, expensive as it is elitist. You have to be affluent in order to afford the Coachline on your own. Having never been a well-to-do Malawian, I have never been on the Coachline bus. Not even after this attempt.

I turned up at the hotel on time, and found that the regular bus that goes as the Coachline, a beautifully modeled, classily built and glitzly gliding bus that does not stop anywhere between Malawi’s major cities, had been replaced by an ordinary bus for that day. This was not even the Express bus, next in line after the Coach and also supremely comfortable. Rather, this was the third-tier type of bus, very noisy, poorly lit, and very hot on a hot November day. We were told that the 5-fleet Coachline, termed the Paradiso, was unavailable. One had been involved in an accident; one was in Lilongwe, one was in South Africa, and another one was in Zambia, under hire by the Malawi government. They refunded part of the fair, amidst groans about the degenerating standards of the bus company, and of things in general in Malawi, according to a few people I overheard. We arrived in Lilongwe four hours later, and I was taken to Riverside Hotel, next to Lingadzi Inn. Riverside is a new hotel built just months ago. It is exquisite in its white paint, beautifully designed, quiet, and magnificent. The receptionist couldn’t find my name on the list of booked guests for that day, so I ended up at a motel in Likuni. By the end of the following day the management of Riverside Hotel had faxed the administration officer of the project I was in Malawi for, apologizing for the inconvenience. They even offered an explanation, and added the latest news that they had just finished the construction of 36 new rooms, which would be ready soon. They ended the letter by saying there was room for me for that night, Room number 1.

I spent a couple of evenings in Lilongwe, driving out to surrounding rural districts during the day and returning to the city in the evening. What I saw on those few evenings fits the definition of ‘development’ used by most Malawians, including those living outside Malawi. I was curious to find out exactly who was responsible for most these transformations, and was told of Malawian Indian business magnets. Riverside Hotel is one example, as is Cresta Hotel, inside the sprawling, magnificent complex known as Crossroads, that houses shops, offices, pizzerias, laundromats, etc. (For fear of digressing, I will put aside my views about the importance of Third world consciousness and solidarity for another day)

For those who haven’t been to Malawi in the last ten or so years, the number of huge, sprawling, expensive shopping malls is something to write home about. The number of top class hotels and lodges spread all over the city is uncountable. Several of them offer free wireless Internet, despite quoting their rates in US Dollars, upwards of $90 a night. Driving out of Lilongwe during the morning and evening rush hours now takes twice the time it used to ten years ago, due to traffic jams. Many of the cars you see are spanking new latest models. The controversial Kamuzu Mausoleum is a site to behold, regardless of one’s disapproval over the use of so much money to honor a leader who victimized, murdered and exiled thousands of Malawians. It is quite ironical that it has now become quite common in Malawi today to hear people reminisce of the good old days, when there was food security, negligible crime rates, a good educational system, and a stable economy. I have written elsewhere about how I resent this whitewashing of Malawi’s dark past, and how dangerous I find this type of amnesia and nostalgia. But I should also mention that there does exist in Malawi more complicated views of Kamuzu’s reign, which do highlight both the atrocities as well as the successes of his policies and philosophies. Be on the lookout for one such forthcoming work, Reverend Stewart Lane’s Malawi memoirs, titled Peculiar Honours, to be published by Dr. John Lwanda’s publishing house, Dudu Nsomba.

In Blantyre I was only able to drive through the city on one afternoon. The same type of ‘development’ taking place in Lilongwe is also taking place in Blantyre, with lots of huge, beautiful buildings taking shape all over town. They include shopping malls, mega churches, residential houses, media institutions, educational institutions, and many others.

In Zomba, the university town I grew up in and know better than any other Malawian town or city, the general view is that there is very little of this type of ‘development’. The central business area is pretty much the same as it has been for the last ten years. There have been a few innovations, but not to the same extent as Lilongwe or Blantyre. The Zomba Central Hospital, formerly Zomba General Hospital, now has a wall entirely surrounding it. St. Charles Lwanga parish, my parish, is also putting up a wall around it. There have bee a few hotels and lodges, but only a handful. The one area Zomba is experiencing the same type of ‘development’ as the major cities is the construction of residential houses on the outskirts of the town. In Malawi, as in most countries around the world, building or owning your own home in the major towns and cities is considered, and rightly so, the most important investment one can make. The building industry has thus experienced an astounding boom, and will likely continue to. There are new, huge, gorgeous homes built and continuing to be built in the Sadzi/Three Miles area, Mpondabwino, the exclusive Old Naisi, Mangansanja and Mulunguzi areas, and the areas surrounding town, including St. Mary’s and Ndola, to a lesser extent. At Jokala, some ten or so miles outside Zomba municipality, a rural project is constructing a public library and a conference hall, away from the nearest urban center. Sports stadia, market squares, bus depots, roads and other infrastructure have sprang up in several districts, including Balaka and Dedza, among others.

If all of this does qualify to be defined as ‘development,’ there is also something I find to be quite curious and peculiar in the way some Malawians perceive their country. Whenever I have asked the question about ‘development’ in Malawi, the responses have been muted at best, and negative at worst. I have been told things such as: “Malawi is the same as you left it. Nothing has changed.” I do not recall reading anything about all these ‘developments’ either on the Malawi listservs, or in the online papers. Perhaps I haven’t been reading carefully enough. For as long as I can remember there has been an unmistakable air of pessimism and negativity amongst many Malawians, both inside and outside Malawi. Some of it stems from the notion that Malawians view themselves as “less-than” other Africans, to paraphrase the columnist Bayana Chunga in the Sunday Times of October 15, 2006. In some cases this inferiority complex is spoken in terms of Africa and the Black race in general.

During this current stay in Malawi, I’m finding myself having to discuss this complex almost on a daily basis, especially with educated, elite Malawians. Some of them are educationists, working on educational policy, training trainers of teacher professional development, and lecturers in our teacher training colleges. Most of these views are exactly the same as those one encounters, on a daily basis, on the Malawi Internet listservs and in the daily and weekly newspapers. However it must also be said that compared to 2004, when the presidency changed hands, the number of people who feel optimistic about the country’s leadership and the economic policies it is espousing is growing.

The encouraging thing about all this is that through their self-criticism and self-negation, Malawians can be said to be exhibiting high expectations for themselves, though in a converse manner. You have to turn the criticism around in order to observe the high expectations about ‘development’. In retaining the definition of development as held by the majority of Malawians, I am also aware of how narrow, insufficient, and perhaps even retrograde that definition can become. By this I mean that it is a definition based more on a scale that measures our ability to ‘copy,’ than to innovate and create new ideas, trends and products. This is a very important distinction to make. The definition of ‘development’ as buildings and infrastructure does capture the hopes and aspirations of many Malawians, but its narrowness and insufficiency comes from its inability to encourage the reconciliation of our endogenous institutions, traditions and cultures with our desire for change. Built into all our institutions of governance and social organization, ‘development’ is seen more as what we learn from other countries, especially the white societies of the global North, than what we ourselves and our fellow blacks and global Southerners create.

Our response to the question “Is Malawi developing” therefore needs to be broadened into those efforts taking place in our villages and rural centers, to include the collective and communal resource that Reverend Stewart Lane calls “social wealth.” We see this wealth every time there’s an occasion that brings Malawians together, to celebrate a wedding, to send off the departed, to elect new representatives, to build a new school, church or conference hall. In Dowa, gulewamkulu has been mobilized to support educational efforts. Whereas you would see gule chasing pupils away from school, it now escorts them to school. The conflict between tradition and modernization has existed largely due to the condescending, demeaning attitudes exhibited by educated Malawians over those considered ‘uneducated’ or ‘illiterate.’ A redefinition of ‘development’ also has to consider the changing attitudes of educated Malawians over our traditions, cultures and self-identity as a nation.

Some of what passes for development is really meant to benefit the elites and the powerful, perpetuating the gap between the rich and the poor. This is where a redefinition of the term becomes even more important.

So Yes, Malawi is developing, however you define development. And she needs your support, optimism and encouragement, in addition to your criticism, pessimism and condemnation.