Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Language, politics and development in Malawi

The Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) last week made an announcement that should open the way to new ideas in not only determining what qualifications prospective Members of Parliament (MP) in Malawi ought to have, but also in how to revitalize Malawian languages for more widespread development. The Commission announced that it has removed the requirement that a prospective MP be in possession of the Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE), the secondary school leaving certificate, or that they sit for an English proficiency test, if they do not possess the MSCE. The timing of this announcement coincides with the next National Language Symposium, organized by the University of Malawi’s Center for Language Studies, with the theme Literacy for Development: The role of the African language. The twin issues of language and politics are extremely important, and have consequences that affect the long-term development plans of any society. At the heart of the matter is the question of the production of the knowledge necessary for a society to better understand itself, and to find new ways of solving its intractable problems.

As was to be expected, a few Malawians expressed disappointment and bewilderment with the announcement, claiming that the legislature would now be free for all. In other words, these Malawians feared that parliament would now be open, in their view, even to “uneducated” and “illiterate” Malawians. Some wonder how Malawian MPs can communicate with each other if they are not obliged to use English, arguing that not every Malawian can ably debate using Chichewa. "How does the MEC expect the electrorate [sic] to be assures [sic] that their represantive [sic] will contribute if they cannot speak English?" asks someone on Malawitalk. Such views are common and widely held not only in Malawi but in many countries as well, and they need to be addressed in a methodical, organized way.

To begin with, it was a huge blunder all along to equate school certificates or English proficiency with what we may term “the type of intelligence or capability required to represent one’s people”. The reasons why we have always made this blunder are understandable. First, it is the only way we are familiar with of accounting for one’s ability to be a representative. Second, it is what we have always done, what was bequeathed to us by the colonial administration, and we have been content with carrying it on, without the need to change anything. Third, there exists this very strange, widely held notion and totally mistaken view that the best way of measuring any kind of intellectual capability for any kind of occupation is English proficiency. This view is widely held not only in Malawi but in most parts of the world, especially the formerly colonized world. Not only is it a mistaken view, it is also a very inefficient way of accounting for intelligence or capability. The numerous boxing bouts in our political parties, the widespread political prostitutions, lack of creative and critical thinking among our politicians, etc, should be ample evidence of this inefficiency.

It is possible to devise a better, more efficient and accurate way of ascertaining whether one is capable of being a leader or a representative, but it needs a lot of effort, energy, time, creative and critical thinking. It is certainly something no country, to the best of my knowledge, has ever done before, at least not on a deliberate, elaborate scale. And this fact need not daunt us at all.

One way could be to begin by studying past and present MPs. To do this, we would need to come up with a widely agreed upon set of criteria as to what are regarded as good characteristics of an MP or other types of representatives. Who have been the best MPs Malawi has had since independence? What were their backgrounds? Why were they elected by their people? How did they do their campaigning? How did they do their work of representing their people? And many more questions.

We could draw out detailed, lengthy auto/biographies of these MPs and their time in parliament, views of the people they represented, their records of performance in the august house, and their own perspectives of how they about their duties (for those still alive). From this we could chart out the most desirable qualities and qualifications for an MP.

Knowing that the current measures, and the previous ones, have not been perfect, chances are the auto/biographies that would emerge from this arduous, long-term process would not be perfect either, but that would be no reason not to embark on the exercise. It might also be necessary to draw out characteristics of other equally successful leaders and representatives in other areas of Malawian life, not restricted by electoral politics, nor these types of qualifications and English proficiency tests.

The goals in such a process would be manifold. First and foremost, for us to destroy the dangerous myth that intelligence = school certificates or English proficiency, or vice versa. That way, we would be opening up the arena to other equally deserving Malawians who have none of these alien qualifications, but are sufficiently endowed with Malawian wisdom and a deeper understanding of who we are as a nation, what our heritage is, and what destiny we want. We have many Malawians who fit this description, but we haven't taken the time to find out who they are (see this Daily Times article on a form one drop out who has created electricity for his house and his parents’ house <http://www.dailytimes.bppmw.com/article.asp?ArticleID=3312>.

Another goal would be to promote ways of making the knowledge required to represent people and run our nation widely available to every Malawian. So far this knowledge is restricted to only those who have school certificates and can read and write English, who are less than 10 percent of the population. We can not go on running a nation in which over 90 % of the population are in the dark as to how the country is or should be ran. Related to this, we would also be constructing new knowledge for running the nation. We would uncover lots of buried knowledge that has been kept hidden because of the restrictions we have had in place up to now.

An obvious advantage with widening access to knowledge of running the country would be that it would encourage more, better qualified, well deserving Malawians to seek public office. More Malawians would also be encouraged to seek out this type of knowledge, as it would be familiar, available in a language they use and understand, and relevant. A lot of the practices we follow in running our economy, education, judiciary, sports, community services, politics, etc, are alien and irrelevant. This is one of the reasons we have anger, frustration, despair, hopelessness and even feelings of inadequacy among many Malawians.

It will be important for as many Malawians as possible to understand the historical and political reasons behind the entrenchment of foreign, colonial languages in most formerly colonized countries. Language plays such a crucial role in the development and underdevelopment of any society. In many formerly colonized countries, the failure to use local languages in government systems has been at the heart of the underdevelopment of these countries. One only needs to look at all those countries that are considered more successful, and ask what languages they use for government business, education, their economic systems, legal and judiciary systems, and other important social institutions. They all use their own languages, and not languages they inherited from foreigners. And a quick look at all the poorest countries of the world will also show how for government and other important business, most of them use the language inherited from their former colonizer. Much of this has to do with practical realities, but of the short-term. Language policy and planning are long-term endeavors, and require leaders and researchers who have long-term visions for their countries.

This is not an argument for the abolition of the English language from our government and social institutions, far from it. It is true that English is a language of global importance, and that knowing how to write and speak it enhances one’s social standing. And I am not oblivious to the irony that I am writing this in English. But there is an ugly side to the over-reliance of a foreign language for the most important business of any country. This over-reliance creates obstacles in the creation and flow of knowledge and information needed for development. When the most important knowledge in education, health, the economy, governance and other institutions is in a language other than one people are familiar with, people’s access to knowledge and information is restricted. And this is what leads to the underdevelopment we all love to complain about. It is myopic of us not see the connection between the suppression of knowledge production because of the choice of language, and the underdevelopment and inequality that surrounds us. The many Malawian private schools that prohibit the use of Malawian languages and institute English-only policies are making this myopia worse, and the consequences for the country are going to be dire. The right policy ought to be a healthy balance between English and Chichewa, with Chichewa receiving the same amount of research and intellectual attention as does English. It is suicidal for Malawians to imagine that there's no need to conduct research and intellectual inquiry in Chichewa and other Malawian languages. If we want to learn from the developed countries, let us learn their respect and love for their languages, which they continue researching, writing and publishing in.

To return to the argument about why the school certificate and English proficiency requirements were both absurd and insane, the example of Lucius Banda has been a striking one for me. I find it disturbing that I have not met one Malawian who has ever questioned why Lucius felt the need to forge an MSCE certificate in order to be eligible to run for a parliamentary seat. Many people I have discussed the issue with have said he deserved it, and they have offered various reasons. “He did the crime, he had to do the time.” “He became too important for his own sake.” “He was fooled by other politicians who wanted him to do their dirty work.” “He was playing with the government and the president.” My next question has been whether Lucius really needed an MSCE or an English proficiency test to prove that he is an intelligent person and can represent his people. Here, the vindictive attitude ceases, and a willingness to rethink the issue sets in. “He is very bright”; “He is very successful”; “His English is superb”, “His music is some of the best Malawi has ever produced,” “He has wisdom,” etc etc.

It may be true that Lucius was originally sentenced for what the judge felt was a breach of the law, but it is not enough to stop at that and close the story. What he broke was a very poorly conceptualized, intellectually vacuous law, one that did not even need to be there in the first place. And most of us know many other Malawians who have broken this law and have never been brought to book. It is also true that he was singled out for punishment by the leadership, because of his role in pushing the impeachment issue. This was a case of a loophole being used to create another loophole. Are these really the kinds of laws we want intelligent, successful Malawians to be held by? Is this really the kind of Malawi we want to build?

I perfectly understand that the proposal I’m making here is idealistic, and would take a very long time, and a lot of resources, to be fully realized. But the future we will be building is worth every drop of sweat, worth every tambala we can invest. In the meantime, it would be important for the MEC to articulate its reasoning and explain the significance of its decision, so Malawians can begin debating the topic. It would also be important for MEC to liaise with other organs of government and civil society in Malawi to begin cataloguing the debate, and embark on a process to map out strategies to ensure that their decision does not lead to undesirable consequences. Ultimately, we will be laying a good foundation for the future of the country by balancing our policies between global practicalities and the dynamism of local access to knowledge and information. The University of Malawi’s Center for Language Studies has pioneered the research and deliberation needed to lay this foundation, and the knowledge thus far produced needs to be made as widely available to many Malawians as possible, in languages they understand and use.

The pivotal importance of the language issue in politics, education and development makes it imperative that we argue from an informed, well-researched position. As such, those interested might wish to consult proceedings from the series of National Language Symposium meetings, organized by the Center for Language Studies at the University of Malawi. The most recent proceedings appear in _Implementing Multilingual Education_, from the 2003 symposium. Next week is the aforementioned 2006 annual symposium, and I encourage everyone who can attend to please do so.
Other selected suggested readings include:

1. Brock-Utne, B. & Hopson, R.K., Eds. (2005) _Languages of Instruction for African Emancipation: Focus on Postcolonial Contexts and Considerations_, Mkuki na Nyota Publishers and Center for Advanced Studies of African Societies (CASAS)

2. Mkandawire, T. (Ed., 2005) _African Intellectuals: Rethinking Politics, Language, Gender and Development_ UNISA Press, CODESRIA & Zed Books (in particular read B. S. Chumbow's chapter The language question and national development in Africa, pp. 165-192)

3. wa Thiong'o, N. (1986) _Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature_, Curry & Heinemann.


Anonymous said...

Good o see someoe taking the issue of native languages seriously in Africa. it seems to me the black africans are embarrased by their own languages and have swallowed thw whole colonial attitude to language. Nobody will take you seriously until you start using you language as a medium in juniour and high school and university, publish newspspares and tv programmes in those languages.

I'm Welsh and the same attitudes towards you langauges were and are the same attitudes towards Welsh. In a generation or two your languages will be facing extinction if you don't normalise them now.



Anonymous said...

The situation is even worse in ghana, where since 2002 the government has changed the language policy to english only from 1st year of primary school onwards. it boggles the mind in how our policy makers came to this shocking conclusion, despite numerous research supporting a system of local languages first, followed by gradual shift to english only. what ends up happening is a bunch of children in grade 1 who speaks no english, yet are being thought everything using english language as the language of instruction. how exactly the students are suppose to understand what's being thought is beyond me. we're elevating english language above all else and still wonder why we're underdeveloped.

Anonymous said...

I support the idea if doing more in our languages other than the colonial one. This is the reason why I invented a writing system to replace the colonial alphabet when writing Malawian languages. I've also created a simpler counting system in Malawian languages. I'm also creating new vocabulary: Museum is "Sungeta" in Malawian languages, a combination of "sunga" and "keta". The latter means "see" in Kyangonde.

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