Friday, December 14, 2007

Who gives who, really? Weaning Malawi out of donor dependency

For a country that is said to rely entirely on donor money for its development budget, can today's opening of the new Ntchisi-Mponela road, said to have been financed solely from Malawian taxpayer money, be a turning point from dependency to self-sufficiency? It came quite as a surprise to me to learn that the road, which cost MK2.5 billion (approx. US$18 million), was financed by not a single penny from donor money, according to Hon. Henry Mussa, minister for public works and transport. The minister said government was able to set aside that amount of money for development projects, as a result of fiscal discipline measures that the president has introduced. In fact Malawi is at the moment enjoying very high confidence levels from the international community, if we go by recent media reports, both domestic and international media. Barely a week ago the New York Times had on its front page a story about how Malawi is ending famine by disregarding stipulations from international financial institutions.

This week opened with news that the European Union was going to give Malawi MK90 billion (upward of US$400 million) for infrastructural development, and hardly had that news settled when more news broke that Malawi had qualified for the Millennium Challenge Account, set up by United States President George Bush. The amount from the MCA was not announced, although media reports suggested that the amount ranged between US$65 and almost US$700 million. And hot on the heels of that news came yet another announcement to the effect that the Malawi Government has signed a memorandum of agreement with the United Nations, for Malawi’s progress on the Millennium Development Goals, worth US$231 million (MK33 billion), according to Nyasatimes.

Not too long ago, just before delivering his speech at the UN General Assembly meeting in September this year, President Mutharika spoke at Columbia University’s World Leaders’ Forum, following an article in the Financial Times , co-authored by Jeffrey Sachs and Glenn Denning, on how Mutharika's decision to introduce fertilizer and seed input subsidies, discouraged by the international donors, had reaped Malawi a bumper harvest of surplus maize. Mutharika spoke on the same day as Iranian President Ahmadinejad, but all the media attention was on the afternoon event at which Columbia University Lee Bollinger, in the eyes of many, waylaid and arrogantly harangued Ahmadinejad. There was no mention of President wa Mutharika’s speech earlier that morning on the same campus.

Many Malawians are thrilled about this spate of what is considered exceptionally good fortune for the country. But for those who have never been comfortable with the whole conventional paradigm that constructs Third World countries as perpetually dependent on developed countries, these developments raise new questions rather than answers. The conventional paradigm is very well established with a hegemonic dominance that totally suppresses any notion about how much money and wealth leave Africa and other Third World countries each year, and go to the global North. Very few people want to talk about that. But those who do, such as the Tax Justice Network, the Jubilee Debt Campaign, The New African magazine, activists and intellectuals, among others, make it clear that the amounts that are extracted out of the continent's natural and mineral resources, not to mention intellectual labor, are far more than the amounts that are given as official aid. The ideal would be a world that recognized how much interdependent on each other we have always been, at the global level, or the truth of the matter is that much of that interdependence has occurred through violence, conflict, and exploitation. I therefore mention the desire to end dependency with a caveat. Even when economists like New York University’s Professor William Easterly, who on the surface appears to appeal to leftist critical traditions in their critiques of aid, dare not mention these facts, as in his book The White Man’s Burden: Why The West’s Efforts To Aid The Rest Have Done So Much Ill And So Little Good.

A radio documentary produced from the 2007 World Social Forum held in Nairobi, Kenya, revealed that for every US$1 that goes to Africa as aid, US$10 more leave Africa and go to the West as dirty money. It was also revealed in that radio documentary, produced by Asad Ismi and Christina Swartz, and titled The Ravaging of Africa, that the mining giant Anglo American which owns the largest share of copper mining in Zambia, in 2006 posted profits of up to US$3 billion. Yet the company under-declared on its returns to the Zambian government, and ended up paying taxed for a miserly US$8 million. Elsewhere on this blog I have written about how Nigeria is known to have initially borrowed US$5 billion, and by 2005, had repaid US$16 billion, and still owed US$35 billion. Conventionally trained economists and the rest of us find nothing absurd about this, accepting it as the workings of compound interest calculations in a capitalist framework. We are still unaware of how new networks of tax havens, offshoring mechanisms, and trade mispricing are all hauling huge amounts of money from Africa and other developing countries, to keep enriching the West, as has always historically been the case.

Even with the new road just inaugurated in Malawi today, the company that was awarded the contract, Mota Angil, is from Portugal. Malawian taxpayers are giving US$18 million of their hard-earned money to a developed European country. In his speech at Mponela, where he spoke for about nine minutes before proceeding to Ntchisi Boma where the main ceremony took place, the president repeated his warning to "colonialists" who exploit Malawian farmers by buying their tobacco at below market prices. He reported that on his way back from Portugal yesterday where he was attending the EU-Africa summit, he stopped over in Cairo, Egypt, where he secured more markets for Malawian tobacco. The president went further, in a somewhat unrelated thread, to warn that any Westerner who holds Malawians in contempt and treats them as if they are inferior beings will be asked to leave the country.

I was preoccupied with other work matters so I was unable to proceed to Ntchisi to watch the rest of the ceremony. But I watched his speech there, and those of the Member of Parliament for the area, Hon. Nkhosa Kamwendo, and the minister for public works and transport, Hon. Henry Mussa. Hon. Kamwendo is an opposition MP, and he said he was speaking not about his concerns, but rather about the people's concerns. He said there was food crisis in Ntchisi, and requested the president to send food relief. Both Hon Mussa and President Mutharika appeared to use the opportunity to jump on Hon. Kamwendo. Mussa said he was going to contradict Kamwendo, who as an opposition MP was against the budget in the mid months of this year, a situation that raised tensions in much of the population who feared that the country would grind to a halt if the deadline for passing the budget went with no agreement. Mussa insinuated that by rejecting the budget, Kamwendo and his fellow opposition MPs were rejecting the very kind of development his own district was witnessing today.

The president went even further. He repeatedly told the crowd that their MP was “lying” to them by being in the opposition and asking for government help. He extended a subtle, implicit invitation to Kamwendo, without necessarily spelling out what he meant, to come and join the government so they can work together. But the audience knew what the president meant. Where upon the eager dancing women shot to their feet and broke into a spontaneous chant: “Achoke!” “Achoke!” (He must go!). At first I was impressed that our current president, unlike previous ones, is tolerant enough to allow an opposition MP to speak at such a function. In fact I noticed one if not more dancing women in the audience dressed in MCP colors, with the late Ngwazi Dr. H. Kamuzu Banda prominently displayed on the chest. Hearing the attacks on the opposition politician, and the president’s implicit invitation for him to leave his party and join the president’s party, it made me wonder if we as a country will ever fully accept the fact that we claim to have opted for multiparty politics. Our mindset seems not to have accepted that. Or is it yet another symptom of our dependency on foreign ideas, which, as with the donor money we feel entitled to, we never critically question whether multiparty politics can indeed work for us? Does it ever really work even in those countries that purport to champion democracy, and use military force to impose it on others?

Sunday, December 09, 2007

When Global Voices Malawi authors meet

Although we are not quite there yet, the beginning of the year 2008 will mark one year when the two Global Voices authors for Malawi, Victor Kaonga and myself, will have been writing roundups on the Malawi blogosphere. Victor and I live half a world apart, and are always in contact via email and phone. But we had never met before, until this past weekend. We are frequently in and out of Malawi, but never at the same time. That changed this weekend when we both flew into Malawi within days of each other, and managed to meet, albeit very briefly. We should be able to meet again, this time for much longer.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

When a Pan-Africanist Library Burns: Kanyama Chiume, 1929-2007

When in 2003 I wrote on the Malawi discussion listserv Nyasanet, asking if anybody knew the whereabouts of Kanyama Chiume, somebody responded and said Kanyama had sold his property around 1996 and left Malawi for good, announcing that he would never be back in Malawi again, unless “in a coffin.” This week Kanyama Chiume, a Pan-Africanist who was at the forefront of Malawi’s independence throughout the 1950s and 1960s, and was later forced into exile by Dr. Kamuzu Banda, will be returning to Malawi, “in a coffin.” Chiume died on November 21, in New York, after a prolonged illness. He died a day before he would have turned 78, according to a website created by his family to commemorate his life.

The passing of Kanyama Chiume is a solemn moment that forces us to rethink what befell a beautiful dream that at its most daring moment ushered a huge part of the African world into freedom from Western imperialism. Kanyama Chiume was an articulate voice of that dream, and his passing pushes us further away from ever coming to grips with what happened to the dreams of independence and Pan-Africanism. Thankfully, though, Mr Chiume was a uniquely gifted individual who used his many talents to leave a cache of his writings from which we can glean a few nuggets towards answering those questions. One of the most authoritative places where we can gain insights into who Chiume was and the role he played in the liberation process for the Sub-Saharan African region is his eponymously titled 1982 autobiography, Kanyama Chiume, published by Panaf Books in their Pan-African Great Lives Series.

Mr. Chiume loved Malawi and Africa, and he dedicated a good part of his life to the struggle for the freedom of African peoples everywhere. It was this dedication to Malawi and to Africa, and his frankness about it, that displeased agents of neocolonialism, who slipped a wedge between Malawi’s first president Dr. Kamuzu Banda and his nine-member cabinet. Three months after independence, Malawi experienced what has become commonly referred to as “The Cabinet Crisis,” a turning point in the history of Malawi which also served as a cog in the giant wrench that stopped the Pan-Africanist movement elsewhere on the continent. It took thirty years for Malawi to emerge out of the dictatorship that followed that crisis.

Born on November 22, 1929, at Usisya in northern Malawi, Chiume wrote of his name as meaning “another piece of meat for you,” a lament from parents who had tired of many deaths in the family. Chiume’s younger brother died two months after being born, and in a tragic twist of fate, Chiume’s own mother died the following day. She was 37, Chiume tells us. His uncle came from Tanganyika, performed the funereal rites, and took Chiume to Tanganyika, now Tanzania. There Chiume quickly picked up KiSwahili, and excelled in the education system there. Chiume went to Dar es Salaam schools in the mid-1940s, at a time when Dar es Salaam was a hotbed for political activity amongst Africans. Influence from Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah came whilst Kanyama was in secondary school. Chiume would become Secretary of the Tabora Upper School Debating Society in his last year there. His debating skills would later blossom whilst as a politician in then Nyasaland, now Malawi. Tabora Upper School was the same school where future president of independent Tanzania, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, also went. In his capacity in the debating society Chiume was able to invite Nyerere back to the school to debate the topic of whether Africans were better off under colonial partitioning. Nyerere and his team so thoroughly thrashed the opposition, led by white colonial teachers and administrators, that the school threatened Chiume with expulsion back to Nyasaland.

Chiume went to Makerere College in 1949, the only institution of higher learning in the entire East African region, and in 1951 he was admitted into Makerere College’s Medicine School. Chiume later changed his major to Education, after discovering that he “could not stand human dissection” (p. 52). He majored in Physics, Chemistry and Biology. This was much to his uncle’s chagrin, who provided him with everything and deeply wanted Chiume to become a medical doctor. At Makerere Chiume’s contemporaries were people who would in later life become some of Africa’s accomplished scholars and public officials. Some of his college mates include B. Ogot, Kenya’s celebrated historian and Chancellor of Moi University in Eldoret, and the current Kenyan president Mwai Kibaki.

Chiume became president of the Makerere College Political Society, while Mwai Kibaki was a committee member. Later Chiume was joined at Makerere by other Nyasas, Vincent Gondwe, David Rubadiri (who would later become Vice Chancellor of the University of Malawi), and Augustine Bwanausi (who would later become a cabinet minister in Malawi). Chiume was also chairperson of the Makerere College Education Society. Chiume and other students formed a Nyasaland Students Association at Makerere, an association that helped the Nyasaland African Congress by doing research, and by also linking up with fellow Nyasas at Fort Hare College, where Henry Masauko Chipembere, a lifelong friend and political colleague of Chiume’s, went for his own university education.

After graduating from Makerere College Chiume taught at Alliance Secondary School in Dodoma, Tanganyika, and later won a scholarship to study law at Ramjas College in Delhi, India. Upon being approached by the Nyasaland African Congress to stand in the country’s first general election in 1956, Chiume accepted, and decided not to further pursue his interest in law. He had by this time already resigned from Alliance, after quarrelling with the white headmaster who had insinuated that the presence of a pre-adolescent girl in Chiume’s household might create immoral temptations. Chiume was extremely offended by the remark, which further gave him resolve to fight for the dignity of Africans. “I had made up my mind there and then to plunge myself into politics and to help remove the obstacles that lay before Africans who wished to have human dignity. I was determined to try and play my part, however small, to free Mother Africa” (p. 71).

In the 1956 general elections Chiume writes that he got the most votes of any candidate, and thereby became one of five African representatives in the Legislative Council. Chiume became deeply involved in not only Malawi’s independence struggle but also the struggles of other African countries. He represented his people at the 1958 Pan African Freedom Movement of East and Central Africa (PAFMECA) in Zanzibar, and later that year was a part of the steering committee of the Accra All African People’s Congress, the committee that was working to lay the foundation for a future United States of Africa.

In all his travels to various African countries engaged in the struggle for independence, Chiume did not see individualized nations, separated from one another. Rather he saw one large Pan-Africa. A true Pan-Africanist, Chiume made close personal friendships as well as political and professional contacts with Africans across the continent and beyond. In the short years he was in government, he held several ministerial portfolios, including external affairs, education, and information, positions he took full advantage of in his travels to open up opportunities for Malawians and to cement relations amongst African societies.

When Ghana obtained her independence in 1957, Malawi, seven years away from her own independence, received a huge moral boost, as did many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Malawi’s first president the late Dr. Kamuzu Banda was a very close friend of Ghana’s first president, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, having known each other in their activist days in Britain where Dr Banda practiced medicine. We owe it to Chiume who described the deep involvement of Dr. Nkrumah in Malawi’s own struggle for independence from colonial rule. According to Chiume, Dr. Nkrumah made available to Malawi financial assistance, ranging from ₤100 to ₤10,000 on various occasions. Nkrumah offered air tickets for Chiume to fly to Ghana in transit between Malawi and Britain, where they continued strategizing and mobilizing resources for Malawi’s independence struggle. In Ghana Chiume was treated as a hero, given triumphant welcomes, and “carried shoulder high amidst shouts and placards to the effect that a Nyasalander murdered is a Ghanaian dead” (p. 122).

Nkrumah was unequivocal about the importance of victory in Malawi’s struggle for independence, expressing to Chiume his “vehement denunciation” of imperialism in Nyasaland. Nkrumah provided the services of a skilled Ghanaian lawyer, Mills Odoi, to come to Malawi and assist in the legal proceedings of extricating Malawi from colonialism.

Chiume saw first hand Nkrumah’s larger vision for the emancipation of all of Africa, outlining the idea of a Pan-African government to Chiume thus: “Nkrumah talked about the urgent need for an All-African government. ‘Many of our troubles, Chiume,’ he emphasized, ‘are due to the fact that we are not united. We must have a continental government to prevent the further balkanization of Africa and, as far I am concerned, when Malawi is finally free and only seven of us are ready, we should just plunge into it. Others will follow.” (p. 167).

In his day Kanyama Chiume was probably the most traveled member of the new Malawi government. Wherever he went in his capacity as minister he never failed to advocate for Malawians and Africans, and was always seeking opportunities to bring back home to Malawians. He was able to obtain assistance in the form of scholarships and material help, from many countries, including Egypt, Algeria, India, Ghana, France, Canada and the United States, among others. When he visited the United States in 1963, his entourage successfully arranged for a meeting with Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but King had to cancel at the last minute and without prior warning, going to Louisiana to attend to emerging matters. They requested a meeting with President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert Kennedy, but were unable to meet them. They were however able to meet with Dr. Ralph Bunche, the 1950 Nobel Peace laureate, the first person of color to ever win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Chiume’s stay in America widened his Pan-Africanist purview, at once observing the racist society black Americans lived in, and the effects that racism had on their identity struggles. Chiume wrote:

But the majority were treated as though America was not their real home, and they were made to believe that they had no past, no heritage and no history. His African forebears were presented to him as savages who had sold him into slavery. He was discouraged from finding his identity in Africa and yet the struggle he was waging in his adopted country was basically the same struggle that his African brothers were waging. While Africa remained in bondage, I felt, so would the Afro-American remain oppressed in the USA. His real hope for the future lay in him discovering who he was. The black scholar must help rewrite Africa’s history, and the black educationalist must impart the truth about our great continent. In this renaissance the Afro-American and the African must work together (p. 163).

Chiume made sure to bring this message back home from the United States, but he was doubtful if Dr. Banda, who himself had spent many years going to school in the United States, shared this worldview. Dr. Banda was far more interested in consolidating his political relationship with white colonialists in Southern Africa, including the Portuguese in next door Mocambique, and in South Africa. This incensed Malawi’s neighbors, including Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere and Zambia’s Kaunda, who agreed with Chiume and the other Malawian cabinet ministers that Banda’s liaisons with settler colonies in the region was a betrayal of the struggles the Africans in these countries were fighting against their oppressors. The differences between Dr. Banda and his cabinet ministers grew and became irreconcilable three months after Malawi officially got its independence. Over the years, Chiume would acquire the unenviable accolade of being Dr. Banda’s “enemy number one.”

While Chiume’s account of what led to the crisis focuses mostly on the foreign policy and philosophical disagreements between Banda and his cabinet on the country’s relationships with fellow African countries, Henry Masauko Chipembere provides another perspective that is, for one reason or another, rarely mentioned in the analyses of Malawi’s 1964 Cabinet Crisis. The result is that some analyses of how Malawi embarked on the road to dictatorship fall into the stereotypical description of African leaders as being obsessed with simple-minded power grabbing and a cruelty overdrive. While African leaders indeed deserve the lashing and bashing they routinely receive, this analysis provides too narrow a perspective and fails to consider the political context and historical forces within which colonialism was imposed and resisted.
In a paper written by Chipembere and reprinted in Chipembere: The Missing Years (Ed. Colin Baker, 2006), Chipembere provides an account of a sustained, thorough effort by the British administrators to destabilize the newly independent Malawi by driving a wedge between Dr. Banda and his young cabinet. All of a sudden, Dr. Banda began rebuking his ministers in full public view, much to the surprise of the ministers.

Dr. Banda had never been lacking in frankness in his dealings with those of us who worked close to him. He had never been slow to criticize or rebuke when he thought we had made a mistake. But such criticisms had always been made in private. To everyone’s surprise, towards the end of 1963, he developed the habit of doing so in public, and the tone and content of his remarks were often so belligerent as to constitute an attack, challenge, or denunciation of his own cabinet (p. 265).

The answer to this question, Chipembere tells us, did not take long to start showing. It requires a lengthy quote for its full impact to be noticed:

A few weeks later we began to have some idea of the cause of these attacks on us. A colleague of mine and I were visiting a number of neighboring African countries. In one of these, we learned from intelligence sources that the British administrative and intelligence officers who surrounded Dr. Banda felt insecure in their positions as long as those of us who were regarded as radicals were in the cabinet. They feared that we would soon demand that their posts be Africanized i.e. that they should be replaced by Africans about whose political loyalty and dedication the government could be absolutely confident. The officers also believed that we were potentially, if not actually, communist sympathisers and would lead the country into the communist camp. So they were striving to work for our dismissal from the cabinet. To achieve this, they were systematically sowing seeds of suspicion and distrust in Dr. Banda’s mind. They were shadowing us and were covering every meeting we addressed. Intelligence reports submitted to the Prime Minister concerning our activities and speeches were written in a way as to make the Prime Minister believe that we were, to borrow one of his favorite phrases, ‘building ourselves up’ at his expense, trying to project an image equal to, or higher than, that of the Prime Minister (p. 265-266).

Today we know that Malawi was far from the only Third World country that was penetrated and interfered with in this way. We know the forces that were behind the military coup that ousted Dr. Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, as well as the elements that instigated the assassination of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo DRC. And this interference has never ended, with its long hand suspected and sometimes caught in other conflicts on the continent, including Mocambique, Angola, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, and elsewhere in the Third World. We also know of the complicity of fellow Africans who become entangled in this enterprise, wittingly or unwittingly.

Chiume was lucky to leave Malawi alive, after attempts to assassinate him and the other dissenters. Attempts on his life followed him even outside Malawi. He sought asylum in Tanzania where in September 1975 he launched a political party, the Congress for the Second Republic of Malawi (CSR). He brought that party back to Malawi in the early 1990s when Malawians decidedly told Dr. Banda they no longer wished to be a one-party state. For a brief while Chiume was given positions in the new government that took over in 1994, the most visible one being chair of the state-run book seller, the Malawi Book Service, which soon closed its doors as IMF-driven privatization took a hold on Malawi’s economy. The new freedom did not mean much for Chiume, who found himself marginalized as out-of-touch matchona (exiles) and whose idealism was checked by “obvious tendencies of intolerance, misuse of public funds, the resurgence of political violence and corruption,” according to an October 1996 AFP report.

Chiume was said to have become too disillusioned to continue from where he had left off in the 1960s, and left Malawi again, this time willingly, vowing never to return except “in a coffin.” For a while a few Malawians talked of how the country has never made a real effort to capitalize on the wealth of knowledge and wisdom kept by her huge Diaspora. At one point one Malawian wondered why the University of Malawi could not offer people like Chiume resident professorships where they would impart their world knowledge to future generations of Malawians. It may perhaps not even be too awkward to ask how many Malawians have ever read Chiume’s autobiography, or other writings, owing to the lengthy lists of books, publications and other material that were banned in Dr. Banda’s Malawi.

Note: The opening paragraph contains a factual error, which I have corrected. See the correction and an accompanying apology here

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Malawianizing the Internet: Discussion forums and the harnessing of knowledge: An Interview

The interview below was conducted on October 22 with Malawian journalist Kondwani Kamiyala of The Nation newspaper, and a part of what I said was used for a feature article that Kondwani wrote on the uses that Malawians put the internet to. This was before the BBC Africa Have Your Say program of Thursday November 8, which debated criticism of Malawi on the Internet and the issue of patriotism. Kondwani's feature appeared in the Society section of the Weekend Nation of Saturday November 10, 2007, and is reproduced on Kondwani's blog.

Where are you based at the moment?

Starting in 2006 I spend a number of weeks in the year in Mponela, Dowa, and the other times I'm at Michigan State University in the United States.

What is your occupation?

In Dowa I work as technical adviser for Miske Witt & Associates, Inc., on the USAID-funded Primary School Support Program: School Fees Pilot (PSSP: SFP), helping in the development and implementation of the Beginning Literacy Program in Malawi (BLP/M), aimed at improving the teaching of early literacy in early primary education in Dowa. In the United States I teach and do academic advising in Peace and Justice Studies, in the Department of Philosophy, at Michigan State University. I am also an author for Global Voices Online, an initiative of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, which follows and compiles blogs from around the world, focusing mostly on countries and regions outside Western Europe and the United States..

How has Nyasanet been beneficial to you, in connecting you to Malawians at home, and those in the diaspora?

This September marks 10 years since I first subscribed to Nyasanet, which I was introduced to by Dr. Dean Makuluni whom I first met at the University of Iowa (USA) in 1997. When used carefully, Nyasanet can provide one with a rich, broad educational experience, especially in learning about Malawi and other parts of the world from the perspectives other Malawians as well as non-Malawians who participate on Nyasanet. As somebody who studies writing pedagogy, Nyasanet provides an opportunity to explore writing, debating and analytical skills, for those who follow the debates and participate in them in a serious, comprehensive way. Fellow Malawians on Nyasanet have been very helpful in providing academic as well as general information in many areas. It serves as a repository of the various skills and capacities Malawians at home and around the world possess, skills that benefit our country and our world in ways many people are not aware of. In addition, there's of course the facility of helping one connect with friends, former classmates and former workmates, and other Malawians one would otherwise not have dreamed of ever meeting.

How has Nyasanet helped you get information on Malawi at the moment?

The above response also addresses a part of this question, but let me add that there are many Malawians who possess so much information on the history of Malawi, its contemporary issues, as well as specific disciplinary knowledge on various aspects of our nation, our African and Pan-African neighbours, and the world at large. With the proliferation of websites, online newspapers and print newspapers going online, internet radios, blogs, and other news media, Nyasanet serves as a one-stop source where Malawians post things they find elsewhere on the Internet and share with other Malawians. The significance of this type of resource is under-appreciated, and Dr Llosten Kaonga, the list owner of Nyasanet, deserves to be thanked and specially honoured for having initiated the forum, and for sustaining it for over 15 years now.

How best can Malawians utilise existing resources, like Nyasanet, on the Information Superhighway to foster development in the country?

This is an excellent question. Almost every Malawian agrees that as a nation we have enormous problems, although not many understand how many of these problems originate from the historical context of Malawi and the Pan-African world in our troubled relationship with the West. One really difficult problem resulting from this history has been the question of recognizing and producing relevant knowledge for the solving of problems, small and large, and how to promote our knowledge-making capacity, and make knowledge available to as many Malawians and Africans as possible. Forums such as Nyasanet, MalawiTalk, Malawiana, etc, have a huge potential to facilitate this knowledge-making process, and make various kinds of knowledges accessible to everyone, especially those who need them most. These are the knowledges any society needs for its development, however you define development (we can discuss this as a different topic). These knowledges are available on the Internet, and they are increasing by the minute.

In Malawi we need to do two things, broadly speaking, to facilitate this knowledge-making and knowledge dissemination process. First is to search for new ways of bringing this technology to the average Malawian. One way of doing this would be to tap into opportunities that bring computers to schools, especially primary and secondary schools, and teacher training colleges. A challenge here would be how to bring computers to schools that have no electricity. But there are people who are already working on this. We need to know who they are, and find out how we can benefit from such initiatives. Mzuzu University has a degree program in Renewable Energy Technologies, which among other things trains students in solar technologies, or at least it should. This program deserves utmost attention from government, the private sector, and other forward thinking individuals. This can help us think of how to bring energy and technology to rural parts of Malawi, a development ESCOM has decidedly failed in and frighteningly let the country down. Besides schools, we should also be thinking of other knowledge and social infrastructure in the villages, such as libraries, health centres, community centres, churches, etc.

Second is to Malawianize the Internet. By this I mean to put as much relevant information as possible on the Internet, using as many Malawian languages as we can. That way any Malawians who benefit from solar technology and cheap computers in villages can easily access knowledge on how to, for example, construct a khola that multiplies the number of eggs a chicken hatches, how to teach an aspect of arithmetic to a large class of 300 pupils sitting under a tree, among other examples. In both strategies, primary and secondary school teachers have a specially significant role to play. We need to ensure that every teacher graduating from a teacher training college, from Domasi and the other university colleges knows how to use a computer, and how to access the Internet. And then we must work on making sure these teachers continue to have Internet access when they go to teach in the schools, especially the rural schools. It may sound like day dreaming, but imagination is a powerful motivator and a mover of mountains.

Do you belong to any other forums (for instance professional fora for your particular area of interest) and how do you differentiate these, if at all, with such general discussion forums as Nyasanet?

Like other people I know, I belong to no less than 30 other forums, which for me span disciplines such as the history of education, World History, African literature, African American Studies, language policy studies, the teaching of Africa, peace studies, the philosophy of history, Marxism, the study of slavery, genocide and holocaust studies, Information Technology Malawi, and many others too numerous to list here. Of course I am also on listservs that are not academic in nature. Many of the lists I am on are moderated, and you have to have an academic and research interest in the discipline to be subscribed. The content on these lists is mostly the forwarding and sharing of information relevant to people in those disciplines, with very little heated debate, expect for the Marxism list and IT Malawi list. Nyasanet is different (as is IT Malawi) in that it is not moderated in that sense, and thus the debates go in many directions. You also get your fair share of nonsense, and lots of unreflective political partisanship , which some people find time-wasting and a nuisance. But the elders were right when they said "Walira mvula walira matope", so I take this as part of any normal society. You take from Nyasanet as much as you give.

Any other comments?

I think that the above is sufficient. But I must thank you for this brilliant idea, which confirms my belief that Malawian newspapers and the Malawian media are some of the most important resources we have as a nation, and whose role at the forefront of the development agenda needs the support of us all. Please keep it up.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Hedging hegemony: Dr Kyalo Manthi, African fossils & the ownership of science

When the news broke out in August of this year that new archaeological research in Kenya urged huge reversals in the conventional wisdom about the theory of evolution, the chasm in the reporting between the African media and the Euro-American one was astoundingly wide. Almost all of the media in the United States and in Britain who wrote about the news attributed the finding to Maeve Leakey and other Euro-American scientists. The African newspapers, on the other hand, attributed the discovery to Kenyan palaeontologist Dr Fredrick Kyalo Manthi. One writer, writing in the Daily Nation of Kenya, pointed out the discrepancy, while everyone else just reported on the finding and its hard facts.

The production and institutionalization of what becomes acceptable as knowledge is riveted with racial and geo-strategic politics, and is never neutral. A closer look at how this politics unraveled in the reportage of Dr Kyalo Manthi’s momentous discovery reveals how this tag-of-war still goes on today when most of us would like to believe that knowledge is power, and is unmediated by interest. Unfortunately the reality is not as palatable as that.

Dr. Kyalo Manthi. Photo courtesy of

The facts of the discovery are that the conventional scientific view has been that we human beings of today, homo sapiens, are an evolution out of our ancestor who walked erect, homo erectus. Homo erectus is supposed to have evolved out of an earlier ancestor, homo habilis. The earliest fossils for both species have been found in East Africa, leading most scientists to assert that Africa is the ancestral home of every single human being alive today on planet Earth. That part remains virtually unchallenged, at least in the scientific community, from the understanding of someone like me who is not an archeologist. What is now being questioned however is the idea that homo habilis existed earlier, out of whom homo erectus evolved, later. The finding in Kenya suggests that both species may have co-existed over a 500,000 year overlap. That is the news that is said to have overturned existing knowledge, leading to a need to rewrite that aspect of the theory of evolution. For our purposes as students of the Pan-African world and its place in the larger world, it is important to examine the politics accompanying this kind of knowledge production, and the effects of how the knowledge is packaged to the rest of the world.

The earliest date the story was carried was August 8, starting with The Washington Post whose headline was “Fossil shakes evolutionary tree”, by Seth Borenstein, of the Associated Press (AP). Borenstein wrote: “The new research by famed paleontologist Maeve Leakey in Kenya shows our family tree is more like a wayward bush with stubby branches, calling into question the evolution of our ancestors.” Borenstein went on to explain how “In 2000 Leakey found an old H. erectus complete skull within walking distance of an upper jaw of the H. habilis, and both dated from the same general time period.”

A slightly modified version of the same AP story by Borenstein appeared in the Denver Post the next day. “The discovery by Meave Leakey, a member of a famous family of paleontologists, shows that two species of early human ancestors lived at the same time in Kenya. That pokes holes in the chief theory of man's early evolution - that one of those species evolved from the other.”

On the same day the British Broadcasting Corporation published an article on its website, on the same story, written by James Urquhart, titled “Finds test human origins theory.” While the BBC story did not make the overt claim made by The Associated Press’s Seth Borenstein that the research was done by Maeve Leakey, it is still revealing to look at who Urquhart mostly quoted. To his credit, James Urquhart does state that the skull causing this major scientific shift was “discovered by Frederick Manthi of the National Museums of Kenya”. He quotes “Professor Meave Leakey, palaeontologist and co-director of the Koobi Fora Research Project,” “Professor Chris Stringer, head of human origins at London's Natural History Museum,” and “Fred Spoor, professor of developmental biology at University College London, and co-author of the paper.” None of the honorific and academic titles used for Maeve Leakey, Chris Stringer and Fred Spoor, are used for Fredrick Manthi, who in fact is Senior Research Scientist, Palaeontology Department, National Museums of Kenya, and has a PhD in the field.

Appearing on the 9th of August was the actual paper, 4 pages long, announcing the finding, in the scientific journal Nature. Titled “Implications of new early Homo fossils from Ileret, east of Lake Turkana, Kenya”, the paper was co-authored by nine researchers, the first of whom is Fred Spoor, and is ranked first in the byline. Fredrick Kyalo Manthi’s name appears next before last, and is ranked eighth. Not being privy to the reasons and arcane bargains that determine these scientific authorial rankings, we may assume that the ranking is in order of the importance of the contribution by each co-author to the research and the writing.

Also coming out on August 9th was an article in the New York Times, titled “Kenya Fossils Challenge Linear Evolution to Homo Sapiens,” written by John Noble Wilford. As with the BBC report, the New York Times’ Wilford also avoided overt claim as to which individual actually made the discovery, instead opting to quote Fred Spoor as “lead author”, and attributing to him his rightful titles. Stating that the fossils were found east of Lake Turkana, the report went on to say “Other authors include Meave G. Leakey and her daughter Louise Leakey, the Kenyan paleontologists who are co-directors of the Koobi Fora Research Project that made the discovery.” The Kenyan scientist, Dr. Fredrick Kyalo Manthi, is mentioned nowhere in the entire article, which goes on to quote other scientists from Harvard University and New York University commenting on the finding.

Meanwhile, the story as it appeared in the Kenyan media was starkly different. The Daily Nation of August 10 titled its story “New discovery shakes theory of evolution,” written by Muchemi Wachira and “Agencies.” Giving due acknowledgement to the journal Nature, and leaving out who the lead author was, the story was unequivocal as to who actually made the discovery:

“A Kenyan scientist has made a discovery which brings into question the long-held view of human evolution.

Dr Frederick Manthi, a researcher with the National Museums of Kenya, made the discovery that questioned the theory that human beings evolved from Homo Habilis to Homo Erectus.

Dr Manthi’s research over seven years suggests that Homo Habilis and Homo Erectus actually lived close together for half a million years.”

Wachira’s story went on to quote another Kenyan scientist, Dr Emma Mbua, “the head of Earth Sciences at the Museums”, and also included quotes from Dr Susan Anton (a co-author in the Nature article), in addition to naming Maeve and her daughter Louise Leakey. Wachira gave a detailed account of Dr Manthi and his work, including the specific day on which he found the skull, while taking a leisurely stroll with his friends, on his birthday. We learn, through Wachira, how Dr Manthi started off his career as an archaeologist, until getting his PhD in 2006 at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

In that same edition of The Daily Nation was another article, by Tim Querengesser, whose title expressed a sharp and immediate awareness of the hegemonic bias in the way the news was being reported: “Slowly by slowly, reluctant world starts to credit Kenyan scientists.” Querengesser observed that Meave Leakey did not attend the National Museums of Kenya function at which the fossils were unveiled, writing that “Instead, it was Dr Frederick [sic] Manthi, a Kenyan researcher who discovered the fossils near Ileret on his birthday seven years ago, who held the ancient bones before the cameras.”

Qurengesser added that “Dr Manthi’s recognition marked the first time the Leakey name was not being attributed, rightly or wrongly, to major archaeological discoveries in Kenya.” Querengesser was apparently aware of how the news had already been framed in the Euro-American media, and found it necessary to address the issue. “Although Dr Manthi is being recognised by some international media for finding the skull and jawbone, several stories running in British and US newspapers still credit a “team led by Meave Leakey” for the find.”

The Daily Nation continued with the news the following day, August 11th, titling its next story “Scientist digs his way into history books.” The first two paragraphs, as in the previous day’s story, left no doubt as to who the paradigm shifting discovery belonged to:

“He may not have been known outside the National Museums of Kenya (NMK), where he works, but his discovery has made him a household name not only in Kenya, but also in the world. His seven-year research is likely to send publishers scrambling to rewrite history books.

Dr Fredrick Kyalo Manthi’s discovery questions the theory that the evolution of man moves from homo habilis to homo erectus.”

Appearing several days layer, a commentary by Muthoni Thang’wa in another Kenyan paper, The Standard, continued in the same spirit as the earlier Kenyan writers. Thang’wa wrote: “National Museums of Kenya [sic] Dr Kyalo Manthi’s discovery is diverting the logical line of research in human evolution that anthropologists have come to accept as the logical progression of the species.” The differences in the way the Euro-American media and their African counterparts were framing the ownership of the discovery were too stark to be missed. And it behooves us to point out these discrepancies and analyze the underlying paradigms that drive them.

The question for us now becomes how to move beyond the cliché that describes the blatant anti-Africa biases not only in the EuroAmerican media, but also in the entire knowledge enterprise. Africa and Africans continue to occupy a liminal, marginal space in the Euro-American imaginary, and the media representations of the Kenya fossils story make that glaringly clear. What is perhaps not as easy to articulate, however, are the effects this travesty has on the image of the continent, its people, their histories and possible futures.

At one level, there is little to worry about in the images of Africa manufactured by an endless Eurocentric onslaught, especially for audiences that already know about the pernicious effects of racism and the history of global injustice. There are many who know about this, both inside Africa, in the African Diaspora, and even amongst a few discerning, critical-minded Euro-Americans. But there are also many others, both inside Africa and outside, for whom the Eurocentric model is unassailable, the epitome of omniscient truth.

Consider, for example, what Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame told the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof in response to a ubiquitous question posed by Kristof on his recent trip to Rwanda and other African countries. Kristof asked, all too predictably, why Asian countries which once were at par in income levels with African countries are today much richer than their African counterparts. And here was Mr Kagame’s response:

“I’m hesitant to talk about the issue of culture, but I have to -- and we have to work on it -- that culture of hard work, that culture of being ambitious and wanting to achieve [. . .] I believe that those values were in Africans, but I don’t know what dampened it -- what killed it” (NYT, July 5, 2007). Kristof goes on in the article to say that the Rwandan president reads the Harvard Business Review. Perhaps the Harvard Business Review has never published in-depth studies on how Asia has managed globalization, and the forces Africa has had to content with, but for an African president to assert that Africans no longer have ambition and a hard work ethic, and being clueless as to why, does nothing to stave off the hegemony of Eurocentric beliefs about Africa and Africans.

So at another level there is enough to worry about when African leaders and elites harbor inaccurate, uninformed beliefs about their own people. In Malawi we used to have Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda who drilled it into the nation that black people were intellectually inferior (except for himself), and that the best education one could afford was a European classical one, replete with Greek and Latin. He decreed that no black person was qualified enough to teach at his Eton-carbon copy Kamuzu Academy. Today, you still hear educated Malawians spewing forth this kind of froth.

But we also have young Malawians and Africans who see through the pseudo-intellectual basis of this kind of unreason. They are the ones who are uplifting the country and the continent in many innovative ways only the youth know best. I have already written about the likes of William Kamkwamba, Andrews Nchessie, and many others for whom it would be an insult to consider them as lacking in a hard work ethic, ambition and a desire for achievement.

The story of Dr Kyalo Manthi and the way the Euro-American media has portrayed it is another reminder of the ongoing struggles for the re-assertion of Africa and Africans both on the continent and outside. They are not struggles for their own sake; rather, they are struggles about the truth of an entire group of people striving to tell their own stories to a world long used to hearing tales of the hunt from the hunter’s perspective. There is no doubt as to the contributions of Euro-America to human knowledge, and to the continuing relevance of that paradigm to the future of knowledge-making. It is in that light that the world is hugely indebted to the generations of the Leakey family for the enormity of their contributions to human knowledge, and for enabling young scientists like Dr. Manthi to also be a part of that knowledge revolution. However buried inside the story of the production of human knowledge are the unacknowledged contributions of people outside the Euro-American frame. And this constitutes a global injustice that must be addressed.

The story of human knowledge is a very long one, going back to the earliest moments when our ancestors created art, culture and wisdom for utilizing nature’s nurture as well as surviving its harshest elements. Those capabilities have evolved over countless millennia, to the present when we can blog, and even clog an ever-expanding cyberspace. Hegemonic discourse holds that one group of people owns the means for producing this human knowledge, but the discoveries made by scientists, including Dr Kyalo Manthi, show us that all of human kind has been a part of that knowledge-making process. As one imperative in uMunthu epistemology tells us, the success of one is the success of all, one compelling reason for us to celebrate the contributions of those on the periphery of global hegemony.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Reclaiming Malawi’s Place at the Pan-African Table

It augurs very well for Malawi’s place in the pan-African world that we are celebrating our 43rd independence anniversary this year the same week that the 9th African Union Summit has been taking place in Accra, Ghana. After 43 odd years of independence, how many of us, not to talk of young Malawians, have a good grasp of the significance of celebrating July 6th as Malawi’s Independence Day? Each time this date comes, we move one year further away from the moment that gave birth to our nation. It is very easy for many of us to lose sight of what this meant in 1964, what it means today and, even more importantly, in the future. It might appear as if it is mere coincidence that we in Malawi are celebrating our independence anniversary in the same week that the 9th African Union Summit meeting in Ghana this week has debated the issue of a single government for the continent of Africa as the main topic. I argue that it is not mere coincidence. I argue that it is a sign of the times for us Malawians to step up to the continental table and take our rightful place as equal members with all the other African peoples on the continent and in the Diaspora.

For the first thirty years of our nationhood our ties with the rest of the African peoples were severed by a government led by a leader who, for the most part of his rule, did not believe in the unity of the African people. The irony of it all is that in fact Dr. Kamuzu Banda attended the 1945 Pan-African Congress held in Manchester, according to Kwesi Kwaa Praa, the first congress have taken place in 1919. Banda was a Pan-Africanist all the way up to the moment he began leading the independence struggle in Malawi. Historians are still studying what happened to the pre-independence Kamuzu, who was quite suddenly replaced by the post-independence Kamuzu who turned against his fellow Pan-Africanist colleagues. The legacy of the damage wrought on our country by this anti-Pan-Africanist policy is with us today, with many of us not fully aware of the importance of seeing ourselves in the larger ideal of a Pan-African identity and destiny. The policy of isolating ourselves from the rest of the African peoples led to a form of national amnesia insofar as the ideals that gave us a larger purpose and a vision. As Henry Masauko Chipembere wrote in 1971, we shared this larger purpose and vision with the rest of the continent, waging a struggle for freedom from a racist colonial oppression. Chipembere wrote in his paper that our struggle grew from learning what other Africans were doing in other parts of the continents, as much as other African countries also learned from the strategies we were using to achieve our independence. This year of 2007 is an auspicious one for the special fact that it has been 50 years since Ghana got its independence, an occasion that phenomenally emboldened the struggles of many other African countries, including our own.

Ghana’s independence in 1957 meant a lot for Malawi, for many reasons. For one, our first president the late Dr. Kamuzu Banda was a very close friend of Ghana’s first president, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, a friendship that started long before either country became independent. Dr. Nkrumah became actively engaged in Malawi’s own struggle for independence from colonial rule. In his 1982 autobiography detailing what it took for us to achieve independence, Kanyama Chiume, one Malawian who was at the centre of the struggle, gives an elaborate and inspiring account of the support Malawians received from many Africans on the continent, and others beyond, at the height of the struggle. Chiume writes about visiting London in 1959, whereupon learning of his presence there, Dr. Nkrumah sent ₤100 to help in the work Chiume was doing in London. Days later Nkrumah offered an air ticket for Chiume to fly directly to Ghana to continue strategizing and mobilizing resources to aid Malawi’s freedom struggle. In Ghana Chiume was given a triumphant welcome, and “was carried shoulder high amidst shouts and placards to the effect that a Nyasalander murdered is a Ghanaian dead” (p. 122).

Even more self-less support from Nkrumah came when Chiume met with Nkrumah in Ghana. Chiume writes: “When I saw Nkrumah personally he was most vehement in his denunciation of imperialism in Nyasaland. Since the Devlin Commission had already been appointed, and we were determined to defend our colleagues in detention, he offered ₤10,000 to cover the defence costs. In addition, he placed at our disposal the services of an able Ghanaian lawyer, Mills Odoi, to accompany whoever we chose to go to Central Africa for the purpose.”

Chiume goes on to talk about the larger vision that Nkrumah had for the emancipation of all of Africa, outlining the idea of a Pan-African government to Chiume when they met a second time: “Nkrumah talked about the urgent need for an All-African government. ‘Many of our troubles, Chiume,’ he emphasized, ‘are due to the fact that we are not united. We must have a continental government to prevent the further balkanization of Africa and, as far I am concerned, when Malawi is finally free and only seven of us are ready, we should just plunge into it. Others will follow.” (p. 167).

The continent of Africa and its Diaspora has paid an incalculable price for failing to act on the Pan-Africanist vision of Dr. Nkrumah, Kanyama Chiume, Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, Henry Sylvester Williams, George Padmore, and others. Our countries have spent the past 50 years relying on the oftentimes guilt-ridden, sometimes benevolent conscience of our former colonial rulers who prop up our governments by providing a big fraction of our development budgets. We have many of our people believing that being dependent on our former colonial rulers is the permanent natural way of things, totally unaware that it is desirable for us to break free from this dependency and become self-sustaining. Most revealing of this pessimism and insular worldview have been the reactions this week to the issue of a union government of Africa, or a United States of Africa, that has been the center of the African Union summit this week. The opposition the idea has met from many Africans expressing their views on the BBC’s African Service programs, and in various other forums, has been eye opening in some ways, and also unsurprising in others. It would require a separate article altogether to respond to the most substantive skepticism, not to mention the purely reactionary and astonishingly uninformed comments that have come out from the mouths of many Africans used to thinking in the status quo, with no larger vision for what Africa’s future might look like.

The failure to make Pan-Africanist unity a reality is not easy to analyze as it involves many factors and contexts. The Malawi Cabinet Crisis of 1964, coming just three months after our independence meant that whatever capability Malawi had to contribute towards that ideal disappeared with the exiling and hunting down of the country’s first cabinet, which, according to Chipembere, was considered one of the most formidable on the continent. As a country we have spent very little time studying what led to the crisis, and what effect that had on our country. For us to claim our rightful place on the Pan-African table it is important that we recapture the ideals that helped us, together with other African countries, attain our independence. The struggle could never have been won had the entire country not been galvanized and involved. In the same vein, the future we envisage for ourselves will not come to fruition if we do not learn from the mistakes of the past, and find new ways of galvanizing and involving all of our citizens in charting a new vision for our future. It has to be a long-term vision, and we have to begin with teachers, pupils, and schools.

Each one of us must strive to learn more about the ideals and visions that helped us attain independence, and the role the larger Pan-African family played toward that goal. Each of us must embark on an exploration of what it means to belong to a larger Pan-African identity which embraces all Africans on the continent and all people of African descent all over the world.

The African Union Summit has done very well to commission more studies on how a union government can become a reality. Every single person of African descent both on the continent and in the Diaspora needs to join in the debate and make it richer. Unlike the polarization that some are pushing as an either top-down or a grassroots approach on how to achieve a union government, the goal of greater Pan-African unity cannot be achieved by using one approach only. It has to be approached from multiple perspectives. The heads of government have their roles to play. The grassroots also have their roles to play. The regional groupings that already exist have a role to play, as do continental bodies such as the Summit itself. Universities and teacher education institutions in Africa and in the Diaspora need to devise more academic courses and research projects on the history, politics, economics, cultural and social contexts of Pan-Africanism, and involve students in research projects. Members of Parliament must be helped to have a better, informed understanding of the project, so as to lead their constituents in making their voices heard in the grand debate. Civil society organizations must take this an important part of their responsibilities in their quest to empower ordinary, grassroots people. The opposition and skepticism that have arisen on the debate are a healthy and relevant part of the process, and must be encouraged. However we stand benefit more from a better informed and reflective discussion.

We have the resources at our disposal to embark on a mass education campaign to enable an informed debate, but we need to mobilize those resources, and make them available to everyone interested in learning more. That is only one of the ways in which we are each going to participate in the grand effort toward Pan-Africanist integration and unity.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Unleashing the Mind: William Kamkwamba, Malawian Genius, and the New Media

His is the most inspirational story I have read this year. In 2002 William Kamkwamba was unable to continue with his secondary school education, as his parents couldn’t afford the school fees. This was just after two terms in Form 1 (high school freshman), and he was 14 years old. But his desire to keep reading and learning led him into a library at a nearby primary school in the central region district of Kasungu, and to a book on how to make electricity. He went ahead and made a windmill just following the instructions in the book. The school library was donated as part of the Malawi Teacher Training Activity (MTTA), a USAID teacher development project that started in September 2004, and has involved teachers in four districts in Malawi, namely Kasungu, Machinga, Mzimba South, and Phalombe. MTTA involves partners who include the American Institutes of Research (AIR), Miske Witt & Associates (MWAI), and the Malawi Institute of Education (MIE).

I show later in this posting that Kamkwamba’s story holds an important lesson for Malawi and other countries about educational beliefs and practices, and their potential to either facilitate or kill emergent talent and creativity. In addition to William's story, I use two more examples to make the above point. I write about Andrews Nchessie, a primary school teacher also in Kasungu who is now a teacher educator, and whose own unique story shares similarly fascinating parallels with William. I also write about Nolence Mwangwego, a Malawian teacher of the French language who invented a writing script. I finish with two Malawian farmers who have made significant contributions to agricultural practices in Malawi by inventing new ways of irrigating farms: one is Friday Nikoloma of Thyolo, and the other is Dr. Chinkuntha of Dowa.

When the MTTA deputy chief of party, Dr. Hartford Mchazime heard of William’s windmill and its origins in the library donated by MTTA, he went to visit William. He brought with him journalists, and a story that appeared in the Daily Times was picked up by bloggers including Soyapi Mumba ( and Mike McKay ( Early this month the program director of the Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) annual conference, Emeka Okafor, himself a prominent blogger who saw William’s story on the above Malawian blogs, invited Kamkwamba to attend and talk at TEDGlobal, one of the world's largest technology conferences, held this year June 4-7 in Arusha, Tanzania.

Kamkwamba’s life has not been the same since. The 2007 TEDGlobal conference was also attended by the likes of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Larry Page (the guy who gave us Google), Phillipe Starck, Bono, and on previous occasions, Bill Clinton, and many other famous Who are Whos in the world. Two weeks ago he touched a computer for the first time in his life, opened an email account, and last week he started his own blog. Comments and congratulations are coming in from around the world, and in the words of one of the organizers at TED, there is a “firestorm” of interest brewing for Kamkwamba.

Not long ago stories like these used to appear once in a generation, but are now becoming more believable, thanks to the power of 21st century innovations and technologies. The theme of the African renaissance, expressed in the phrase Afrika Aphukira, gets full expression in young people such as William and Andrews, Nolence Mwangwego, and in farmers such as Nikoloma and Chinkuntha, in Malawi, Africa, and around the world.

There is one major coincidence in Kamkwamba’s and Nchessie’s stories that I can’t resist writing about. Some time in the mid-1990s The Nation, the second of Malawi’s daily newspapers, published on its front page the story of a primary school teacher in Kasungu (same district where Kamkwamba hails from) who had invented an early flood warning system. Being in the 1990s, there were no blogs at the time, and in Malawi the Internet was non-existent. Thus the story did not go as far as Kamkwamba’s has. That teacher was Andrews Nchessie, who became my best friend when I transferred to Police Secondary School in 1988, from Nankhunda Seminary where I had been expelled for not seeming to possess the priestly vocation.

Andrews Nchessie did not stop at the early flood warning system. He went on to introduce fish farming, wind vanes, and other scientific experiments with his primary school pupils at Kasungu Demonstration Primary School, on the campus of Kasungu Teachers’ College where he trained as a teacher. He even organized Open Days at the school, inviting members of the public, including journalists, to come and see what pupils at the school were doing. One time his class experimented with goat urine as a cure for an outbreak of scabies at the school, in a science unit that involved lab technicians at the Kasungu District Hospital. This news also made the front page of The Nation.

A scientist and curriculum specialist at MIE, the late Harold Gonthi, visited Nchessie at his school, and soon started inviting him to national research conferences for educational researchers in Malawi. Soon those invitations extended to international conferences in the region and beyond, and led to an international award for his innovative teaching. He visited universities and other educational institutions in Zambia, Mocambique, South Africa, Ghana, Togo, Ethiopia, Ivory Coast, and recently, Germany and Norway. After spending 13 months at various universities in Norway in 2005-2006, Nchessie returned to Kasungu Demonstration Primary School, and to his Standard 4 classroom (4th Grade). With him he brought more than a dozen computers and networking equipment, which he used to establish the first ever computer lab at Kasungu Teachers’ College. The administration recognized his efforts and promoted him from being a primary school teacher to being a lecturer at the teachers’ college.

There is one very important lesson that the stories of William Kamkwamba, Andrews Nchessie, Nolence Mwangwego, Friday Nikoloma and Dr. Chinkuntha which I talk about later in this article, teach us in Malawi but also in Africa and beyond. It is very tempting to conclude from the these stories that the problems affecting our countries, which we like to couch in the discourse of backwardness, originate in individuals not being committed enough, not working hard enough. If only every one worked as hard as William or Andrews, our countries would be very different today.

The problem with this perspective, and here is where the lesson comes in, is that it attributes the causes of the problems we always talk about to individuals, blaming them for not being diligent and hard working enough. And that is where the perspective misses the point. There is no denying that William and Nchessie are unique individuals who are serious and thoughtful in their outlook on the world. To get to where they are today, they have had to overcome insurmountable problems which many others in their community and in Malawi have failed to. While individual traits and character do play an important part in propelling one to greater realization of their potential, we live in a world in which many people are never provided opportunities through which their traits and character can blossom and shine for the world to see.

There is a conundrum here that is easy to miss. On the one hand, something is seriously wrong with a system in which somebody like William is unable to proceed with school because or lack of money for school fees, or, in Andrews’ case, unable to obtain university education because he failed to make it to the super-selective University of Malawi in 1990. On the other hand, it is not possible to tell with definitiveness whether William’s talents and hard work would have come out with such a bang had he been able to continue in a conventional secondary school. School systems can be places where individuals can indeed blossom and take off, but they are also known all over the world as places which can force one’s intellect into a conventional box and stifle one’s creativity and genius. This is a conundrum which is not easy to resolve.

In Malawi, a huge factor of the limited opportunities for enterprising individuals such as William and Andrews is the political economy and its vicious cycle of poorly equipped schools, poorly trained teachers, and very few opportunities for one to advance beyond basic education. The political economy of Malawi is tied to that of the rest of the world, and is affected by instabilities and fluctuations originating elsewhere in the world. To qualify for the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC), for example, countries like Malawi are required to maintain a specific ceiling on budgetary expenditure, which for some countries means putting a freeze on hiring new teachers, nurses, and other key personnel, and also on raising their salaries.

But historical factors also play a role, in how modern education came to Malawi and what that meant for endogenous ways of producing and disseminating new knowledge. All these factors have resulted in the adoption of a system that thrives on beliefs about knowledge and individual ability that label the majority of people as lacking, deficient, and undeserving of opportunities for advanced education.

We should be grateful for stories such as William’s, Andrews’, Nolence's, Friday's and Chinkuntha's, which from time to time renew our faith in our humanity and in our potential to contribute to the understanding of our own problems and the pursuit of solutions. They are young people who show us rare examples of what an excellent teacher looks like, and how an exceptional student needs the support of the broader global community in order to realize his or her potential. These stories should help us rethink how we can better restructure our economies and political systems so they can benefit more people rather than only a minority, elite few. More such stories might hopefully help us better understand how to also rethink not only our educational practices but also the beliefs that drive those practices and policies.

Therein lies the exponential potential of new media technologies, a point made astutely by Mike McKay in an email yesterday. An article appearing on the Daily Times website was easy to pass on and blog about, with links. The news spread from one blog to another, until it reached the eyes of somebody with enough influence to make things happen. It would be naive to promise that everyone else who has a remarkable story to tell will end up being recognized for it, but it is also true that without these new technologies, it is difficult to say how far the innovative hard work and achievements of William would have gone.

There are a few other stories of innovations and creativity, in addition to William and Andrews, that unfortunately have not received wider attention. Recently an article in The Nation, by Kondwani Kamiyala, described how exactly ten years ago this year Nolence Mwangwego, a teacher of the French language, launched his unique style of writing called the Mangwego script. The then Minister of Youth, Sport and Culture Kamangadazi Chambalo lauded the invention, and expressed that government was going to show interest. Although one would have hoped that the minister himself would consider his presence at the launch as government interest, and take the lead in promoting the invention, very little has come out of that interest.

In April this year I was told, by Bright Malopa, about a farmer in Thyolo who invented an irrigation system that propels water from a river and pushes it upland and irrigates his farm. Levi Zeleza Manda tells me that this farmer’s name is Friday Nikoloma, and he works with a team of four other farmers. No Malawian needs convincing about the vital importance of irrigation in Malawi, given the erratic rains we get from time to time which in recent years have caused severe food shortages. We are uniquely blessed with a huge lake, and a big river, which we have so far been unable to utilize for agricultural and food security purposes.

Another Malawian farmer who has also beaten the odds and sidestepped a stifling conventional educational system is Dr. Chinkuntha, of Dowa, said to have devised a farming system that also defies erratic rainfall. Dr. Chinkuntha never went to university, but his farming system is frequented by university researchers and students who come from beyond Malawi and the Africa region to marvel at his genius. The University of Malawi has recognized his achievements by awarding him an honorary doctorate.

I am sure there would be more stories of such type if one looked hard enough. Not all of them will receive the recognition they deserve, but without the opportunities new media technologies make possible, it would be even harder to know about these inspiring stories and learn from them. In taking advantage of the new possibilities unleashed by technology, a laudable goal will be to work hard at bridging the so-called digital divide. This entails bringing down costs and making it less expensive for more ordinary people to afford them. Such a goal needs the participation of not only government and its parastatals, but also institutions and individuals with a self-less spirit and a desire to encourage and promote less privileged Malawians, who are in the majority, and always working very hard. Thus the change we envisage in beliefs about educational practices needs to be embraced by us all in the way we understand our communities and what it means to use the spirit of uMunthu and appreciate how the success of one is the success of us all.

[In addition to William Kamkwamba's own blog, and many others that have picked up his story, the blog African Path is presenting developments in his life as they unfold.]