Monday, October 19, 2009

What Would Gandhi Do? Zimbabwe, Neo-imperialism and the Lessons of Nonviolence

The theme for this year’s Peace and Justice Studies Association (PJSA) annual conference, held from October 8 to 10 at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, could not have been more apropos. Phrased as “The Power of Nonviolence,” it compelled me to think about the ways in which Nonviolence theory and praxis could be brought to bear in the search for solutions to one of Africa’s most intractable puzzles, the case of Zimbabwe. No sooner had the conference ended and we had all returned to our respective bases than Zimbabwe shot up onto the world headlines once again. The Tsvangirai faction of the Movement for Democratic Change’s (MDC-T)) Agriculture Deputy Minister-designate Roy Bennett was indicted and remanded to jail on Wednesday October 14, to await his trial on charges believed by many to be politically motivated. He is being tried on charges of “possessing weapons for the purposes of insurgency and banditry,” according to the Zimbabwe Times. High Court Justice Charles Hungwe restored Bennett's bail two days later, on the same day that Prime Minister and MDC-T president Morgan Tsvangirai announced that the MDC-T was disengaging from the Government of National Unity. 

The Last Straw

News reports described the Roy Bennett issue as the last straw that broke the GNU’s back, despite Tsvangirai’s clarification that the disengagement was not a direct result of the Bennett trial. The Zimbabwe Times quoted Tsvangirai as telling reporters: “Let me emphasise this . . . this decision has not been made because of Bennett as some might want think. This has purely nothing to do with Bennett but with the collapse of trust in our Zanu PF partners in government.” Rumors that the MDC-T were contemplating pulling out of the Government of National Unity predated the events of this past week. The Financial Gazette titled its Friday October 2 comment “No to MDC Pull Out”, and urged the MDC-T to explore other ways of resolving the problems dogging the GNU, other than withdrawing from the eight-month marriage of convenience.

The statement from Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai announcing the “disengagement” offered the context for the decision as the culmination of “outstanding, non-compliance and toxic issues” that continued “to impede the transitional government”, eight months after it was implemented. “Despite countless meetings among the Principals, despite countless press conferences, despite numerous correspondence and trips to SADC and SADC leaders and despite a SADC summit, the above issues remain outstanding,” said the statement issued on Friday, October 16. It laid out a litany of breaches, intransigence and recalcitrance from the ZANU-PF side: provincial governors had still not been appointed; the appointments of Governor of the Reserve Bank and the Attorney General had not yet been rescinded, despite their illegality; the deputy minister of Agriculture had not yet been sworn in; and the Global Political Agreement had not yet been reviewed, way past the 6-month point as was the agreement.

Tsvangirai went on to point out how ZANU-PF had failed to enact a paradigm shift to reflect the spirit of the Global Political Agreement (GPA), abusing and disrespecting it. More ominously, he cited “the extensive militarization of the countryside through massive deployment of the military and the setting up of bases of violence that we saw after the 29th of March 2008.” ZANU-PF had imposed more than 16,000 youth functionaries onto government payroll, who had been imposed on the government payroll, and there was continuation of “selective and unequal application of the rule of law”. ZANU-PF’s mouthpieces, The Herald newspaper and the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation “continue to treat the MDC and our leaders in government as if they were a third-rate treasonous and sell-out element instead of a genuine and equal partner in the transitional government.”

In what was probably a painful acknowledgement of what many had already known about the marriage of convenience, Tsvangirai turned the scathing critique inward:

“On our part, we have papered over the cracks and have sought to persuade the whole world in the last eight months that everything is working.  We have sought to persuade our constituencies that the transitional government was on course and was the only business in town. In the process, we have put at stake the reputation, credibility and trust of our movement and to ourselves as leaders. We have done everything in order to make this government work and we have done so purely for one reason, the need to restore hope and dignity to our people; the need to give our people a new start and a new beginning.”

Tsvangirai’s tone was very assertive, emphasizing how it was the MDC that was supposed to be the dominant partner in the inclusive government: “The truth of the matter is that it is our Movement that won the election of 29 March 2008. It is our Movement that has the mandate of the people to govern this country. It is our Movement that has strategically compromised on that mandate by executing the GPA and by entering into the transitional government.  It is our Movement upon which the hope and future of millions of Zimbabweans is deposited.”

In September this year the MDC started consulting its membership and support base about the idea of whether to hang in there and try to work things out. On the MDC’s website, a poll started on September 24 asked if the party should abandon the inclusive government. As of October 17, 54.5 percent of 393 respondents advised against pulling out, over 45.5 percent who voted yes. According to the Mail and Guardian of South Africa, Tsvangirai asked for an emergency meeting with Mugabe following the indictment and jailing of Bennett on Wednesday. Mugabe is said to have refused. Tsvangirai in turn refused to convene a scheduled cabinet meeting. The Sunday Times of October 18 described rumors about a meeting between President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai hours after Tsvangirai’s announcement on Friday, in addition to earlier rumors that Mugabe had been frantically attempting to meet Tsvangirai. Following the decision to disengage from the inclusive government, the MDC-T ordered all its cabinet ministers to pack up and leave their government offices and operate from their party’s headquarters, according to the Zimbabwe Times.

For many, it was just a matter of time before this unraveling was to get underway. For others, it is a disturbing trend of events for an arrangement that, however inconvenient and undesirable, had began to bear tangible fruit on the ground inasfar as the living conditions of ordinary Zimbabweans. The Zimbabwe crisis has not suffered a shortage of detailed, impassioned proposals and suggestions for how to resolve it. These have ranged from military options, from both inside agitation and outside Zimbabwe, to political settlements, such as the inclusive government, insisted upon by the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which both ZANU –PF and the two MDC factions ended up agreeing upon. The monumental events of this past week are likely to unfurl that process all over again. Tsvangirai said it was now time to “assert and take our position as the dominant party in Zimbabwe,” even as the MDC-T were ceasing all collaboration with the ZANU-PF. It remains to be seen how this assumption of the MDC’s rightful place in government is going to be implemented.

Among the many proposals offered as potential ways of ending the Zimbabwe impasse, there has not been much said about nonviolent action. With the exception of a special report published in 2003 by the Washington DC-based United States Institute for Peace (USIP), none of the major think tanks and interested third parties have ever mentioned, or let alone paid attention to the issue of nonviolence as a plan of action capable of being a viable solution to the Zimbabwe crisis. This is at once curious and yet not surprising. Curious because not only has nonviolent action been successfully used in difficult contexts of political repression around the world, it has actually been adopted as a strategy by a number of groups in Zimbabwe, including the MDC itself, in its first six years. But it is also not surprising because despite the success nonviolent resistance has registered in a number of cases of repression around the world, it has not been as celebrated as military campaigns have, and continue to be. With the exception of Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent movement in the first half of the century, first in South Africa and later in India, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Civil Rights Movement in the United States of the 50s and 60s, methods of resistance to political repression that rely on means other than violence receive less attention in the mainstream media.

The 2003 special report issued by the United States Institute for Peace was titled “Zimbabwe and the Prospects for Nonviolent Political Change.” The report was commissioned by USIP’s Research and Studies Program, and was written by three scholar-analysts who were living and working in Zimbabwe at the time. Their names were not provided, for reasons of their personal safety. With the term “Nonviolent Political Change” prominently gracing the title, the report offered a detailed description of events in 2003, most notably the strategies that the MDC and its partners had undertaken to pressurize Mugabe’s ZANU-PF into democratic reforms. The report stated that when civil society groups began to emerge in the 1990s, their main tactic was to use strategies of nonviolence to bring about change in Zimbabwe. Most of these strategies took the form of mass stay-aways, which paralyzed economic activity in some of Zimbabwe’s major cities. Beyond these mass stay-aways, however, it was not clear how these civil society coalitions and the MDC approached the concept of nonviolence in both its theoretical and strategic considerations. The report offered no definitions of what it termed ‘nonviolence’, nor did it cite any particular Zimbabwean proponents of nonviolence spelling out what specific approaches they would use, other than mass stay-aways.

Violence and Nonviolence in Zimbabwe

The most compelling evidence that there were Zimbabweans who espoused nonviolence as both principle and strategy appeared in an article written by Senator David Coltart and published on the news site NewZimbabwe.com in September 2006. The article was picked up by The New African in their May 2007 issue, which had a 17-page supplement dedicated to presenting various sides to the Zimbabwe story. The sponsored supplement of the May 2007 issue of the New African dedicated six articles to the issue of violence in Zimbabwe, two of them written by two members of the MDC affected by the violence from within their own ranks.

David Coltart is an MDC-M member of parliament from the Mutambara faction who has since become Zimbabwe’s Minister of Education, Sports and Culture. Citing both Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., Coltart wrote that the best way to deal with Mugabe’s authoritarianism was through nonviolent techniques. He traced his personal commitment to nonviolence to two brutal wars he had experienced. First was the war for independence, and second was the Gukurahundi, the massacre of Ndebeles in what Mugabe called a war against rebels, in the mid-1980s. “These experiences made me vow that I would do all in my power to prevent further conflict in Zimbabwe,” he wrote. Coltart pointed out that violence was endemic to Zimbabwean society, going back to the wars of the 19th century.

"Violence was used by Lobengula to suppress the Shona. Violence was used to colonise and the threat of violence was used to maintain white minority rule. Violence was used to overthrow the white minority. And since independence, violence as been used to crush legitimate political opposition."

Coltart added that a culture of impunity had taken hold, in which violence was used to achieve political ends, and the perpetrators were thriving on those victories won through violence. “As a result, violence is now deeply embedded in our national psyche. Political violence is accepted as the norm.” The MDC was different from other Zimbabwean political parties because of its commitment to ending political violence and promoting nonviolence as a principle, wrote Coltart. MDC members had at various times debated as to whether the brutality of Mugabe’s government could be encountered through nonviolence, however the MDC always maintained a “broad consensus that this was the only course open to us if we were to act in the long national interest.”

Coltart was anguished by the violence that was being perpetrated by members of the MDC, a development he argued was undermining the entire nonviolent strategy. On September 28, 2004, MDC youths were said to have attempted to murder Peter Guhu, MDC Director of Security. While this incident shocked Coltart, he was even more disturbed to learn that senior MDC officials were part of the attempted murder plot. An inquiry was carried out, but no action was taken against the members who had plotted the attempted murder. More violence was to follow in May 2005, when the same MDC youth were sent to assault other MDC members. In July 2006 MDC youth from Tsvangirai’s faction seriously injured a member of Mutambara’s MDC faction, Trudy Stevenson, stoning her in the head and breaking her arm. They also damaged the car Stevenson and other party members were traveling in. Other cases of political violence perpetrated by the MDC involved petrol bombings of police officers, some of whom incurred severe burn injuries.

Coltart wrote that if the MDC were to transform Zimbabwe into a better place, “we simply have to break this cycle of violence. We will find that if we do not stamp out violence in our ranks now, it will come back to haunt us.” The reason why ZANU-PF’s political violence had reached the proportions it had was because of the century-old trend, repeating itself and no one seemed to have learned the lesson that violence begets more violence. Coltart said that violence played right into the hands of ZANU-PF, whose sole purpose had been not only to intimidate but also to “provoke the opposition into a physical fight. The regime desperately needs a pretext to use all the power at its disposal.” Whatever mass-action the MDC and its partners were to plan needed to be “carefully organized by people who have a deep-rooted commitment to and understanding of nonviolent techniques,” he wrote. 

The MDC are not the only group espousing nonviolent techniques in Zimbabwe. The women’s group Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) state in their mission statement that their goals are “based on the principles of strategic nonviolence.” When the group organized a protest to commemorate this year’s International Day of Peace on September 21 in Bulawayo, they were brutally attacked and dispersed by the police. Some onlookers threatened the police with physical violence in retaliation, but the group’s leaders stepped in and asserted the group’s nonviolent approach: “we are non-violent activists and any history should write that the people who disturbed the peace with violence were Zimbabwe Republic Police officers, not peaceful human rights defenders.”

Given the history of Zimbabwe and the role violence has played for more than a century, the idea of nonviolence would not be an easy one. One interesting irony is that even Robert Mugabe himself once read Mahatma Gandhi, and for a while contemplated nonviolent resistance, according to Mugabe biographer Heidi Holland (2008) in her book Dinner with Mugabe. The belief that Zimbabwe’s freedom could only be won through armed struggle was pervasive, probably given the brutality of the racist regime of Ian Smith. Speaking to Bill Sutherland and Matt Meyer in a 1992 interview for their book on Pan-Africanist peace perspectives, then Minister of Foreign Affairs Nathan Shamuyayira said the question of nonviolence as a tactic for Zimbabwe’s independence struggle was out of the question. Many felt that the victories Gandhi had achieved for India and Martin Luther King Jr. for civil rights in the United States could not be used as examples for Zimbabwe, whose context was far different. But according to Coltart, the MDC did view nonviolence as a viable response to ZANU-PF’s violence, even when members of the MDC did not always adhere to nonviolent principles.

That Senator David Coltart became the new Minister of Education, Sport and Culture in February 2009 was a particularly promising sign in light of the expectation for a new curriculum and a reformed educational system. Nonviolence education requires an intellectual framework to guide practical training and discipline, under a broader Peace Education curriculum and pedagogy. Several African countries have embarked on the incorporation of Human Rights Education into their school systems, through the efforts of educational Non-Governmental Organizations. Perhaps the most significant breakthrough came in September when seven African Ministers of Education met in Mombasa, Kenya, to discuss the incorporation of Peace Education into their school systems. While seven countries were able to attend the conference, the original invitation went to twelve countries, under the auspices of the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA). The twelve countries were Angola, Cote D’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya (Host), Madagascar, Mozambique, Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sudan, and Uganda. Zimbabwe was curiously not on the list, although the conference was open to any interested country on the African continent. Handled carefully and properly, the introduction of Peace Education into the school systems of African countries could be the one deciding factor that might transform the educational landscape and make the school system responsive and relevant to actual African contexts.

Incorporating Peace and Nonviolence Education into the school systems of Zimbabwe and other African countries, not to say the rest of the world, is a long-term project requiring meticulous planning, consultation and deliberation. But Zimbabweans are looking for solutions for the immediate crisis also. Long term planning need not wait for immediate solutions first, nor can immediate solutions be considered a substitute for long term planning. If the nonviolence approach adopted by the MDC, WOZA and other Zimbabwean groups is going to bear fruit, there will be an urgent need to pay serious attention to lessons from other contexts where nonviolence had been attempted, learning from both the successes and failures.

Gandhi Today

Although not a mainstream ideology, nonviolent theory and practice are not new in Africa. As Desmond Tutu writes in the preface to Guns and Gandhi in Africa: Pan African Insights on Nonviolence, Armed Struggle and Liberation in Africa (Sutherland & Meyer, 2002), it was in South that Mahatma Gandhi developed his concept of Satyagraha, variously understood as a soul force that seeks truth through nonviolent action. Nonviolent action has therefore been a part of the strategies that South Africans have used to end apartheid since the late 19th century. In his autobiography titled Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah (1958) discussed how Gandhi’s concept of nonviolence influenced the strategies that Ghanaians used to win their independence in 1957 as the first country in Sub-Saharan Africa to do so. Uniquely called Positive Action, Nkrumah trained members of his party in nonviolent techniques, and won Ghana’s independence without resorting to violence. Zambia’s first president Kenneth Kaunda was also a proponent of nonviolent action, and wrote a book about the predicament of nonviolence for independence movements faced with brutal, racist violence. Tanzania’s first president Julius Nyerere was also a proponent of nonviolence, as were other Pan-Africanist movements which adopted various nonviolent techniques even as they also flirted with violence when they deemed it necessary.

The morning of Saturday October 10th, the last day of this year’s PJSA annual conference, started with a plenary session. The session was titled ‘Gandhian Traditions’, and brought together three distinguished scholar-activists who study and teach Gandhian nonviolence. The first panelist to speak was Dr. Veena Rani Howard of the University of Oregon, who pointed out that in today’s world Gandhi’s values were considered ascetic, and were dismissed as quaint, and merely symbolic. The second speaker was Fr. Cedric Prakash, SJ, Director of the Jesuit Centre for Human Rights, Justice and Peace in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India. Fr. Prakash spoke about the challenges of mainstreaming the concept of Ahimsa, or nonviolence, in Gandhi’s own backyard which today is wracked by various kinds of violence. The panel’s third and last speaker was Dr. Michael Nagler from the Metta Center for Nonviolence Education, in Berkeley, California. Dr. Nagler pointed out that there had been a major shift in our thinking about nonviolence today. He said approximately 3.6 billion today lived in a region of the world where a major nonviolent event had occurred. He said this shift could also be seen in the study of science, with a noticeable turn toward the study of positive psychology in neuroscience. Nonviolence was now being taught in institutions across the world, and even the PJSA had made Nonviolence the theme for this year’s conference, observed Dr. Nagler.

As I write, the Gandhi-King Conference on Peacemaking will be underway next week in Memphis, Tennessee, an annual gathering, since 2004, of peace scholars and practitioners, activists and community leaders. Georgia congressman and former student leader during the Civil Rights Movement, Representative John Lewis is pushing legislation through congress to enact a bill named H.R. 3328: the Gandhi-King Scholarly Exchange Initiative Act of 2009. If passed, the bill would fund research and collaboration amongst scholars and students in both India and the United States to promote peace and nonviolence around the world. Another bill also aimed at promoting peace and nonviolence in the United States and abroad is H.R. 808, initiated by Congressman Denis Kucinich for the establishment of a cabinet level Department of Peace and Nonviolence. Adding to the shift, the PBS television documentary series titled A Force More Powerful, produced by Steve York and Jack DuVall, and the accompanying book edited by Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall, catalogued no less than six major nonviolent revolutions, going back to the early 1900s up to the close of the century. That project helped tell the larger, if not less often told story of how nonviolent social change has been an important factor in 20th century struggles to end political repression.

If Dr. Nagler is indeed right about this shift, and there is good reason to believe he is, would it be too idealistic to imagine the role that nonviolence can play in seeking peaceful resolutions to some of the most difficult problems of violence and war that we are faced with today? And having seen the evidence for the presence of attempts to use nonviolent techniques in addressing the problems Zimbabwe is undergoing, what lessons might we draw from these attempts?

Lessons of Nonviolence

There are several tenets of nonviolent theory and practice that can help us begin answering the above two questions. There are noticeable differences between approaches that have suggested nonviolent strategies, and those that have not. The suggestion to use violent means to end the Zimbabwe impasse has gained traction, understandably so, given the frightening levels of violence that ZANU-PF has unleashed on members and supporters of the MDC and critiques alike. As Senator Coltart has pointed out, retaliation for this violence has played right into ZANU-PF’s philosophy of violent repression, a key lesson that nonviolence theory and practice teaches. 

As Senator Coltart has also argued, cycles of violence repeat themselves endlessly, even over hundreds of years. Nonviolent theory and practice, under the broader framework of Peace Studies, emphasizes the importance of studying the root contexts of problems in order to know how to address them. The Zimbabwe case has created such a revulsion for Robert Mugabe that to suggest a role for historical factors in leading to the present crisis has become passé. As Mahmood Mamdani observed in an essay in the London Review of Books in December 2008, the discourse on Zimbabwe turned into a dichotomous contention between two options: one either adored Mugabe, or one abhorred him. In his attempt to free the debate from such a binary, Mamdani suffered the fate of many who have made the argument for historical understanding of the roots of the problem, being dismissed as someone who was defending Robert Mugabe. Thus when Heidi Holland wrote her psychobiography of Mugabe, attempting to provide both a historical context and a psychoanalytical interpretation of why Mugabe turned from a hero to a villain, the result was a book whose description of the context that created Mugabe became something of a rare breath of honesty and a break from the vilification and demonization, which was nevertheless not totally absent.

Holland published an op-ed in the New York Times at the time her biography of Mugabe, Dinner With Mugabe, came out. The op-ed was titled ‘Make Peace with Mugabe,’ in which she pointed out that Robert Mugabe’s real quarrel was with the British, arising out of promises they had made, and had then reneged on. “Indeed, he told me that he was prepared to sacrifice the welfare of his country to prove his case against Britain,” wrote Ms. Holland, a point Mr. Mugabe buttressed in his recent CNN interview with Christian Amanpour in September 2009, when Mugabe told Amanpour one does not leave power because an imperialist has demanded thus: “You dig in.” Ms. Holland went on to suggest that for someone who was prepared to destroy his country just to make a point against an opponent, estranging and vilifying him the way the West was doing was equally reprehensible. “That he has an arguably justifiable complaint against a major Western power — namely the repudiation of the land reform pledge — is doubtless an embarrassment in the West. But that Britain and others choose to shun Mr. Mugabe rather than attempt to settle these differences is quite frankly reckless.”

As evidence of that recklessness, much has been said about “Smart sanctions,” whose devastating effects on the Zimbabwean economy, as a combination with economic mismanagement by ZANU-PF, have little that can be said to be smart about them. Not much is said about the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act (ZIDERA), passed in the US Congress and Senate in January 2001 as S.494. Dismissed by much of the White liberal left and African critics of Mugabe as irrelevant to Zimbabwe’s economic crisis, that bill effectively prohibited the biggest international financial institutions and traditional bilateral donors from entering into any economic and financial relationships with the government of Zimbabwe. As provided in Section 3 of the Act, the terms “International Financial Institutions” and “Multilateral Development Banks” include all the global financial institutions that most African and other developing regions of the world have long depended on for loans, development aid and the day to day running of their governments. Included in these categories are the African Development Bank, the Asian Development Bank, as well as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. The Act also recommended requesting the compliance of the European Union, Canada and “other appropriate foreign countries” in maintaining the sanctions stipulated in the Act.

Love Thy Enemies, Including Robert Mugabe

Ms. Holland’s advice to the West may have been premised on the politics of realism and pragmatism, but it also points toward an important principle in nonviolent theory and practice. Both Gandhi and King preached that at the heart of principles of nonviolence was love; nonviolent activists protested against oppression and injustice whilst still being able to love and respect the perpetrator of those vices. Nonviolence strategies did not aim to defeat and humiliate an opponent, a piece of wisdom that allowed the British to leave India without ill feelings. It was this philosophy that also enabled the wider mainstream American public to understand and appreciate the Civil Rights struggle, leading to both the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and 1965 respectively. Former Archbishop Desmond Tutu extended this philosophy, framed in the African concept of uBuntu, as it facilitated the extension of forgiveness from Black South Africans toward White South Africans, and enabled a transition from White minority rule to a democratic dispensation that opened up political participation for all South Africans.

It is not very easy for many people to consciously imagine themselves forgiving Robert Mugabe and facilitating a new process of engagement with him, but neither does Mugabe show signs of a capability to do that himself. But therein lies one of the hardest principles of nonviolent theory and action as bequeathed to us by Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. Seeing nonviolence as both principle and strategy opens up new possibilities in thinking differently about the causes of the Zimbabwe crisis, and envisioning new solutions that represent a break from the intractable impasse that has clouded the minds of many. Zimbabwean peace activists have a lot to teach us about nonviolence, given the realities of what they go through every day. Nonviolent theory and practice teaches that local activists have a much better chance of effecting change in their own locality than activists coming in from outside, with no deeper knowledge of the issues and ties to the community. This does not mean outsiders have no role to play; rather it means outsiders need to show their solidarity based on respect of local knowledge, a consciousness and awareness of historical wrongs and their own complicity in that history, as well as a readiness to learn from the people of the area.

What Gandhi and King Would Advise

We can only imagine what Gandhi’s and Martin Luther King Jr.’s advice would have been toward dealing with the question of Zimbabwe. However several factors highlighted in this article offer key concepts in nonviolence theory and practice as a compelling alternative towards attempts to better understand and resolve problems of violent conflict anywhere in the world.  Some of the biggest struggles to end repression in the 20th century and at the beginning of the 21st century have been carried out using largely nonviolent means. One such untold story is how my own country Malawi waged a largely nonviolent struggle between 1992 and 1994 to rid itself of an entrenched thirty-year dictatorship.

In Zimbabwe, the MDC, WOZA and such other groups are keeping the traditions of nonviolent struggle alive, even as they learn new lessons about what works and what does not. Entrusting a crucial Ministry of Education, Sport and Culture to a strong, respected advocate of peace and principled nonviolence is a major step that has the potential to transform the role of education in how Zimbabweans and other African nations envision the future. The spirit of uMunthu/uBuntu is not completely dead in Southern Africa; in fact it offers a new framework for uMunthu-based peace education and nonviolence, built on endogenous epistemologies that transform themselves with changing times. Handled with the requisite care and sensitivity, the recent ADEA conference in Mombasa, Kenya, by seven African Ministers of Education to lay the foundation for a peace education curriculum in African school systems will be a major step in envisioning a different future for Africa.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Mourning an Inspirational Malawian: Henry Chabwino Malunda, an Obituary

I woke up this morning and was greeted by the shocking news, via an email listserv, of the death of Henry Malunda. Henry was my immediate boss at the Malawi Institute of Education (MIE) when I worked there between 1994 and 1998. He is the one who taught me how to use a computer, an Apple Macintosh; how to do desktop publishing, and how to be an editor. Everything I learned about educational editing and publishing I learned from him. One of the exciting things for me to learn early on was seeing how to manipulate text in PageMaker (in those days) and turn it into a column the way it appears in newsprint. Just weeks before joining the editorial team at MIE I had been a Standard 7 teacher at Gunde Primary School in Ntcheu, near the border with Balaka. As a primary school teacher, chances of learning how to use a computer were next to none, then as it is today.

When I joined MIE in April 1994, Henry had just returned from Canada where he had pursued post-graduate studies in editing and publishing. Henry was a wonderful human being, and very well liked by everyone who knew him. He taught me compassion by showing me how concerned he was with my personal welfare. He once told me "Steve, we can't expect you to perform well at work when we haven't helped you sort out your personal welfare problems." In my very first lessons on how to use a computer, he had me sit down on the chair and face the screen, as he stood over my shoulder. He would then demonstrate things by having me do those things myself. His method of teaching somebody was not to just tell them by mere words, or to just do it for them, but rather to have the learner do things for themselves while he gave guidance. It is by far the most effective teaching method I have learned, one I have gone on to use myself.

It wasn’t until ten years later that the lesson Henry had taught me about how to teach would bear testimony for itself. I had returned to Malawi in February 2004 after a six-year absence to do field work for my dissertation research. I hadn’t had a chance to check my email for about a month, so when I finally found a dial-up connection in the MIE library, a line formed waiting for a turn on the terminal. It was the only Internet terminal intended for everyone, a staff of over 100. In practice, only the professionals, as the high-ranking curriculum specialists and administrators were referred to as, got an opportunity to use the Internet. It was mostly everyone with a university degree and above. The rest, known as Clerical, Technical and Support Staff (CTSs), composed mostly of everyone else who did not possess university degree, did not even attempt, except for the library staff (MIE now has high speed broadband Internet in most offices and buildings, since some two or so years ago.)

One morning in 2004, one of the CTS workers, whose ranks I had been one of during my four years there earlier in the 1990s, approached me and asked if I could help him send an email. I took him to the computer terminal, asked him to sit on the chair, and took him through a quick lesson on how to use the Internet. I explained the functions, and had him make the keystrokes and move the mouse. I overheard him later that day exclaiming how the Internet wasn’t such a mysterious thing after all; if only the bwanas would give people a chance to learn how to use it. I remembered exactly who had taught me how to teach like that, and what effect it had had on me when I was myself learning.

Henry also taught me another lesson I have found very useful to this day: start your work day by reading the newspaper and listening to the news first thing in the morning. "I don't like starting my day without knowing what is going on in the world," he once told me. And so it was that on the morning that news broke out that my children’s novel, Fleeing the War, had won first prize in the British Council’s Write a Story contest, in October 1995, it was Henry who broke the news to the MIE community.

I had bought my copy of The Nation that morning, where the news was first published, with no prior knowledge that the results of the long forgotten competition, which I had entered back in January that year, were out. I saw the story on the front page, but was too shy to go about celebrating it to everyone. I arrived at work, got into my office and sat down to begin the day’s work. I had hardly settled down on my desk when Henry bustled into the room and shouted “Congratulations, Steve! How come you just came in quietly without saying anything, as if nothing of this magnitude had happened at all?” We laughed heartily, and he went about announcing the happy news to everyone at work.

Fleeing the War would later be published into a children’s book, and three copies sent to each and every primary school and a few secondary schools in Malawi. On visiting a number of Teacher Development Centres (TDCs) in 2004, I was pleasantly surprised on a few occasions to introduce myself to staff, and be told, “Oh, we have your children’s book here!” Whereupon they would lead me inside and take me to the library corner, where a copy of the book was on display.

Henry had learned before I joined MIE that I had a passion for writing, and that I was freelancing for a few Malawian newspapers. He offered his encouragement by not merely congratulating me, but also reading my stories and engaging me in discussions about them. He was an avid reader and writer himself, frequently writing lengthy analytical features for Malawian newspapers. He was convinced that as editors of educational materials, we had a lot in common with, and to learn from, journalism. He was an intellectual in his own right, very well informed about Malawi's movers and shakers, and about world affairs.

It was through Henry Malunda that I learned of the 1994 release of the much-awaited book by Dr. John Lwanda, Kamuzu Banda of Malawi: A Study in Promise, Power and Paralysis (1993). Henry read the book in one sitting and came to work the next morning profusely recommending it to everyone. He was particularly fascinated by how deeply insightful and knowledgeable Dr. Lwanda was about the inner workings of Kamuzu's dictatorship. Henry was even more impressed by how current the book was, describing how it captured the very recent Malawi Army rapid and thorough routing of Kamuzu Banda's paramilitary wing, the Malawi Young Pioneers, in Operation Bwezani. I knew I had to buy my own copy and read the book, one of the earliest intellectual manifestations that Malawi was undergoing profound political change.

When the Malawi Institute of Journalism (MIJ) became fully operational in the late 1990s, Dr. James Ng'ombe hired Henry away from MIE, where Henry excelled at training Malawi's new crop of journalists in the post-dictatorship era. I corresponded with him for a while, during which time he forwarded me news bulletins from MIJ Radio, which I happily forwarded onto to other listservs.

Some two years ago the MIE administration convinced Henry to return to MIE to his old post as Editor, which he happily did. I last spoke with him less than a year ago when a schools project I was working on needed professional advice on educational publishing copyright. And there was no better-qualified person to answer that question than Henry.

I am deeply saddened to hear about his death, but I am content to know that he is in a better place now. Several years ago as we communicated back and forth when he was at MIJ, I wrote him an email in which I thanked him for everything he had done for me from the moment I joined MIE to the time I left. He is one of the people who have played a very important role in my life, giving me a leg up on my professional and intellectual itinerary, allowing me to embark on the few modest accomplishments I can lay claim to.

During my time at MIE, he led the editorial unit and developed it into an operation with state of the art equipment and cutting edge desktop publishing capacity. He led the team in developing and designing a style manual for educational editing and publishing in Malawi. Under the managerial aegis of Wise Chauluka, then publishing manager and assistant director at MIE, Henry oversaw the editing, designing, typesetting and publishing of the entire stock of textbooks that Malawian schools, teachers and pupils used up until PCAR three years ago. He probably continued from where he had left off when he returned to MIE two years ago, as ably as he probably did when he trained a whole generation of Malawian journalists during the years he spent at MIJ. He touched those who knew him, and left Malawi a much better place than he had found it.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

On the 50-50 Campaign: Letter to Malawian Voters

Dear Malawian Voters,

On the surface, Malawian women appear poised to transform the political landscape on Tuesday, May 19th, when Malawians go to the polls to vote in presidential and parliamentary elections. For the first time in our country’s 45-year history, a woman is running for president, and two women are running mates on presidential tickets, one of them on the incumbent’s ticket. The Ministry of Women and Child Development and the NGO-Gender Network have launched what is being termed the 50-50 campaign, aiming to achieve a 50 percent women’s representation in the legislative house. But on closer examination of the numbers of women standing in the constituencies and the districts, the transformation may not have that much of an impact. In fact, there are far too few women running to even achieve a 25 percent representation.

In this post I want to explore what the numbers look like and what that tells us about the place of women in the Malawian body politic. I also want to discuss how careful, uncaricatured, endogenous forms of feminist scholarship and gender activism have been central to the effort to rethink dead-end paradigms to problems of war, conflict, structural and physical violence in the world. I will conclude by repeating what most scholars know already about why including more women in positions of influence and governance is good for our endogenous forms of home-grown democracy. Even more important, it is a potential catalyst for new ways of thinking about the societal problems that have beset Malawi and other societies in other parts of the world.

Though not always interchangeable or synonymous with one another, the concepts of gender studies and feminist scholarship are not without heated controversies, and I am using them here with that caveat in mind. I have chosen to use these terms in the broad sense that African feminists and gender researchers use them, recognizing the endogenous contexts of knowledge production that have enriched the best practices in those fields. Feminist scholarship and gender research have produced vast amounts of indigenous and pragmatic knowledge through decades, if not centuries, of women’s expertise, experiences, perspectives and contributions. Rejecting these disciplines out of an idiosyncratic distaste over caricatured and politicized distortions is akin to throwing out the baby with the bathwater. As emancipatory projects that promote inclusive and endogenous democratic practices, feminism and gender research transcend rigid paradigms that have excluded entire groups of people and their knowledge systems. They offer dynamic perspectives into uMunthu as a peace epistemology and as an indispensable vehicle of the African Renaissance project. This is the premise from which I am examining the 50-50 campaign in Malawi and what the numbers look like on the African landscape and beyond.

A brief overview of the numbers of the candidates standing in selected parts of the country paints not so rosy a picture for the chances of women contesting in this year’s elections. A total of 1180 candidates are standing in the May 19 elections across the country, and out of these only 237 are women, based on calculations using the figures provided by the Malawi Electoral Commission. This represents 20 percent of the candidate pool. Out of the country’s 193 constituencies, 144 of them have women candidates. This means 49 constituencies have no women candidates standing, while there is no single constituency that does not have a male candidate.

In the North, there are 228 candidates running, and of these 47 are women, representing 20.6 percent of the candidate pool. For the north, 26 out of 33 constituencies have women candidates. In the Central region 80 women are running out of 399 candidates, making the female representation there 20 percent. The Central region has 73 constituencies, of which only 48 have women candidates. In the south, there are 557 candidates total, and 110 of them are women. Women are represented in 70 constituencies, out of 87 in the southern region. Women in the south make up 19.7 percent of the total number of candidates standing in the elections.

Lilongwe district, where the capital city of Malawi is located, has 22 constituencies, but women are standing in only in 13 constituencies. The district has 115 candidates, the largest in the country, and only 20 of them are women. Blantyre has 13 constituencies, and women are standing in all but one of them. Yet out of the 108 candidates standing in Blantyre, women number up to 19 only.

Only 6 districts out of 28 have managed to field women in each of their constituencies. These are Karonga, Likoma Island (which has only one constituency), Chiradzulu, Mwanza, Nsanje and Neno. Likoma Islands, with its one constituency, has the best parliamentary candidate gender equity in the country. Out of its 6 candidates, half of them are women, making it 50-50. Dedza has the worst gender disparity, with only half of its constituencies managing to field women candidates. Lilongwe comes next, with no women standing in 9 of its 22 constituencies. Mzimba has 92 candidates standing, and only 14 of them are women. These percentages are based on calculations using figures available on the website of the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC).

As of the last elections of May 2004, there were 25 women parliamentarians in Malawi, out of 193. This figure represented 12.95 percent, according to the Inter Parliamentary Union website

The global leader in female representation in parliament is Rwanda, where out of 80 members, 45 are women, representing 56.25 percent. Sweden follows Rwanda at 47 percent, followed by South Africa, which achieved 45 percent from 34 percent as of the April 22, 2009 elections, becoming third in the world.

In the run up to Tuesday’s elections, the Malawi Ministry of Women and Child Development has teamed up with the NGO-Gender Network to provide financial and material support to women candidates. Women candidates can be heard on the non-partisan, privately-owned Zodiak Broadcasting Station (ZBS), in an hour-long program in which the candidates introduce themselves, the constituencies they are representing, their party or independent affiliation, their symbol, and their campaign platform. There are several male activists who are in support of the effort, and their exhortations can also be heard in the campaign commercials. The central point being made is how decades of male-dominated governance and legislation making have not moved the country forward, and how it is time for voters to turn to women. Voters are being told that women stay in their constituencies as opposed to male parliamentarians who once elected move out to the cities, and in some cases divorce their first wives to marry new wives, or cohabit with mistresses. While male politicians are easily corruptible and care more about their economic welfare, women politicians care more about everyone else, roles they play as mothers in everyday life, so go the campaign messages. What is supposed to be a constituent development fund (CDF) meant to be utilized by the people ends up being diverted for personal projects, with no one being involved in deciding how the money should be used for the benefit of the constituency.

But one also hears indistinguishable patterns of paternalism, with some both male and female candidates promising to provide development to their constituencies by bringing hospitals, schools, electricity, pipe water, among other promises. A few candidates are careful not to promise too much, pointing out that no one person can bring development as if it is a commodity one picks from one place (government) and delivers it to the rural areas. Rather, they are promising to collaborate with the people, consult widely, and work with the government and civil society to tap into available resources.

In a recent radio program on Zodiak, representatives from the 50-50 campaign, the Malawi Electoral Commission, civil society and the media sought to provide a rationale for why it is necessary to consider women candidates over their male counterparts. The one journalist on the panel explained that the campaign was decided upon after observations of how other countries were making progress in their development efforts after voting for more women candidates into parliament. He said Malawi was trying to learn from these other countries, and was also a signatory to regional, continental and global treaties dealing with various protocols, including gender equality. Contrast this rationale with a Common Market for East and Southern Africa (COMESA) panel also broadcast on Zodiak, in which a member of this regional observer group flown into the country to monitor the elections praised Malawi for setting an example for other countries in Africa and elsewhere to follow. Whether out of modesty or an apparent inferiority complex, Malawians are not shy about their self-identifying poise to learn from other countries in Africa and elsewhere. It is rare to see a Malawian perspective being championed in the Malawian media or in the general social milieu as one others can learn from. It is always about what Malawi should be learning from everyone else on the planet. While corruption, sex scandals, inequality, classicism and other forms of social malfunction happen routinely in Europe, America and other parts of the global North, Africa is still treated as aberrant and unusual both inside the continent an outside.

On its own, the presence of more women in positions of leadership would not necessarily lead to any transformative changes in society. However that point is usually made to argue against efforts to increase women’s representation in positions of influence. A recent debate in the online Malawian newspaper Nyasatimes, between two University of Malawi lecturers, Pascal Mwale and Jessie Kabwila-Kapasula revealed how fractious and acrimonious these debates get when feminist ideology and women taking up leadership positions come up. And this is the case not only in Malawi but everywhere in the world. Mwale, head of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College, argued that it was “not only opportunistic and manipulative to garner support for oneself and one’s political party from a gender grouping, either male or female, but it is also abusive and exploitative of such a grouping.” In response to Mwale, Kabwila-Kapasula, a feminist theorist and comparative literature scholar-activist in the Department of English also at Chancellor College pointed out that resistance to gender organizing was a measure whose effect was to maintain the patriarchical status quo. She was also quick to add that the women candidates on the presidential and vice presidential tickets in Malawi’s forthcoming elections were not advancing any feminist transformative agenda; rather they were there as agents of patriarchy, co-opted to create a façade of change without promoting any actual change.

On his part, Mwale was careful to offer a sensitive analysis of patriarchy in Malawian society and how it shortchanges women and impedes their progress. What he was rejecting was, in his words, a “counter-progressive” adoption of foreign ideologies with the “assumption of opposition and division between women and men in the equality thesis . . .” Kabwila-Kapasula pointed out that she was not concerned about political parties, which were already patriarchal. “Purporting to be gender blind or neutral is effectively supporting the status quo, which is patriarchy,” she argued.

The caution against African activists adopting foreign ideologies of feminism has been a subject of much scholarly debate in journals and dissertations, but very little has been offered in terms of how authentic feminist scholarship opens up new vistas for rethinking approaches to problems of conflict and violence. It is especially in peace research and peace studies where feminist thought has laid bare the relationship between sexist masculinity and neoliberal militarization (Betty Reardon, (2008). The world average is 18.4 percent, and for Sub-Saharan Africa it is 18.5. Nordic countries have the highest female parliamentary representation, at 41.4 percent, and the Arab region comes last, at 9.1 percent. The United States has 435 members of congress, and of these women make up 73, representing 16.78 percent. The US senate has 100 members, and only 15 are women, at 15 percent (the outcome of the current Minnesota senatorial legal wrangle won’t change this).
Sexism and the War System,1985). This understanding and its emancipatory message of resistance and solidarity should not be lost in the turf battles for the control of the trajectory of feminist ideology. As important as is the critique against the parroting of foreign ideologies to impose them on African contexts, the second-class treatment that women receive is neither an exclusively African nor Euro-American problem; it is a problem in every society. The problems of militarism and war are the preserve of neither African nor Euro-American nations; they are problems in every society.

As Kabwila-Kapasula has argued, the resistance to feminist analyses of gender has the effect of perpetuating the male-dominated status quo, and rarely do critics of feminist theory and gender activism demonstrate a requisite sensitivity to the ethical implications of their reactionary positions. Not only is it sensible to construct structures that dismantle masculinity and its tendency for violence, it is also sensible to promote inclusion for under-represented groups in governance systems. In that regard, it is crucial for more men to champion that effort. It is true that many women leaders are as militant and warmongering as their male counterparts, but it is also true that a significant number of women offer a different way of approaching development, preventing war and resolving conflict (Sanam Naraghi Anderlini,
Women Building Peace, 2007; Aili Mari Trip et. al, African Women’s Movements, 2009). These women’s perspectives matter even more today when violence, both structural as well as physical, has seen a resurgence in the conduct of world affairs. In her recent research on customary land rights in Malawi, the Malawian gender activist Olivia Mchaju Liwewe has pointed out how it is not enough to know that much of Malawian society is matrilineal, when modern legal and judiciary systems treat African traditions as outdated systems impacting women negatively (Liwewe, A History of Diminishing Returns, 2008).

Thus while electing more women into office justifies its own significance as an endogenous democratic principle, it will be useful to use that democratic principle to allow more diverse views and perspectives in how to solve societal problems and advance new knowledges for innovation and transformation. In Malawi this coming Tuesday, the figures do not offer much hope for a 50-50 representation in parliament, but they certainly offer hope for an improvement from the last election five years ago. As more men make the decision to take seriously the importance of feminist approaches to problems of gender violence and a conflict-ridden society, we should also be putting in place curriculum reforms in the teacher education and school systems to make the transformation praxical, generative and self-sustaining.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

A Guest is Like Morning Dew

[Note: Following the “Last Lecture” given by the late Carnegie Mellon University professor Randy Pausch, the Associated Students of Michigan State University (ASMSU), the university’s student government, has invited Michigan State University professors to come up with their own versions of a hypothetical “last lecture.” My lecture, presented below, is the third and last in the series for the 2008-2009 academic year].

A Guest is Like Morning Dew: Teaching and Searching for uMunthu-Peace in an Asymmetrical World

Steve Sharra, Ph.D.
ASMSU “Last Lecture” Series
Wharton Center, Pasant Theatre
April 8, 2009


The title of my talk tonight comes from a Malawian proverb, in my first language, Chichewa. The Chichewa version reads as follows: Mlendo ndi mame, sachedwa kukamuka. The literal translation is that a guest is like morning dew, it doesn’t stay for long. There are two possible, inter-related meanings in this proverb. On the one hand, the proverb offers reassurance to a host that the guest they have welcomed into their house will not stay too long. There is no need therefore to worry about the inconvenience. On the other hand, the proverb is offering advice to the host on what can best be described through the use of the English proverb make hay while the sun shines. The guest is not going to stay too long; enjoy whatever time you have with them. My first language, Chichewa, has lots of proverbs offering all kinds of advice on how hosts relate with guests, and how to live life in general. Another proverb concerning guests and hosts goes: It is the guest who brings a sharp tweezers. As with most Chichewa proverbs, there is a story behind this proverb, as with the one in the title. In this particular story, a lonely traveler was passing through a village. It grew dark, and one family in the village persuaded the guest to stay for the night and continue on with the journey when it was bright and safe the next morning. During the night, one of the children in the house woke up in the middle of the night. He was crying from the pain of a thorn which had lodged itself in the child’s foot. The parents tried using a tweezers, but it was too blunt to remove the thorn. The guest woke up and brought out a tweezers. Out came the thorn.

My purpose in referring to these proverbs about guests and hosts is twofold. First, I want to reflect on what I have learned about myself and my country from having lived away for as long as I have. Malawians pride themselves on learning from other societies; a truism that originates at the level of the individual human being and the beginnings of a human society. Secondly, I want to make a suggestion about how to put educational acquisition and intellectual pursuits to uses that promote our livelihood and that of others. As in most Southern African cultures, one is human because of other human beings, a concept captured in the meaning of the term ‘uMunthu’, in the title of my talk.

The concept of uMunthu has come to stand for probably the most important, as well as the most intriguing aspect of what I have learned as a guest in this country. Most important because uMunthu is the very definition that constitutes us as human beings, bound to one another in time and space. Most intriguing because I did not begin to take seriously the importance of the term until the first time that I returned to Malawi in 2004, after being away for six years. Since then, I have come to view the world through the lenses of that concept, and to hope that teaching and learning could promote greater harmony, peace and justice in the world. I have also come to appreciate the caution from curriculum theorists that any educational curriculum and pedagogical practices are occupied by agendas that are not always explicit, nor disinterested. Faculty and students can therefore use this caution and reflect on the hidden curricula that might be covertly teaching things that do not necessarily promote a better world.

The beginnings of my journey lie in my having been born and raised in Malawi, where the concept of uMunthu-peace is at once a proud heritage and a discarded relic. I will, in the process of this talk, discuss Malawi in the context of its recent history and contemporary concerns, my failed ambitions to become a Catholic priest, and how I found redemption by becoming a teacher instead. I will also discuss my teaching for peace here at Michigan State University (MSU), and how it fits in with the larger quest for peace and justice in the MSU community, in the Greater Lansing area, and globally. I will finish with an exhortation about how the promotion of peace and justice ought to lie at the heart of our academic and intellectual pursuits, across the disciplines.

For a country that is as small as the American state of Pennsylvania, the saying that no news is good news has been both true and untrue. The size of the country, in comparison with its neighbors in Southern Africa, has been one explanation offered for why very few people outside Africa have ever heard of the country. The journalistic quip that if it bleeds, it leads, has been relatively accurate for Malawi, a country that like its neighbors in the south-eastern part of Africa, with the exception of Mozambique, has prided itself on long-lasting peaceful relations with other countries. Tourist guidebooks describe Malawi as the ‘Warm Heart of Africa’ whose people are always smiling and always eager to offer hospitality to guests from abroad. In my first language Chichewa, the language spoken by at least 80 percent of Malawians and smaller percentages of citizens of our neighboring countries, the term that most closely resembles the word “stranger” is the word we use for “guest”: “mlendo.” While the English language uses words such as guest, visitor or stranger to make distinctions about people we come into contact with, and differentiate between levels of familiarity and social distance, in Chichewa “mlendo” is the only term we have. And “mlendo” is a guest, with no suggestions as to whether the person is a stranger to be afraid of, or a guest to welcome into one’s fold.

Like all societies and nations, Malawians also view themselves through categories of national narratives and myths. Psychologists call these narratives “archetypes,” as the peace educationist Carl Mirra reminds us in his recent book on US Foreign Policy and peace education. What I have just described in the preceding thoughts is one example of a Malawian archetype, in which most Malawians like to hold on to a notion of brotherly and sisterly love; a peace-loving nation. So is the notion that Malawi is the “Warm Heart of Africa.” As with all archetypes of national character and myths, they contain some truths about a society, but they also foster some falsehoods. Some ugly truths are sometimes buried inside the stark reality, while others are repeated and internalized. So Malawi remains an unknown, obscure corner of the world where, in the eyes of the non-specialist Westerner nothing much happens. Of late, however, we, or rather our orphaned infants, have attracted the unlikely attention of celebrities, with pop star Madonna adopting one David Banda, and now attempting to adopt Chifundo James. The decision of a Malawian judge, Justice Esmie Chombo, to deny the adoption according to Malawian law, has torn Malawians into bitter, fractious emotions that betray a frightening amount of self-loathing, if not pessimism. We have also had a Malawian woman, Marie Da Silva, celebrated as one of ten CNN Heros for 2008, a development many Malawians felt proud of. On the political scene, our current president has been featured in the pages of the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Financial Times for defying the advice of the IMF and the World Bank to offer farm input subsidies to Malawian farmers. That initiative has transformed Malawi from a food-importer into a food-exporter in under four years. As pointed out by the Malawian intellectual and development economist Thandika Mkandawire, the Economist Intelligence Unit has projected a more than 8 percent economic growth for Malawi for 2009, the second highest in the world after Qatar’s 14 percent.

The origins of Malawian nationhood were shaped under such obscurity, when the country, not known for mineral wealth, was mostly considered to be a labor reservoir for the gold, diamond and copper mines of South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia. The first nationalist stirrings were also carried out under the same obscurity, when the activist pastor John Chilembwe led nonviolent protests in the early 1900s, culminating into an armed uprising that took his life in 1915. Barely three months into Malawi’s independence from the British in 1964, Malawi’s first president, Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, chose to listen to warnings from his British advisers that his young Malawian ministers were plotting against him. Dr. Banda parted company with many members of his newly created cabinet, most of whom chose to resign in solidarity with their dissenting colleagues. Dr. Banda set about consolidating his power, which saw him rule Malawi for 30 years. The human rights group Article 19 summed up the political atmosphere in Malawi for those 30 years in its report, published toward the end of the Banda era, entitled, Where Silence Rules.

Dr. Banda’s grip on Malawi started observably to loosen at the turn of the 80s entering into the 90s. That was also the time that looking back, I see my social consciousness beginning to develop. My earliest memory of a developing political and social consciousness has become part of my autobiographical narrative. It is a lengthy tale starting with an emerging conscientization through Jamaican reggae music, walking through the years I spent as a seminarian, up to the time when I became a school teacher, at the turn of the 1990s. The late reggae star Bob Marley had a lot to do with it.

I bought my first ever cassette tape using the meager savings I kept from my school pocket money. I was in Standard 8 (8th grade) at the time, and aged 14. That cassette tape was Bob Marley’s 1983 album, “Confrontation,” released two years after his death. It was in particular Marley’s song “Trench Town” and its lyrics about the social class struggles of poor Jamaicans that resonated with me.

The lyrics represented something I could recognize and identify with in my daily life. Although both my parents had tertiary education and were both working, my mother as a school teacher and my father as a police officer, we did not belong to the class of the well-to-do in Malawi. We always had enough food and decent clothes, but we lacked amenities that some had access to in our neighborhood. For many years the only electricity we knew of was from the night lights at the main offices where my father worked, from the bigger and better houses of senior ranked police officers nearby, and from school. There was a water faucet in the bathroom, but water was available only at night. During the day, we lined up outside the house of another police officer, slightly more senior in rank, to fetch water.

In 1985 I entered Nankhunda Seminary, still aged 14, having completed 2 years at Thondwe preparatory seminary, where I went to at age 11. It was my father’s incorrigible wish for me to become a Catholic priest. Soon it became my personal goal. I sauntered through my adolescent years praying for the strength and commitment necessary to make a difficult life-long decision. I was convinced I would succeed. Three years later, I was asked to leave the seminary.

The events surrounding my departure from the seminary have remained as vivid in my imagination as if they happened only last week. On the morning of July 17, 1988, the last day of my Form Three (11th grade), the then rector (principal) of Nankhunda Seminary, Fr. Dr. Vincent Nzolima (RIP), called for me to go and see him in his office. I took it to be a routine, casual call. I imagined that he would probably mention to me things I needed to know for the coming year. I was one of three House Captains, a leadership position I was going to carry with me into Form Four. I was also chairperson of the Lwanga Parish students at Nankhunda; captain of the school’s chess club, and also of the volleyball team. Thus nothing prepared me for the news Fr. Dr. Nzolima, a tall, slim, gentle-mannered Malawian priest delivered to me that cold mountain morning.

The seminary staff had decided that I not return for my last year of secondary school, he said to me, looking down at some papers on his desk. “The staff feel that you seem better suited to the other side of the world,” he stated in his measured, slow voice. It had become a running joke among seminarians at Nankhunda to try and parrot Fr. Dr. Nzolima’s slow, dragged speech pattern.

This news was most unexpected, and for a moment I felt as though I was floating in the air of his lowly-lit, claustrophobic office. It wasn’t until I was on the road, walking down the 6-mile descent from the western tip of Zomba Plateau, three thousand feet above sea level, that it hit me. Could this really be the end of the road for my life as a seminarian? How was I going to break the news to my parents? I did not want to believe it. My friends sensed what had happened. Nobody asked a question. I walked the rest of the way in silence, down the winding path, crossing the cold glistening streams and breathing in the fresh air of Zomba Mountain. It seemed as if even the majestic beauty of the mountain and its green overgrowth had conspired with the seminary in terminating my clerical ambitions.

The priests at Nankhunda did not like to discuss the issue of ‘weeding.’ Every time it came up, they would say it was really God who saw into everyone’s heart, and who knew whether one was going to become a priest or not. All that the priests were doing, they liked to say, was carrying out God’s pre-arranged order. It was all captured in a biblical verse, “Many are called, few are chosen,” (Matthew 22: 14). And we reflected this in the song we sang every night in the chapel before retiring to our dormitories:

Yesu ati munda wakula (Jesus says the field is huge)

Antchito aperewera (The workers are few)

Ntchito yanga ili yambiri (My work is heavy)

Adzandithandize ndani? (Who will join in and help me)?

Eh Ambuye, ndife ananu (Oh Lord, we are your children)

Tiwopa, tilibe nzeru (We fear, we have no wisdom)

Koma inu mukatifuna (But if you need us Lord)

Tidzavomera (We shall respond)

The news of the expulsion devastated my parents. My father had worked hard to get me into the Catholic seminary from when I was 11 years old, and both he and my mother were hoping I would be the first priest in all of the extended Sharra clan. Now that hope had been shattered. Not only that, but I also needed to find another secondary school for my last year. There were very few secondary schools in Malawi at the time, and the competition was always stiff. By the beginning of the next school year I had been allowed to finish my last year of secondary school at Police Secondary School, a private school built in the early 80s to accommodate children of police officers.

I had been at Police Secondary School for less than a week when I noticed an intriguing trend. Everyone was supposed to bring their own plate, fork, spoon, and cup, as the school did not provide these. That very first week my cup and plate went missing from my dorm room. I feared they had been stolen, and reported the matter to the dining hall prefect. He explained that there was a system rampant on campus in which people indiscriminately used other people’s property, without necessarily stealing them. He reassured me that my cup and plate would soon turn up somewhere. Meanwhile, he advised, “feel free to pick up and use whatever cup and plate you found lying around.”

On Friday that week I wrote an article entitled ‘Plate communism.’ I questioned the practice of taking and using other people’s utensils without their permission, and pointed out that it was an inconvenience to some. That evening somebody whispered to me that my commentary had angered some prominent senior students, who queried what right a new comer like me had in questioning established practice at the school. They threatened to deal with me. I was advised to quietly leave campus and come back in the evening, when tempers would have perhaps subsided. Early Saturday morning I left campus and went home. I spent the rest of the day at home, and returned to campus after dark.

I reported the threat to a friend, Andrews Nchesi, who went and told the English teacher who was also our drama director, Mr. Lot Dzonzi. On Monday morning at assembly, Mr. Dzonzi condemned the threat, and advised everyone that the best way to deal with ideas one found disagreeable on the Writers’ Corner was to respond in writing as well. He said the purpose of the Writers’ Corner was for people to express their ideas and engage in constructive debate. I continued writing and posting on the board, but I steered clear of openly controversial issues.

I got to know Mr. Lot Dzonzi a lot better through the drama group, and felt much inspired by him. Towards the end of the first term, he approached me and another student, Vitumbiko Kamanga, and asked us to begin reading and studying Sizwe Bansi is Dead, a two-character play by the renowned South African playwright and anti-apartheid activist, Athol Fugard (1974), for a performance later in the school year (the performance did not materialize). That year, for the first time in the history of Police Secondary School, we came third in the national schools drama festivals. The following year, after I had finished Form Four and left, Vitu wrote a play that won Police Secondary School first prize in a national HIV/AIDS playwriting competition.

One afternoon after finishing my secondary school, Mr. Dzonzi suggested that we spend one afternoon visiting the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College campus, where he would introduce me to a few important Malawian writers whom he said I needed to be in touch with. They were his former college classmates, now teaching at Chancellor College.

One Sunday evening, I heard Professor Steve Chimombo, one of Malawi’s most prolific creative writers, a teacher of writing and a long time publisher of Malawi’s only arts magazine, WASI, being interviewed on the government-run national radio station. It was the only radio station in Malawi at the time, named the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC). He was being interviewed on a weekly literary program called ‘Writers’ Corner.’

The next morning I walked to Chancellor College. I walked along the long, concrete corridor, checking the name on each door as I passed by. I located Professor Chimombo’s door, which was half ajar, and knocked. As I entered the office, my eyes landed on a face that had become familiar around Zomba Municipality. Professor Chimombo kept his hair long, and nursed a goatee, both of which made him look a lot like Wole Soyinka the Nigerian playwright and critic, the first black African to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1987.

Professor Chimombo welcomed me and told me to take a seat. I introduced myself, and explained the reason I had come to his office. I asked him how I could join the Chancellor College Writers’ Workshop that he had talked about in the radio interview. He talked about his trip to Ghana, where they had established the Pan African Writers Association. He told me that the Chancellor College Writers’ Workshop was being coordinated by his colleague Dr. Anthony Nazombe. He encouraged me to go and see Dr. Nazombe, whose office was not too far from his.

Dr. Nazombe always wore a bright, pleasant and cheerful smile. He was of medium height and build, slightly bald, and clean shaven. Upon explaining to him why I had come to his office, Dr. Nazombe encouraged me to join and become a member of the Writers’ Workshop. Before I left his office I purchased a copy of his just released anthology of Malawian poetry, The Haunting Wind: New Poetry from Malawi (1990). Another Malawi, one I had not encountered before, opened up before my eyes. I read poetry that spoke about my country in a way I had not known before. In those poems I heard the voices of Malawians who had been forced into exile because political dissent had been outlawed.

Reading the poetry, I heard the voices of Malawians murdered because they had raised questions about the country’s leadership. I saw images of Malawians, materially impoverished, yet forced to praise the country’s leadership for the ‘independence’ the life president had brought us from British colonialism. I opened my eyes to the Malawi for which heroic individuals had shed blood, to end a racist dependency on a foreign ideology and regain local control of the change process, only to end up with another, equally morbid dependency.

The poems selected by Dr. Anthony Nazombe in his edited anthology took my incipient consciousness a step further into the direction that Bob Marley’s music and Jamaican reggae had already started. In the poetry, which we curiously never read in secondary school (though we had a progressive English teacher, the curriculum was uniform across the country), I uncovered a form of forbidden knowledge that wasn’t talked about in grown-up circles. On the one hand were the issues and topics buried in the cryptic verses of Malawian poetry, and on the other were the social conditions in which I lived, and in which my family and many other Malawians interacted. While some of the poems awakened my awareness about a hidden side of my country, others opened my eyes to equally repressive, exploitative conditions of inequality and injustice prevalent in other parts of the world. A poem Anthony Nazombe himself took aim at the world system in which the poor give to the rich:

The reverse of the Robin Hood saga

Is solemnly enacted year in year out

On the crown of this hill

As our revered dons steal from the poor

To give to the rich in the name of civilization,

Full economic costs and Government cuts.

Another poem, by Shemu Joyah, put into words and painted a picture of a world that could as well have been taken straight out of the 7 o’clock evening news bulletin from the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation, the British Broadcasting Corporation, or any American TV channel in 2009:

Early morning:

A poisonous gas

As repugnant as rotten eggs,

Will blow from the east, followed

By a shower of bullets from the West

Gradually intensifying in the afternoon.

Bombs and grenades will fall

In places of high population.

Late afternoon:

Jet-fighters and bombers

Will raid many areas avoiding those

Previously attacked to save ammunition.

Twilight will be disturbed by troopers

Parachuting from a thousand planes

To put final touches to all survivors.

At dusk a fanfare will mark

The end of a good day’s work.

Further outlook:

Similar weather,

with little changes on mountain tops

And in the deserts.

I found Shemu Joyah’s poetry gripping in its dark, ominous view of the world, which considered violence to be a facet of life not just in Malawi but elsewhere around the world. For many years I read and reread his conversation with an imaginary blind child:

Even in your immensely dark world

Where day and night merge into one pulse of time

You’ll experience the bright world without.

Do not mind the light you miss

For it is dimmer than you think

Only know that you are a homosapiens

. . .

Oh blind child

Don’t lament your sight

Only touch my face and feel it:

That is the face of a man tortured by his eyes.

In December 1989 I entered Lilongwe Teachers’ College where I was to spend four years, on and off-campus, training as a primary school teacher. An event that occurred just before we finished our program and graduated in September 1993 was evidence of the seismic political changes Malawi was undergoing. A rumor spread quickly around campus alleging that the Ministry of Education had been diverting some of the money we were supposed to receive as part of our stipends. The rumor alleged that in the contract documents the Malawi government had signed with the World Bank, which provided the loan for our teacher education program, our stipends were much higher. Dumba, who had been an obscure member of our student writers’ group, emerged as the student leader for the agitation that followed these rumors. We staged demonstrations and refused to go to class. We chanted songs about the money that had been stolen from us by the government. We put up placards denouncing the administrators of the program as thieves. Adding fuel to our actions was a national referendum held the previous year, 1992, in which the majority of Malawians had voted to end three decades of single party rule and adopt multiparty democracy. These were exciting times in Malawi. This was the first time since independence in 1964 that Malawians were able to demonstrate, and hold the government and the leadership to account for their actions. It was also the first time that the media could report on such issues, the number of newspapers having blossomed from the one government-run newspaper to well over twenty newspapers in a space of twelve months.

Today, Malawians have differing views about what life was like during Dr. Banda’s thirty-year rule. Some Malawians thrived, and they have fond memories of Dr. Banda and his rule. Many younger Malawians have come of age in the post-Banda era, and not having had experienced one-party rule, their knowledge is based on what they read, and what their elders tell them. Other Malawians suffered from the brutality of a regime whose supporters sometimes took matters into their own hands and inflicted on other Malawians fates that even Dr. Banda himself was shocked upon hearing about them after his presidency. The multi-party governments that have ruled Malawi since the end of the one-party era in 1994 have chosen not to institute any form of truth commission to investigate the abuses of that time. As a result narratives of what actually happened are subjected to speculative talk and idiosyncratic exaggerations that go either way. The worsening economic plight of many people in Malawi and the Southern African region since the early 1990s also conjures up its own explanations. To some Malawians, nostalgia comes from the economic and political stability of the one-party era, as well as its low levels of crime, hospitals that were staffed and had medicines, and schools that had teachers and enough supplies. Much of Southern Africa has experienced a substantial decline in the socio-economic status of the people, much of it stemming from a combination of mismanagement as well as the World Bank’s and the IMF’s neo-liberal Structural Adjustment Policies. For some Malawians the easy distinction is between the comforts of the one-party state versus the decline experienced after the introduction of multipartyism. For others it is between the oppression experienced then, and the social and political freedoms opened up by the change.

For me, the sustained study of what it means to be Malawian and African in the world has been central to my intellectual pursuits. Much of my reflection and analysis in the past eleven years has been enabled by the perspective of a guest in a foreign land, looking at my country and continent from outside. That perspective has given me a vantage point from which to pursue an inquiry into questions that have come to shape my worldview. It is a worldview shaped by the Malawi I grew up in, with all its contradictions about at once the humanity of uMunthu and a brutal dictatorship; my failed priestly ambitions, and my having become a teacher. It is a perspective that continues to shape the purposes and aims that I use to approach the teaching and the searching for the type of peace I have called “uMunthu-peace” in the title of this talk.

This is the fourth semester in which I am teaching an Intergrative Arts & Humanities (IAH) course whose broader theme is Moral Issues in the Arts & Humanities. The Department of Philosophy has designated this course as a Peace and Justice Studies course, and I have premised it on the theme of Rethinking Conflict and Violence. In the course I throw out a challenge to students, who come from various majors across the MSU campus. I ask students to reflect on the ways in which their disciplines, however esoteric and seemingly distant from social and political concerns of society, have the potential to promote peace both at the local as well as the global level. I always expect that the majority of students choose the course first because it falls within a set of MSU’s general graduation requirements, and second because it fits in which their overall schedule for the semester. Occasionally, a handful of students take the course because they are curious to know more about peace issues, or because they already have a personal passion for better understanding and promoting peace and justice in their communities.

The course introduces students to some of the key concepts in the study of peace and justice, which I interpret as being familiar with the types of peace defined in the literature. These concepts include positive peace, negative peace and holistic peace. Conventionally, what most people regard as “peace” is what peace scholars call “negative peace.” This is a peace obtained in the absence of overt violence or war. However it is possible to have this kind of peace, while buried inside the structures and institutions of our societies are insidious types of violence and injustice not easily observable. While negative peace is necessary as a starting point, it does not guarantee long lasting peace in and of itself. It requires positive peace, defined as the building and enactment of social structures that affirm people’s humanity and enhance the worth and value of life. Holistic peace takes this task further to connect individuals to their inner being and that of others. Holistic peace views the whole earth as an inter-related part of our community, as Aldo Leopold observed back in 1949. The need to care for the earth and consider it part of the community has been given impetus by recent high profile attention to it, including the recognition given by the Nobel Peace Prize Committee to the Kenyan convervationist, Dr. Wangari Maathai, and more recently, former vice president Al Gore.

In some African, Asian and Native American cultures, nature takes on a special role in society because it is part of the living community that sustains life and also connects people with their ancestors. Holistic peace enables a view of nature that merges modern scientific knowledge with traditional forms of knowledge that mutually advance one another, while preserving the earth and its life-sustaining qualities.

It is from the definitions of who we are as human beings, and the responsibilities that those definitions bequeath to us, that the type of peace that I call uMunthu-peace emerges. This is a concept I began developing as part of my doctoral dissertation research, in 2004, but its promotion has had its fare share of celebrity promotion. The most prominent proponent of uMunthu has been the former Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, who reflected in his 1999 memoirs on the role that the concept played in the formulation of South African’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee. The TRC process in South Africa was not perfect, and it is sometimes blamed for having failed to address grievances whose festering wounds have proliferated the violence that has gripped South Africa since the end of apartheid. Nevertheless, Archbishop Tutu has argued that forgiveness was a necessary part of the process to move on after the type of trauma that apartheid inflicted on South Africa and its neighbors. Tutu has also observed that as an African philosophy of how human beings define their existence, the spirit of uMunthu (uBuntu) was the reason why many African countries were able to transition from colonialism to independence without retaliatory violence against white minority regimes and settler populations. Examples include Zimbabwe, Kenya, Botswana, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, and many other countries.

Students and faculty interested in the promotion of peace have been excited at the news that former Archbishop Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, will be giving the commencement address at the May 2009 graduation ceremonies. He will also be awarded an Honorary Doctorate by MSU. This gesture will be a befitting tribute to a global leader for peace who has spent a life time promoting acknowledgement, confession and forgiveness as elements of peace and justice. The gesture will also place MSU on the map of efforts to promote global peace, enhancing the profile of programs and departments, faculty and students who see peace and justice as the most important goal that the academy can contribute to. It is to these peace promotion efforts by faculty and students at MSU that I want to turn to, as I conclude this talk.

I would like to note that the struggle for peace and justice locally and globally has enjoyed a nurturing space and atmosphere here at Michigan State University and in the Lansing community. MSU is renowned for its pioneering role in the struggle against apartheid in the 70s and 80s, and also in the study of agriculture as a measure for ending hunger around the world. The Peace and Justice Studies Specialization is currently conducting a pilot study, through the work of two students, Nkechi Okeafor in Anthropology, and Becca Farnum in Interdisciplinary Humanities, to create historical and intellectual profiles of peace and justice projects and community groups in and around Lansing and Michigan.

Several student groups on campus are currently engaged in projects for the promotion of peace and justice both locally and globally. The Peace and Justice Studies Specialization has keenly followed and offered moral support for these student groups and their projects, seeing an important link between academic research and scholarship on the one hand, and social and community activism on the other. In particular I would like to mention groups such as Students for Peace and Justice, under the leadership of Jessica Jensen and Becca Farnum, 4Peace, Inc., under the leadership of Horia Djimarescu; Peace Over Prejudice under the leadership of Nada Zhody and Maweza Razzaq; Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, under the leadership of Dua Aldasouqi and Afreen Syed, and more recently, Active Peace, founded by Stefanie Kendall, a doctoral candidate in Teacher Education. Just this past week, on Tuesday March 31st, the MSU Jewish Student Union joined hands with the group Peace Over Prejudice to organize a campus forum where three Jewish and Muslim members from the One Voice Movement described efforts by young Israelis and Palestinians who are working to promote peace between Israel and Palestine.

This coming Friday, April 10th, a group of twelve faculty members will be finishing a year-long faculty development project known as the Teaching Commons. Through the Teaching Commons initiative we have spend the 2008/2009 academic year studying MSU’s academic goals, specifically those pertaining to the internationalization of the undergraduate curriculum and the attainment of global competencies for MSU students. The outcome of the initiative will be a series of courses whose goals aim to improve curriculum delivery and pedagogy, with a specific focus on peace and justice studies content.

In the community, we have the internationally respected Michigan Peace Team, the Peace Education Center, the Greater Lansing Network Against War and Injustice, and many other such groups all dedicated to the promotion of peace in our community and around the world. There are many more groups and individuals too numerous to mention, who dedicate their time and energy to this cause. They are all part of a legacy at MSU, and an enabling atmosphere which students can and should take advantage of, and connect their learning, across the disciplines, to the promotion of peace. It is in these efforts to promote peace and justice that we see the most important cause to which one can link their academic education and intellectual pursuits.

Were this to be my last lecture, these would be the thoughts I would wish to be remembered by: A guest whose view of the world was that of dew on a summer morning. Thank you very much for coming, and for continuing to be a part of my journey learning, teaching and searching.