Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Malawi on International Day of Peace: uMunthu, Education and a Global Paradox

On the surface, it would seem paradoxical that while the rest of the world is today celebrating the United Nations’ International Day of Peace, the air in Malawi is thick with fear, anxiety and a premonition for violence. Last evening in Lilongwe, the capital, hundreds of people were out shopping into the night, creating long check-out lines in shops that normally close early, and are usually never crowded. There was absolutely no parking space left at People’s in downtown Old Town. Bread had sold out in most shops, and bakeries had no fresh stocks. People were stocking up, afraid this might be the last shopping for several days. For that was the experience on July 20th, when major cities and towns were taken over by protests and riots that resulted in massive looting and the killing of 20 unarmed citizens. When civil society leaders organized another protest for August 17th, cities and towns were again paralyzed, even though no protests took place after a last minute decision to postpone the marches and give a chance to dialogue between civil society and government, mediated by the United Nations.

Despite the appearance of a paradox when a day set aside to celebrate peace is marked by tension and fears of deathly violence, it is in such moments of conflict that peace is better appreciated, and social justice affirmed. The feeling by many people in Malawi is that of a needless crisis being fomented by a leadership that seems more concerned with engineering electoral succession than worrying about the future of the country. There has been a debate about who has caused the crisis, and the culpability of all Malawians in prolonging it. There are aspects of the crisis that are clearly being perpetuated by the conduct of the leadership, but there are also aspects that are a result of complex, asymmetrical and exploitative global structures of governance and lopsided economic interdependence.

It has become cliché in Malawian lore to repeat the maxim about how peace is not only the absence of conflict, but the presence of social justice, or words to that effect. An idea first propagated by the world’s leading peace studies scholar, Johan Galtung, it is taken as common sense, even as the idea of “structural violence”, Galtung’s notion of how injustice resides in social structures, is not as widely understood. Global changes in information consumption and the idealization of government systems have created expectations and aspirations, while exposing structural inequalities not only between nations in the Global North and the Global Southth, but also within nations and their societies. In Malawi, the emergence of a category of a super-rich class is sharply juxtaposed with a majority class whose hopes have remained stagnant for decades, creating what in a recent New York Times op-ed, the Kenyan anti-corruption campaigner John Githongo aptly described as a resentment-induced rage that has fuelled revolt starting with North Africa, and spreading south of the Sahara. There have been riots in London, protests in Wisconsin and against Wallstreet in New York City, evidence that this resentment is not just a reaction to growing inequality in Africa alone. According to Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, inequality is a corrosive factor in the social well-being of people, and the United States, the world’s wealthiest and most powerful country, is also one of the most unequal.

What is perhaps more paradoxical is what is going on around the world on this day when the world observes the International Day of Peace. In the United States, the southern state of Georgia is today scheduled to execute Troy Davis, who was convicted of murdering a police officer in 1989. There has been an international outcry and a growing movement to try and stop the execution, after the real killer confessed to the crime, and several witnesses recanted their testimony. Those protesting the execution have included former US president Jimmy Carter, and former FBI Director William Sessions, according to a New York Times editorial

Elsewhere in the world, it has been a week of untold carnage in Yemen where scores of citizens have been brutally murdered by their own government. Fighting is still going on in Libya, weeks after Colonel Ghadafi was ousted in a NATO-led military campaign. At the United Nations in New York, the Palestinians are seeking statehood in the face of threats by the United States to veto the Palestinians’ aspirations for sovereignty and peace. In Afghanistan’s ongoing NATO war against the Taliban, a prominent peace negotiator was assassinated yesterday Tuesday.

The presence of such conflict and violence, death and misery make for a world that is clearly hurting. But it also highlights the efforts of individuals and groups working to find lasting solutions to problems of war and violence, and advocate for a more just and peaceful world order. States define peace as an absence of physical violence and war, but for ordinary people, peace still lacks in other ways that are more structural than physical, more subtle than obvious. Peace scholars refer to the absence of war and physical conflict as “negative peace”, and the presence of social justice as “positive peace.” In thinking about these concepts and how they apply to Malawian and African contexts, I have found the term “uMunthu-peace” to be another concept that adds to the notion that peace is much more than an absence, it is also the presence of other efforts to make the world a better place. The term “uMunthu-peace” derived out of a study in which I followed Malawian school teachers and read Malawian philosophers in an attempt to find an endogenous theory of peace in Malawian and African education systems.

That was in 2004, when two teachers in two rural districts of Malawi told me about how most educational systems are ill-prepared to teach citizens to go beyond classroom knowledge. In the informed views of these two teachers, it was not enough to teach primary school pupils and university students how to calculate complicated mathematical problems and memorize sophisticated formulae. Students needed to also learn what it means to be a good human being concerned with the well-being of others and the upliftment of their community. To date, very few educational systems in any part of the world offer that kind of education. The emphasis, argues Joel Spring (2007) of Queens College, City University of New York, is on “economic growth and the preparation of workers for the world’s labor market.” In his book A New Paradigm for Global School Systems: Education for a Long and Happy Life, Spring proposes a new educational paradigm in which “educational policy is focused on longevity and subjective well-being rather than economic success.”

Kindness, a virtue that adds to a moral code for humanity’s collective wellbeing is considered “subversive of neo-liberal assumptions that place value on utility and cost above other human values,” according to Sue Clegg and Stephen Rowland (2010) of Leeds Metropolitan University and the University of London, respectively. Writing in the British Journal of Sociology of Education, Clegg and Rowland observe that despite being an aspect easily recognized by students in a teacher, kindness is never considered in descriptions of “teaching excellence”, “student satisfaction”, nor “professional values.” This is true of Malawian education and education in most parts of the world. The result is the violent and unjust world we live in, which makes the case for continued efforts by peace activists to raise global consciousness about the possibility of sustainable peace and social justice.

When I first heard that the date for the Malawi protests, in the form of vigils, had been shifted from 17th September to 21st, I initially thought it was to do with the 21st September being International Day of Peace. But the reason was because the 17th was not ideal for most of the civil society leaders who had other commitments; 21st September was. The Twitter hashtag that has been used for the campaign since July 20th, #redarmy, reveals no intention of an appeal for peace. Apart from an announced press conference by the UNDP Malawi office, Malawi is not observing the International Day of Peace. Instead, we are observing what was going to be another day of street protests, in the form of vigils, turned into a mass stay-away at the last minute.

Security, and fears of a repeat of July 20th seem to have been the overriding concern in the decision to move from street protests to what civil society called “Plan B.” While civil society leaders have been imagining the protests as peaceful demonstrations aimed at sending a message of concern to the Malawi leadership about the direction the country is taking, the reaction to the call for protests has betrayed a different understanding of what is being envisioned. A court injunction obtained by “concerned citizens” after the aborted August 17th protests put a ban on any form of anti-government protests. Shop owners were barricading doors and windows, and people were out en masse shopping late on Tuesday. Most offices announced to employees not to show up for work on Wednesday September 21st, and to ensure their personal safety. Clearly, where civil society were envisioning peaceful protests, everyone else has been hearing violence, looting, property damage, and deaths.

That is quite an intrigue, something that comes out of events of July 20th. And it raises some troubling questions. Are Malawians hopelessly incapable of maintaining law and order whenever they decide to exercise a constitutionally-granted right to peaceful demonstrations? What explains the easiness with which peaceful protests turn into violent riots and mass killings? How do we explain the resentment that is clearly simmering just underneath the surface and readily finds an outlet in destroying property and taking lives? Is it impossible to envision a Malawi in which leaders, both in political parties and in civil society, think of the greater good and work to bridge the gaping inequality that is fast characterizing Malawi and the rest of the world?

As an educationist, I always turn to how and what we teach in the schools, for answers to questions like this. Educationists who espouse belief in the singular significance of peace have developed a field of study, called “peace education” at the primary and secondary level, and “peace studies” at the university level. Peace educationists argue that all education ought to be peace education. In my study of prospects for peace education in Malawian schools, since 2004, I have learned, from watching teachers, that it is entirely possible to approach the school curriculum, and day-to-day classroom content, into peace education. I have also learned how peace education and peace studies have been in existence for some decades now, but they are yet to become the staple of educational systems. It is not much wonder to peace educationists that school systems have always produced leaders who resort to war to resolve problems, and who care more about personal power and wealth than about the greater good.

Coincidentally, today, September 21st, is also Founder’s Day in Ghana, when they celebrate the birthday of Ghana’s founding president, the late Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah. Africa’s pursuits for peace and independence owe a lot to a vision first stipulated by Kwame Nkrumah, who argued that the independence of Ghana was meaningless unless it was tied to the independence of the rest of the continent. Dr Nkrumah argued more than fifty years ago that on their own, African countries were not economically viable and therefore needed to integrate their systems into a continental society. He also devoted his life to connecting continental Africa with the African Diaspora, and lived a life of testimony to that noble ideal. Subsequent generations of African leaders have been unable to appreciate Dr Nkrumah’s wisdom, and have colluded with forces of imperialism to impoverish ordinary Africans.

It is the disillusionment from that collusion between African leadership and forces of imperialism that lies at the heart of the protest movement in Malawi and elsewhere. As long as educational systems in Africa and around the world continue perpetuating educational policies that ignore larger ideals of uMunthu-peace, social well-being and the greater good, the world will continue the paradox of celebrating peace amidst war, violence and death. 

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Their own Worst Enemy? The Paradoxes of African Leadership & the Undermining of the African Cause

Wednesday July 20th found me at Katoto Teacher Development Centre (TDC), less than a kilometre away from Katoto Freedom Park, ground zero for Mzuzu demonstrations. We had a teacher professional development workshop with 20 educators from Mzuzu City and Mzimba North. Hardly had we started the day when we heard the chants and songs. It was tantalizing.

An hour into our session, one participant apologized for interrupting, saying they had received a phone call. Riots were breaking out in town, vehicles were being overturned and burned, and shops were being looted. I stole a glance at my phone, and people were posting updates on facebook and on Nyasanet directly from the centre of Mzuzu. Soon we started hearing sounds of teargas canisters. Two participants who had gone out to the bathroom came back dabbing wet handkerchiefs to their eyes. The teargas had wafted in our direction. We closed the windows. Dozens of youngsters ran past our training venue. We kept on with our training, constantly peeping through the windows to monitor what was going on outside.

The trickle of people running past our venue started growing in volume. People were now passing by carrying merchandize. A crowd gathered outside nearby, and the teargas shots grew louder. There was no doubt things had turned ugly. Our driver, who had left with the car on some errands, came back on foot. Cars were being targeted, and he nearly got caught up in the mess. He quickly drove into a nearby neighbourhood, asked if he could keep the car inside somebody’s fence, and walked back to the training venue.

The work of Bingu’s hands

We broke off for lunch at 12 noon, and three of us walked toward Katoto Filling Station, which faces Katoto Freedom Park. The filling station, popularly known as Pa Harry (owned by popular local politician Harry Mkandawire), is located on the corner of Mzuzu City’s largest intersection. The three-way traffic lights open the gateway to the lakeshore districts of Rumphi and Karonga, and Chitipa further up in the north. To the east lie Nkhata Bay and the beaches of Lake Malawi, and southward the M1 takes you to the capital city Lilongwe. There were rocks strewn all over the T-junction. A billboard boasting the height of Bingu’s achievements only two years ago had been torched, but you could still read the words: “Let the work of my hands speak for me,” an English translation of a Chichewa saying about how deeds offer better evidence than words. The stark irony was lost on no one. There was a fire, still smoldering in the middle of the intersection.

Now and again crowds surged, running away or towards the northern end of the bus depot. A police land cruiser seemed to be coming from that direction. A vehicle belonging to the National Aids Commission arrived at the Filling Station where we had stopped. Somebody behind me started shouting in a menacing way. He was trying to galvanise others to attack the vehicle. The driver quickly made a u-turn and drove away. Suddenly an army truck appeared from the direction of Moyale Barracks, east of the city. It was full of soldiers, carrying guns. Another one quickly followed, and a third. You could feel the tension go up a notch amongst the crowd. A few people waved at the soldiers.

I was itching to go nearer and take pictures, but I was strongly advised not to. We walked back to our training venue, passing residents of Katoto who had come out of their houses and were thronging the neighbourhood streets. Back at the training venue, we continued with our programme. It was a surreal experience. Here were twenty Malawian educators discussing professional development plans for Malawian schools, with gun shots sounding very close by, and people streaming past the building. Police teargas and live gunshots were still droning when we left Mzuzu and headed for Mzimba Boma as the sun set.

That evening Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) rebroadcast President Bingu wa Mutharika’s televised public lecture from earlier that day, so I had a chance to watch it. Bingu spoke for about 2 hours 15 minutes. On twitter and facebook, the reactions to the lecture were furious. The choice of Wednesday 20 July was clearly meant to not only sabotage the planned demonstrations, but to also cause mayhem and confusion. In that, they succeeded. The government machinery had done everything possible to discredit the planned demonstrations. Tactics used by the MBC bordered on comic relief. On several consecutive days the prime time evening news bulletins carried opinionated claims masquerading as news to the effect that the real aim of the demonstrations was support for homosexuality.

That the government has been scared of a Tunisia-Egypt type revolt has been evident in the way it has reacted to the slightest mention of demonstrations. The academic freedom struggle has its roots in that fear, as does the edict President wa Mutharika issued on March 6, 2011 that anybody wanting to stage a demonstration must first pay 2 million kwacha (approx. US$13,000) to the police as surety against property damage. Such has been the government’s fear of demonstrations that it has gone out of its way to placate a few civil society activists, who have since turned around and now praise government, while ridiculing former civil society colleagues. If events of 20th and 21st July look as if they vindicate government’s fears, it is not for its foresight; rather it is for having worked hard toward that fulfillment. The president’s decision to blame the property damage and loss of life on the organizers of the demonstrations leave that in no doubt.

Undermining African renewal

There are two tragedies, here. First are the deaths that have resulted from the demonstrations. Second is the precipice we have gone over, beyond which debate does not seem salvageable. The second tragedy has important implications for the African renewal that President wa Mutharika, and many of his then admirers in Malawi and outside, had hoped his presidency, and his one-year rotating chairpersonship of the African Union, would accomplish. I’ll get to this point in due course.

On Thursday 21st July the organizers of the demonstrations took out a public service announcement urging a stop to further protests. They said only Wednesday 20th July was the legitimate date for demonstrations, and a petition had been delivered to the president to that effect. Any further protests after that date were illegal. The president’s lunch hour address to the nation on Thursday 21st July ended with an invitation to dialogue, having spent much of the address blaming the organizers for having paid demonstrators to loot and damage property. On Friday July 22nd the president spoke to graduating police cadets at Zomba Police College, and all the pretense for dialogue was gone. He accused the protests organizers of treason, and threatened to “smoke them out.” Offering condolences to the families of those killed in the protests, he read from his prepared remarks, “They have died in vain.”

President Bingu wa Mutharika and leaders like him have always presented for me a particularly difficult dilemma. I have suggested previously that all political leaders are the same, a manifestation of what they perceive to be the imperatives of wielding political power. It is the levels and degrees of civil society activism that explain the differences in the extent of what each particular leader is capable or incapable of doing. July 20th itself offers a telling Malawian example.

The entire idea behind the lecture was ill-thought. As George Kasakula noted in one of his columns in The Weekend Nation recently, Malawians did not need lectures; they needed solutions to chronic social, economic and political problems. The choice of the date itself was a “bizarre juxtaposition” with the demonstrations, to quote Professor Paul Tiyambe Zeleza in his 21st July article, “Malawi on the Brink: The July 20 Movement.” That was reason enough for many not to even listen to or watch the lecture. Even after listening to it in its entirety, many people’s reaction was utter dismissal and ridicule. That was exactly my attitude as well.

Britain is not our mother

Early in the lecture the president referred to an opposition critic of his government, who said the president had been wrong to antagonize Britain, because Britain was “our mother.” The president said the last line in the country’s national anthem goes “. . . and mother Malawi,” not “. . . and mother Britain.”  A lot of the reaction to the president’s decision to expel the British High Commissioner, Mr. Fergus Cochrane-Dyet, was understandably in fear of the potentially disastrous effects of any British retaliation in the area of development aid to Malawi, which is widely believed by many Malawians to support poor people.

As a matter of fact a lot of foreign aid benefits the donating country as well as the wealthy elites of the recipient country. But another corner of the reaction bordered on hysteria, fed by the existential belief that foreign aid is an act of Western altruism and not strategic political interest; that it is the natural order of things for Western countries to give aid, out of altruism, to Third World countries for whom it is the natural order of things to forever remain beggars.

The strategic purposes of foreign aid extend beyond bilateral support to national budgets. Most Non-Governmental Organizations receive aid for reasons that have little to do with altruism. An article forwarded recently to the Fahamu Debate List, written by Tafataona Mahoso, has a most telling title: “How the US controls ‘civil society’ throughout Africa.” In the article Mahoso argues that all of civil society in Africa is sponsored by US and European interests, with the aim of making Africans “feel and believe that they are only thankful receivers of freedom and human rights conceived, taught and funded by the West.” He goes on: “The Anglo-Saxon powers, led by the US, already control a continental network and superstructure of ‘civil society’ throughout Africa.” A syndrome that has been cultivated over several centuries, Mahoso argues that it “is not natural.” It has created, Mahoso argues, a “willingness to apologise against our own dignity and interests while upholding the arrogance of the enemy.” Mahoso is quick to point out that “the problem is not with the North Americans and Nato as such.” Africans themselves are to blame: “. . . we have allowed ourselves to be tutored in governance matters by people who are our declared enemies or by organizations and individuals funded and managed by our declared enemies.”

Whether or not one agrees with Mahoso’s language of “declared enemies,” and the depiction of African civil society as pliant and supine, the point about self-sabotage should not be a substitute for apportioning blame where it belongs. As I have already pointed out, the benefits from this system go to both the Western donors and to wealthy African elites. It is the poor, and marginalized Africans, that get sacrificed in the process. For all the comical relief and laughable madness about MBC’s claims of the 20th July demonstrations being aimed at showing support for homosexuality, gay rights have become a tug of war between competing interests in the West.

Africa has become the battleground for Evangelicals wanting to use Christians in Africa to stop the spread of Western forms of homosexual lifestyles, and a battleground for gay rights activists to contain Western forms of Christian homophobia. In the process, the human stories of Africans born gay, and their genuine struggle for their humanity, their rights and equality, get lost in the pandemonium. Because matters of sexuality are considered private in most societies, the surface outlook suggests that there are no born homosexuals and other types outside heterosexuality in Africa.

President wa Mutharika has spoken of gay people in the worst terms possible, repeating language used by President Robert Mugabe. He has claimed that homosexuality is unMalawian and unAfrican, reflecting an insensitivity to the diversity of human sexuality that is as part of human nature as is heterosexuality. The entire discourse about gay rights is fraught with extreme views on either side, making debate, and opportunities for educating ourselves about the gifts of God’s diverse creation, impossible. The irony of the denial of one’s humanity for how nature created them, a phenomenon black people around the world are only too familiar with, has not even registered.

When President wa Mutharika spoke to Malawians a month earlier on Friday June 24th about the causes of the fuel and forex shortages in Malawi, the reaction from most Malawians was predictably the same. Front pages the next morning said his speech was empty and devoid of any solutions; full of blame for the IMF, donors, everyone but himself. In his 20th July lecture, he went on to talk about how Malawi’s forex ends up in Mumbai, London and other global financial centres. He repeated what he had said on June 24th that it was the IMF that had ordered the government to liberalise oil importation and forex, and leave them in the hands of the private sector.

The acute shortages the country was experiencing were a direct result of those policies. There has been very little discussion on email forums, newspapers and electronic media as to why exactly the country has no forex, or responses to the president’s accusation that foreign banks, which have proliferated as part of Malawi’s economic growth since he was elected, have been siphoning it out of the country. Nor has there been much discussion as to whether poor countries have the power to reject the IMF’s neoliberal policies, with the prevailing opinion being that countries choose whether to follow IMF advice, or to leave it, with no consequences.

Is democratic debate still possible?

Not everyone has received President wa Mutharika’s lecture with indifference and ambivalence, however. In The Nation of Friday July 22, the Malawi Confederation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (MCCCI) responded to some of the issues the president raised. Speaking for the organization, the Executive Director, Chancellor Kaferapanjira, doubted that the government had the resolve to institute measures of self-sacrifice that would be required for the president’s suggestions to be implemented. “The vehicle fleet of the Malawi Government is one of the largest in Africa,” said Mr Kaferapanjira. “If they can get rid of the appetite for new vehicles and maintain the current ones, it can help in reducing recurrent expenditure.”

An interesting observation this one, but one wonders why the Malawi Police and the Ministries of Health and Education, big ministries with big numbers of employees and big operations, have never had adequate numbers of vehicles. But Mr Kaferapanjira’s observations are also echoed by the petition civil society has presented to the president. They are also echoed by several columnists and commentators, including The Weekend Nation’s Ephraim Munthali and The Sunday Times’ Deborah Nyangulu-Chipofya and Raphael Tenthani, who have pointed out how government could rein in excesses and abuses if they could embrace self-sacrifice and austerity measures themselves.

That there has been little debate stems, partly, from the manner in which the president speaks. It has become an expectation that every time the president veers off his prepared remarks, he will make the next day’s front page headlines. He has called his critics “drunks” and “tiankhwezule,” (in reference to a small bird that, by implication, should not be taken seriously), and donors “stupid.” The latter term has so scandalized Malawians, to the extent of the opposition critic who is reported to have said Britain was Malawi’s mother and should not be antagonized. It is common amongst Malawian pundits and columnists to declare that imperialism ended with colonialism, and Malawi has all but herself to blame.

This is an observation made mostly in reaction to what Professor Paul Tiyambe Zeleza has called “the president’s nationalist anxieties and preoccupations with colonialism and admonition of Britain,” which to the majority of Malawi’s population, born after independence, “are outdated and irrelevant.” Obviously, the tendency by African leaders to use colonialism as an excuse has backfired on them. However imperialism is still very much at work, as a growing body of development studies scholarship shows. This is a body of scholarship intellectuals from Africa and from other parts of the world that demonstrates how African wealth and resources migrate out of the continent every year. The blame game insists on one culprit, when it is both Western interests and wealthy African elites behind the looting and plundering.

President wa Mutharika’s second term of office has given cause to two questions about many African leaders: Are they their own worst enemy? Are they really different from other leaders elsewhere? They set the tone for how Africans are going to discourse. It will be them setting the terms, as they know best; they cannot take Africa over a cliff, they reassure. Because there will be no real dialogue and serious debate about genuine issues raised in the pronouncements by both the presidents and their critics, the only choices left on both sides will be extreme positions that portray the other party as out of touch and ignorant, intolerant and stubborn.

In their extreme moods, African leaders want the organizers of protests and demonstrations prosecuted for treason, or “smoked out”. In the extreme fringes of the protestors, they want these leaders out of power, and worse. The presidents bring the full force of the state to bear on their detractors, who find ready support from Western interests. The middle ground which was supposed to foster debate about Africa’s desires for true democracy and independence, “Africa of the new beginning”, to use Mutharika’s own words, is further adrift.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Reframing the discussion on Malawi’s problems of access to higher education

This article first appeared in The Nation, on Wednesday 15th December, 2010, under the title 'No solution to Malawi's problems of access to higher education?'.

Returning from a trip outside Malawi, Minister of Education, Science and Technology, Professor Peter Mutharika, brought back home some ideas on how to change Malawi’s higher education landscape. Professor Mutharika told journalists that he had held discussions with various officials in American universities on Malawi’s plans to introduce six new universities in the next ten years. One particular idea the minister mentioned was that of community colleges.

I recently suggested in an article published in The Nation newspaper, in Pambazuka News and at the Zeleza Post, that one way of making the six universities a reality might be to elevate the country’s five public teacher training colleges into universities, granting bachelors degrees and higher to primary school teachers and other educators.  In addition to the proposal from Professor Mutharika for Malawi to explore the possibility of community colleges, let us consider two more ideas. The first would be to elevate all technical colleges to university status granting 4-year bachelors’ degrees. The second would be to convert all 3-year diploma programmes into 4-year bachelors’ degree programmes. Otherwise, the proposed six universities will remain a mere drop in the ocean of lack of equitable access to higher education in Malawi.

The results of the 2010 Malawi School Leaving Certificate (MSCE) examinations help put the problem of lack of access to higher education into sharp perspective. In 2010 68,642 Malawians sat the exam (The Nation, 18 November, 2010, p.1). Out of these, 36,621 passed. Going by this year’s university selection numbers, less than 5,000 of these will be accorded places in the country’s universities. The University of Malawi will take in approximately 2,000, and Mzuzu University (MZUNI) will take in about 500. The Catholic University of Malawi (CUNIMA), the Malawi Adventist University, University of Livingstonia, Blantyre International University, African Bible College, and the other 4-year degree granting institutions will not take in any more than UNIMA and MZUNI, combined.

The remainder, no less than 31,000 young Malawians, will be faced with very grim life chances. Some might find places in the certificate and 3-year diploma granting institutions such as Domasi College of Education, Malawi Institute of Journalism, Malawi College of Health Sciences, the various nursing schools, teacher training colleges, and others. Even then, the numbers won’t add up to much. Others will find some form of self or paid employment in the formal and informal sector. But many others will languish in a socio-economic limbo, unable to turn their school leaver status into economic viability.

As of 2007, the year for which current data is available from the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MoEST)’s Education Management Information System (EMIS) Section, the total university enrollment for UNIMA and MZUNI was 8,168. The figure was much smaller for the seven technical colleges in the country, 1,388 students. No figures are available for the total enrollment of students in other tertiary institutions, such as nursing colleges, the college of health sciences, the Malawi Institute of Journalism, Domasi College of Education, and others. The gross enrolment of secondary school students in Malawi hovers around 233,573 (Education Statistics, 2008). Each year Malawi releases on to the streets and in the villages no less than 30,000 young people who have passed the MSCE. Another 30,000 fails the exam, and has to either repeat, or forget about a school-leaving certificate altogether.

The case for drastic changes in access to and enrollment in our universities, and expanding the number of higher learning institutions in the country, is overwhelming. We could establish community colleges, as Professor Mutharika proposes. We could elevate technical, vocational and teacher training colleges into 4-year degree granting institutions. We could also abolish the 3-year diploma programme across the board by adding one or two more semesters and award graduates with a full bachelors degree. In some countries such as the United Kingdom, three years of full time study earns one a bachelors’ degree.

In the United States of America, community colleges offer a two-year associate’s degree. Anybody who has successfully completed a secondary school education is eligible. The cost is remarkably lower than conventional universities, making them accessible to as many Americans as possible. According to Dr. Jill Biden, wife of US Vice President Joe Biden, a private university in the United States costs an average of $26,000 per academic year. A public university costs an average of $7,000. A community college costs an average of $2,500.

It is strange that many Malawian institutions of higher learning cling to the outdated 3-year diploma model. Students in these diploma programmes do work that is comparable to 4-year degree programmes. It is a huge waste of time and money for the students, their families and for the nation to make people undergo a three-year diploma programme, and then a few years later bring some of them back to spend another two or more years to finish a bachelors degree. It should be possible to redesign 3-year diploma programmes into bachelors’ degree programmes. We could save a lot of time, money and interrupted lives.

Such a change would increase the number of highly educated Malawians. It would also prepare more Malawians for post-graduate studies. This would also lead to a wider pool of Malawians with requisite academic qualifications and intellectual training better qualified to teach in the degree-granting institutions. The above point is important to make in response to the inevitable question of where Malawi can get qualified university lecturers and professors to teach the numbers that would result from these proposed changes. Affording more Malawians an opportunity for an appropriate university education relevant to Malawi’s context locally and globally would be good for the development of the country.

As I pointed out in the aforementioned earlier article, most countries around the world are realizing that the future of their societies lies in improving access to and the quality of university education and research. Countries such as India, China, Singapore, and the United States of America are looking up to and increasing funding to their universities to help revitalize their economies and chart a better future for their people. Recent talk from President Bingu wa Mutharika and Professor Peter Mutharika, suggests Malawi is also beginning to make access to higher education a national priority.

In the United States, community college enrollments represent 40 percent of all higher education enrollments. There are more than 18 million students in approximately 4,000 institutions of higher learning in the United States, according to Harvard University professor Louis Menand, in his book The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Reaction in the American University (2010). Calling it “one of the best-kept secrets of higher education,” President Obama in 2009 asked Jill Biden to lead a new initiative to revamp America’s community college system. President Obama and Vice President Biden have proposed $12 billion dollars for the initiative, over a ten-year period. They hope to strengthen the capacity of community colleges across the United States and enable them produce up to 5 million graduates over that period. Long seen as a poor alternative to a university education, community colleges have started seeing their enrollments rise in the wake of the economic crisis America has been undergoing since 2008.

Some community colleges in America have already been working on plans to link themselves to universities so their graduates can seamlessly transition from 2-year associate degrees into bachelors’ degrees. Community colleges have very flexible entry qualifications, offering access to a diverse range of Americans. Some students are parents who left school so they could raise families. Others are workers who have been retrenched and are looking for an opportunity to re-skill and catch up with new advances in their profession. The operational premise here is that if you can successfully complete a secondary school education, you can successfully attend university. In Malawi, the acute lack of space in the university system has bred the belief that merely passing the MSCE is not enough; you have to pass it with distinction. This belief is misleading. It has wasted the lives of many capable, brilliant young Malawians on the grounds that they did not achieve a distinction at MSCE.  

Considering all of these proposals for the Malawian higher education context would go some way toward fulfilling national education policy as laid out in the National Education Sector Plan (NESP) 2007-2-16, the blueprint guiding education policy and practice in Malawi. The policy priorities for all educitonal areas outlined in the NESP are improved governance and management, quality and relevance, and access and equity. The climate seems ripe for a discussion of such bold initiatives in the country’s higher education system. We will miss a golden opportunity if we fail to engage each other and consult as widely as possible in this national discussion.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Transforming the teaching profession as a national development strategy

Note: This article appeared in the Daily Times, 7 October, 2010

The occasion for this year’s World Teachers Day commemoration, October 5th, has spurred recollections and reminiscences of teachers who have been influential in a number of people’s lives. In a ‘My Point of View’ op-ed column by Limani Nsapato in the Friday October 1st issue of the Daily Times, he wrote about a Mr. Zuze, his Standard 3 teacher who inspired him to start liking school, and achieve academic success in later life. In the Nation on Sunday of October 3 Akossa Mphepo dedicated her Editor’s Note in the EveryWoman section of the paper to the teachers who have remained memorable for her to this day. She also interviewed Maggie Madimbo, a primary school teacher who went on to amass degrees, and is now studying for a Ph.D. in the United States.

Not wanting to miss out on the fun, I would like to say something about my own teacher training days and how I was inspired by teachers who shaped my passion for reading and writing. In so doing, I would also like to celebrate friends and colleagues with whom I have travelled along this path, some of whom are, unfortunately, departed. I will conclude my thoughts with a discussion on Malawi’s aspirations for its future teaching corps, as outlined in the National Strategy for Teacher Education nd Development (NSTED), developed in 2008. Over and above everything else, I want to suggest that we engage in a constructive national debate on how to transform teachers’ lives and performance in Malawi.

My teacher training started in December 1989 and ended in September 1993. The MASTEP program had been designed as a three-year program, combining a residential model during the school vacations, and a distance-learning model during the school year. In effect, as can be seen from the dates, it lasted four years. I made some very striking friendships within a week of my arrival at the Lilongwe Teachers’ College, towards the end of December 1989. In a matter of days, I had become very good friends with Charles Mnjale Gwazeni, Albert Kalimbakatha, Isdor Kaiya, Limiton Chalera, Ken Kalonde, and a few others. We all had one thing in common. We loved to read and write. Soon we formed what we called the Malawi Special Teacher Education Program (MASTEP) Writers Workshop. During our two-month stays at Lilongwe Teachers College over the next three years, we met almost every afternoon right after lunch. We took turns reading our writing, and critiquing each other. Our writing ranged from poetry to short fiction to feature essays. Gwazeni, Chalera and Kalonde are deceased now, but their literary and teaching spirit lives on in those of us who were touched by their genius.

By the end of the MASTEP program we had put together a literary journal containing works of poetry, fiction, essays and other types of writing. We drew inspiration from some of Malawi’s finest writers. After the initial two-week residential orientation at Lilongwe Teachers’ College, I was posted to Chikande Primary School, in Ntcheu, where I spent the rest of my teacher training. We taught during the school year, and we went into college during the Christmas, Easter and Summer vacations.

Looking back at my time in the MASTEP programme two decades later, I am very happy that I chose teaching as my profession. Well, I didn’t actually choose it over other careers. I was away at my home village in Ntcheu enjoying the summer vacation when my father saw an announcement for the MASTEP programme in the newspaper. He cut it out and mailed it to me, advising me to apply for it. My father, a police officer of many years, believed that I would make a better teacher than a policeman. He thought my mother was an excellent primary school teacher, and I could tell he respected teachers more than he respected any other profession.

Teaching gave me a start in my professional life, and I have grown to see the world from the perspective of a teacher and the role teachers play in building a society. Even as I have developed other professional habits, teaching has always been at the centre, from the knowledge production aspects around a particular practice, to the dissemination and utilisation of that knowledge for broader social purposes.

Over the years I have had many wondeful teachers, at various levels of the educational system. Mrs Kajawo was my first ever teacher in Standard One at Police Primary School, and in Standard Two Mrs Saiwa and Mrs Mwenelupembe were my teachers. These wonderful teachers guided my earlierst attempts at reading, writing and numeracy. In secondary school, two teachers stand out, mostly for their encouragement, through actions mostly, on the importance of reading widely and writing seriously. I started thinking of myself as a writer when I was Form Two at Nankhunda Seminary in Zomba. In Form Three our English teacher was Fr. Lawrence Mlenga, and he easily noticed how I enjoyed writing. I did my Form Four at Police Secondary School in Zomba, and there it was again an English teacher who stood out. Mr Lot Dzonzi, now Commissioner of Police, introduced a Writers’ Board, and encouraged us to write and post our stories there. In addition to being my English teacher, he was also patron of the drama group, and we ended up at number three at the 1989 ATEM national grand finals. Police Secondary School later won the national championship. By then I had finished my Form Four and left.

Mr Dzonzi went beyond the call of duty. He took personal books from his library, which were not even on the exam sylabus, and gave them to his students to read. One such book was Ngugi wa Thiong’os Devil on the Cross, which I read right after I finished Form Four. Another one was Athol Fugard’s published play Sizwe Bansi is Dead. After the MSCE exams, he took me to the homes of Wokomaatani Malunga and Garton Kamchedzera, where he introduced me to these Malawian literary luminaries and encouraged me to follow in their footsteps. It was these steps that later led to my becoming a non-university member of the Chancellor College Writers Workshop, which later led to many other writing ventures, two decades later.

I recently wrote about spending six months in 2004 visiting schools and talking to Malawian teachers about prospects for peace education in Malawi. For me those six months epitomised the coming full circle of teaching, writing and national aspirations. As a classroom teacher, I remember feeling respected by the village community around Chikande in Ntcheu, while learning how unappreciated teachers were by the authorities. My school visits and talks with teachers in 2004 revealed to me new depths in the anger and frustrations many Malawian teachers feel, especially in primary schools. This is no secret to anyone who studies Malawian schools. The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology has highlighted the problem of teacher morale and frustration in its 2008 National Strategy For Teacher Education and Development (NSTED). The NSTED document has offered practical recommendations for teacher development policy to enhance the lives of teachers and thereby promote teacher performance in Malawian schools.

No clause in the NSTED strategy holds more potential for the revitalization of the Malawian school system than the recommendation to introduce an accreditation programme to offer teachers a path for career advancement through classroom performance. The NSTED proposes that the accreditation programme be tied to collaboration between teacher training colleges and universities, and be supported by equipping Teacher Development Centres with modern technology and Internet connectivity. 

The NSTED is a far-sighted, comprehensive educational policy recommendation that has the potential to transform teacher education and school performance in Malawi. If it can become widely publicised so that every teacher and educator in the country knows what the teacher policy is, Malawi will have embarked on the road to revamping the educational system and to a more meaningful approach that goes beyond Millennium Development Goal Number Two, Universal Primary Education by 2015. As many educators understand, it is one thing to achieve universal primary enrollment, but it is quite another to provide those children a quality, meaningful and relevant education.

As has been observed by Bob Moon, founding director of the Teacher Education in Sub-Sharan Africa (TESSA) programme, the MDGs do not mention teachers, an oversight that can potentially stall progress and development in any country. During the BBC’s MDGs panel discussion in New York last week, President Bingu wa Mutharika told the audience that the MDGs missed the “supply side” of the equation. The MDGs, said Professor Mutharika, said nothing about the teachers that would be needed to train the children being targetted for Universal Primary Enrollment. Bringing teachers into the strategy calls for massive investments into not only teacher recruitment, but also sustained, long-term research into how to train and develop excellent teachers. As of now we do not have that kind of research in Malawi, a consequence of not involving the university establishment in the education of primary school teachers.

For the school experience of children to have relevance beyond universal enrollment, we need to not only address chronic teacher shortages, we also need to realign teacher education with the needs of a 21st century society. We need to broaden the discussion on how effective it is to offer teachers a two-year education, with none of our universities taking an active, leading role in teacher education and curriculum research. We need to seriously think of how to motivate teachers beyond cash emoluments and higher qualifications.

Several of us have started a discussion on how to develop an annual Teacher of the Year Award, along the lines of the end of year awards organizations such as the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation run. We are having this discussion using online tools that are increasingly becoming more accessible here in Malawi. In the coming years it will be possible for many teachers to access the Internet, as some teachers have already taken the initiative, on their own, to open email accounts.

To create space for discussing teachers’ issues and share information and developments about education in Malawi and beyond, a number of us recently started a google online forum, called Bwalo la Aphunzitsi. It is located at To join, send an email to, and be a part of the important discourse envisioning Malawi’s teaching profession for the 21st century. 

Youth, Leadership and Nonviolence: A Global Education Imperative

This article first appeared in The Nation on Wednesday, December 1st, 2010, and also in Pambazuka News.

In the early hours of Tuesday November 30th a group of students at Viphya Private Secondary School in the city of Mzuzu in northern Malawi fought one another, and destroyed school property worth millions of kwacha. Police came to the scene just before dawn and arrested 54 students, 17 of them girls, according to Zodiak Broadcasting Station. It is not clear what caused the violence, but school authorities have dismissed suggestions that it stemmed from frustrations to do with poor sanitation, lack of entertainment, and poor diet, according to The Nation newspaper (December 1, 2010). The violence that erupted at Viphya Private Secondary school on this night raises questions of the type of education offered to young people in Malawi, Africa and around the world. Of pertinence here is the concept of global education, celebrated around the world the week of Monday November 15th ending Friday November 19th. The theme for this year was “Peace and Nonviolence for the Children of the World.”

I spent one afternoon that week with students of Maghemo Secondary School, in the northern district of Karonga, near the Malawi-Tanzania border. Our discussion was guided by the question of what the term “Global Education” meant, and why the theme, “Peace and Nonviolence,” was relevant to Malawi and to the world.

This was the first time I was interacting with Malawian secondary school students in a discussion setting probably since I left secondary school back in 1989. I had no idea what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised. The students were in the mood for more questions and discussion, I had to be pried away from the classroom so as to go and attend to other duties that had brought me to the lakeshore district of Karonga in the first place.

What did these students understand by the term “Global Education?” I asked. “An education about the entire world,” they answered. How about “Peace and Nonviolence”?  “Settling issues without resorting to violence,” came the answer. These are students who are “glocally” conscious. They know about world wars and current wars around the world, and they know about sensitive issues affecting Malawians today. In their questions about peace in Malawi, they wanted to know how the controversy surrounding the quota issue in university selection could be settled using nonviolent methods. Malawi’s president, Professor Bingu wa Mutharika directed early in 2010 that selection of students into Malawi’s two public universities should be based on a quota for each of the country’s 34 education districts. The directive was seen as controversial, and triggered a massive debate in Malawi. It was welcomed by Malawians who felt that university selection favoured specific districts and disenfranchised others. But it angered Malawians who feared that the quota system would deny high scoring students a place in the university in favour of students who did not score as highly, but made the quota for their district.

Equally troubling to the students who came to the meeting at Maghemo was the manner in which the ruling party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), was using the state broadcaster, the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation, in unfairly campaigning for the president’s brother, Professor Peter Mutharika, for the 2014 presidential elections. Were there nonviolent methods that could be adopted to address these problems, they wanted to know.

These students were aware of the role of nonviolent action in recent Malawian politics, including the role played by pastoral letters issued by Catholic bishops. On March 8, 1992 Malawi’s Catholic bishops issued a pastoral letter addressing political and social problems in Malawi, under the one party government of the Malawi Congress Party and then life president Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda. The letter opened the floodgates of pent up frustrations, which forced out Dr. Banda and his party in the 1994 elections. It was a largely peaceful, nonviolent transition from dictatorship to multiparty democracy.

At least one of the students at Meghemo knew about Mahtma Gandhi, the man whose philosophy of Satyagraha gave the world the concept of nonviolence that guides peaceful mass action in various parts of the world today. They knew about how violence is too often the first rather than the last resort. They listed religious, emotional, political and gender violence, and expressed the conviction that they, as students, had a role to play in teaching nonviolence to their colleagues and to their communities. They promised to start a peace club, whose name would come from the word for ‘peace’ in one of the languages spoken in their area.

If there is one thing that ought to inspire and give hope about the future of Malawi, it should be the sight of young Malawians engaging with the difficult issues of the day. I met these young Malawians barely two days after party youths in the capital city, Lilongwe had threatened violent action against a Malawian journalist who had asked President Bingu wa Mutharika questions they deemed to be ‘tough’ upon his arrival from a state visit to India and the G-20 summit in South Korea. The president arrived at the Kamuzu International Airport on Monday November 15, and held what Sunday Times columnist Raphael Tenthani termed a “press rally”, a blend between a press conference and political rally.

The journalist, Mike Chipalasa of Blantyre Newspapers Limited, had asked the president questions about fuel shortages that had gripped the country in the president’s absence, and about a recent pastoral letter issued by the Catholic bishops. The letter was seen by supporters of the ruling party as critical of the government. The party youths had ignored the president’s own encouragement to reporters gathered at the Kamuzu International Airport, to ask any question they wanted. Even as the party youths and dancing women murmured and booed Chipalasa before he finished his questions, the president urged him on, saying, “let him continue.” The party youths descended on Chipalasa after the function and threatened to beat him up. It took the intervention of the police who appeared on the scene and led Chipalasa to safety.

Columnists writing in Malawian newspapers in the wake of the airport incident were unequivocal in expressing their shock and disappointment. For many Malawians the whole episode brought back unsavoury memories of an era gone by when party youths became a law unto themselves in full view of the police and political leaders. There was a time when police officers were harrassed by party zealots, with utter impunity. For a moment, it appeared as if Malawi was on the verge of backtracking to those sad years. Another columnist, Brian Ligomeka, noted that the Malawi Police Service needed to be thanked for stepping up to the fore and asserting their responsibility to protect and restore order. Equally poignant was Tenthani’s question as to why the police arrested no one. Chipalasa himself expressed gratitude for the police action, saying it saved him from an unknown fate.

Contrasting the police action on Monday November 15th with the impunity of the past, one notices a relative distinction in the way the Malawi Police Service view their role in a supposedly “democratic” dispensation. Relative because one would have expected the police to not only prevent an act of violence, but to also apprehend whoever was threatening the violence, as Tenthani argued. But it’s a distinction nevertheless, in that this time around the police seemed to have had the sense and professional judgment to be proactive and prevent violence.

Malawians have been waiting for statements at party and government levels setting the record straight as to whether or not the kind of conduct displayed by the youths in full view of their leadership will be tolerated. Failure to set the record straight here would be interpreted by some as condoning political violence. Columnist Levi Kabwato mused in his Sunday Times column of November 21st that “the DPP is essentially the UDF (United Democratic Front), at least they share the same DNA.” It is up to the respective parties to respond and correct that perception, or keep quiet and leave no one in doubt. The advice from Tenthani, in his “Muckraking “ column tellingly titled “Tame the rascals”, was timely: “if left untamed party youths can mar a leader’s otherwise clean legacy.”  

Will it be enough to tame the youths and redirect them toward peaceful, nonviolent expressions of their views and beliefs? Or is there more that needs to be done before things revert to the dreaded past? What obtained during the era of UDF’s rule, when party youths went wild beating up opposition politicians with impunity, was not new. It was merely a perpetuation of what had obtained during the one-party regime. Youths were given the role of unthinking demagogues who guarded the ill reputation of their erstwhile masters and mistresses with reckless abandon. The airport “press rally” incident tells us there is no guarantee that those days are irretrievably gone. They could come back.

One thing we might want to do as a nation to effectively curb this tendency is to go beyond proselytising about peace and nonviolence. We seem to know little, as a nation, about the psyche that makes this kind of conduct possible. It is imperative to analyse this phenomenon by studying it, and the perpetrators too, carefully. Rather than further demonise youths who seem not to know the difference between psychophancy and critical thinking, we need to engage them in a discussion on what it means to have a free press, and to advocate freedom of expression. These are lessons that seem to have fallen by the wayside since 1992 when the bishops opened our eyes.

This ought to be a broader, national discussion on what kind of leadership we envisage for Malawi’s future, as University of Malawi political scientist Dr. Blessings Chinsinga suggested in his Sunday Times column of November 14, one day before the airport incident. Dr. Chinsinga’s call is worth repeating: “. . . there is an urgent need for a leadership revolution in all spheres of life. We need new leadership that is motivated by an ethos of trust, honour, integrity and service.” Dr. Chinsinga believes that this kind of leadership does not happen on its own accord; it needs to be propagated through proper training. He wrote that our university campuses were devoid of a “culture of critical engagement”, reduced to “welfarism”.  The effect of this was being seen in youth wings of political parties, which Dr. Chinsinga said “require an urgent reorientation of their role in politics.” He went on to call upon youth wings to exercise autonomy so as to develop their leadership potential to the highest levels of their parties’ political structures.

What I saw at Maghemo Secondary School on November 17th gave me hope that whereas “critical engagement” might indeed be dead on university campuses in Malawi, there are Malawian secondary school students ready and eager to seize the opportunity and claim their rightful place. But this will not happen on its own. It will need the support of discerning teachers, parents, the entire educational system, and the wider Malawian community. It will need learning lessons from Malawian, African and world events, with an emphasis on global social justice. The events at Viphya Private Secondary School on the morning of Tuesday November 30th happened two weeks after the commemoration of Global Education Week with its theme on peace and nonviolence for the young people of the world. Although one small isolated incident, the Viphya school violence might be instructive for schools in Malawi and elsewhere in discussing prospects for peace and nonviolence education..

While visiting India in early November, President Bingu wa Mutharika paid his respects at Mahatma Ghandi’s resting place. He was honoured with a bust of Gandhi, and was given copies of books written by Gandhi. This was a pivotal moment of the state visit, and should have a bearing on how Malawi can promote Gandhi’s ideals of peace and nonviolence. Gandhi’s genius was that nonviolence requires more courage and discipline than violence. Gandhi led a nonviolent revolution that drove the British out of India, and won independence for his country. Peace and nonviolence is also what Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, among others, have preached and practiced. It is what uMunthu teaches. The Chichewa proverb, Nkhondo siimanga mudzi (war does not build a village)—offers a Malawian perspective on nonviolence. Global education is a good starting point for peace and nonviolence for the children of the world.

Education for Liberation: Towards Academic Freedom in Malawi’s Education System

This article appears in the May-June 2011 issue of The Lamp Magazine: Christians, Politics & Culture

Since the last issue of this magazine in which we discussed professional development for primary school teachers for the coming decade (The Lamp, March-April, 2011), there has been an interesting development in Malawi’s teacher education system. Information from the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MoEST) indicates plans to phase out the certificate issued to graduating primary school teachers, and in its place introduce a diploma programme in all the teacher-training colleges. Starting this coming September 2011 a new masters’ degree programme is being introduced at Mzuzu University with the aim of preparing the next cohort of lecturers in the teacher training colleges.

Elsewhere I have argued for the phasing out of diploma programmes, which delay people and consume a lot of time and money. I have argued for the adoption of straight bachelors’ degree programmes, instead. However the news from MoEST is still encouraging nevertheless. The move to a diploma programme for teachers ought to better position teacher education in Malawi to benefit from the research and scholarship that has been produced by Malawian and African academics. I discuss this point in further detail later in this article, but the main argument this article explores ponders a definition of educational quality and the goal of liberation as the ideal purpose of education in Malawi.

I argue that a definition of educational quality is incomplete unless it takes into account issues of teacher intellectual autonomy, academic freedom, and the inculcation of a social consciousness. The purpose of education in Malawi ought to be to liberate Malawian society from the various ills that impede democratic progress and development. For purposes of this discussion, academic freedom refers to a teaching and learning atmosphere that not only encourages but also facilitates critical thought and analysis on social conditions and contexts, a better understanding of root causes of problems, and reflexive solutions towards equality, uMunthu-peace, and social justice. 

Five supporting points undergird the main purpose of this article. The first point is that the current debate about academic freedom has relevance for the entire educational system and affects policy and practice at the primary and secondary levels, vocational and higher education levels, including teacher education. The second point is that the debate about academic freedom has been central to the study of higher education in Africa, and as such Malawi ought to seek guidance from what Malawian and African intellectuals have been saying about academic freedom for the past two decades. The third point is a discussion on how Malawian education has not always served the interests of Malawian society, a problem not exclusive to Malawi alone. The debate on academic freedom should lead to a rethinking of the ideal purposes of education. The fourth point probes the implications of the failure of African education systems to benefit from advances made by African scholars, while the fifth point revisits the academic atmosphere at the University of Malawi during the one-party era. The conclusion reiterates the idea of how education for liberation has propelled Malawian society from the times of John Chilembwe, through the independence struggle and the transition from one-party rule, to the present. These five points illustrate the connectedness of problems of educational quality. Together, they argue for how education for liberation can only be achieved when academic freedom is made a central concern for the entire education system.

Academic freedom and the educational system

Out of the many lamentations about the crisis that has dogged educational quality in Malawi, very little has been said about how the low expectations for primary school teachers’ education have contributed to the poor quality of teaching and learning. The quality of teaching and learning in the primary and secondary schools is part of a cycle that affects the quality of teaching and learning in the university classroom, and in the teachers’ college classroom as well. If there is a silver lining in the cloud of the current debate about academic freedom in the University of Malawi, it will be a rethinking of the relationship between intellectual autonomy and improvement of quality in the classroom at each level of the educational system. Malawian educationists argue for more intellectual autonomy for primary and secondary school teachers so as to allow for teacher creativity and imagination. Teacher intellectual autonomy cannot exist apart from academic freedom.

Commenting on the ongoing academic freedom debate, Linde Chisale has written about how the discourse on academic freedom has created the impression that academic freedom is for the university level only.[i] Says Chisale: “I am not very sure whether the assumption is that other levels of education are not intellectual”. In raising this question, Chisale is calling on Malawians to reflect on how the academic freedom debate has implications that go beyond the university classroom. Reflecting Chisale’s point, Dr. Jessie Kabwila-Kapasula told Innocent Chitosi in an interview that “academic freedom enhances the quality of education.”[ii]

These sentiments by both Chisale and Kabwila-Kapasula have precedence in several conferences and declarations African academics have held and issued over the decades, upholding the significance of academic freedom. The Preamble to the Kampala Declaration on Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility (1990) starts by saying: “Intellectual freedom in Africa is currently threatened to an unprecedented degree.” It goes on to state: “The struggle for intellectual freedom is an integral part of the struggle of our people for human rights. Just as the struggle of the African people for democracy is being generalised, so too is the struggle of African intellectual freedom intensifying.”[iii]

African intellectuals on academic freedom

The matter of academic freedom has been very close to the hearts of African academics. In 2004 the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) published a two-volume study on the state of the African university and what the agenda for the 21st century should consider. The volume was edited by Malawian scholar Professor Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, a leading intellectual in the study of Africa and her global Diasporas, and of the economic history of the continent.

In keeping with the wider significance of academic freedom in Africa beyond higher education institutions, Zeleza writes in his chapter in the book:

In the African context the discourse ought to be more expansive, for it is quite evident that the pursuit of academic freedom involves not only struggles against the authoritarian predilections and practices of the state, civil society, and the academy itself, but it is also an epistemological one against paradigms, theories, methodologies that inferiorise, misrepresent, and oversimplify African experiences, conditions, and realities.[iv]

Two years prior to CODESRIA’s two-volume publication, the Association of African Studies (ASA) devoted an issue of its peer-reviewed journal, African Studies Review, to the same topic of the African university, in a special issue titled ‘African Universities in Crisis and the Promotion of a Democratic Culture’ (September 2002). The introductory article in that issue is written by Francis Nyamnjoh and Nantang Jua. Nyamnjoh and Jua’s article focuses on the problems that have beset African education, both at the basic primary and secondary levels, as well as at the higher education level. The two argue that African governments have always “sought to control universities and intellectual production through physical and symbolic violence”. They suggest that Africans need to understand the form that the physical and symbolic violence has taken.[v]

Serving the interests of Europe rather than Africa

Throughout their article, Nyamnjoh and Jua use the example of Malawi’s elite secondary school, the Kamuzu Academy, as a case study of how African education has been designed to serve the interests of the West rather than of Africa. They argue that whereas education in most countries draws from the experiences and needs of their societies, in Africa it is different.  Commenting on Malawi, they write: “Western-style training at Kamuzu Academy-type institutions is not just intended to compensate for the real West where these students have not yet seen. It is seen as preparing them for Europe and North America, where they ultimately yearn to go to make use of the skills they have acquired.”[vi]

Nyamnjoh and Jua go on to argue that Africa’s educated people have little capacity to work in local communities, but are better equipped to operate “in any industrialized country, and serve any privileged community around the globe with comparative ease.” When one considers what goes on in most elite private schools in Malawi, where Malawian languages are banned and English is imposed, one begins to see the extent to which the educational preferences of elite Malawians are more aligned towards the West than towards being relevant to Malawi and to Africa. The global importance of English cannot be overemphasized, but when Malawian schools ban from school premises the speaking of languages spoken in the homes where students come from, it raises questions about priorities and purposes of education.

An education that serves the interests of its society inculcates into teachers and students what the late Brazilian educational philosopher Paulo Freire called “conscientization.” Freire defined conscientization as a process through which teachers and students develop a consciousness that makes them aware of the social problems in their community and in their world. Awareness of social problems is a first step in making education relevant in people’s lives, in their communities and in their world. Freire argued that this was the kind of education that liberated societies from conditions of oppression, empowering them to shape their own destiny. It is an education whose ultimate goal is the promotion of peace and social justice, locally and globally, ideals encapsulated in uMunthu philosophy.[vii]

Advances in African scholarship go unutilised in school curricula

The problems that hamper higher education in Africa have a ripple effect on the whole educational structure as well. In his book Manufacturing African Studies and Crises, Paul Tiyambe Zeleza has argued that “. . . there is a yawning gap between the knowledge produced by academic historians and that consumed in the schools.” In a chapter titled ‘The Production of Historical Knowledge for Schools’, Zeleza argues that “school textbooks have yet to adequately incorporate and reflect the methods, approaches and findings of modern African historiography.” He goes on to detail the specific areas where the problem manifests itself.[viii]

Most school systems no longer teach history as a stand-alone subject, incorporating it into a diffuse category called “Social Studies”. Zeleza argues that this development has diluted the teaching of history. He points out that as a result, African students “are not taught the long-term historical perspective, or the basic information about the evolution of African societies over time.” He says African historians have come to see the Social Studies curriculum “as a threat to the cultivation of historical consciousness among students.”[ix]

A more significant problem with the teaching of history, writes Zeleza, has to do with Eurocentrism, the practice of understanding the world from the perspective of European civilisation. Zeleza writes that when students learn the history of modern Europe, the focus is mostly on Europe’s apex in its historical development and “global hegemony”. When students learn about African and other civilisations, the focus is on periods of their decline and subservience to Europe. This creates in students the image of Europe as “dynamic and the fountainhead of innovations, while the rest of the world, including Africa, are static and passive recipients.”[x] As such, textbooks tend to depict Africa’s pre-colonial era as fixed and unchanging. “The term ‘traditional’ is bandied about carelessly, implying a changeless order of things.”[xi]

Another problem with the teaching of history that Zeleza highlights is that of theory. He says African history textbooks are preoccupied with dry facts without theoretical explanations to link those facts to historical interpretation. And when theoretical intepretations are attempted, they are presented as fact, rather than explanations for complex phenomenon. He says African history textbooks also lack a guiding Pan-African perspective that ought to teach African students about the ties that bind African peoples on the continent and in the Diasporas. “As a result of all this,” he writes, “the ‘meaning’ of history is lost on the students and a critical historical consciousness among them is hardly developed.”[xii] Beyond the school system, the gap between African scholarship and the school curriculum also results in the absence of a historical consciousness among the general public.[xiii]

Zeleza has gone on to lament the death of historical associations in Africa, the lack of collaboration amongst African countries (with the exception of West Africa) in curriculum development, arbitrary methods for selecting curriculum writers, and the reluctance to involve classroom teachers in curriculum development and textbook development. Future educational and curriculum reforms in Malawi and Africa would produce much more effective educational systems if they took into account insights from scholars such as Zeleza and others.

Academic freedom and university education in Malawi

In the Malawian context, the problems in the education system discussed by Zeleza are tied, in part, to problems in the university system. Problems in one section of the system have adverse effects on other parts, and solutions that treat the parts as distinct and isolated from one other stand little chance of transforming the system as a whole. The end of one-party rule in Malawi in 1994 opened a new era of soul searching and educational reform. The university was not spared the scrutiny, as Malawian academics hoped for a new era in which academic freedom would be promoted and the university would be allowed to play its role in spearheading innovation and development.[xiv] Events that have triggered the current debate serve as a reminder that the soul searching is an ongoing project that should never lose sight of what happened during the one-party era.

In the aforementioned special issue of African Studies Review (September 2002), two scholars who taught at Chancellor College during the one-party era, David Kerr and Jack Mapanje, revisit the period and describe how intellectual autonomy was proscribed. Kerr and Mapanje discuss how the intelligence services of the Banda regime planted “agents in the university to pose as students, administrators, secretaries, cleaners, and even lecturers.”[xv] In an earlier discussion, Paul Tiyambe Zeleza added that students and faculty were encouraged to inform on each other, and senior university adminstrators were co-opted into the ruling party.”[xvi]

Eight years had passed since Malawi’s democratic transtion when the special issue of the African Studies Review came out, but Kerr and Mapanje did not see much change in the way of academic freedom in the University of Malawi and elsewhere in Africa. They wrote that post-dictatorship regimes in Africa were still sought to “curb the emergence of a critical, socially responsible intelligentsia.” An atmosphere still persisted which prevented “rigorous intellectual analysis of contemporary problems.” Even with Dr. Banda vacated from the scene, the University of Malawi was still “far from achieving that principled critical quality.” Kerr and Mapanje predicted that because it “took a long time and a painful struggle to frustrate and debase the intellectual capital of Malawi,” it would likely “take a long time and much struggle to begin the task of restoring it.”[xvii] Nine years after Kerr and Mapanje made the prediction, events unfolding in the university since February 2011 show the premonition to have come to pass.

Zeleza had written earlier in 1997, in a chapter titled ‘African Social Scientists and the Struggle for Academic Freedom’ in Manufacturing African Studies and Crises,  that authoritarian structures still remained. The result was “collective self-censorship” that curtailed “the development of original and creative thought, which is a threat to autoritarian institutions.” As was the case during the one-party era, and continues to this day, as can be seen from the current debate, “the university’s bureaucrats and ossified intellectual elite are as threatened by probing thought and research as are the state functionaries.”[xviii]

Bequeathing a tradition: Conclusion

As Malawians living in the 21st century, we are beneficiaries of an intellectual tradition that has bequeathed to us an education for the liberation of our societies and of our peoples on the continent and in the Diasporas. The Reverend John Chilembwe dedicated his education to the liberation of Africans from colonial bondage, and set our nation a long path to independence. Masauko Chipembere, Catherine Chipembere, Kanyama Chiume, Vera Chirwa, Rose Chibambo and other heroes of the independence struggle also saw their education as bequeathing to them a political and ethical responsibility for the liberation of their people. It was the same intellectual tradition of education for liberation and critical thought, peace and social justice that emboldened the Catholic bishops, the late Chakufwa Chihana, the late Nyandovi-Kerr, Bakili Muluzi, Edda Chitalo, Brown Mpinganjira, and the other heroes of the transition to multi-party democracy too numerous to mention, in the early 1990s. And the struggle continues to this day, with new imperatives posing before us new challenges, for the 21st century.

Steve Sharra holds a Ph.D. in Teacher Education. He moderates Bwalo la Aphunzitsi, an online forum for Malawian teachers and educators at, and co-moderates BloggingMalawi, a forum for Malawian bloggers at For more information email


[i] Linde Chisale, ‘Academic Freedom: An expanded view?’, Malawi News, 2-8 April, 2011, p. 15

[ii] Jessie Kabwila-Kapasula, ‘Academic freedom enhances quality of education’, Hard Talk on Saturday, Malawi News, 2-8 April, p. 12

[iii] Kampala Declaration on Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility (1990) CODESRIA,    Retrieved April 5, 2011

[iv] Paul Tiyambe Zeleza (2004) ‘Neo-liberalism and Academic Freedom,’ in African Universities in the Twenty First century: Vol 1: Liberalisation and Internationalisation Eds Zeleza & Olukoshi (Dakar, Senegal: CODESRIA) p. 60

[v] Francis Nyamnjoh & Nantang Jua, ‘African Universities in Crisis and the Promotion of a Democratic Culture: The Political Economy of Violence in African Educational Systems.’ African Studies Review 45 (2), September 2002, p. 4.

[vi] Ibid. p. 13
[vii] For a more thorough treatment of uMunthu philosophy and Africa’s future, see Harvey Sindima (1995) Africa’s Agenda: The legacy of liberalism and colonialism in the crisis of African values. Westport (CT): Greenwood Press, and Augustine Musopole (1994) Being Human in Africa: Toward an African Christian Anthropology New York: Peter Lang.

[viii] Paul Tiyambe Zeleza (1997) Manufacturing African Studies and Crises (Dakar, Senegal, CODESRIA) p. 139

[ix] Ibid. p. 151
[x] Ibid. p. 151
[xi] Ibid. p. 153
[xii] Ibid. p. 155
[xiii] Ibid. p. 156

[xiv] Jessie Kabwila-Kapasula makes a similar point in an interview with Ephraim Nyondo, when she says: “Academics need to be seen as drivers of change and not enemies of the development and betterment of Malawians.” The Nation, 30 March 2011, Political Index | Governance, p. 4
[xv] David Kerr and Jack Mapanje, ‘Academic Freedom and the University of Malawi’ African Studies Review 45 (2) September 2002, p. 79

[xvi] Paul Tiyambe Zeleza (1997) Manufacturing African Studies and Crises (Dakar, Senegal: CODESRIA) p. 27.

[xvii] Kerr and Mapanje, p. 89
[xviii] Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, p. 33