Monday, May 09, 2011

Interview with The Lamp Magazine, Jan-Feb 2011

A version of the following interview appeared in the January-February 2011 issue of The Lamp Magazine. It was conducted by Joseph Kayira. I reproduce here the full, uncut version.

Q: Who is Steve Sharra? 

A: I am a Malawi-optimist and an Afro-optimist. I am a primary school teacher and teacher educator by training, a writer and a peace and social justice scholar-activist by passion, a Pan-Africanist and an advocate of global uMunthu-peace and Gandhian nonviolence by conviction.

Q: Where do you come from? 

A: I was born at Nsipe Hospital in Ntcheu, and lived at Bawi, also in Ntcheu, for the first few months of my life. My parents come from Lilongwe and Chiradzulu, but both their families resettled in Ntcheu in the 50s and 60s. I grew up in Zomba, from when I was one year old, to my late 20s. I think of myself as coming from all these four places.

Q: Where did you go to school? That is for your primary school, secondary and college?
What was your first job? 

I went to Police Primary School in Zomba, and later St Stanislaus Preparatory Seminary, at Thondwe, also in Zomba. I did Forms 1 to 3 at Nankhunda Seminary, and Form 4 at Police Secondary School, both in Zomba. After Form 4 I went to Lilongwe Teachers’ College where I trained as a primary school teacher under the then Malawi Special Teacher Education Programme (MASTEP), between 1990 and 1993.

My first job was as a primary school teacher., and later I worked as an educational editor, at the Malawi Institute of Education. In 1998 I went to the University of Iowa, in the United States of America, where I did a Masters’ degree in English Education. I finished the MA in July 2000, and a month later I moved to Michigan State University, also in the United States, where I started a PhD programme in Teacher Education, focusing on curriculum theory, teaching and educational policy. I finished my PhD in 2007, having researched and written a dissertation on uMunthu philosophy in peace education and in peace studies.

Q: Currently, what do you do for a living? 

I am a teacher training specialist for the USAID-funded Malawi Teacher Professional Development Support (MTPDS) project, a project of the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology which aims to set up continuous professional development (CPD) structures for the professional and academic development of all primary school teachers in the country. I must make a disclaimer here. Everything I am saying in this interview is in my personal capacity, and does not represent the views of my employers, of the project I work for.


Q: People complain that education standards have gone down in Malawi. What is the problem and what should be done? 

A: We should treat this question with caution, because having gone to school in the Malawi of the 80s, and having taught in Malawian primary schools in the early 90s, the quality of education even then was not all that comparably different. My opinion is that there have been tremendous social and political changes in Malawian society in the past 18 or years, but unfortunately these changes have not led to corresponding changes in the way we teach teachers. So it is more of a mismatch in perceptions and expectations, rather than a qualitative difference in education standards. Quantitatively, the teacher-pupil ratio in primary schools has exploded, bringing its own set of problems. Problems at the primary school level have predictably created an overflow into the secondary school sector.

There is one solution to the problem of education standards in Malawi. We need the best primary school teachers for Malawian children. The best teachers come from the best students in the secondary schools, and they should be offered the best education we can offer. My mother spent two years training as a primary school teacher in the 70s. This is 2010, and we still teach our primary school teachers for two years only. Two years of teacher education is no longer adequate to handle the education demands of a 21st century society and a knowledge-based economy.

Q: Do you think teachers are to blame for such low standards? 

A: Teachers are to blame to the extent that they haven’t taken ownership of the profession regarding issues of professionalism. But it is largely an issue of training. As a country we do no insist on highly educated teachers for our primary schools, in the way we do for say medical doctors, lawyers, and secondary school teachers.

Q: Are teachers motivated in Malawi? 

A: Malawian teachers are very demotivated. There is a lot of anger simmering within the 45,000 primary school teacher population in the country. It is a dangerous situation. But everyone is aware of this now, and I think we are beginning to address the root problems.

Q: Do you think the quota system of selecting students to government colleges a fair system? How? 

A: The problem with university education in Malawi is the extremely low percentage of secondary school students who find places in our institutions of higher learning. The secondary school population, according to 2008 figures, is around 233,600. Our public university population is around 8,200, probably increasing to about 10,000 in January 2011. That’s a ratio of about 23 to 1. Every year there are almost 70,000 young Malawians who sit the MSCE (the figures for 2010 were uncharacteristically lower than previous years). Half of them pass, about 35,000, and only 2,500 will find places in the two public universities in January 2011. Obviously, we have a huge problem of access here.

The problem with the quota system is the way in which it was approached, which was interpreted as being targetted at Malawians from the northern region. This made it rather difficult for us to have a meaningful national discussion on two factors. First, the underlying problem of access, and second, the accurate picture, backed by statistical data, of the numbers of students selected into the two public universities, and their regional and district distribution. If the numbers indeed reflect a regional and district imbalance in the selection, then the question becomes what causes such an imbalance. A more plausible explanation for such an imbalance may be factors such as teacher-student ratios, educational resources and infrastructure, parental and community involvement in the education of students, the prevalence of role models, and other motivating and demotivating factors.

Q: What should be done for everyone to get equitable education?

A: A systematic study of the above situation could be a learning opportunity for the rest of the country. Those parts of Malawi that seem to do better educationally have the responsibility to help the other parts improve. Those that don’t do well have the responsibility to learn from those that do well. All of this is dependent on whether indeed a systematic study would reveal regional and district imbalances in the quality of education offered in primary and secondary schools. Unfortunately, the numbers have been kept a secret, fueling speculation about possible political motives. Malawian universities, both public and private, need to take a more active role in supporting curriculum content, professionalism and intellectual development in the primary and secondary schools, but more importantly, in the education of primary and secondary school teachers.

As for the problem of access, I have suggested, elsewhere, elevating teacher training colleges, vocational and technical colleges, health sciences and nursing colleges, and related institutions, to degree-granting institutions. We also need to reconsider if we really need 3-year diploma programmes, which delay academic advancement and waste time and money. Professor Peter Mutharika has suggested community colleges, as is the practice in the United States. I find it a worthwhile suggestion, which could help with the problem of equitable access to higher education.


Q: Malawi has been rocked with problems of shortage of forex and fuel? What went wrong? Does it mean that we plan poorly? 

A: I am not a trained economist, but with keen observation, there are general trends one notices about the Malawian economy. Poor planning indeed seems to be a big part of the problem. The president has blamed Asian traders for the forex problem. It is difficult to imagine Asian traders expropriating and externalising forex without the complicity of Malawian authorities. Thus in addition to poor planning, we should also ask about the commitment of Malawian authorities to fellow Malawians other than their personal and political benefit.

Q: We have heard that economically Malawi is doing well. Why the shortage of forex in such a situation? 

A: Our overdependency on imports seems to outweigh whatever improvements the economy may ave registered. We import toothpicks and corn flakes! The president may have suggested a refocusing of priorities to turn Malawi into a manufacturing nation, but six years down the road, very little has happened to turn the rhetoric into reality. The forex problem will not relent for as long as we continue to import even simple things as toothpicks and cornflakes. As the economy grows, so does the appetite for luxuries, which we unfortunately have to import. 

Q: There was talk of constructing a pipeline from Nacala and Beira to Malawi to ease the problem of fuel shortage. Can that solve our problems? Is this workable or it’s a political gimmick? 

From what I read, the pipeline seemed to be a genuine solution. But it needs to be buttressed with other solutions to the forex problems as well.

Q: The Shire Zambezi Water Way was tipped to boost Malawi’s economy. Should Malawians lose hope now that Mozambicans appear not to support the venture? 

The reason the Mozambicans appear not to support the venture is the manner in which the project was approached. There seems to have been inadequate regional consultations. The regional benefits of the port to parts of Mocambique do not seem to have been properly communicated. If indeed Mocambique stands not to benefit anything from the project, it is difficult to expect them to support the venture. The success of this venture depends on consultations and cooperation at the highest levels of government between Mocambique and Malawi. President Bingu wa Mutharika needs to consider taking a direct, personal approach in meeting and discussing with President Armando Guebuza.

Q: Should we stick to Nacala and Beira for our imports and exports? 

In the intermediate term, yes; but the Shire-Zambezi Water Way should remain a priority in the long term, with consultation at the highest levels.

Democracy and politics

Q: How would you rate Malawi’s democracy at the moment? Are we on track or we are derailing? 

A: Malawi’s democracy is facing some threats at the moment, but we have come a long way from where we once were. We have aspects of our democracy that are on track. I find our civil society quite vibrant. I also find the media to be quite advanced, despite some setbacks. A few aspects are derailing. Intra-party democracy is probably the most disappointing, as is grassroots participation in governance.

Q: Last year Malawians went to the polls only to elect a majority of MPs from the DPP. Is this healthy for democracy? 

A: This seems to have been a mistake, with hindsight. But at the time, without knowledge of how the DPP majority was going to behave, it seemed like a great thing, given the difficulties the strong opposition presented in parliament.

Q: Some concerned citizens say the DPP majority in the National Assembly has seen a number of bills being passed without scrutiny. Should we say the DPP did not need to have a majority in Parliament to tick? 

A: In 2009, just prior to the elections, a DPP majority in parliament seemed like the only solution to logjam the opposition created in parliament. As I said in response to the earlier question, there was no way of knowing how the DPP majority was going to behave in parliament. The problems we are experiencing now derive from intra-party democratic traditions, which appear very weak.

Q: Intra-party democracy too seems to be compromised. No proper conventions. A lot of in-fighting what should happen? 

A: There has to be a deeper, underlying problem that is rendering intra-party democracy weak. I doubt there’s one Malawian who knows precisely what the problem is. But we can speculate, in an informed way. One explanation could be the conflict that exists between endogenous forms of political leadership, and the forms of political leadership we have adopted by borrowing massively from Europe and America. We have borrowed in a manner that has made it easy to abandon endogenous forms of political leadership. Transplanted onto an African context, the Euro-American models of political leadership we have adopted do not fit perfectly. The problems of intra-party democracy bedevilling Malawian political parties are a manifestation of the consequences of borrowed and transplanted political models.

Now, on their own, borrowing and adopting from foreign models are not problems as such. They become problems when they are done not on the terms of the borrowers, but of the foreign influences. Creativity gets stifled, local ownership lacks, and imaginative thinking becomes harder. That’s what we are seeing with intra-party democracy in Malawi. I can think of three examples to illustrate this point. One, no Malawian party todate has managed to establish a sustainable way of fundraising to enable ordinary, routine party functions. No wonder conventions are very hard and very expensive to convene. The societies we borrowed and adapted these models from don’t have such problems. They originated their own political systems, and they found sustainable ways of fundraising. We copied and pasted, and have no idea how to raise funds for party operations.

The second example to illustrate this problem is the current abuse of traditional leadership. We have failed to blend traditional leadership with the foreign political models we adopted. We have privileged the foreign models over the traditional models, creating stagnation in the traditional models. This is a problem we created; it is not the fault of the traditional leadership model in itself. It is the political elites who are corrupting and busing the traditional leadership model, thereby making it appear moribund, redundant and irrelevant.

The third example is grassroots participation. The foreign political models we have adopted allow only the economic elites to dominate and control the parties. Ordinary, grassroots people and their structures are left out. You cannot expect strong intra-party democracy in a model that privileges elites, and leaves out grassroots participation.

Q: The office of the Vice President since the days of Hon Cassim Chilumpha appears to be in problems. What is wrong? What should be done? Do you see the office of the Vice President necessary? Explain. 

A: Given events surrounding the office of the Vice President in the last 6 years, there is no simple yes or no answer to this question. Whatever one might say might very easily be interpreted from the perspective of which side one is on between Vice President Joyce Manda and the president’s brother, Professor Peter Mutharika. But it should still be possible to answer the question outside the confines of the current scenario. Given the expectations of the framers of our current constitution, the office of the Vice President is necessary. It is the primary actors and personalities involved in the two offices, the presidency and the vice presidency, and their dealings with the media, that are creating the current tensions. So far the whole issue has appeared one-sided and unfair, but I believe that we have an incomplete picture. I believe there’s more here than meets the eye.

Q: What is the future of democracy in Malawi? 

A: Let me answer this as a teacher. The future of democracy in Malawi lies with the young; the future generation. They are the ones who can reshape democracy in Malawi, in Africa and in the rest of the world. For that to happen, the young need the best education society can afford. Teachers need to understand what is at stake. Democracy cannot be divorced from the social institutions that shape a society, its identity and its aspirations. Our definitions of democracy need to be fused with our definitions of uMunthu and what it means to be human being in a community, in today’s world. It is in our schools where this discussion needs to start and be encouraged. We have the capacity to shape the future of democracy in Malawi and beyond. We need to understand that when a society fails to teach its young ones its most important legacy, other forces step in and teach the young ones foreign mentalities that ultimately demean and devalue one’s identity. We have a grave inferiority complex problem, like most societies that were once colonized. Once we realize this, and begin to address it, we will be on our way to reshaping Malawian democracy and society.

Q: With a new law giving power to the Minister of Information to close down newspapers do you see the media operating freely and independently? Explain.

A: I think the Malawian media is beginning to understand that there’s strength in unity and solidarity. A unified media that stands in solidarity with each other nationally and regionally can withstand dictatorial tendencies. Dictatorial tendencies have a habit of eventually backfiring on governments. The Malawi media is mature enough to understand this, and to withstand the kind of pressures being visited upon it at the moment.

A key challenge though is for the print media to find ways of surviving financially independent of government advertizing. One way of doing this is to broaden the appeal of print media so as to go beyond the 15,000 copies each of the two dailies prints Monday to Friday. That base is too small for the media to thrive, financially, and for the nation to achieve social development. With a population of more than 13 million, it is disastrous that the daily printrun for each daily does not exceed 15,000. It will be difficult to establish a meaningful readership base strong enough to wield grassroots power and influence. And it is up to the media themselves to propagate this kind of readership base. The schools are a very good place to start. If young people develop reading habits while they are in primary school, they are more likely to grow up into adults who appreciate the importance of newspapers, and of reading widely.

Press freedom and independence go hand in hand with readership and literacy levels. The more people read, the wider the newspaper readership. The broader the newspaper and magazine readership, the stronger the base for press freedom and financial independence. I believe Malawian newspaper editors and publishers know this.

Q: Your last word.

A: We have Malawians who are innovative, creative and imaginative. They are the ones who make things happen in our country. They are the ones who make it possible for us to wake up each day and go about our daily business. They did not become innovative and imaginative by chance. They were supported by social structures that made it possible for them to develop innovative and imaginative mindsets. We need to propagate such a mindset inorder to address the problems we are encountering today. I view most of our problems in education, the economy, politics, culture, the environment, etc, as emanating from insufficient imaginative and innovative thinking. The few innovators and imaginative thinkers we have today make things happen, yes, but they also face enormous obstacles because a lot of Malawians haven’t paid enough attention to the significance of imaginative thinking.

Each one of us needs to look around our surroundings at home, in our community, in our workplace, in our business environment. We should each ask ourselves: Is this the best we can achieve? Have we expended enough effort to better understand our problems and seek solutions? Have we involved our friends and families, our colleagues, our communities? What role can we each play? What kind of future do we envisage for our children? How can we begin building that future today?