Monday, May 09, 2011

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.

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