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.