Saturday, November 24, 2012

Watching an arrow heading straight for your eye: managing the fuel chaos in Malawi

Muvi woyang'anira . . .

On Saturday November 24th someone posted on Facebook an urgent message informing people that there was fuel at a certain filling station in Lilongwe. “Hurry up and fuel your cars” said the message, posted at 8.15am. Twenty messages followed quickly, wanting to know if it was petrol or diesel. A few people wanted to know how long the queue was. The poster of the update repeated the message with greater urgency: just come and fill up. Another person confirmed that it was petrol, and she was just about to fill up her car.

As far as messages go, there was no doubting the veracity of the information. These people were right there at the filling station, so they probably knew what they were talking about. The queue stretched for more than one kilometre, and people waited patiently. An hour went by, but the line didn’t move. Two hours went by. Soon it was 12 noon. By 4pm it was clear that there was no petrol at the filling station. People started dispersing. A dozen or so cars camped right at the pump and vowed not to leave until they filled up.

Scenes of fuel chaos from the last crisis.

In case anyone was still in doubt, the severe fuel crisis has resurfaced, and threatens to be with us for the foreseeable future. As incredible as it sounds, it appears those entrusted with ensuring there is enough fuel in the country have miserably failed their job, yet again. If it were elsewhere, heads would be rolling. Aside from expressing our anger and feeling helpless, are there things we, fuel customers, can do?

There is need for the country to learn from the chaos of previous crises and design better ways of handling the madness at the pumps. The authorities, including the Malawi Energy Regulatory Authority (MERA), fuel transporters, owners of filling stations, the police, and the public, need to sit down and together map out ways of ensuring two pivotal things. First, that there is accurate information about fuel deliveries, and second, that there is a semblance of order when filling stations actually receive fuel.

The first steps were already taken last year when Malawians started using social media to try and streamline the flow of information about fuel availability. On 10th June 2011 two enterprising Malawians, Kondwanie Chirembo and Fred Bvalani started a facebook group which they called Malawi Fuel Watch. Their idea was that it was a big inconvenience for drivers to keep driving from filling station to filling station looking for fuel, in the processing burning up the precious little left in the tank. The facebook group was meant as a forum where drivers would tip each other on which filling stations had fuel.

Over the eighteen months that the group has existed, it has attracted a membership base of over 10,000, which increases each day. It fulfills a role that should have been the responsibility of MERA, fuel transporters, and filling station owners. But it is an informal forum, and there is no guarantee that the information one sees on the forum is accurate. A lot of times people post accurate information which turns out to be vital. But other times people post information based on hearsay, rumours or even outright lies.

Some users of the forum get their information from the fuel companies themselves, such as Puma and Total, and post it on the forum. At the height of the last crisis PUMA sent out daily updates to an email list. It was usually forwarded further multiple times. You needed to know a PUMA filling station owner to get the email address of the person responsible for compiling and sending out the update. Otherwise, there was no way you would know who to contact and ask to be included on the mailing list. I was once given a phone number to call and ask to be included on Total’s mailing list. I texted my email address to the number, but no one responded. 

A few days ago Isaac Cheke Ziba, who happens to be Director of Information in the Ministry of Information, posted on Malawi Fuel Watch about how important the forum had become. He saw people holding up phones and searching for mobile network so as to access the Malawi Fuel Watch facebook forum. He suggested that “MERA should either run a similar page or indeed we should ask them to become a member so they can be updating people every now and then.” He promised to work on it. I hope MERA pays heed.

Observe the pandemonium that arises once word goes around about which filling station is getting fuel. The pumps are swarmed with cars, people, and zigubu. There is no one in control. I have always wondered why filling stations don’t use megaphones to make crucial announcements about public order. It is by the grace of God that we survived the last crisis without a filling station catching fire or a major brawl erupting. There are a few filling stations that know what crowd control looks like, and always do an orderly no matter how frightening the mess. But they are an exception. The majority of filling stations across the country are simply clueless.

Megaphones would assist with letting the multitudes of drivers know what was going on. In many cases the lines are miles long, people at the back have no idea what is going on upfront at the pump. This usually leads to panic, as people take out zigubu from their trunks and converge at the pumps, adding to the helter-skelter. Others jump the line, starting unnecessary fights.

During the last crisis, I found it helpful to always ask the fuel attendants how much fuel had been delivered. Knowing the number of litres and making a rough estimation of how many cars were on a queue, it helped one gauge one’s chances of getting fuel or returning home empty. It helped calm the tempers. It would be a good idea for filling stations to let people know how much fuel they expect to dispense every time there is a delivery. Another idea would be for fuel buyers to organize themselves and choose representatives to help relay crucial information and maintain public order. It’s time everyone took responsibility for preventing a looming disaster at the fuel pumps.

Suuchedwa kulowa m'maso . . . 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

As it Grows, a Baby Crocodile Dips in Many Pools: Envisioning a new Malawi, Starting with the Children

The story of 12 year-old John Sampson was so compelling I decided I would share it with a group of young Malawians I was meeting on Saturday November 17th. In case you haven’t heard his story, which made headlines around the world last week, let me briefly tell you who this young man is. John Samson is an orphan who is doing Standard 6 (6th Grade) at Jacaranda School for Orphans, just outside Limbe, in Blantyre. He submitted an entry into the Royal Commonwealth Essay competition, and he won first prize.

The Commonwealth has 54 countries from around the world, and this 12 year-old Std 6 Malawian won first prize, out of 8,500 people who entered. On Wednesday November 14th, John met the Queen of England, at Buckingham Palace, and presented her with a Samsung tablet which has his essay on it. The essay is titled ‘The day I wore my best clothes.’ Judges for the competition, according to Jacaranda School’s website, were The Honourable Lady Jane Roberts, award-winning author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Telegraph Deputy Editor Benedict Brogan.

Without giving away the story, which you can read in full here, it is a heartfelt narrative from a young soul dealt a cruel hand by life. Barely out of toddler stage, he lost both his parents, was abandoned by an uncle, and lived by himself. He has since picked up the pieces, all in twelve short years. John was also interviewed on the BBC World Service radio programme ‘Outlook,’ which you can listen to here (starts at 10 minutes in).

I read John’s story to a group of young Malawians, aged between 10 and 20, at an event organized by the Malawi Human Rights Youth Network. The MHRYN had brought the youth together, with funding from Plan Malawi, for them to present issues on which they are looking for stakeholder intervention from the government and civil society. They came from primary and secondary schools, and ten of them were members of the Youth Parliament, drawn from constituencies in Lilongwe. They presented their issues to government representatives from the Ministry of Education, the National Youth Council, the Ministry of Labour, the judiciary, and from civil society.

In their presence was another young Malawian, whose own story I find as gripping as John Samson’s story. The story of 20 year-old Thandikile Jumbe appeared on the front page of The Nation on Friday November 2. When she was young, Thandikile lived in one of the wealthiest suburbs of Lilongwe City. Her parents owned property and businesses, including a filling station and a car hire firm. One day Thandikile’s father died, and her mother soon followed. Her parents had left a will which entrusted all their wealth to their only daughter. For some inexplicable reasons, the will ended up in someone else’s hands, and turned Thandikile’s life upside down. Today Thandikile lives in one of the poorest and most destitute parts of Lilongwe city. She lost everything, and in the process, became a teen mother.

But life did not end there for her. She became actively involved in a Community Based Organization (CBO) looking after little orphans. Today, she is Deputy Speaker of the National Youth Parliament, and is working to make the voice of young people heard in the national assembly. She is hoping to go to college, and to continue working with other orphans at the CBO.

The third story I shared with the young people on Saturday was that of William Kamkwamba. When he was 14 years old and in his first term in secondary school, William dropped out of school. It was in 2002, and Malawi was facing a severe food crisis. His parents used all the money they had to buy food, to keep the family alive. They were unable to pay for his tuition fees. A nearby primary school had a library, which William frequented. One of the books he checked out of the library demonstrated how to make electricity at home, using junk materials such as old bicycle dynamos, tyres, and other materials.

Soon William made a windmill out of the junk materials. He powered his parents’ house and his bedroom. An educationist whose USAID-funded project had brought the library books, Dr. Hartford Mchazime, heard of William’s windmill. He brought a Daily Times reporter, Sangwani Mwafulirwa, who wrote about William. Blogger Soyapi Mumba picked up the story and wrote about it on his blog. The story was picked up by other bloggers outside Malawi, and it became an international sensation.

Today, William is pursuing a degree at Dartmouth College, one of the best universities in the world. He has co-written a memoir of his experiences, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, which became a New York Times best seller. His media appearances talking about his book included the most watched and listened to TV and radio shows in the United States. He has attracted funding for bigger solar projects in his village, and has brought electricity to his former school and the surrounding area.

During the half day meeting on Saturday November 17th, the Lilongwe youth at the meeting presented the problems they face, and the departments they have identified to take their problems to. Issues included overcrowded classrooms, very poor sanitation in schools, inadequate textbooks, predatory teachers, too many children fending for themselves, unemployment, the politicization of youth entrepreneurship loans, among others. Several stakeholders were on hand to respond to the concerns of the youth. They described what their departments and organisations were doing to protect children and the youth, and promote their welfare.

Two police officers, Sgt Gertrude Mwachande and Sub-Inspector Malango Mwasinga described the introduction of the Child Protection Unit of the Malawi Police Service. They said every single police station in the country has this unit, where anyone, including children themselves, can go to alert the police about any abuse being inflicted on a child. Two district education managers (DEMs) were invited, from Lilongwe Urban and Lilongwe Rural West. The DEM for Lilongwe Rural West, Mr. Anderson Ntandika, came in person, while the DEM for Lilongwe Urban was represented by the Primary Education Advisor for Mkukula Zone, Mr. Nelson Kachikuni. Both Mr Ntandika and Mr Kachikuni described the numerous efforts the Ministry of Education is undertaking to improve schooling conditions. They singled out sanitation programmes in schools, continuous professional development training for teachers, and the involvement of communities in supporting schools.

From the Lilongwe District Youth Office came Mrs Alice Mazungwi, while Steven Phiri, Lilongwe District Social Welfare Officer, represented his department. Other stakeholders came from the Labour Office, the Magistrate Court, and Plan Malawi. They outlined initiatives being taken to improve the social welfare of vulnerable children, and to protect from them from abuse, poverty, and destitution.

On their part, young Malawians are taking up their place at the leadership table. In schools where MHRYN is working, they have set up Child Rights Clubs, where they educate one another about their rights and responsibilities. They are learning about the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and what Malawi is doing in fulfillment of the convention. They have formed a youth parliament, and are working towards making their concerns reach the highest levels of legislative power.

During lunch I sat on a table with three boys and one girl. The boys were in Standard 6 and 7, while the girl was in Form 3. They were all from different schools. They described to me what was working and what was not working in their schools. They said they were looking forward to visits from human rights activists to teach them more about human rights, and to encourage membership of their clubs.

As the stories of children like Thandikile, John Samson and William Kamkwamba teach us, young Malawians are no longer just sitting and waiting for the day when they will finally grow up and become leaders. They are claiming their leadership roles right now. They have their own vision for how to make Malawi a better place, something that going by the levels of degeneration and backward development over the past few decades, has eluded generations of Malawian leaders, including the current one. Combined with predatory, extractive capitalism structured to enrich the global North at the expense of the global South, the result has been regressing, rather than improving quality of life for most Malawians and Africans.  

There are many youth groups mushrooming around the country, young people looking for meaningful, active involvement in making Malawi a better place. For the past six months Edward Chileka Banda has been organizing fellow youth and bringing them under one umbrella organization, the Youth Consultative Forum. He is driven by one philosophy: it’s time for the youth to get meaningfully engaged in the development of the country, through volunteering their time. Edward’s zeal and energy has inspired many other young Malawians and civil society leaders who have stood side by side with the YCF to galvanize the synergies of young Malawians.

The question of leadership has dominated the media over the past few weeks. Malawians are beginning to wonder what kind of leadership we have produced over the decades, and are hankering for a new vision. As John Samson, Thandikile Jumbe, William Kamkwamba, Edward Chileka Banda and other young Malawian leaders inspire their fellow youth to envision a different Malawi, two questions will be important: What legacy are we going to leave them? What kind of education is going to prepare them not to repeat the mistakes of past generations, but to build upon and ameliorate what is being bequeathed to them? 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Debating Homosexuality and Human Rights in Malawi

[The article below was first published by Waging Nonviolence on 17th November, 2012]

When Malawi’s Attorney General and Minister of Justice Ralph Kasambara announced earlier this month that police had been ordered not to arrest anyone suspected in “engaging in homosexuality,” it was lauded by Human Rights Watch as “courageous” and by Amnesty International as “a step in the right direction.” A day later, Kasambara denied ever making the statement. As one of 36 African countries with laws banning same-sex relationships, the announcement suspending these laws has re-opened a debate on the subject which has been raging within Malawi for two intense years.

Since 2010 when two Malawian men — Steve Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga — were arrested, charged and convicted for their same-sex engagement ceremony in the city of Blantyre, the issue of homosexuality has evolved into a national dialogue. The Malawian NGO, the Centre for the Development of People (CEDEP), has taken the lead, together with other NGOs, in promoting the rights of LGBTI people. Established in 2005, CEDEP has been carrying out sensitization campaigns on the rights of gay people and other minority groups. In collaboration with Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (GALA), a South African organization, CEDEP published a collection of stories written by the Malawian LGBTI community in 2010.

Within her first one hundred days in office, current president Joyce Banda put the gay rights issue on the national agenda by announcing in her first State of the Nation address, on May 18, 2012, that the statute criminalizing homosexuality in Malawi law would be taken to parliament for repeal. Stunned by the sharp, immediate rebukes her remarks attracted, the president quickly rephrased herself and said the Malawian parliament would only enact a law that reflected the wishes of the majority of Malawians. There are no illusions as to what would be the outcome of a parliamentary debate on the topic, let alone a national referendum, as is being suggested by anti-gay rights activists.

The debate in Malawi often centers on the nature of homosexuality itself. A recent series in the  Weekend Nation, a weekly newspaper, described what life looks like for Malawian gays, and posed the question of whether homosexuality is a “natural,” biological condition or a choice. The author of the series, Bright Mhango, wondered why Malawian homosexuals don’t seem keen on openly fighting for their human rights, leaving it to others to do it for them.

Kenyan legal scholar Makau Mutua argues, in a chapter appearing in the book African Sexualities: A Reader, that homosexuality is about a person's existential identity, much like biological sex (gender), race, ethnicity or disability. Mutua identifies an interesting contradiction that apparently slips through the logic of those who use religion to argue that homosexuality is un-African.

He says the hatred against gay people in Africa today does not originate from African culture, rather it is a product of the propagation in Africa of foreign religions, particularly Christianity and Islam. Homosexuality existed in Africa prior to Christianity and Islam, but there was no homophobia, argues Mutua.

In Malawi, the most easily identifiable and openly gay people have been young men who go out with Western expatriates and tourists. Some of these young men have told Malawian researchers about making a choice to become gay because of the money from gay expatriates and tourists. To the ordinary Malawian, therefore, homosexuality seems like a deliberate choice one makes. This belief is reinforced by some LGBTI rights activists who prefer to talk about “choice” rather than “nature.”

The Weekend Nation has recently started publishing a paid-for column, called “Sexual Minority Forum.” It is authored by Undule Mwakusungula and Gift Trapence, leading human rights activists. A few gay readers have submitted letters to the columnists, some of which have been re-printed in the column. A recent letter read: “being gay is not an imported element, habit, or anything. There have been gay people in Malawi for generations.”

A South African activist with the Coalition of African Lesbians put this question into perspective at a recent nonviolence training workshop when she argued that today's social justice struggles need to focus on freedom, autonomy and — yes — choices. To argue that homosexuality is only biological or natural robs gay people of their human agency and power to choose, but to argue that homosexuality is no more than a simple choice is also to deny the reality which many people feel.

But the entire discourse is at great risk of being side-tracked from one addressing concepts of human rights for and the humanity of homosexual people to one centered on the role of international agencies and foreign interference.

Particularly damaging is the undue influence of Western donors and activists. Their loud pronouncements have wrecked the chances of local ownership in the debate and created the appearance of a foreign agenda that is using the economic vulnerability of African governments and their overdependence on aid to engage in what is being seen as cultural imperialism. In 2010, following the conviction of Steve Monjeza and Tionge Chimbalanga, the British government reduced its aid to Malawi by US$30 million.

In October 2011 British Prime Minister David Cameron threatened more cuts in aid to governments which did not respect gay rights. In December 2011 both US president Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said American aid would be tied to minority rights, and that gay rights were human rights. As necessary and timely as these statements and actions were, in Africa they have been seen us undue interference. If unchecked, they can potentially trigger chain reactions that could drastically roll back the gains African countries have made in human rights in the last two decades.

It is not hard to understand why donors and international human rights organizations are speaking out. Since the 1994 Rwandan genocide, world leaders are wary of putting too much respect into claims of sovereignty, when the human rights and lives of innocent citizens are being threatened. African governments are known to be more accountable to Western donors than to their own people, an argument that has been made against President Joyce Banda as it was made against her predecessors. 

Left to the dictatorial tendencies of majoritarian rule, and in the absence of local and international attention, minorities would be on their own, at the mercy of a mob mentality dressed up as the democratic wishes of the people. Malawian grassroots nonviolence civil society groups know this, and that is why they are unrelenting even in the face of duplicitous and self-serving accusations of being Western stooges.

There has been enough violence against sexual minorities, physical as well as psychological, to warrant concern across national borders. Malawians, of all people, know how important international solidarity can be when a government is abusing its majority power and denying some of its citizens their fundamental rights and freedoms. Malawi’s own transition from one party rule to multiparty rule from the late 1980s to 1994 benefited significantly from international solidarity.

Surprisingly, claims of cultural imperialism are arising from civil society groups and religious leaders who have previously been counted on to stand up for human rights. Some of the activists were only recently actively seeking the support of Western donors at the height of late president Bingu wa Mutharika’s abuses, oblivious of any concerns over fears of cultural imperialism. Many even argued that there was no such thing as imperialism at all. Now that the donors are pushing for the rights of LGBTI people, some of these activists and religious leaders have suddenly discovered imperialism, and are up in arms against it.

Bishop Dr. Joseph Bvumbwe, Chairperson, Malawi Council of Churches.
Weekend Nation, 10th November, 2012

For example, Dr. Joseph Bvumbwe, chairperson of the Malawi Council of Churches, recently told the media that: “We should not treat abnormality as normality. When there is something abnormal, we must recognize it as such and not treat it as a normality.” Dr. Bvumbwe went on to claim, without offering proof, that the campaign for gay rights was only happening in Malawi and not in neighboring countries such as Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Zambia. The implication being that there is an external hand at work.

Nevertheless, it has to be acknowledged that the external interference from donor countries is a pernicious problem. Africans are wary of the excesses that have resulted from a seemingly objective “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine, taken advantage of by surreptitious imperialistic agendas. That interference has made it difficult for Malawians to carry on the debate on their own terms, in their own contexts, and subjecting their disagreements and differences to scrutiny. Statements about tying aid to gay rights are counterproductive as they jeopardize the struggle for more awareness, better education and information on LGBTI issues. The bellicose rhetoric gets in the way of the kind of civil, constructive debate that needs to happen.

There has to be a way to distinguish between actual cultural imperialism and a genuine solidarity for minority rights. When a society fails to provide equal human rights and protections to all members, particularly those considered “different,” the marginalized will need local and international support and solidarity. 

The danger of external interests taking advantage of the situation and pushing for self-centered agendas is real. But the struggle for African self-determination will be meaningless if we fail to distinguish between imperialism on the one hand, and genuine international solidarity on the other — accepting our obligations to co-exist with those who seem different.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Illusions of elite entitlement: Quota & Malawi’s higher education access woes

[Note: This article appears in the November-December issue of The Lamp Magazine]

Recent media reports indicated that just before the University of Malawi released its selection list for the 2012/2013 academic year in October, the Malawi Government had contemplated ending the quota system of selection into public universities. The reason given was that the quota system was costly. Although the University of Malawi went ahead to base its selection on the quota system, Malawians were left wondering and debating the merits and demerits of the quota system. More importantly, the question on everyone’s mind was why nearly fifty years after independence, Malawi’s flagship university, the University of Malawi, could afford space for only 908 students, out of 102,651 students who sat the 2011 school leaving certificate examination.
In order to examine whether or not the quota system is too expensive, and what its merits and demerits might be, we first need to define what we mean by “quota system.” We need to contextualize the quota system’s historical and political meanings and implications for Malawi, and draw comparisons and contrasts with higher education enrollments elsewhere in the world. We will also discuss why the number of students invited to sit the university entrance examination misrepresents the true number of Malawians who qualify for tertiary and university education each year. We will conclude by reflecting on the ill logic of higher education financing in this country, which is responsible for putting Malawi at the bottom of global enrollment tables for percentages of youth eligible for tertiary and university education. 

The ethnic origins of quota

In his remarkable memoir, And the Crocodiles Are Hungry at Night, Malawi’s celebrated poet, Jack Mapanje, recounts an episode from his days at Mikuyu Maximum Security Prison, which points to the origins of the quota system. Mapanje dedicates two chapters to the episode, chapter 41, titled “Northerners as an Excuse,” and chapter 42, “Chirunga Campus Riots.” Chapter 41 talks about how Mikuyu prison played host to Malawi’s hotbed of ethnic sensitivity and antagonism. A new officer-in-charge for the prison, a Mr Mughogho, brings some changes to the prison. The diet has begun to improve, and prisoners can now eat sweet potatoes, among other foods. Then a prisoner, Mbale, escapes, leading to prison conditions being tightened and reversed back to the harsh, punitive atmosphere. 

When some prisoners begin the ethnic blame game about the northerner who escaped, other prisoners point to the improved conditions brought by Mughogho, also a northerner. The discussion continues to the next chapter, where Chancellor College students have rioted, following the November 1988 publication of the Chirunga Newsletter, a student magazine.  An article in the student magazine has described how the chair of the university council was overheard expressing his displeasure at “the large proportion of students from the north who enter the university,” wondering “whether they were admitted on merit or not.” The council chair goes ahead to suggest that a quota system would be introduced at the beginning of the 1987 academic year, in September. Students would now be admitted into the University of Malawi “on the basis of their district and region of birth.”

In this particular form of the quota system, the intent is clear. It is aimed at limiting the number of students from the northern region, who are believed to be disproportionately more than their counterparts in the central and southern regions. At the heart of the quota system debate is the incredibly small number of students who are accorded space in Malawi’s public universities. Malawi ranks bottom in the university-age cohort of young people who are actually enrolled in tertiary education, according to the website 

A 2011 survey of 150 countries places Malawi at number 150, with 0.3 percent of young Malawians in the 17-22 year age range actually pursuing tertiary education. In Africa, the highest percentage in 2011 was Libya, ranked 26th in the world, at 48.8 percent. Malawi’s neighbours did slightly better: Zimbabwe at 3.9 percent, Zambia at 2.5 percent, Tanzania at 0.7 percent, and Mocambique at 0.6 percent.  

Curiously but understandably enough, more heat is created by the debate surrounding the quota issue than on what solutions to pursue to increase access and allow every qualified student a place in a public university or tertiary institution. Efforts by education activists to propose a quota system that uses socio-economic, gender and class indicators do not amount to much. Emotions rule and debates are considered on which side of the quota system and the ethnicity divide the proponent stands.

A “win-win university quota selection system”, as suggested by education policy analyst and scholar-activist Limbani Nsapato, would consider merit on the one hand, and socio-economic factors including gender, disability and poverty, on the other. It would ensure that qualifying students from rural districts of Malawi and from marginalized backgrounds would have an equal chance of being accorded a place in Malawi’s public universities. With the exception of the gender factor, which was taken into consideration in the 2012 selection into the University of Malawi, the type of quota system suggested by Nsapato has never been attempted.

Quota as scapegoat

In its September 8-14, 2012 issue the weekly newspaper Malawi News published on its front page an article titled “How Quota System Died.” Written by Charles Mpaka, the article quoted an official memorandum from Finance Minister Dr. Ken Lipenga to President Joyce Banda, recommending that the quota system be abandoned on the grounds that it was expensive. A close reading of the article, based on the quoted parts, shows that rather than abandoning the quota system, the main issue raised in the memo was reducing government expenditure on public universities. 

On October 4th the University of Malawi released its 2012 selection list, while the newly instituted Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR), with Bunda College as its biggest constituent college, released its list three days later. Contrary to the reported recommendation to drop the quota system as per the quoted memorandum, the University of Malawi selection list was again based on a quota system.   

The University of Malawi published on its website a statement that said selection had been “done using the equitable access system of admitting candidates into public institutions of higher learning.” The term “equitable access system” is supposed to be a more politically acceptable way of describing what everyone calls “quota.” The statement went further to say:
“Under this arrangement, the top ten qualified candidates from each district were offered places and thereafter, the rest were selected based on merit and the size of the population of the districts they originated from to underscore that higher education, like any other form of development, should be seen to be benefiting the whole country.”

Who qualifies for university: the true numbers

The number of students selected into the University of Malawi for the 2012/2013 academic year is 908. The statement said a total of 8507 candidates sat for the 2012 University Entrance Examinations (UEE). Out of these 6373 candidates passed, representing a 75% pass rate. For LUANAR, which based its selection on the same students who had applied to the University of Malawi, 456 students were admitted. It is important to put these numbers into context. 

The number of students who registered to sit for the 2012 Malawi School Certificate Examination was 130,000, according to spokesperson for Malawi National Examinations Board (MANEB), Gerald Chiunda, quoted in a Capital FM Radio online article.  The results are yet to be released, as of writing in mid-October. But the most recent available figures, from 2011, show that 102,651 students sat the examination. Of these, 56,273 passed, representing 54.8 percent pass rate, according Zodiak Broadcasting Station’s website. Ordinarily, passing the school leaving certificate examination ought to qualify one for tertiary or higher education. 

The percentage of Malawian youth who ought to be in tertiary institutions, and are actually doing so is 0.3. It is not difficult to understand why, when you look at the numbers. In the 2011/2012 academic year only 366 students were admitted into Malawi’s second public university, Mzuzu. Of these 254 were males (69%), while 112 females (31%). In the recently released numbers for Malawi’s private and public technical colleges, the Technical, Entrepreneurial, Vocational, Education and Training Authority (TEVETA) received 16,236 applications. In their press release of Saturday October 6th, TEVETA announced that they had admitted 1,580 students. 

The question of whether or not the quota system is expensive is not at the heart of the matter. The true scandal of Malawi’s higher education system is that almost fifty years after independence, the country is unable to provide the majority of her young people an opportunity to access higher education and thereby contribute to national development. A project at Harvard University that studies higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa observes that no country has ever achieved high levels of development with less than 50 percent enrollment of its university-age population. 

Elite entitlement

The demand for higher education in Malawi has reached insatiable levels, and the country is woefully prepared for this demand. The biggest reason for this is the incomprehensible policy of the government paying for people to go to university even when they can afford it themselves. And there is no requirement for them to repay the investment. The only countries where this happens are the wealthiest ones in the global North. Even then, in countries such as the United States those who qualify for university education but are unable to afford it are given scholarships or loans. 

Student loans are not a perfect solution either. In the United States, millions of students graduate with debt burdens that threaten to bankrupt them for decades. In Britain, tuition fees have tripled, and up to 54,000 potential students who were expected to enter higher education have been unable to enroll. With youth unemployment becoming a global problem, student loans are no longer being seen as a flawless panacea. For Malawi, the solution lies in balancing the lessons from the US, the UK and elsewhere, with the irreversible need to widen access and sustainably finance a growing Malawian higher education system.

In the days following the release of the 2012/2013 selection into the University of Malawi, elite private secondary schools boasted the numbers of students they had managed to send to Malawi’s flagship university. Students whose parents just a few months ago were paying more than K1 million a year for their children to attend elite secondary schools are now going to be paid K320,000 a year to study in Malawi’s public universities. Public universities in Malawi pay students “upkeep monthly allowances of K40,000 per student” according to a recent press release announcing a raise in the allowances from K33,000 last year. 

This is due to the lopsided logic of Malawi’s publically-funded higher education. This emanates from two sources. The first one is well meaning: an obligation to invest in a public good for Malawians who cannot afford to pay for higher education. But the other one is misguided: a sense of elite entitlement. The practice elsewhere in the world is to admit all the students who have qualified for higher education, based on classroom space available. It is up to the students to look for tuition fees. Those able to afford the fees accept the offers and register as students. Those unable to afford the fees apply for the available scholarships or loans, awarded on merit and on need. This is how you grow a university. It is how everyone else in the world has managed to increase access to higher education, whereas we have stagnated.

By admitting students on a non-residential basis and requiring them to pay for accommodation, public universities are taking steps toward widening access. But much more needs to be done. The newly established national council for higher education has its work cut out. As for the ethnic origins of the quota system, the real issue would have been to investigate the factors that lead certain districts and populations to do better than others. There are lessons to be learned from how some parents, communities and social groups encourage excellence in education. The lessons can be used to afford equal opportunities to others so as to level the playing field and provide everyone an equal chance.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Knee-deep in a river & dying of thirst: Malawi's water woes

On the morning of Sunday October 28th the water supply in the part of Lilongwe City where I live suddenly stopped. We thought it was a temporary problem. But lunch time came and the taps were still dry. I called the faults line for Lilongwe Water Board. They explained that a pipe had burst at their Mtunthama Booster Station, and their technicians were fixing the problem. They had no idea how long the repair work would take, but they reassured me the problem would be solved before the end of the day.

Over the course of the afternoon and evening I called the fault lines a few more times to ask for updates. To make dinner, we had to buy bottled water from a grocery store. The end of the day came but the water didn’t. I woke up at 3.30am to check. There was not a drop. At 5.20am I called the faults line again, and the news was different this time. They had just finished the repair work, and anytime the order would be given to start pumping water into the tanks. How long would it take before the taps would flow again? I asked. It was not possible to tell, came the reply.

Many wells and boreholes in Ntcheu have dried up
after four seasons of poor rains
It wasn’t until 9am on Monday morning, twenty four hours after the outage, that the taps started flowing again. For some areas of Lilongwe City water supply wasn’t restored for another excruciating twelve hours. But we know of parts of Lilongwe City where taps dry up for months. There have been letters to the editor and news articles on this. Recently we read about a group of people that stormed the office of the Lilongwe Water Board general manager, delivering an ultimatum for the parastatal to improve service delivery or people would stop paying their bills.

To their credit, Lilongwe Water Board has a functioning, regularly updated website. On Monday morning they uploaded a press release on the website detailing where the pipe had burst, who was affected, and what time repairs had been finished. The website is professionally designed, and provides much of the information that customers usually need. They even list numbers to call for faults, bill payments, and a host of other functions. Every time I have picked up the phone to call either the faults line, or customer service, there is always someone who responds. I have had my queries politely addressed, and have been treated with courtesy. At least this has been my experience, speaking for myself.  

That said, there are things Lilongwe Water Board could have done better in handling the problem. To start with, the immediate concern for customers was where we were going to get water for cooking, bathing, doing laundry, and for the toilets. Monday was a working day, children needed to go to school. What Lilongwe Water Board should have done immediately would have been to arrange for an emergency water supply for the affected areas. I am aware that no single water board in Malawi ever does this. The taps dry up, and you are on your own. And this goes for most Malawian public and even private entities.

Communicating with customers was another aspect LWB could have handled better. Organizations that value their customers are pro-active. Rather than wait for customers to call and find out why they are experiencing a problem, a pro-active organization will take the initiative and communicate first. A friend who runs an IT company, Austin Madinga, commented on twitter and remarked that he found it “hard to understand why [Malawian companies] don't use social media. So much faster, plus everyone is there already!” And he is right. The only reason I was able to find LWB’s press release on the water outage was because I was looking for evidence, for this blog post, of what measures the company had taken to communicate to their customers.

Many more people access their Facebook and twitter accounts on a daily basis. People using social media get the latest news without having to go searching for it. These days good websites operate hand in hand with social media. Social media is far much cheaper, and much more easily accessible. In countries where computer access is still light years behind, people use cellphones to access the Internet. And then there is sms, and instant message sent to thousands of customers at the click of a button.

The bigger point I am driving at is a new type of leadership that inspires Malawians. Malawians today are looking for leadership that evinces creativity, fresh ideas, and innovative thinking. Malawians find it difficult to understand why we continue to experience severe water shortages when the country is unusually blessed in terms of water sources. Lake Malawi straddles two thirds of the country’s length, and is a fifth of the country’s land area. The remaining one third has the gigantic Shire River. Lake Malawi is less than 100 kilometres away from Lilongwe City. Is there a good explanation why Lilongwe continues to suffer from acute water problems? Where is the visionary leadership that understands and appreciates how so blessed we are?

In parts of Ntcheu people are using carts, bicycles
and jerrycans to fetch water
As a few friends have observed lately, we Malawians appear to have such a high tolerance for mediocrity. Politicians, leaders of public institutions and the private sector know this. That is why they do not feel compelled to up their game. But this will not continue forever. Those leaders who are demonstrating vision and proving to be innovative thinkers will clearly stand out amongst the mediocre lot. I hope Lilongwe Water Board will exemplify that kind of leadership and demonstrate that they are forward-thinking. The country is changing, and expectations are changing also.

I started drafting this post in Lilongwe a day after the water problem I have described. This just-ended weekend I travelled to Zomba, where on Saturday morning the taps had no water in the part of town I went to. The Weekend Nation of Saturday November 3rd interviewed Blantyre Water Board’s public affairs officer Innocent Mbvundula asking him why Blantyre was also experiencing terrible water problems. The Nation of Friday November 2nd carried an article on Blantyre’s water problems and how human rights activists are taking up the issue. I finished the weekend in a part of Ntcheu where many wells and boreholes have dried up, and there are long lines at the few functioning boreholes.