Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Why Malawi Must Consider Offering Free Secondary Education

Remarks made recently by 2014 presidential aspirant Hon. Atupele Muluzi on the United Democratic Front’s plans to explore the possibility of providing free secondary school education when elected stirred a hornet’s nest. The remarks were reported in The Daily Times of Wednesday 6th March. 

Whether one is supportive of the idea or opposed to it, this is a debate whose time has come. There are substantive propositions being made on either side of the issue. I will address the merits of both sides, and conclude by pointing out why the country needs to stop being shackled by mistakes of the past and think about long term plans for how to grow Malawi’s human capital.

Why no

There are very good reasons why Malawi cannot, at this juncture, afford free secondary school education. Foremost on the list is the free primary education experience. We know what that did to the quality of education in Malawi. Nobody knows when or whether the country will ever recover from that. It is only those Malawians who cannot do otherwise, albeit being the majority, who send their children to government schools. The rest of us send our children to private schools, whose quality is as varied as the alphabet.

Secondary school girls performing

Then there is the curse of free things. The farm input subsidy programme is a prime example here. Eight years down the road, not only is the country unable to graduate into sustainable food security, the organization of the programme itself keeps becoming more wasteful and less efficient.

Then there are other reasons such as the heavy dependency on donors for the national budget, and the sobering fact that the country simply does not have enough money to afford free secondary school education. We are better off investing in areas of national development that have a better chance of creating more wealth for the country in a shorter period of time. Agriculture and mining would be better investments before secondary school education, or so goes the argument.

Why yes

On the other hand, there are also good reasons why we need to have the discussion on whether we can attempt free secondary school education or not. The mistakes that accompanied free primary education at its onset in 1994 need not enslave us into immobilization and arrested development. Knowing where things went wrong ought to mean knowing how to do things differently next time. 

And while it is indeed true that “free” things encourage laziness, lack of responsibility and lack of imagination, the provision of education is an investment whose rates of return have a direct impact on the economic productivity of individuals as well as of a country as a whole.

A 2009 study by Professor Ephraim Chirwa and Mirriam Matita, both of the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College found that for Malawians, a secondary school education improved one’s earning potential by 15.4 percent, compared to 5.1 percent for primary school education. 

The study, described in a paper titled The Rate of Return on Education in Malawi, found that university education in Malawi improved one’s earning potential by a whopping 66 percent. The importance of this finding is that one’s earning potential translates into a “ripple effect” whose impact extends to the economic potential of the nation as a whole, a point argued by Chirwa and Matita.

There are certain provisions only a government can make for its people. Because some of these are funded through taxes, there is an impression created that these provisions are “free.” The police service is one such provision, as are most hospitals in Malawi. Although everyone agrees that the quality of primary education in government schools is an abomination, it is still a free service, in that sense, to the majority of Malawians who cannot afford private school.

Tertiary education is also free, particularly in government teacher training colleges and nursing schools. Government-sponsored students in Malawi’s public universities are given allowances of K40,000 every month of the academic year, against their contribution of K55,000 for the whole year. This not only makes higher education in Malawi’s public universities free, government-sponsored students are actually paid to go to university. I am yet to hear of any other country in the world where that is the case.

The bigger picture

Meanwhile, the majority of Malawians have never received a secondary school education. In its Malawi Demographic and Health Survey 2010, the National Statistics Office found that only 17 percent of Malawian men aged 18 years and above had completed secondary school. The percentage for women was 11 percent. 

What this means is that more than 70 percent of Malawians aged 18 or older have never completed secondary school. Given the education rates of return from the Chirwa and Matita study, it does not need much explaining to understand some of the underlying reasons why Malawi’s economic productivity is one of the lowest in the world.

There are various reasons why the majority of Malawians are unable to attain a secondary school education. School fees is one of them. In January this year a community day secondary in my home district of Ntcheu was forced to reduce school fees per term from K7,000 to K4,000 because the majority of the students were unable to pay the fees. 

This is reflective of much of the country. At the UN women’s conference in New York last week Malawi’s Minister of Health Hon. Catherine wa Gotani Hara told the BBC that many Malawian teenage girls ended up getting married as a direct result of being unable to pay secondary school fees.

The issue of whether or not Malawi should start considering the feasibility of providing free secondary school education is one of whether or Malawi should consider strengthening its human capital. The reactions to the idea have revealed deeply entrenched cynicism and a disturbing fear of big, bold and progressive ideas.

Writing on the teachers’ forum Bwalo la Aphunzitsi, Malawian education activist Limbani Nsapato expresses the opinion that in the 21st century, a primary school education no longer suffices. He argues that “skills pupils are getting from primary schools are not adequate for them to be creative and think critically as 
21st century citizens in a world of economic crisis and rising unemployment.”

Secoondary school boys

Learning from the FPE fiasco

While paying heed to arguments about how free primary education ruined Malawian education, we need to learn from those mistakes, rather than turning them into an excuse for deciding not to move the country forward. This will entail establishing estimates as to how many more students could potentially enroll in secondary schools, and how many teachers would need to be trained. 

We would need to establish how many schools and classroom blocks, labs, libraries, and hostels we would need to construct. We would also need to calculate how much the education budget would need to increase by, and to determine where the money would come from, among other considerations.

If properly and efficiently done, the benefits of a free secondary school education for the majority of Malawians could potentially transform the country. We do not have to start with a full scale, universal implementation; we can do it in a targeted way. 

There are many who are able to afford the fees. Graduating from secondary schools with the essential skills, these students could bring new ideas and new energies into their communities. This would energise economic activity, and lift up the country's gross domestic productivity.

We would also need to come up with programmes for the many youths who are beyond secondary school age, but do not have any secondary school education. The existing Complementary Basic Education programmes need to be expanded beyond the 9-14 years age cohort to include young adults who are in their twenties and thirties. These need to be offered a complementary or alternative secondary school education, heavy on practical, technical and vocational skills.

As pointed out by Roy Hauya also on Bwalo la Aphunzitsi, one significant consequence of this expansion would be new pressure on our higher education system, already failing to cope with current demand. Chirwa and Matita have pointed out that one failure of the FPE reform was the neglect of the secondary school and university system, which were never expanded to accommodate the new numbers. Repeating this oversight would be a gross mistake. It would be better not to even make the attempt.

Disregarding the role education can play in Malawi’s march toward prosperity is the worst mistake the country can ever make. Limbani Nsapato pointed this out when he remarked, as soon as it was released, that the much-touted Economic Recovery Plan never mentions education as a priority. 

It took the visit of the strategy firm Boston Global Consulting to point out at a Sanjika workshop that education, in all its levels, needed to be at the centre of the whole economic recovery effort. There is no way the economy can grow when more than 70 percent of Malawians are deprived of the relevant skills and knowledge.

Wealth is never stagnant. It grows exponentially in response to the ingenuity and creativity of the people. It is this idea that must guide us as we debate how to deal with Malawi’s intractable problems of poverty and inequality.

This article first appeared in The Malawi News of Saturday 16th March, 2013, under a different title.

Who let the kids out?

Did the primary school children who took to the streets of Blantyre and Lilongwe during the civil servants strike in February do this on their own? Or did someone organize them? Are Malawian school children capable or organizing themselves in this manner?

When I first learned of the development, my initial reaction was that the children had become concerned with the lack of progress in the salary negotiations, and how this was affecting their education. On social media, the news was received with both admiration and alarm. Some exclaimed that this was the first time ever in Malawi’s history that very young school children were expressing their right to free speech, and showing grown-ups that they took their schooling very seriously. Some saw rare heroism from the country’s youngest citizens, suggesting that these school children were “re-defining active citizenship,” in the words of Kondwani Farai Chikadza in a Facebook status update.

School children pose and make the ubiquitious peace sign
But others were very alarmed. They worried that something tragic could easily happen to the children, and there would be no one to be held accountable. Active facebooker Peter Kalua wrote: “Who is guiding these kids? What if they get run over, what if some of them go missing? If there is someone behind the protests of these kids, let him think properly. This is child abuse.” He spoke from a parent’s perspective and added, “I would not want to see my kid in this chaos.”

The children’s action raised several questions. How could they have left school by themselves without adult supervision? How could children from several schools have organised themselves in such an orderly way, knowing where to converge and where to head towards? But there were many others who could simply not buy the idea that Malawian primary school children could do this. There had to be someone who had organised them, for purely political gains. This was also the stand taken by the few children’s rights NGOs who spoke out on the issue.

One only hopes we will be able to get to the bottom of this and find out the truth. If it turns out that some grown-ups were indeed behind this, then it is extremely unfortunate and reprehensible. It will be frightening to see the extent to which some people can go, putting children in harm’s way just to score political points. It was already disturbing to hear one broadcasting house deliberately misrepresent and politicize the school children’s action as a protest against the teachers’ strike.

Regardless of whether these school children were organised by someone or not, there are lessons to be learned by all of us. The first lesson is that we must put in place measures for dealing with the safety and security of school children’s during strikes. Many school children understood why their teachers joined the strike, and stood with them in solidarity. But many schools left the children on their own, communicating nothing about the strike, and putting no measures in place for the children’s safety. This was a clear case of poor leadership at the school level and the strike’s organizing structures. A teachable moment was lost here.

The second lesson is that we need to become aware of the changing definitions of active citizenship and our understanding of childhood. A lot of Malawians point to the passivity and docility of us as citizens as the root causes of the socio-economic and political problems the country is facing. We have a history of expecting someone up there, be it “government” or even “God”, to solve our problems. But times have changed.

This ties into the third lesson. We need to view the discourse on leadership in our country in terms of what Malawi might look like when our school children become more actively engaged in social and political matters. Whether we like it or not, that day is fast approaching. The school curriculum teaches about civic engagement, although most schools handle this more as theory than practice. The best educational systems in the world involve school children in civic engagement and provide a safe environment for them to do so.

We cannot talk of active citizenship in the school curriculum while expecting that our children will remain aloof from and uninterested in the ills that afflict Malawian society. Children learn more than what the curriculum teaches. They learn by observing the grown-ups who surround them. We must always remember that the children are watching us, and are making their own judgments about how leaders lead. Knowing this should make us conscious about what we would like our children to learn, and what kind of Malawi we would like to bequeath to them. 

This article first appeared in the My Turn op-ed column of The Nation newspaper on Wednesday 27th February, 2013.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Joyah's Genius & The Beginnings of a Malawian Film Genre

When your first movie is as phenomenally remarkable as Shemu Joyah’s Seasons of a Life, it becomes inevitable that your next movie will be judged in comparison to the first movie. Which is what is happening with Shemu Joya’s second movie, The Last Fishing Boat. I have met Malawians who swear that Seasons is the best movie they have ever watched, inclusive of everything they have watched from Hollywood, to Bollywood, to Nollywood.

So when I went to the Kamuzu Institute for Sports on 26th December, 2012, to see The Last Fishing Boat, that question was on my mind: which is the better movie? It was also the first question Joyah was asked by reporters soon after the screening. Joyah’s response was, predictably, that it’s up to Malawian moviegoers to make that judgment.

Joyah talking to reporters after the screening of 'The Last Fishing Boat' at Kamuzu Institute for Sports, 26th Dec 2012
While Seasons was a love story culminating into a deeply Malawian philosophy of what lies at the heart of motherhood, Boat is a love story whose denouement unfolds around the complex vortex of polygamy, serial monogamy, homosexuality and inter-racial love. A British tourist, Richard (played by Irishman Robert Loughlin) in tow with his fiancé, Elena (played by Czech musician Tereza Mirovicova) get caught up in a double love triangle on the shores of Lake Malawi, in the lake tourist district of Malawi.

The plot suggests the tourist wants to buy a bawo board, but as the story unfolds, he wants more. He is infatuated with one of the village women, Abiti Anefa (Flora Suya), whom he first catches a glimpse of as she is bathing in the lake, and he is jogging along the beach. His overtures toward her start with him leaving her money on the beach, and later at a grocery store. She hesitantly accepts the money but then gives it away to children or beggars.

Abiti Anefa is the third wife of Che Yusufu (played by Hope Chisanu; “Abiti” is a salutation in the same manner as “Ms”, while “Che” is a salutation in the same manner as “Mr” in Yao culture), a fisherman who has seen better days on the lake. His father bequeathed to him fifteen boats, but as catches become smaller and smaller, the economic fortunes of the trade also dwindle. His is now down to his last boat. The tourist finds two men playing bawo along the lake, and he asks to be taught how to play it. They make him win the first game, but on subsequent matches he keeps losing. Unable to accept being defeated by a Malawian, he goes after the bawo board, owned by Yusuf. But he wants more than the board.

He takes to stalking Abiti Anefa, until one evening he is found peeping at her house from behind a tree. Che Yusuf finds him, but is unaware of what is going on. He assumes Che Yusuf is coming to buy the bawo board. Che Yusuf invites him in so they can negotiate over the board. There Richard comes face to face with Abiti Anefa. Her husband asks her to brew tea, and also to translate between both of them (Richard doesn’t understand Chichewa; Che Yusuf doesn’t understand English).

Richard stops haggling for the board, and in a daring move, openly declares his love for Abiti Anefa. Abiti orders him to leave, while cleverly mistranslating the dialogue to Che Yusuf so he does not know what is going on. Richard leaves without buying the bawo. When Boat showed at the Kamuzu Institute for Sports in Lilongwe on 26th December 2012, Abiti Anefa’s strategic yet prudent mistranslation between the two languages drew a loud, admiring ovation from the audience.

Meanwhile, Richard’s fiancĂ©, Elena, has discovered what Richard is up to. She gets her vengeance by starting an affair with Yusuf’s son, Mustafa (played by Robert Kalua), a tour guide who is also a male stripper. He tells Elena he is 30 percent gay and 70 percent straight. Elena goes missing for several days, and Richard has no idea where she is. She spends the time with Mustafa, giving the movie it’s most x-rated scene.

But Richard manages to sneak into Abiti Anefa’s house while Yusuf is away. Again he declares his love for her. The scene gives the movie its most philosophical moment. Richard asks Abiti Anefa why she is clinging to a polygamist, as a third wife, upon which Abiti confronts the hypocritical claims made by monogamy. She tells him that as an openly polygamous man, Che Yusuf treats her with respect, unlike Richard who cheapens her by throwing money at her in hopes of luring her. African polygamists follow societal norms when they want another woman, which keep families together. In Western traditions people engage in serial monogamy, divorcing one spouse after another, and tearing families apart. Richard is forced to wonder what feminists in his country would think of this.

As the movie nears the end, Abiti Anefa excuses herself on the pretext of going to see a neighbour. She goes to Richard’s house, where she pleads with him to pay for the board so Che Yusuf can pay a government fishing tax. Meanwhile, the villagers see her, and mobilize themselves, believing that Abiti is secretly seeing Richard. Together with Elena, the villagers, brandishing burning torches, storm the house. Yusuf enters the house, finds both Richard and Abiti, and stabs them.

For a moment it looks as if Abiti has died from the stabbing. Grief and remorse grip Che Yusuf, and he takes his own life. Meanwhile, Abiti recovers and the movie continues having given the audience the impression that it had come to an end. This gives the movie its major weakness. Richard, in an arm sling, and Elena are seen leaving for the airport, not on talking terms. The end comes when Elena stops the car by the roadside, and goes out to meet with Mustafa who is in another car coming from the opposite direction. There she declares her love for him, and tells him she wants to stay. Next thing the audience sees is Elena’s suitcase being hurled out of the car, and the car speeding off.

Other reviewers have suggested that the inclusion of homosexuality in Boat carries a message about cultural degeneration. This is not borne out by the perspective presented by Mustafa. He wonders how come homosexuality is punishable by law, yet adultery, also considered a social taboo, is not. He wonders why some people “get angry on behalf of God.” Responding to a question from a journalist at the end of the showing, Joyah said although the issue of sexual minorities was being championed by the donor community, homosexuality was a Malawian issue, both historically and traditionally.

The question as to whether Seasons is a better movie than Boat is probably inevitable, but is it really necessary? Although coming from the same director, these are two different movies, with two different philosophies. Whether in Seasons or Boat, the genius of Shemu Joyah lies in delving deep into the human psyche to draw out the innermost meanings that define us, both weaknesses and strengths.

In Seasons, it was the metaphysical depth of the meaning of motherhood, while in Boat it is the core of cultural traditions that on the surface may appear meaningless, but whose contradictions serve to give us pause for reflection and re-examination of our beliefs. He may have directed only two movies thus far, but the distinctness of Joyah's approach to film-making suggests the makings of a uniquely Malawian film genre.

Note: A shorter version of this review appeared in The Nation newspaper and on the newspaper's website.