Sunday, March 30, 2014

Choosing a president: Intellect, character and Malawi’s leadership

I have lived in the city of Lilongwe for close to three years now, and I have no idea who the MP of my area is. I do not even know the name of my constituency. Whoever is the MP here has never been to this area to talk to us the constituents in the three years I have lived here. If they have, I never heard about it. Now in addition to voting for an MP and a state president on 20th May, I will also have to vote for a councillor. I have no idea what the name of my ward is. Worse still, I do not know a single candidate who is running for councillor in this ward.

This afternoon I passed by poster on a tree just outside the main entrance to the African Bible College campus. The poster had a name of a candidate asking to be voted for as councillor. The poster named the candidate’s party, and that was all. I have never heard of this person before, and the poster did not saying else. I do not even know if the place where I saw the poster is in my ward or not; it is some two kilometres away from my house.

I probably have myself to blame for having no knowledge of the names of my ward and my constituency, and who is running for councillor and MP. But it is also the case that the candidates running in my ward and constituency are doing little to inform voters like me. There are two or three names with vibrant campaigns for councillor in Lilongwe city wards, but with no knowledge of how wards and constituencies are drawn in the city, I have no idea if these people will be on my ballot paper or not.

Kamuzu Palace: Intellect and character needed for Malawi's leadership
In contrast, I know a lot more about candidates running in other parts of the country. Some of them I know because they are running in my ancestral home, others because they have a very vibrant, creative campaign strategy on social media, on radio and in the newspapers. Some are even my friends. In this campaign season, my eyes and ears are trained on which party and which candidate, at all the three voting levels, demonstrates the most comprehensive understanding of what lies at the roots of the problems this country is facing.

Some weeks ago Frederick Ndala, editor of the The Malawi News, showed the candidates what it means to demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of Malawi’s problems. In an opinion piece titled “Who will get my vote?” (Sunday Times, 16th February 2014), Ndala called upon candidates to “address real national issues with practical solutions.” Ndala’s exhortation hinged on why it was not enough for candidates to repeat what everyone knows already; insecurity, food crises, bad economy, unemployment, poor education. Rather, candidates need to suggest practical solutions to these problems, argued Ndala.

In this campaign season, I am going a step deeper. I am looking for an outstanding analysis of what exactly has caused the problems, why they have become entrenched, and what strategies have not been tried before. Anything short of this is not going to be good enough.

There is something about politics that turns perfectly good, well-meaning, honest, reasonable, intelligent people into “unfathomable fools,” to quote a candidly spoken and oft-repeated description from Professor Thandika Mkandawire a few years ago. And this happens not in Malawian politics only, it happens everywhere. Too many wonderful people have been transformed into paragons of mediocrity it has become clear there is something fatally wrong with the system. A candidate who fails to grasp this fundamental aspect and to articulate how to change it has no business running.

In their pastoral letter read out in all their churches a few Sundays ago, the CCAP’s Nkhoma Synod expressed grave concern “with the secrecy in the way matters of national interest are dealt with.” For me this is of paramount significance. Thanks to unsung whistle-blowers, we have been made aware of top secret, underhand deals that go on in the confines of State House meant to profit the president and their inner circle, at great detriment to the national cause.

Shrewd business people and agents, both local and international, know this too well. They expend unmentionable amounts of largesse to curry favour with the president. This is the reason why declaring one’s assets has become as unthinkable as drawing water from a rock. A presidential candidate who wishes this country well will need to demonstrate a critical understanding of this problem and have a clear plan for how address it.

We cannot afford to continue having presidents who are bought by the highest bidder. We have barons in this country whose sole aim is to continue multiplying their wealth and tightening their economic stranglehold on the country. I am looking for a candidate who can deal with this vice in a decisive manner. This country needs more whistle-blowers, with full legal protection.

The crux of this problem, wrapped in presidential power and privilege is impunity, singled out in the Nkhoma Synod pastoral letter as well as in the Catholic Bishops’ earlier pastoral letter in December 2013. In his Sunday Times column of 23rd March Levi Kabwato says it this impunity that propelled cashgate. He writes, and this is worth reproducing in full: “The rogues who unashamedly participated in robbing our national vault did so with the full knowledge that they would not get caught. In the unlikely event of being caught, they had the confidence that nothing would happen to them because, somehow, they are untouchable.”

Disregard for ‘inconvenient’ laws starts with the presidency and becomes the norm for everyone else. Rule of law has become a tool to be unleashed on opposition parties and on powerless citizens while the ruling party and powerful elites are exempt from it. While there is no single solution that can heal Malawi and chart a new path to a new and better future, restoring rule of law and ending impunity has to be top of the agenda of any candidate who wants my vote.

Without a sophisticated understanding of the depths of impunity and lawlessness the country has sunk into, it does not matter which party or which candidate wins the 20th May election. There will be a zero chance of giving Malawians new hope for a better country. I am looking for a candidate that can analyse the root causes of this problem, why it became entrenched, and what solutions have not been tried before.

Reforming the civil service was a huge topic in the first running-mates debate in Lilongwe. The running-mates demonstrated varying degrees of understanding of what ails the civil service and how to reform it. But without knowledge of what reforms have been tried before, and why they failed, we are doomed to more experiments that will not lead to any meaningful reform.

Performance appraisals have been on the agenda for as long as the civil service has existed, but they have never been implemented. I will vote for candidate who will go beyond the rhetoric and demonstrate a profound commitment to reforming the civil service in ways that have not been attempted before.

There have been numerous studies on how to restructure salary scales in the civil service, and they have all ended up on shelves, baking in the infamous Lilongwe dust. The results have been there for all to see; severe demoralisation whose worst effects have manifested themselves in what has become a “cashgate mindset” in the entire public and even private sector. The education system has been made to bear the most visible of these effects.

And it is in education where the effort to rebuild Malawi must begin. Education has featured very little in the political discourse thus far. In this campaign season I am looking for a party that can astutely analyse causes of the current problems facing the education system. The candidates and their teams need to lay out long-term, well thought-out, feasible and practical plans to revive Malawi’s education system as the bedrock for future development.

Why should I vote you?
We have now had a generation of disgruntled, disempowered and disappointed teachers who have so much bottled-up anger. A country whose teachers feel hopeless and helpless cannot inspire the young generation. That country will be doomed to perpetual mediocrity.

In the final analysis, no one president or running-mate can turn Malawi around single-handedly. What I am looking for in this campaign season is a candidate who has thought long and hard about Malawi’s complex problems, and has a plan for how to inspire Malawians to become active citizens in understanding our conditions and offering solutions.

This will be a candidate able to provide what Edge Kanyongolo, in his Nation on Sunday column (30th March, 2014) calls “straight answers to straight questions on specific issues.” Kanyongolo poses six questions to which he wants "clear, unambiguous answers." These range from cost of living versus minimum wage, the Labour Tenants Bill, homosexuality and abortion, the National Land Policy, accounting for past human rights abuses, to implementing Section 65.

But over and above the in-depth understanding of Malawi’s problems that I am looking for and the "straight answers" Edge Kanyongolo is asking for, Ephraim Nyondo makes a compelling case to scrutinise the “character” of the people who are asking for our votes (Nation on Sunday, 30th March). Nyondo argues that “the country's direction is not being driven by how conversant and articulate our leaders are on issues affecting Malawians, but rather, on the character of the person holding the presidency.” He suggests that it is character that is more important, defined through “integrity, temperament, patriotism, dedication and values . . .”

While agreeing with Nyondo, I suggest that we need a leader who has both an in-depth understanding of the issues, as well as character capable of bringing about the kind of change previous leaders have failed to bring. I am looking for a candidate able to inspire Malawians towards self-empowerment initiatives and taking responsibility for our destiny. That calls for both intellect and character.

Note: A shorter version of this article appeared in The Malawi News of Saturday, 22nd March, 2014, under a different title. It has been updated and revised to reflect on-going discussions on what to look for in a president.

Monday, March 24, 2014

In defense of Malawian languages: The case for multilingualism in our schools

Thanks to students majoring in Education at the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College, the Ministry of Education’s decision for English to be the language of instruction starting from Standard One has become a national debate. I would like to congratulate the students for their active participation in a matter of national significance.

The significance of this issue goes beyond the classroom. It is about national development, national identity, and national aspirations. And as the students have emphatically argued, it is also about class and social inequality. This is why the matter of language of instruction in schools awakens latent passions that lie deep down our hearts.

Thus far the debate has been restricted to the merits and demerits of English as the language of instruction from Standard One. What has not been discussed yet is the process the Ministry of Education has used to come up with the declaration, in the first place. While the main justification for the declaration, as quoted in the media, has centred around the importance of spoken English and grammar, that is not the whole story.

Young children exhibit remarkable creativity

As the Minister of Education, Dr. Lucius Kanyumba explained, the declaration is based on the New Education Act, 2012, which replaced the old Education Act of 1962. The process to come up with the New Education Act goes back to 2002, when the Ministry of Education requested the Law Commission to review the 1962 Education Act and come up with a new one. In August 2003 the government instituted the Special Law Commission, which undertook the task of reviewing the country’s laws.

The Special Law Commission embarked on wide consultations, including inviting submissions from various stakeholders on various aspects of the country’s laws. The issue of language of instruction in public schools came up during these consultations. A larger debate was going on amongst Malawians on the place of Chichewa as the national language, and the effects of having a national language on minority languages. There were those who argued that rather than having a Malawian language as a national language, giving it superiority over other languages, English would be an ideal alternative as a neutral foreign language.

By the time the Law Commission finished its work in 2010, it had drafted the New Education Act. The Commission issued a report titled “Report of the Law Commission on the Review of Education Act”, which was released in March of that year. One of its recommendations was the use of English as the language of instruction in schools. The report was silent on the rationale for this recommendation.

The issue of language of instruction is found in Section 78 of the New Education Act, which has two subsections 1 and 2. Subsection (1) is unequivocal in mandating English as the language of instruction. However it does not mention that this should be from Standard One. Subsection (2) is less unequivocal. It says “Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (1), the Minister may, by notice published in the Gazette prescribe the language of instruction in schools.” The use of the word “may” is somewhat circumspect, but the Minister has obviously used powers vested in his office to make the prescription, including the declaration that this should start in Standard One.

In making the declaration, the Ministry of Education has pleased sections of Malawian society who use proficiency in spoken English as a proxy for quality education. But this prescription goes against global trends and volumes of research findings that argue for the importance of mother tongue in the development of cognitive skills. That said, it is understandable why many parents view good spoken English as representative of quality education. There is a lot of prestige attached to English, and it gives one a global passport. It is an important language that bestows glamour on those who speak it.

What gets buried inside the debate is the recommendation for bilingual instruction, the practice of teaching in the mother tongue while introducing one other or more languages. The Chancellor College students are very right in arguing that children who develop a deeper functionality in their first language find it easier to learn a second language.

Teachers and lecturers in our secondary schools and universities are observing a trend in which students from private schools speak perfect English, but their reasoning, writing and problem-solving skills are not well developed. This is even as the Independent Schools Association of Malawi (ISAMA) is reporting reporting that 80 percent of students selected to Malawian universities are coming from private schools.

Language researchers have also found that children who speak more than one language exhibit better academic performance than children who know only one language, regardless of what that language is. This is why our language of instruction policy needs to promote multilingualism, and not monolingualism. Just a generation ago most Malawians were multi-lingual, speaking two or more languages on average. Today’s generation knows two languages, English and Chichewa, on average. If we do not enact policies to develop our local languages, the coming generations of Malawians will be reduced to only one language, English.

Monolingualism encourages insularity, a restricted worldview in which the only knowledge available to one is from one linguistic source. The danger with the new policy, as it stands, is the damage it can potentially cause to Malawian languages. The new policy will mean that as a country we will allocate more resources to English at the expense of nurturing and developing local languages.

Language familiarity facilitates expression in children
As the students have eloquently argued, this will benefit the children of the elites while disadvantaging children from poor families. But it must also be pointed out that this inequality is already prevalent with children of wealthy Malawians able to attend better schools than children of poor Malawians. Those of us who went to school in the 1970s and 1980s had Chichewa as the language of instruction in the early standards. We learned English as a subject. And our English proficiency has turned out to be alright.

Contrary to popular opinion, all languages have an inherent capacity to evolve and grow. Human knowledge has developed from the thousands of languages spoken across histories and geographies rather than from one language alone. Languages grow based on how much knowledge is generated in that language, and how much resources are being allocated to it.

Language is more than communication. It is about identity and cultural pride. It is also about national development. One key reason why our country registers slow growth and development is because new research and knowledge are predominantly in a language only few Malawians use. Our local languages are deprived of new knowledges which remain beyond the acquisition of the majority of our people.

The majority of our people remain poor and disempowered because they are denied an opportunity to participate in knowledge-making processes due to language policies that denigrate a core aspect of our identity. It is for these reasons that we must come up with language policies that promote greater knowledge-making, national confidence and civic participation amongst our people, without depriving them of knowledge available through foreign languages. This is why we must promote multilingualism, and not English only.

Note: A version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times edition of Sunday 23rd March, 2014

Angry teachers: class and contempt in Malawian society

One September morning in 2013 I was walking into my office building in Lilongwe when I noticed a huge crowd swarming around the notice board. My office is located inside a district education office, and teachers visit on a daily basis. But the young people crowding around the notice board on this day were not teachers. 

They were prospective student teachers. They had applied for openings in the Open and Distance Learning (ODL) teacher education programme, and had come to find out if they had been selected. This district office was the nearest centre they could visit to find out their results. Some of them had walked long distances on foot, others had used their hard-earned money to come by public transport.

I went on twitter and asked if there were computer programmers who could come up with mobile phone applications that would save these teachers long kilometres of walking or hundreds of kwacha for transport. A number of programmers expressed interest in the idea, and we agreed to meet. Using Facebook, we extended the invitation to teachers, and two female teachers joined our meeting.

We held our second meeting a few weeks ago. We met at the school where the two female teachers teach. Out of twenty teachers on the school’s staff, nine attended. The purpose of the meeting was to learn from the teachers what kinds of solutions they would like to explore with the use of technology, using mobile phones or computers, to make their classroom work easier. I was in for a bit of a surprise.

Although it is located a short drive from the centre of the city of Lilongwe, in a relatively wealthy, medium-density location, this school has never had electricity in its entire nineteen-year history. Needless to say, there is not a single computer at the school. Nothing surprising there. Having become a ubiquitious feature in classrooms in wealthier parts of the world, computers are non-existent in classrooms in poor countries such as ours.

A Primary Education Adviser supervising a teacher
While each of the nine teachers who came to the meeting had a cellphone, only one was able to go on the Internet. She was the only one on Facebook. The majority of the children who attend the school are those of maids, garden boys, guards and other menial workers. The children of the residents of the area go to expensive private schools.

It soon became pointless to talk about educational technology for classroom use, so the meeting turned into a free-for-all session in which the teachers let loose about their anger and frustrations:

Teachers in rural areas receive hardship allowances, but we in urban areas have worse hardships. The little salary we get goes to paying for minibuses or kabaza. We have too many children for one teacher. Too much record-keeping we have no time to prepare lessons. Rents are very high in cities.

We have served for eighteen years without a promotion. The few that get promoted wait for two years before their new salary is effected. When we try to go the ministry to enquire all receive are insults. Newer teachers are being promoted before our very eyes. No loan scheme. No medical scheme. I have bad lungs from inhaling chalk dust I need expensive specialist medical care twice a year and I can’t afford it. Reforms are imposed on us by senior officials who copy things from abroad where they go and eat fat allowances.  

We can’t even attend workshops locally. We introduce new ideas and others take credit for them. We nurse sick children, tend to injured students, handle blood, settle cases amongst students. Nurse, judge, teacher, all in one, no recognition. Now they are bringing the community to come and monitor us. Parents are entering classrooms and demanding to see our lesson plans and other records. . .

The first time I got a sense of how sore with anger Malawian teachers are was in 2004. I was doing field work, and I spent seven months talking to primary school teachers about conditions of their work. On my first day with these teachers in 2004, I had set aside two hours for the teachers to open up and describe the conditions in which they work. They were unstoppable. We spent the entire day on the topic, and they were only getting started.

Fast forward ten years, and the anger feels as raw as it felt in 2004. I realised, ten years ago, that our teachers have so many issues they keep bottled inside them and they are hungry for a chance to air them out. That is exactly how the teachers I met recently felt also. The past ten years have changed nothing in the way our teachers feel about the conditions of their work. They feel not only hopeless and helpless, they are convinced that nobody cares about their plight.

Even after I had explained twice that I had come during the lunch hour because I was not visiting them in any official capacity as I did not work for government, nor was I visiting them on behalf of the NGO that I work for, it did not matter. When I explained that my hope was for us to discuss things that we could do for ourselves as teachers, rather than waiting for someone to come and help us, I got some nods of agreement.

One thread that ran through the issues the teachers raised was one of disempowerment. They feel powerless to change anything. As if they have not had enough disrespect and disempowerment from everyone else, parents are now being empowered to come into the classroom and demand to see the teacher’s lesson plans. This is the lowest things can go, they said. Did they spend two years in college and ten years in the classroom only to end up reporting to a semi-literate parent who knew nothing about teaching? This they cannot take.

It was at this point that it started dawning on me the extent of the problem of accountability and class in this country. We are a highly segmented and class-divided country we refuse to be accountable to anybody we consider to be beneath us. This is a common human trait, and we are no exception. But our moral institutions have become too weakened to provide any framework for accountability to people we are expected to serve. If they are beneath us, they have to bow down to us, not the other way round. More problematic is that our political leaders excel at the rhetoric of humility when they fully know that in practice they expect us to worship them.

This is why many Malawians are pessimistic about the prospects of anything coming out of the on-going cashgate investigations. It is probably what was going on in the minds of those who partook of cashgate loot. With nobody to be accountable to, what was there to fear? This was best expressed by Watipaso Mkandawire in response to the article titled ‘Kudya Nawo: How Cashgate Became aMindset’ (The Lamp, February 2014 issue; also posted here).

Student Teachers from a DAPP TTC
Mkandawire argued that graft, greed and corruption were human problems that occurred even in countries where inequality is not as pronounced as it is in Malawi. “Our main enemy in Malawi,” wrote Mkandawire in a comment, “is our inability to create and maintain governance systems and enforcement [mechanisms] of those systems.”  He went on to give the example of how in countries where governance systems are observed and respected, being caught over-speeding or drink-driving results in a penalty. In Malawi, you can palm-grease the traffic police officer and get away with no penalty.

A society in which the teachers think of themselves as being at the bottom rung of the social ladder is a society in danger of cannibalising itself. If teachers cannot feel appreciated and see the rewards of hard work and dedication, they cannot teach hard work and dedication to their pupils. If a society cannot decide what values to inculcate in their children, and demonstrate those values in deed, that society cannot offer much inspiration to the next generation.

But it need not be that way. It is up to those Malawian teachers who understand the roots of this problem who can take up the mantle and begin to change things. It begins with how teachers are taught, and how they are valued. The DAPP Teacher Training Colleges are a good example of how teachers can be taught to be self-empowered problem-solvers. Empowerment is a self-authored process. Nobody can empower you. You can only empower yourself. For a fresh start, let us begin with the children, and those who teach them.

Note: A version of this article appeared in the Malawi News edition of Saturday 8th March, 2014