Monday, May 19, 2014

What the future may hold for Malawi beyond May 20th

The person who wins this week’s election will need to thank Malawians for one thing: our capacity to forgive and give people a second chance. But if the Afrobarometer poll is anything to go by, it will be the weakest mandate a Malawian president has ever had. The Afrobarometer survey showed Peter Mutharika winning by just 27 percent of the vote.

If that turns out to be accurate, it will mean that whoever wins, whether it will be Professor Mutharika as predicted, or Dr. Lazarus Chakwera, or Dr Joyce Banda, or indeed Atupele Muluzi, will have been rejected by more than 70 percent of Malawians. That will be phenomenally unimpressive. It may in fact nullify the idea of Malawians’ capacity to forgive and give a political party a second chance because it will be such a small percentage of voters putting someone into office based on arcane interests.

What is evident is that there are very particular reasons that are driving attraction to particular candidates. Most of us are pinning our hopes and aspirations for the country on a candidate and a party we believe is best able to deliver. What I aim to address in this discussion are those hopes and aspirations, and the Faustian bargain people have to make in choosing a candidate. Many of us will need to draw upon our capacity to forgive or to ignore major blemishes.

I have restricted myself to the national scenario, but my conviction lies in a Pan-Africanist outlook that draws from and contributes to the global social justice agenda. The domestic interpretation of that outlook is a social justice agenda that would reduce the run-away inequality between the majority poor and the wealthy elites. As we mark 50 years of nationhood this year, everyone's thoughts must on what we would like the next fifty years to look like.

Many of the reasons for choosing a candidate and their party go beyond the ethnicity factor which has played a decisive role in some elections, and has been insignificant in others. The key factors range from the desire to achieve genuine structural reform, to hope for what has been termed transformational leadership going into the next fifty years. There are five overriding themes that I think form the core of the agenda.

Malawi: under construction

Foremost is the immediate anger over the cashgate scandal. Then there is the urgency over public sector reform. Third is the significance of the youth demographic that has made parties rethink their choices for presidential candidate and running mate. Fourth on the list is failure to transform agriculture into a formidable economic engine for the country has left Malawians exposed to extreme poverty. And last but not least is the squandered opportunity to harness natural resources and minerals that has revealed the extent to which foreign conglomerates collude with our ruling elites to plunder the country.

Cashgate and the rule of law: Malawians are extremely angry and want the culprits brought to book. They are even angrier with the pace of progress in prosecuting the cases. But cashgate as a mindset is a multi-generational scandal going back to the 1990s and affecting all the governments that have ruled since the onset of multiparty politics in 1994. Cashgate happened as the culmination of a loss of ethical responsibility and adherence to rule of law.  

There is an interesting schizophrenia about wanting cashgate dealt with, and deciding which political party and presidential candidate can best deal with it. There is a good chance the party that wins the election will itself be deeply implicated in an aspect of cashgate or other forms of past fraud and corruption.

The urgency of public sector reform: All the parties and their candidates have demonstrated their knowledge of what has happened to morale in the civil service and performance in the public sector. They have all promised to restructure the civil service, but no party has made clear what practical steps their government will take to prevent previous failures.

Education and the youth demographic: Three of the major parties, the United Democratic Front, the People’s Party and the Democratic Progressive Party have gone out of their way to court the youth vote by putting up a young person as either a presidential candidate or a running mate. There are hundreds of young people running for parliament and for councillor.

The debate has been how to energise the youth and offer them meaningful life chances through a good education and employment. Out of all the ills troubling our education system, the topmost priorities right now should be to increase the numbers of schools at the primary, secondary, teacher training, technical and university levels. Along with that we must attend to the academic and professional quality of teacher education and their remuneration.

It is disheartening that whereas we have over 4 million students in primary school, we have less than 300,000 in secondary school. This means that 3.8 million young people fail to proceed to secondary school every four-year cycle, creating a huge unemployment bottleneck annually.

Agriculture and the economy: Agriculture is a perennial problem. Just a few years ago we were touted as a global example of an African country that had succeeded in registering a food surplus and ending hunger. Today we are back to where we were with more than 1.6 million Malawians facing severe food shortages in 2013, according to the UN. The political will to find lasting solutions has always competed with unsustainable and expensive solutions aimed at winning popular votes rather than solving the problem once and for all.

Natural resources: There is a lot anxiety over the country’s natural resources. The country has been exporting uranium for a few years now but there is nothing in the economy to show for it. There is mounting interest in other minerals and on oil exploration in Lake Malawi, and people are anxious to see how these can benefit the country rather than the foreign companies that are given the contracts in collusion with the ruling elites.

These are but a few of the myriad issues the next government will need to pay serious attention to. But there is one thing I have learned from this campaign season over and above everything else. Everyone running for president and their political parties have in-depth knowledge of what issues the country needs to grapple with. Many of them have brilliant, if not radical ideas that could truly transform the country’s fortunes.

But having the knowledge and brilliant ideas have proved over the years to be insufficient, as was argued by Ephraim Nyondo in his Nation on Sunday column in March. It matters less what the issues are, argued Nyondo. It is the character of the leader we elect that matters more. Malawi needs a leader with integrity, a good temperament, patriotism, dedication and values. I could not agree more. For me the issue of character is best captured in the intellectual capacity of the leader Malawi needs.

Dr Henry Chingaipe observed on Facebook recently that the best leader Malawians want needs to have the combined characteristics of all the candidates put together. The twelve candidates running for president demonstrated knowledge, experience, ideas, eloquence, discipline, transparency, tenacity, boldness, ambition, compassion and even humour.

But no one candidate seems to have all the desirable qualities. Even the candidates themselves observed this during the debates. The one overriding quality the next president will need will be a type of charisma that can inspire Malawians to rise up and be part of the change they want to see. Many of us are stuck in a state of incapacitation. We know what the problems are but the best we can do is complain or ignore, thinking that it is someone else’s responsibility.

Another winding road for the next fifty years?

Each of the parties with a meaningful chance of winning the election has major character flaws, as was observed by Victor Kaonga on Facebook. Voters will have to do a juggling act to decide which qualities to prioritise and which flaws to compromise over. And that is where the propensity to forgive the past or to ignore inconvenient truths will come in, outside ethnic and patronage considerations.

Voters will have to choose between forgiving cashgate and ignoring the absence of a grand vision, or prioritising compassion and charity for the poor. They may have to choose between forgiving arrogance, nepotism, threats of violence and revenge, or prioritising boldness of grand development ideas and past glory.

They may have to choose between forgiving grand corruption and ignoring plunder and the erosion of ethical behaviour, or prioritising youth appeal, charisma and a disciplined campaign. Voters may have to choose between forgiving past political murders and ignoring decades of dictatorship, or prioritising trust in theological pedigree, clarity of purpose, and the most distance from last atrocities.

But over and above the dilemma of compromises will be the question of how power changes an individual. Whoever becomes our next president ought to go into State House with a plan for how to handle the overwhelming corrupting influence that comes with political power.

We have seen the best and brightest minds go into politics full of promise and good will, only to become inebriated with power and hubristic arrogance. How the next president handles this frightening, all-consuming black hole will be pivotal. He or she will need to inspire the creativities energies of Malawians to rise up to this challenge and take the country’s destiny into our hands. That way, Malawians can look forward to the next fifty years with hope, pride and determination.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

In solidarity with Malawian teachers: Labour Day thoughts

This May Day (or Labour Day as we call it here) my thoughts are with Malawian teachers and their struggles. In particular my thoughts are with those teachers who defy the odds and make a difference in the lives of their students and in their communities. I would like to share a few stories on these teachers.

In October 2012 I received a Facebook message from someone who introduced himself as James Mitengo, a Standard 4 teacher at Mpeni Junior Primary School in Thyolo. He was looking for opportunities to extend a training programme he had developed on teaching using locally available resources, known in short as Talular. On his own initiative, James had managed to train up to 2,000 teachers in a number of districts in the southern region. He was looking to train more teachers.  Were there organisations that could fund him to extend the trainings to more districts?

I did not know organisations that could offer the funding he was looking for. But I could connect him to an online forum for teachers (Bwalo la Aphunzitsi), where he could network with other teachers. He did not succeed in getting the funding he was looking for, but he was able to achieve something else. He responded to an article I posted on the said forum describing how teachers in the United Kingdom were connecting their classrooms with teachers in Pakistan and Afghanistan. An official in the British Council office in Lilongwe, a fellow member of the forum, got in touch with him and invited him to a training in Liwonde on how the programme works.

James was able to get Mpeni Junior Primary School connected to a school in Scotland, and later to another one in England. But there was another problem. He did not have a laptop, nor did his school. James was able to make contact with fellow Malawian teachers, with the British Council and with schools in the UK using his mobile phone only. It worked, but did not provide his students an opportunity to connect with other students in Malawi or elsewhere. He needed at least a laptop.

I reached out to my network on twitter and facebook, and got a few expressions of interest and some pledges. One of the pledges came from Dr. Lisa Jilk, a friend and former classmate of mine, now a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, United States. She sent James $1,000, with which he was able to buy a laptop. James was now able to use a laptop in his classroom with his students. In July of this year James is going to Scotland to spend two weeks at the partner school. He will train the teachers there on Talular.

Teachers learning how to use a computer. Pic by James Mitengo
Mpeni Junior Primary School has no electricity; the school needs K100,000 (approx US$270) to get connected. There are eleven teachers at the school, but only two teachers’ houses. The school needs more classrooms to accommodate the large numbers of students. But by being creative and persistent, James is slowly developing his school and inspiring students and fellow teachers. He has the drive to reach out and network with other teachers and educators in Malawi and outside. But he is not alone.

In September 2013 I visited Nadzikhale Primary School in Dedza to observe a team of primary education advisers (PEAs) and head teachers conducting school evaluation. They were conducting what is known as School Performance Review, a school evaluation process developed by Link Community Development, which I work for. Nadzikhale school is located in a beautiful part of Dedza. From the school’s open ground you can see a vast open valley that stretches west to east, with blue hills in the distance.

One of the PEAs sat down with the head teacher of the school, Phillip James. I joined them on a bench under a tree shade. I noticed a bicycle leaning against the tree. It belonged to the head teacher, Mr James. It was an old bicycle, visibly worn out with tyres that had seen better days. Phillip told me he had used the bicycle for all the fifteen years he had worked at the school. The school has only two teachers’ houses, with a third house set aside for student teachers in the Open and Distance Learning programme.

Every day of the fifteen years Phillip has taught at Nadzikhale school he has commuted from the neighbouring village using the same bicycle. On this day the mobile phone network was very good, and I was able to go on twitter. Before we left the school I had a direct message in my twitter account. A friend who saw the tweets wrote and said he was touched by the dedication of this teacher. He was going to do something to express his gratitude. It was his conviction that such teachers, who worked hard for many years and never gave up, needed to be appreciated. He sent MK30,000 (approx US$75 in 2013), and today Phillip rides a new bicycle.
Phillip James's old bike and new bike

I have decided to share these two stories above because they defy the ubiquitous image of Malawian teachers who are demoralised and are always complaining of the conditions in which they work. No doubt, many Malawian teachers feel so demoralised they see nothing positive about the profession. And we cannot blame them. But there are a few who are not letting the problems they encounter paralyse them. Not only do they persevere, they actively seek solutions to problems their schools face.

The difference lies in the types of attitudes between teachers who feel hopeless and helpless, and teachers who actively pursue new ideas and seek solutions to problems. Most teachers graduate from teachers college confident that they will make a difference in the school and community they will serve. But many feel overwhelmed by the reality that hits them once they start their jobs.

As I have argued many times before, the model Malawi uses to train primary school teachers needs reform. Currently teachers are trained for two years, spending one year doing course work and one year doing teaching practice, in the residential system. In the open and distance learning system things are a bit different in that the student teachers spend the entire two years doing teaching practice in a school, only going for course work when school is on holiday.

The open and distance learning model was introduced in 1989, and I was in the inaugural class. Our training lasted four years; we did not graduate until September 1993. Throughout those four years I did not feel intellectually challenged by the content. So I went about buying books and novels that I read in my spare time. This was when Malawi had proper bookshops spread out across the country.

Today, much of the training is done through modules written by teacher educators who draw on materials produced by other educationists. There are no peer-reviewed books or journal articles published in a proper academic settings. Lecturers in our teacher training colleges are not required to conduct research and publish. The only new knowledge being introduced in our teacher education system is through donor-funded workshops and projects. None of our universities has active involvement in the education of primary school teachers.
The Deputy Headteacher at Mpeni working on the donated laptop.
Pic by James Mitengo

There were efforts a few years ago to integrate teacher training colleges into public universities so that primary school teachers should be undergoing a more academically-rigorous university-level teacher preparation. I do not know how far that discussion went, as no one mentions it anymore. It has been argued that training primary school teachers up to university diploma or degree level would end up solving the wrong problem – that of teacher shortage in community day secondary schools.

But that problem would only arise if there were no improvements in remuneration and conditions of service in primary schools. Teachers, as is the case with any workers, will go where the pay and conditions of service are better. If salaries and conditions of work in primary schools are made attractive for highly educated teachers, they will stay and will improve the quality of primary school education.

There have been major changes in the teaching profession in Malawi since my days as a teacher. There were no teacher development centres during my day, and inspectors were based at the district office rather than at the zone. Schools now get annual grants for school improvement projects, and the amounts are doubling each year.

But the mentality amongst many teachers remains stuck in a beggar-mindset, possibly because the needs are too great and the pace of change is very gradual. A group of teachers I met in 2013 told me their school had not used their grant from the previous year, and they were about to get a new grant. They had no idea what the funds would be used for; they were appealing for help from “well-wishers”.

We need to develop a system to recognise, support and reward creativity, innovation and hard work amongst our teachers.  Teachers who have innovative ideas need to know that they can be supported and rewarded. In other countries teachers are recognised by national teacher of the year awards at various levels. We need to develop our own system starting at the school level going up to the national level, including primary education advisers and district education managers. That will be the best way of motivating teachers and educators, and injecting authentic pride and dignity into the teaching profession.