We are winding down a year that marked two key milestones in our nation’s autobiography. We marked fifty years of independence, and we also marked twenty years of multiparty democracy and the end of one-party dictatorship. As we embark on another fifty years of national independence and another twenty of multiparty democracy, I want to ask a question: Do we as Malawians have a sense of national consciousness? A sense of Malawi being bigger and more important than our individual selves and interests?
Having a national consciousness is about putting one’s country above one’s personal, clan, ethnic, class, political and other self-serving interests. A national consciousness gives one hope in something greater than oneself. It grounds one’s optimism and protects a society from hopelessness, pessimism and paralysing negativity. But national consciousness does not originate itself. It has to be cultivated and nourished. And it has to be taught to the younger generation so they can nurture it further and carry it into the future.
The national heroes who fought for independence fifty years ago had a national consciousness that they held above personal and other narrow interests. They sacrificed their lives because they believed in something that was greater than them. They espoused a national, indeed Pan-African, cause for which they were prepared to die. And many indeed died. Kanyama Chiume, Henry Masauko Chipembere and others wrote autobiographies and other accounts that have taught us what sacrifices they made and what it took to achieve independence and nationhood. Their lessons still resonate today, if not more so.
So did the heroes who fought for multiparty democracy twenty years ago. They knew how dangerous it was to contradict the then Life President, Ngwazi Dr. H. Kamuzu Banda, and the almighty Malawi Congress Party. Some had been killed before, and others had been imprisoned indefinitely. Others had left the comfort of home and had gone into exile. Others simply disappeared and were never heard from again. Yet these heroes bravely espoused a national cause to liberate the country from one-party tyranny. Today, all that is being gradually eroded. That history is being methodically sanitised and purposefully forgotten.
Something seems to have happened to our national consciousness. As Taweni Gondwe Xaba once observed in an online conversation, today Malawians have a very low sense of “national allegiance.” Personal, ethnic, class and political interests have taken over what was once an allegiance to the nation. When a society loses its sense of national consciousness, national amnesia, blind frustration and paralytic pessimism come in and occupy the vacuum. There are Malawians for whom the idea of a national consciousness does not exit. Bola zawo zikuyenda basi.
That is the stage Malawi is at today. There are hardly any national figures to look up to for optimism and inspiration. The few Malawians who still embrace national consciousness have the odds stacked against them in a society whose moral relativism favours personal aggrandisement or ethnic chauvinism. Instead, we have supposedly respectable people proudly boasting about knowing national secrets that are destroying the nation. But they choose to keep those secrets to themselves so as to protect individuals, at the expense of national progress.
We have people who have inside information about murders, massive theft and plunder, and other heinous crimes against the nation. But they choose to keep quiet. They hold their personal interests and narcistic considerations above the national interest. They have no sense of national consciousness. They selfishly hold themselves to be bigger than Malawi. They do not wish the country well. They are content to see mothers and fathers forever mourning their murdered children while the killers roam the streets as free people. They are content to see the country continue haemorrhaging economically, yet they have the knowledge of who stole what and how they did it. And that plunder still goes on today.
We have Malawians so beholden to the saintly image of their leader they are loath to any suspicions of impropriety by the leaders, even in the face of evidence. They comfort themselves in a false sense of righteousness and refuse to accept that their heroes are plundering the nation and need to be held to account. When you reach that stage where you defend your leader to the extent of absurdity, know that you have lost your sense of national allegiance. The same goes for ethnic, political, class and other types of unexamined allegiances.
But all is not lost. The two milestones we marked this year give us pause to reflect on how to change things and imagine a new Malawi. As Levi Kabwato is fond of reminding us, quoting Frantz Fanon, “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.” And we have the intellectual and ideological tools to do this. Our leading thinkers and philosophers have pointed the way. We still have Malawians we can look up to.
We must start with cultivating a culture of uMunthu, upon which our ancestors built their societies. As the psychologist Chiwoza Bandawe points out in his book Practical uMunthu Psychology: An indigenous approach to harmonious living, “to lose uMunthu is to lose our history and identity as people.” Which means, in paraphrase, to regain our uMunthu is to regain our history and identity as a people. That is the beginning point for the rebirth of a new Malawian national consciousness. Let us make this uMunthu-based national consciousness our mission to fulfil for the next fifty years.
Note: A version of this post appeared in The Malawi News of Saturday 27th December, 2014.