Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Ascent into the Ages: Mikelle Antoine, In Memoriam

On Sunday 22nd November, Facebook reminded me of a picture I had posted six years ago, in 2009. In the picture is Mikelle Antoine, her husband, Nii, their two young children, and myself. The picture was taken on 21st November 2009, on the campus of the University of Ghana at Legon, in Accra. In the background is the Kwame Nkrumah Institute of African Studies. I had just arrived in Accra, to attend a Third World Studies annual conference in Elmina, on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.
It was a nice memory. I shared it, and wrote in the comment: “Do you remember this day?” I tagged Mikelle, and hoped she would see the tag and be reminded of the memory. A thought ran through my mind. I hadn’t seen updates from Mikelle in a long time. I went to her page to see what she had been up to lately. 

Somebody wished her a happy birthday, on 7th November. Beneath that comment somebody wrote: “Rest In Peace Mikelle. You were an inspiration to many and sorely missed.” That was very strange, I thought. Just because somebody hadn’t been active on their Facebook page lately, and you write on their page "rest in peace"? Below that was another birthday message; all of them posted on the 7th of November.

Another earlier message also said “Rest in Peace.” And another one. Several more. By this time my heart was pounding, and I was beginning to sweat. I started inboxing the people who had written the condolence messages, asking them what they were talking about. I got one reply within a few minutes. “Unfortunately, Mikelle died in July. She had breast cancer.” I was shattered.

I got to know Mikelle Antoine around 2003, in East Lansing, Michigan. I was a PhD student in the Department of Teacher Education, in the College of Education at Michigan State University. She was a PhD student in the History Department. One semester I took a history course in alternative modernities in African history, and that was when I got to know her. She was in the same class. Around the same time, I got to know about the Blueprints Book Club (BBC), which Leketi Makalela, then a PhD student in Linguistics also at Michigan State, and Walter Sistrunk, another PhD student, had initiated. It brought together ten or so of us, PhD students from Africa, the Caribbean and the United States, studying various aspects of Africa. Mikelle was a key member of the book club.

It was an exciting period of my life as a student. The idea behind the BBC was that there was a history of Africa that was not being taught in mainstream academia. This history, we believed, presented a form of knowledge about the Pan-African world that would have a liberating effect on African peoples. So we hungered for this knowledge. We drew up a list of books and read one book every two or so weeks. We read the work of Ivan Van Sertima, Molefe Asante, Jacob Carruthers, Cheikh Anta Diop, Marimba Ani, and others.

The recommendation to read Marimba Ani came from Mikelle, who got her first degree from Hunter College in New York where Marimba Ani was a professor of African Studies. Professor Ani taught Mikelle at Hunter. We read Marimba Ani’s 1994 book Yurugu: An Afrikan-Centered Critique of European Cultural Thought and Behaviour.

Other topics we read and discussed were Afrocentrism, ancient African science, ancient African philosophy, Pan-Africanism, among others. One weekend a replica of the slave ship The Amistad was brought to Detroit and was docked on the shore of the Detroit River. We drove to Detroit to see it, and read and discussed its history. We also saw the movie The Amistad.

Back in the classroom, the history course I took in the History Department proved to be a turning point in my intellectual itinerary. Throughout my graduate school career, starting with the University of Iowa where I had studied English Education, there was a nagging question at the back of my mind. What was there in Africa before the coming of the Europeans? Although both my programmes at Iowa and at Michigan State were in teacher education, for the questions about Africa, I looked to other disciplines in pursuit of the nagging question.

For the term paper in the history class, I decided to give the nagging question a go. One evening I entered the MSU library around 6pm, and went to the stacks. By the time I decided to take a break, it was 6am the following day, and I had a huge pile of history books on Africa. The most fascinating discoveries were Cheikh Anta Diop's The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality, Ivan Van Sertima's They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America, and Martin Bernal's three-volume Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization. They opened my eyes to what was there in Africa beyond the colonial experience.

There was a lot to learn and to unlearn. Exploring this new terrain with minds like Mikelle and others was a fascinating experience. We attended African Studies conferences. We presented papers. We talked and debated for hours. For me this meant bringing these new perspectives to the African school curriculum and the education of African teachers, which I looked forward to engaging in full time after my studies.

Mikelle was born and grew up in Haiti, and later came to the United States. As an undergraduate student at Hunter College she studied abroad, and it happened to be at the University of Ghana at Legon. There she met Nii, who was studying Theatre. They fell in love, and later got married. Nii joined Mikelle in Michigan, and I drove Mikelle to the airport in Detroit to welcome him.

When Nii finished his masters’ degree at Michigan State, they moved back to Accra and started raising a family. Enroute to Accra, Mikelle donated a huge chunk of her library to a South African university, where she stayed briefly for part of her research.

When I landed at Kotoka International Airport in Accra on 21st November 2009, Mikelle and Nii, and their two young children, were there to welcome me. I had told them, as I prepared for the trip, that for me this would be a pilgrimage to the capital of Pan-Africanism. Thus during my visit they took me to Kwame Nkrumah’s Memorial Park, where the great Pan-Africanist leader and philosopher rests. They also took me to the W.E.B. DuBois Memorial Centre for Pan-African Culture where the great Pan-Africanist scholar and pioneer is reposed.

Mikelle finished her PhD dissertation in 2010. She defended it on 4th June at Michigan State University, and it was titled The Rise of Asante Women within the Ahmadiyya Muslim Mission, 1960-1983. It was a study of how Asante women pursued liberation by becoming Muslim between the 1960s and the 1980s.

Mikelle was very involved intellectually, socially and communally. She was a history professor at Ashesi University, where she also taught gender, Islam, media and film, and museum education. She was director of fundraising at College for Ama, a non-profit that supported girls’ education in Accra.

She was an independent-minded and original thinker, not easily satisfied with received knowledge and accepted beliefs. I remember her one day disputing the claim that capitalism was a Western phenomenon, foreign to Africa. Disillusioned with the quality of education both in public and private schools on the continent, she strongly advocated for home-schooling. She even wrote an e-book on the topic, titled 30 Steps to Homeschooling Successfully in Africa. She was an active blogger and wrote numerous articles on homeschooling, parenting, education and other topics on her blog, Mikelle on Education

In 2014 Mikelle and her family moved to South Carolina in the United States. In an email, she told me it was going to be for a year. On her blog she wrote about her visit to the US, and the historical research she was pursuing. She said South Carolina and North Carolina were “an extension of the West African coast… a continuation of El Mina, Cape Coast and part of the slave dungeon history.”

Ever the historian, she said the two Atlantic states answered the question “what happened to those Africans? What did they become? Did they thrive? The coasts tell one part of the story and SC/NC tell the other half.”

She shared a fascinating piece of living history she had stumbled upon in South Carolina: “While here, we learned what became of some of our ancestors. We recently learned about a 100 year old former share cropper woman with a second grade education. She is still living and grew up with knowledge of an African language.”

It was to be her last blog post, posted together with another one on cancerous tumours. In hindsight, that was the closest hint she ever let on that she was terminally ill. Mikelle died on 30th July this year, in South Carolina, where she was buried. She was a Pan-Africanist who lived and breathed mother Africa. She was a loving wife to Nii, a caring mother to their three children, a sweet-hearted friend and a gifted intellectual. A beautiful soul through and through. She would have turned 40 today, November 24th. She has joined the ancestors, and now belongs, to borrow an Obama phrase, to the ages. 

Monday, October 05, 2015

Empowering teachers: Thoughts on World Teachers’ Day 2015

When he officially opened Malawi’s newest teacher training college, Chiradzulu TTC, on 16th September, Malawi’s president Peter Mutharika said something that if he does not follow up on with action, might shadow his legacy in Malawian education. It is something I have decided not to cynically dismiss as one of those things presidents say and never mean it.

Today is 5th October, the day the world commemorates and celebrates teachers every year. I want to use the occasion to reflect on the state of the teaching profession in Malawi, and in parts of the world where teachers’ issues have been in the news lately. I want to discuss the implications of the promises President Mutharika made to Malawian teachers in September, and to draw attention to issues that now impinge on the teaching profession globally. Continental momentum, in the form of the African Union’s Agenda 2063, and a global imperative in the form of the newly launched Sustainable Development Goals give teachers new ideals to aspire to and to inspire their students with.
Now back to President Mutharika. The Official Malawi Government Online facebook page quoted the president as saying: “We must provide teachers with necessary resources and respect them because teaching is the mother of all professions.” Nyasatimes quoted him thus: “My government wants to make sure that teachers also live a good life like Engineers, lawyers and doctors as a way of motivating them to mould our children’s future with dedication.” He added: “Let us be people who raise the flag of our standards very high. We deserve the best and must aspire to be at our best. Education is where we begin the making of a nation.”

Mr President, these are solemn, loaded, heavy, pregnant words. If you will not do anything to make sure that what you have promised actually happens, these words will ring hollow in the minds of Malawian teachers. And they will be a yardstick against which to judge your legation in Malawi’s education.

There is enough precedence to view the president’s words as another of those speeches presidents give, powered with high-falutin profound-sounding words without meaning to do anything about the promise. We have heard these things before too many times it would be folly to imagine that this time the president is serious. It was probably a scripted speech, written by someone within the Ministry of Education, if not the minister himself. But I am choosing to take the president up on his word for one simple reason.

Amongst Malawi’s numerous priorities, in ranking order of more pressing priorities within the highest priorities, changing the status of the teaching profession ranks, for me, as of the utmost importance when thinking of long term national development plans. It is so important that it does not matter to me that the president may have made yet another empty promise using this very language.

There are four or so countries in the world that have actually made this happen: raise the profile of the teaching profession into a highly prized, prestigious one. The best known country for this is Finland. South Korea, China and Singapore are also spoken of in similar terms, but Finland is the best known example (I initially included Japan on this list, but a Japanese academic, who is also a friend and former classmate, said that was no longer the case). In Africa, Zimbabwe gets the trophy.

Although the countries I am mentioning here are far advanced and far wealthier than Malawi, perhaps with the exception of Zimbabwe, debatably, it is their investments not just in education, but in the teaching profession, that has been central to their advancement. They did not all start out wealthy and developed. They worked toward it. Although ours is a different context, with different resources and circumstances, I do not see why we cannot study these countries to see what they did, what we can learn from them, and what we can ignore.

As Finland’s most prominent educationist, Professor Pasi Sahlberg, has explained, Finland learned a lot from other countries, particularly the American education system. But their learning was on the terms of the Finnish people, such that they were able to develop a Finnish education system that today surpasses the American education system.

One of the most important things Finland did to turn around a mediocre education system into a world class one was to change the way they educate and reward their teachers. To qualify as a primary school teacher in Finland (and in a few other wealthy countries), the minimum requirement is a masters’ degree in education. And they do not accept into their teacher education programmes just anyone. Candidates are subjected to a rigorous process that culminates into an interview, where prospective teachers must articulate their life philosophy and express a deeper perspective about why they would like to become a teacher. Many, very bright and promising, fail.

So selective is the process, according to Professor Sahlberg, that teaching is the most sought after programme in the Finnish education system. Contrast that with many other countries, including Malawi and the United States, where the most prestigious university programmes are medicine, law, finance and engineering. Education ranks at the bottom.

The result of such highly specialised teacher education is that Finland puts a lot professional and intellectual responsibility into the teacher’s hands rather than into the hands of the authorities. In Professor Sahlberg’s words, the Finnish system believes in teacher responsibility rather than teacher accountability. He says accountability is what remains when responsibility has been removed.

Finnish students enter school and go all the way to the penultimate year of secondary school without sitting a national examination. The only examination they sit is at the end of secondary school. This is deliberately designed so as to remove the pressure of teaching to the test and give teacher the space to be creative and give each child the attention and support they deserve.

Recently, Professor Sahlberg has expressed worry that the success of the Finnish education system may be in jeopardy. The Finnish government  has adopted austerity measures and is planning to implement cuts in the national budget, including education. Finnish teachers recently joined other public workers in a nation-wide strike to protest against the cuts.
A recent upsurge in teacher accountability has changed the teaching profession around the world. Students are now being subjected to too many tests whose results are purported to reflect a teacher’s performance. As a result teachers are now being dictated to by examinations, teaching to the test and taking away the creativity that classrooms need for an education system to excel.

This is happening in many countries around the world. In South Africa, Professor Jonathan Jansen, Vice Chancellor of the University of the Free State and a leading educational thinker on the continent, says teachers are now “preparing young people for examinations rather than for deep and meaningful learning in the subject.” He argues that the country’s Annual National Assessments, which have recently become a bone of contention between the government and teachers’ unions, “distort the purposes of education at the bottom end of the system.”

This trend is happening including in the developed world. When Nancy Atwell, an American teacher of reading and writing, was announced as the winner of the $1 million 2015 Global Teacher Prize, the first time the award has been given, she lamented what has befallen the teaching profession in her country. In remarks that stirred a debate amongst Americans, Ms Atwell said she would not encourage youngAmericans to join the teaching profession in the state it is today. Perhaps in the private schools yes, but definitely not in the public education system. “If you’re a creative, smart young person, I don’t think this is the time to go into teaching.”

The Global Teacher Prize is considered to be the Nobel Prize for Teaching, so Ms Atwell’s words were greeted with shock and amazement by some. In August this year a teacher in the state of Michigan announced she was quitting teaching in the public education system to teach at a private school. She titled her essay, published on the Huffington Post, “Why I can no longer teach in public education.”

In the same month of August, Motoko Rich of the New York Times reported that between 2010 and 2014 enrolment into teacher preparation programmes dropped by30 percent across the United States. Worse still, 40 percent of new teachers leave the profession within five years. Stories like these are becoming common around the world.

Last Saturday 3rd October the British newspaper The Independent reported on a survey done for the National Union of Teachers (NUT) that revealed that 53 percent of teachers in Britain are contemplating quitting the profession in the next two years. The top three reasons are “excessive workloads, poor pay and low morale.”

It would be interesting to know what the numbers look like for the teaching profession in Malawi or on the African continent. The only exception might be in countries where unemployment is so bad that quitting a job in hand is not an option. This happens to be the case in countries where unemployment is indeed very high and teachers remain in the teaching profession only because they have nowhere else to go. High unemployment is now becoming a global problem, affecting even the wealthiest of countries.

Such teachers only teach because they have no choice. Otherwise, they hate the job and everything to do with it. Such a scenario is very unfortunate because it is innocent children who get the brunt of these teachers’ anger and frustrations. Elephants fighting and the grass getting pulverised. Often things get to this point when teachers feel that they have nowhere to go to air their grievances; nobody is listening. Right now, that is how the majority of teachers feel, in Malawi and in much of the world.

The theme for the 2015 World Teachers Day is “Empowering teachers, building sustainable societies.” Another very powerful-sounding phrase, only if it can be put into action. It is such a gratifying, highly motivating theme, one that demonstrates the seriousness with which the teaching profession needs to be taken. We know societies where this is taken seriously, as earlier discussed. With the newly launched Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), sustainability has become such a powerful word, as Chiku Malunga has observed.

In Malawi, as in many countries, we have been lagging behind in terms of recognising the importance of teacher empowerment.  While much of southern Africa has improved the minimum qualifications of teachers, involving universities in the education of teachers, in Malawi primary school teachers are trained in a way that can only be described as hap-hazard.

A two-year certificate, one year spent in college and one year in a classroom. There is very little academic rigour involved. The effort has been there to enhance primary teacher education and involve the universities, but it has been slow, halting, and uncoordinated. Things have picked up in recent years, and we are on the verge of a significant change.

It might be that President Mutharika’s words have been uttered at a propitious moment when the Ministry of Education has been thinking along the same lines, but it is a moment that must not be missed. At the continental level, the discourse is about the renewal of Africa; a rebirth of the continent; an African Renaissance. The African Union has launched an ambitious 50-year plan, to run from 2013 to 2063, known as Agenda2063. Africans are slowly getting to learn about this agenda.

Although Agenda 2063 has very little in terms of strategy (it's not meant to be), it is a dream that perfectly captures “the Africa we want”, as is expressed in the document’s subtitle. I have argued elsewhere, and want to reiterate the assertion here, that Agenda 2063 and the African Renaissance will not be realised without the involvement of teachers. And this is where the importance of teachers who are highly educated, genuinely motivated and meaningfully empowered becomes poignant.

Agenda 2063 needs to be adopted into not just national development plans, but into educational policy and school curricula as well. That way, teachers will teach and students will learn inspired by a long-term Pan-African vision and spurred on by the dream of a better Africa whose planning and enactment start today. Only empowered teachers can understand and implement such a policy.

Empowerment, as one of my mentors taught me years ago, is not something someone hands to you. It is something one takes upon oneself. Teachers should not sit and wait for someone to come and empower them. They should empower themselves by organising themselves, speaking out on things that matter, and showing their students how to make learning problem-based and community-building.

As I have also argued elsewhere, Agenda 2063 needs to be translated into local African languages so as to enable ordinary Africans, the majority of whom do not speak English, to own it and make it part of their aspirations. As Cheikh Anta Diop pointed out in 1948, and as Ngugi wa Thiong’o has more recently stated, there cannot be a renaissance without the involvement of African languages. And as Kwesi Prah said in 2013, “No country can make progress on the basis of a borrowed language.”

This is not to say we must abandon Western languages, no. We need them. We have invested so much in them already, and continue, as I am doing this very moment. But we must equally invest in African languages so as to allow the majority of Africans, ninety percent of whom do not speak a Western language, to participate in the renewal. It cannot be the case that there is no indigenous genius in African villages unless one speaks a Western language. There can be no African Renaissance without the talents, creativity and brilliance of ordinary Africans being unleashed and expressed in their own languages.

The role of teachers in this endeavour will be pivotal. The best educated teachers serve as thought leaders and community enablers. They inspire young people by their knowledge of subject matter content as well as their intellectual curiosity about the world and its future. They impart to their students ethical standards (uMunthu/uBuntu) and a problem-solving ethos.

In other words, they embody the message in the words President Mutharika used when he was opening Chiradzulu Teachers College: “Teaching is the mother of all professions … Education is where we begin the making of a nation.” They may be empty, high-falutin, meaningless words spoken by every president, but they come at a time when teacher empowerment is becoming an ideal that can claim a central place in the rebirth of the Pan-African world.
As the SDGs kick into action, replacing the unachieved MDGs, President Mutharika has been appointed to serve as a co-convener on the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity, chaired by former British Prime Minister and UN Special Envoy for Global Education, Gordon Brown.

Other co-conveners are the Norwegian Prime Minister, Erna Solberg, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, and UNESCO Director General, Irina Bokovo. The International Commission itself is made up of more than twenty world leaders, who include five former presidents and prime ministers and three Nobel laureates.

As the world celebrates teachers today, the words of President Peter Mutharika that "teaching is the mother of all professions" send an echo to all world leaders. The teachers of the world are not sitting and watching, waiting to be "empowered." They are empowering themselves. Happy World Teachers Day! 

Monday, September 28, 2015

Kicking away the JCE ladder

Let me start with a disclaimer. I am not an expert in educational measurement, evaluation and assessment. These are highly specialised areas in educational research dealing with tests and examinations, and Malawi has quite a number of experts in the disciplines. My familiarity lies with curriculum, pedagogy, educational policy and teacher education. So my views in the ensuing discussion pertain to the policy implications of the decision, by the Malawi government, to abolish the Junior Certificate of Education (JCE), in the broader context of Malawi’s education system.
Several factors make the decision to abolish the JCE a monumental one. Debate on the JCE has been around for some time, although it was rather informal and sporadic. There have been research studies on educational assessment in Malawi, and a recommendation to abolish the JCE goes back to 2004, according to a study titled Student testing and assessment reform done by Kadzamira, E., Moleni, K., Kholowa, F., Nkhoma, M., Zoani, A., Chonzi, R., and Chigeda, A.

According to a 2013 article by Dr. Bob Chulu, Dean of the Faculty of Education at Chancellor College, in the journal Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, research studies in assessment have shown that school-based assessments are more effective than national examinations. The Malawi Government has been gradually evolving toward continuous assessment as a more effective mode of evaluating students.
Sooner or later, the JCE was going to be abolished, more for reasons of educational efficiency and the improvement of teaching and learning, than for economic exigency. It was only a matter of how and when to make the decision. Two questions now stare us in the face. First, whether the manner in which the decision has been arrived at has taken care of all the cautions issued and recommendations made by research studies. Second, where do we go from here?

As reported by the Daily Times of Monday21st September, the decision to abolish the JCE has come as part of the on-going Public Service Reform Programme (PSRP). Government ministries, agencies and parastatals are doing internal scrutiny and deciding for themselves how and what to reform. The suggestions are taken to the PSRP Commission, where they are further scrutinised and debated, before making a decision on them and passing it on to the president. What this means is that the changes announced last week came from MANEB itself. The president merely approved them, probably after being convinced, by way of the commission’s decision.

Writ large, the public service reforms are a much-needed and welcome change for Malawi. The country’s future depends on them. We cannot continue business as usual, lest we manifest Albert Einsten’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results each time (I just learned this is a mis-attribution). As long as the internal process itself is systematic, consultative, and rigorous, we can rest assured of a process that will bear good fruit. Whether that indeed is the case will be known in due course.

Coming to the JCE question, a number of factors complicate the way in which the decision has been made. The first factor is that the reforms are happening at a time when the Malawi economy is undergoing severe problems. While it is true that necessity is the mother of all inventions, the danger in our circumstances is that institutions may be tempted to think of reforms dictated more by economic necessity than by the desire for wholistic efficiency. There is great risk here that the economic factors could triumph over common sense and end up skewing the reforms. This is not to question the timing of the reforms. It is the perfect timing. But the risk for skewed reforms needs to be taken seriously. In any case, and as Austin Madinga pointed out on his Facebook page, “it had to start somewhere.”

The second complicating factor is the efficiency, or lack of it, of our educational system. The majority of Malawians who start school dropout and never finish. About 900,000 enter school every year and after seven years about 700,000 drop out, according to government statistics (ESIP II, 2014). Only about 90,000 make it to secondary school yearly. This decision means that we will have millions of Malawians who attended some schooling but left with nothing to show for it. Countries that do not have the equivalent of the JCE tend to be countries whose dropout rates are negligible. Ours are some of the highest on the planet.

The idea of having people request for their Standard 8 transcript means that the majority will choose not to for reasons others have pointed out. It is true that both the Standard 8 and the JCE certificates are no longer valuable for employment. But this is based on faulty thinking, as I will explain in a moment.

The third factor relates to the message being sent about the value of education up to Form 3, as I have pointed out elsewhere. This is an unintended consequence concealed in the justification given for the decision to abolish the examination. The message to students, teachers and parents is that none of this education is important, until a student reaches Form 4. This reasoning emanates from what we could call, for lack of a better term, the kick-away-the-ladder syndrome, borrowing from the South Korean and Cambridge University economics professor, Ha Choon Chang.

The argument given by the government, that the JCE has lost its value and is not demanded by employers emanates from this syndrome. It can only be made after one has ascended to the roof and now thinks one no longer needs the ladder. So one kicks it away. The success is being mistaken for the path. The fact that you have now reached the roof does not mean you did not need the ladder all along. Sending this message about the value, or lack thereof, of education up to Form 3 can erode seriousness amongst students, teachers and parents. Though unintended, it is the wrong message to send.

The fourth factor is using employment demands to drive educational policy. This is a tricky one. While it is undeniable that employment is an overriding aim of education, focusing strictly on employment demands restricts the purposes of education. The purpose of education, as the late Tanzanian president Mwalimu Julius Nyerere pointed out in 1968, is to prepare students to thrive in and contribute positively to their society. People contribute to society in more ways than dictated by employment demands. Democratic citizenship is an equally important purpose of education, which should not play second fiddle to employment demands.

The fifth factor complicating this decision is the speed and volume of the changes. There have been no less than four major educational changes announced in a space of eleven days in September alone. And more are coming. There is a new secondary school curriculum now. There are new national educational standards. Many simultaneous changes could potentially send a shockwave through the education system. I don't envy the Ministry of Education officials, DEMs, PEAs and head teachers who have to implement all these radical changes all at once. We should consider introducing them in phases to allow for an orderly change management process.
In getting rid of the JCE, MANEB has offered continuous assessment as a replacement. Dr. Chulu observed, in his journal article, that continuous assessment was suggested to MANEB several years ago, and MANEB rejected it for reasons to do with security and reliability. Now that MANEB seems to have changed its mind, it is time to revisit the models suggested by assessment experts. Continuous assessment is not easy to conduct.

A pilot study done in Ntcheu in the early 2000s found that although it improved student performance, it was taxing. Teachers found it very demanding, especially in large classes. Teachers implementing continuous as part of the current Primary Curriculum and Assessment Reform (PCAR) have since complained that they spend more time filling forms and recording numbers than preparing for teaching. Rather than improve teaching and learning, this form of busy work has worsened matters.

Moving forward after the abolition of JCE will require meticulous caution. There will be need to consult widely, from students to teachers to parents and other stakeholders. Continuous assessment works in contexts where classes are small. The target of 60 students per teacher which Malawi has been aiming at for the past decade is far from the ideal, as anyone who has taught young people will testify. The only reason that ratio appears in our policy documents is because the status quo is unimaginable. We have perhaps the highest teacher-pupil ratios in the world. The official one appearing in policy documents, 1:78, is far from the reality on the ground. The national ratio obscures the true numbers in the lower grades.

Teachers need to be well educated, and resources need to be available for continuous assessment to succeed. A Zambian study on continuous assessment confirmed the problems caused by large classes and lack of teaching and learning resources (Kapambwe, 2010). It also identified student absenteeism and poor monitoring and feedback by district officials as other compounding factors.

These challenges are common to Malawi as well. If the money saved from these decisions does not go towards addressing the identified challenges and making conditions more conducive for continuous assessment, we will be courting worse disasters down the road.
There is a paradox about examinations. They influence teaching and learning because students, teachers and society tend to take them as the ultimate goal of education. They become self-reinforcing. This paradox extends to global educational role models. Finland, considered to have the best education system in the world, has only one national examination, taken at the end of secondary school. East Asia (China, Singapore, South Korea), which now produces the highest student performance scores in the world, relies on a heavy, punishing examination regimen. Some students commit suicide in the process.

A paradigm shift is underway in global education, moving from education for employment towards education for creativity and innovation. The rationale for this shift is that nobody can predict the world of the future, so it does not make sense to educate students for employment. Better to educate them for creativity and innovation so they can adapt their knowledge to solve problems unknown today. 

There are good models Malawi can learn from. But removing the examinations without a careful, deliberate process could create a vacuum that could paralyse the system. We need to proceed very carefully and put in place long term plans, guided by meaningful consultations. Or else we will be solving a few problems while creating bigger ones.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Malawi at Fifty One: The Education Legacies of Malawi's Presidents Hitherto

It is a noteworthy paradox that while the seventy years Malawi was under colonial rule from 1894 to 1964 there was no university, within nine months of independence, Malawi had one (Cuthbert Kachale, 2015). In ensuring that Malawi got a university just months after independence, the founding president of the country, Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda made clear the pioneering role that higher education was going to play in the development of the country.

However the advances our higher education system has accomplished have not been optimally used to improve the overall education system and classroom practices. I argue in the ensuing discussion, as we mark fifty one years of independence, that the failure to use the higher education system to improve the quality of teaching and the teaching profession has cost the country in development terms. 

When schooling is fun
The road to independence was tortuous and meandering. The first Malawians to become cabinet ministers were sworn in four years before independence. That year, 1961, Malawi’s population was 4 million people, according to the late Kanyama Chiume (1982), in his eponymous autobiography. In that year, the country had 30 university graduates, 7,100 Standard 8 candidates, and 500 secondary school spaces. As the first Minister of Education, Chiume knew that enrollment needed to rapidly increase at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels of the education system. He devoted the short time he spent as Minister of Education to pursuing that goal.

The efforts paid off. As independence came and Malawi poised herself to enter the decade of the seventies, enrollment at the primary level was expanding exponentially. According to Harvey Sindima (2002), by 1970 Malawi’s primary school enrollment had shot to 333,102, while that of secondary schools has increased to 9,686. A total of 977 Malawians were attending the University of Malawi. For the next two decades, the numbers kept doubling, as did the national population.

By 1990 Malawi had 1,325,453 primary school students, 16,432 secondary school students, and 1,620 university students. Expansion at the primary level did not correspond with expansion at secondary and tertiary level, leading to the lowest higher education enrollment rates in the world fifty years later (Government of Malawi, 2014). But Kamuzu’s penchant for prestige was best personified in the magnificent Kamuzu Academy, founded in 1981. An elite secondary school, it has educated a significant number of Malawians providing leadership in the public and private sectors, and internationally.

During Kamuzu Banda's reign, civil servants, including teachers, were posted to any part of the country, according to need. It did not matter where one came from. In 1989, Kamuzu Banda announced at a political rally that some teachers teaching away from their districts of origin were not dedicating themselves fully. He decreed that with immediate effect, teachers who were teaching away from their home districts should relocate to their home districts.

Most districts in the country were affected by this decree, as some lost huge numbers of teachers. Some have argued that teachers from the northern region of Malawi were the most affected. Thousands of them had been teaching in the central and southern regions, and were forced to return to the northern region. But there were also schools in the northern region which lost teachers as well. Some believe that the quality of education was drastically affected by this decree. In the absence of a substantive, detailed analysis, the jury is still out as regards the merits and demerits of the decree.

In terms of keeping pace with the population and providing quality education to as many Malawians as possible, doubling enrolment rates over the decades was insufficient. There was need for much more rapid rates of increase. That was left to Dr. Bakili Muluzi, the man who succeeded Dr. Kamuzu Banda to become Malawi’s second president. Muluzi pledged universal primary education, which entailed removing school fees from primary education and making it free. It became his first major education reform as soon as he was sworn in as president in 1994. The number of primary school learners went up from the 1.9 million it had reached in 1993, to 3.2 million in 1994. The Muluzi government recruited 20,000 new teachers that same year to become student teachers, teaching during the school year, and undergoing training in college during the holidays.

It was during Muluzi’s presidency that teacher development centres (TDCs) were introduced, numbering 315 across the country. The school inspection system was transformed from district-based inspectors to zone-based advisers, also numbering 315 to match the number of TDCs. Regional education offices (REO) were turned into education division offices, led by Education Division Managers (EDMs). The number went from three regional offices to six divisional offices.

A very ambitious plan to expand access to secondary school education envisioned the construction of 250 community day secondary schools. This would have increased the primary to secondary school transition rate from the erstwhile 11 percent, to 70 percent, according to Roy Hauya (1996). The country was able to establish new community day secondary schools, but not numbering the promised 250. In higher education, Muluzi’s administration gave Malawi its second university. What was Mzuzu Teachers’ Training College was converted into Mzuzu University, and became operational in 1999.

By the time Muluzi left office and was succeeded by Dr. Bingu wa Mutharika in 2004, the education system had come to be characterised by failures resulting from the shock of UPE. Class sizes had ballooned into hundreds, particularly for lower primary, and teacher morale was very low. Teaching and learning materials became scarce, and physical structures were in a state of disrepair. Bingu wa Mutharika sought to stabilise the system by pledging to adequately fund the sector at all levels from primary to tertiary. In his first term, from 2004 to 2009, the system experienced relative stability.

Mutharika had big plans for higher education. Talk of a new university started in his first term, and in his second term construction of the Malawi University of Science and Technology started. The university had initially been intended for Lilongwe, the capital city, but Bingu decided to move it to his home district in Thyolo, on land he said he had donated for that purpose.  By the time Bingu died in April 2012, the university was still under construction. It would be completed and opened during the presidency of his successor, Dr. Joyce Banda, becoming Malawi's fourth public university.

During Bingu's presidency, Bunda College of Agriculture, a constituent college of the University of Malawi, became an independent university. That brought the number of public universities in the country to three. Private universities, which were almost non-existence during Kamuzu's time, began thriving during Bingu's presidency. The government also moved to start regulating the higher education system, and the National Council for Higher Education was formed, becoming operational during Joyce Banda's rule. 

The two years Joyce Banda was president of Malawi were not enough for her to leave large visible footprints on the system. However it was while she was president that the country witnessed an unprecedented emphasis on girls’ education, an idea she championed both in public and in private. Towards the end of her tenure the Ministry of Education, Science and technology launched the National Girls Education Strategy and the Girls’ Communication Strategy. It was a befitting moment for Joyce Banda’s efforts to highlight the importance of keeping girls’ in school and reversing the troubling trend of so many girls dropping out due to early marriages.

There was a visible attempt during Joyce Banda’s presidency to bring teachers’ welfare to the fore. This was seen by some as an attempt to placate teachers after Dr Banda had made remarks that teachers had construed as demeaning of them. On two occasions she had alluded to how cattle farmers made more than teachers, betraying a lurking contempt.

The effort to address issues of teachers’ welfare came toward the end of her presidency. Joyce Banda’s last Minister of Education, Dr. Lucious Kanyumba, toured the whole country and met teachers. He spoke about what the ministry was doing to end chronic problems of late salaries and low teacher morale. Teachers told him of their problems. Coming during the high campaign season, with weeks to go before the election, many teachers saw it as a campaign ploy.

When Professor Peter Mutharika took over from Dr. Joyce Banda in May 2014, he picked up from where he had stopped during his older brother’s presidency. As Minister of Education in the late Bingu wa Mutharika’s presidency, Peter Mutharika first introduced the idea of community colleges in 2010. As soon as he was sworn in, he set about accomplishing that task. Midway through 2015, some community colleges have already started operating. President Mutharika has already embarked upon a project to construct another new university, in Mzimba district.

However at the primary and secondary school levels, the problem of teacher morale, the most significant of the problems afflicting Malawi’s education system, is getting worse. Today, anger amongst Malawian teachers has become so pervasive it severely corrodes the education system. In the first of 2015, salary delays took a turn for the worse. Leave grants and rural hardship allowances went unpaid for several months and many teachers in many districts stopped teaching. With communication from the ministry not forthcoming, teachers resorted to asking fellow teachers on facebook groups for updates. It is frightening to imagine how these angry, bitter, frustrated and demoralised teachers are treating children under their care.

Despite the difficulties, there are many teachers who continue dedicating themselves. There are teachers who are unleashing their creative energies in their classrooms and schools, inspiring children. There are teachers who are so hungry for more education and professional development they are going out of their way to find opportunities. There are Malawian teachers using the power of the Internet to connect with other teachers in Malawi and around the world. Most of them remain unrecognised and unrewarded, but they continue, undaunted, aiming at a higher prize: national development.

Can Malawi afford to make teaching a high-prized, coveted profession?

The first fifty years of Malawi’s existence as an independent nation have had their highs and their lows. When few Malawians had access to education, the quality was commendable. When more Malawians were afforded the opportunity to go to school, quality plummeted. Quality and quantity need not be mutually exclusive. The starting point for improving quality while expanding access needs to be the quality and welfare of teachers. As we turn fifty one years old, this needs to be top of our educational agenda.

What we have learned from the best educational systems on the planet is that investment in teachers is the most important factor for national development. When the teaching profession is highly prized, prestigious, and rewarding, it can propel a country to greater heights. The creative possibilities from committed and motivated teachers are endless. They become a catalyst for development in many sectors. Malawi still awaits a president who will have a profound understanding of how an empowered and highly educated cadre of teachers, particularly at primary and secondary level, as well as at tertiary, can transform the nation. Will Professor Peter Mutharika be that president?

Note: A version of this article appeared in the April-May issue of The Business Journal (Malawi), published by The Student Media Group. I would like to thank Mike Chipalasa and Cuthbert Kachale for feedback that has resulted in updates to the article.

Towards Agenda 2063: Pan-Africanist Education and the African Renaissance

The drama of the ICC’s determination to arrest Sudan’s president Omar Al Bashir played itself out exactly three weeks after the commemoration of this year’s Africa Day. That fact epitomises the thorny, rocky road Africa’s renewal will have to go through. Six weeks later, I am still basking in the after-glow of this year’s Africa Day commemorations, which was my first time to actually actively participate.

On May 25th I attended an Africa Day Expo at the Kara Heritage Research Institute, in Tshwane, South Africa, where African pride and determination were in full display. In the evening, I attended the 6th Annual Thabo Mbeki Africa Day lecture at the University of South Africa (Unisa), delivered by Nobel Peace Laureate and former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei.

Young Africans performing at the Africa Day Expo, 25th May 2015,
Kara Heritage Institute, Tshwane, South Africa

The day was observed and commemorated in several African countries. In South Africa, several cities and towns put on celebrations. The day set alight social media and the hashtag #AfricaDay2015 was trending in the African twitter-sphere. Across the continent, several conferences preceded the day, focusing on all things Pan-African. The watch words, in many of those conferences and commemorations, were Pan-Africanism, the African Renaissance, and Agenda 2063.

Taken together, these three ideas represent the conceptual landmarks guiding the path to the future Africa we want. I attempt to share, in this article, my reflections on what lies ahead in the gargantuan endeavour to shape an educational agenda for the kind of future that Africans are currently working on. This year’s Africa Day commemorations, and the conferences held in the lead up to 25th May, provide much of the impetus for my reflections.

One such conference was the 5th African Unity for Renaissance (AUFR), held on two campuses of the University of Johannesburg (UJ), Kingsway and Soweto, in South Africa. The conference’s theme was “2015 and Beyond: Engaging Agenda 2063”. I went to the conference looking to network with fellow educators on bringing the three concepts of Pan-Africanism, the African Renaissance and Agenda 2063 into classrooms in the Pan-African world. That means on the continent and in the diaspora.

I came back from the conference, and the Africa Day celebrations, with a zest and determination to play a role in making Agenda 2063 successful. Africa’s future is too important to be left to the African Union alone. The AU has ostensibly engaged high gear in taking on the enormous challenges the continent faces, but much more work needs to be done for ordinary Africans to own the process of Africa’s renewal and work side by side with the Pan-African body. For this to happen, it means every African has to decide what they are best able to contribute, and identify others with similar convictions. The bottom line is that the renewal of Africa, as expressed and articulated in the African Union’s Agenda 2063, must be driven by the people.

The opening night of the 5th AUFR provided a catchphrase that remained on the lips of everyone for the rest of the conference. Dr Elizabeth Rasekoala, founder and co-chair of the Pan-African Solidarity Education Network, argued that calling the new African Union’s vision “Agenda 2063 sounded as if the continent would have to wait until that date. That was too far away. “We need Agenda Now Now!” she declared, to loud applause from the audience. To be clear, Dr. Rasekoala was not dismissing the idea of a 50-year plan. She was just stressing the urgent need to get started with the agenda and use every single day to work toward it. The AU itself is not waiting until 2063.

Although it was Al Bashir who dominated the news at the 25th African Union Heads of State summit in Sandton, Johannesburg, South Africa, the actual agenda of the summit was women’s empowerment. The AU has designated 2015 as the “Year of Women’s Empowerment and Development Towards Africa’s Agenda 2063.” A significant part of the summit was expected to get started with developing the first ten-year agenda toward 2063, and placing women’s empowerment as a pillar for the agenda.

The role of women as being at the heart of Africa’s renewal is what Dr. Rasekoala says is the single most important thing for the continent. She confirmed this in the opening plenary session of the 5th AUFR. As the session was drawing to a close, director of ceremonies for much of the conference, Professor Chris Landsberg, UJ’s SARCHi Chair in African Diplomacy and Foreign Policy, had one question for all the three speakers on the plenary. “Is there one thing you think the AU needs to do as the single most important thing for the continent?”

In addition to Dr. Rasekoala, an engineer, the other two speakers were Professor Mammo Muchie, SARCHi Chair in Innovation and Development at Tshwane University of Technology (TUT); and Professor Adebayo Olukoshi, Director of the United Nations African Institute for Economic Development and Planning in Senegal.

Dr. Rasekoala did not hesitate to mention gender as the single most important thing. She said it was of pivotal importance to enhance women’s participation at the highest levels of public service, politics and business. For Professor Muchie, the most important thing was to stop the negative narrative about the continent. He said it was time to start focusing on the historical greatness of the continent, on what is working today, and on the Africa we want for the future. For Professor Olukoshi, it was to “open the borders. Let Africans move freely.” He added that he had been consistent on this for a long time.

The call to open up African borders seems to be growing in intensity. Speaking to South African youth on Tuesday 16th June, which is celebrated as Youth Day in South Africa, President Jacob Zuma singled out the borders issue as one of the major things discussed at the 25th AU Heads of State Summit. He tied the idea to the importance of South African youth learning about the rest of the continent and being proud of their African heritage. Following the continental outrage in the wake of the Afro-xenophobic attacks in South Africa in April, the country seems to be galvanising a new resolve and reconsidering its place and influence on the continent.

This was evident at the 5th AUFR conference as well. In his welcoming remarks, UJ’s Deputy Vice Chancellor Professor Tshilidzi Marwala evoked Pan-Africanism’s ancestry when he spoke of the importance of teaching young Africans what Kwame Nkrumah used to say that Africa was one people and one nation. That meant, said Professor Marwala, no African was a foreigner on African soil. And those sentiments were repeated by South Africa’s Minister of Home Affairs, Malusi Gigaba, who gave the conference’s opening keynote address. In a wide-ranging and frank accounting of the complexities of South Africa’s place on the continent, Hon. Gigaba said South Africans needed to respect all immigrants, including those in the country illegally.

Although xenophobia has openly manifested itself in South Africa, anti-foreigner sentiments are evident not only across the continent, but across the globe. The onus falls on every African country to deal with this problem and promote an African identity before a national one, as Professor Mammo repeatedly pointed out. Much of this work lies in school curricula and classroom pedagogy. It means teaching a different type of African history, one that digs deep into the contexts that have created the kind of Africa we have today. 

This is what was on the mind of Professor Adebayo Olukoshi on the opening night of the 5th AUFR. Professor Olukoshi situated his remarks in the opening plenary in Walter Rodney’s pioneering work, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Olukoshi argued that Rodney had provided empirical proof that before the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, Africa’s socio-economic status was at par with the rest of the world.

Not only did the slave trade depopulate the continent and set its economic progress back, it also robbed Africans of their dignity and self-worth. Africa was the only continent, observed Professor Olukoshi, where the world felt it had a God-given right to demand a seat at the table and dictate to Africans how to solve their problems. The argument being that Pan-Africanism is too important to be left to the Africans alone. And the ironies of Africa’s situation today are startling. In one perplexing anecdote, Professor Olukoshi noted how African leaders go to Europe and America for medical treatment, only to find that the doctor attending to them is a citizen of their own country.

What all this means is that knowing where Africa is today and the history that made the present is an inescapable part of the charge to chart the continent’s future. “We must begin with the children,” said Professor Mammo Muchie. But beginning with the children means changing the way the African Union’s Pan-African University idea is being implemented, an argument made by Professor David Horne, Chair of Africana Studies at California State University at Northridge in the USA. The focus needs to start with African children from their earliest education and be sustained all the way up to university education.

And young Africans must not be shielded from this history, a lesson shared on the second day of the conference, by Professor Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni. He is Executive Director of the Archie Mafeje Research Institute at the University of South Africa. Professor Ndlovu-Gatsheni was responding to a question as to whether this type of African history does not entrench an inferiority complex and prevent young Africans from actively participating in global discussions. Knowing who you are and being grounded in your history is what builds a foundation for the future, said Professor Ndlovu-Gatsheni. He added that he grew up in an African village, but he does not feel inferior.

For educators, the issue of what type of African history to teach is of central importance. Scholars such as Paul Tiyambe Zeleza and Pitika Ntuli have argued over the years that the history taught in African schools does not reflect the scholarship generated by African historians. The thrust of the curriculum remains Eurocentric, this in spite of the available knowledge of Africa’s history going back several millennia.

A compelling example of the kind of African history that is not reflected in the curriculum came from Dr. Diran Soumonni. A senior lecturer from the Wits Business School, Dr. Soumonni presented on Africa’s history and philosophy of science and technology, digging deep into Africa’s intellectual past, going to 4,000 years BC to when the Egyptians are known to have used a 30-day calendar. Dr Soumonni’s research demonstrates the feasibility of developing an education agenda at the heart of Africa’s renewal. 

Which brings me to what I see as the most urgent steps that those of us working in education, and those interested in the future of the continent broadly, must provide direction with.
A survey conducted by Jean Chawapiwa, Founder and Managing Director of Win Win Solutions 4 Africa consultancy firm, and presented at the conference, found that very few people have heard about Agenda 2063. Out of 327 respondents across the continent and beyond, 63 percent had never heard about Agenda 2063. Chawapiwa’s suggestions for how the AU can spread the word about the initiative need serious consideration.

Reaching out to as many Africans as possible will enable ownership of the agenda by ordinary Africans. It will enable grassroots participation, and will address the deeply felt grievance that the African Union is a dictators’ club out of touch with the needs of African people. It should be emphasised that there can be no grassroots ownership and participation if there is no translation of Agenda 2063 into local African languages.  The respondents in Chawapiwa’s survey made this clear.
African intellectuals have been unequivocal about this. 

Ngugi wa Thiong’o has spent more than three decades making this argument. Ngugi has said “African intellectuals must do for their languages and cultures what all other intellectuals in history have done for theirs. This is still the challenge of our history. Let’s take up the challenge.” The educational implications of such an ambitious agenda are, no doubt, enormous. It requires educators, teacher educators in particular, to participate at every stage. And this is why I argue that Agenda 2063 is too important to be left to the African Union alone, the one occasion when it is legitimate to say this. It is also why I suggest that African educators need to consider making Agenda 2063 required reading in their courses.

Al Bashir is not the only hot coal gnawing away at the AU’s cauldron. The very concepts of Pan-Africanism, the African Renaissance and African Unity arouse intense debate amongst Africans and Africa watchers. There are multi-layered historical and contemporary grievances, internal and external. There are intricate webs of elitism, exclusion, collusion with Western capital and global influence, deep inequalities, and simmering injustices. It requires a spirit of hope, optimism and determination to see the problems as surmountable rather than intractable and impossible. Education is a good place to start.

Governments on the continent and in the African diaspora need to adopt Agenda 2063 into their national plans, as the African Union has already pointed out. In addition to the agenda, contemporary Pan-Africanism and the African renaissance need to be integrated into national educational policies, and into school curricula and classroom pedagogy from primary to university. 

The three concepts also need to become part of teacher education programmes for new teachers, and continuous professional development programmes for practising teachers. The AU needs a unit specifically dedicated to education. If there are deans of schools or faculties of education on the continent or in the diaspora, who feel a passionate sense of urgency about this, there begins Agenda Now Now. 

Note: A version of this article first appeared in Pambazuka News on 19th June, 2015

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

In the Valley, a Genius Rests: Remembering Raphael Kinn L Tenthani

Today, Tuesday 19th May 2015, Raphael Tenthani was supposed to be landing at the Sir Seretse Khama International Airport, here in Gaborone, Botswana. He was coming to attend a stakeholders meeting of the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), which is going to run from tomorrow 20th to 21st May at the Gaborone Sun Hotel. I was going to welcome Ralph at the airport, and he was going to bring me the latest Malawian newspapers and the current issue of my favourite Malawian magazine, The Lamp.

Tenthani interviewing John Tembo. Pic: Tenthani's Facebook Page

He is not coming. He was laid to rest yesterday, and is now peacefully resting in the bosom of Bwanje Valley in Ntcheu. That expansive valley is also my ancestral home, something I shared with him. My last whatsapp message to him was on Saturday 16th May, at 19:32hrs. I was asking him to confirm his itinerary and to assure me everything was in place for his coming. The single grey tick in my whatsapp means he never saw the message. Will never see it. He had probably just started off from his village at that moment, returning to Blantyre. And unbeknownst to himself, nor to us all, he was just a little more than an hour away from the catastrophe that would end his illustrious and extraordinary life, at around 9pm on Saturday.

It was all a malevolent type of de javu from an earlier false alarm. I remember calling Ralph’s younger brother Kizito in December 2011 when a car accident he had had then led to rumours that he had died. Kizito reassured me that he was not dead, but he was badly injured. On Saturday night 16th May 2015, there was no reassurance from Kizito. It was not even a rumour. The Malawian social media machine went into overdrive, and eye witnesses were confirming the dreadful news on Facebook, email forums and whatsapp, in real time.

Ralph and I became friends in our late teens. Some six months older than him, I finished school earlier and went on to Lilongwe Teachers’ College to attend a teacher training programme, then called MASTEP – Malawi Special Teacher Education Programme. We taught during the year, and went to college during the holidays. One month-end afternoon in 1990 or thereabouts I arrived at Ntcheu Boma to collect my salary. Ralph heard the news and sent word through our mutual friend Albert Kalimbakatha, the poet. I should not return to Chikande without visiting him, said the message. Visit him I did, and found that he had pleasantly arranged an impromptu meeting of the Ntcheu Secondary School Writers’ Workshop. There were quite a few eager students at that meeting.

Barely a year out of secondary school myself (I went to Nankhunda Seminary and later Police Secondary School, both in Zomba), I had managed to get myself published in a number of newspapers, and broadcast on radio. I had won an honorable mention in a Florida State University (USA) short ‘short story’ writing competition. A newly-launched Malawian literary magazine, WASI, had published the story. Ralph wanted me to talk about my writing, how I got started, what I was working on, what good writing looked like, and so on. We had a lively discussion that went on late into the night.

At that time Ralph himself had already completed a draft of a novel. His English teacher, a VSO volunteer, had it nicely typed and photocopied. Ralph gave me a copy which I took home and read. You could not believe it had been written by someone still in their teens. The English was not only superb, it was impeccable. He had an incredible talent for painting a scene you thought you were seeing live action. He was hoping to get it published in the then Macmillan Pacesetter series. It was what every one of us was reading at the time.  

Our interests went beyond the literary. We both loved listening to music charts on the BBC World Service. We never missed The Vintage Chart show, John Peel, and such other programmes. In 1993 the BBC World Service ran a contest and was awarding new releases as prizes. I won a new release of Paul McCartney’s album, Off the Wall. CDs were just coming into fashion, but I only owned the good old cassette player. I opted for a cassette tape.

My name was announced as one of five winners, with other winners coming from such far-away places as Malaysia, Argentina and Israel, I think. In Malawi the programme came on very late into the night. Everyone in my village in Mayera was asleep. I doubted there was a soul on the planet who knew me, who heard my name announced. Well, Ralph did. He astounded me with congratulations the next time we met. This was way before mobile phones or email.

It was no surprise then that after Ntcheu Secondary School, he did not struggle to find a job with a newspaper. As Peter Jegwa has movingly described the man and the era, Malawi was beginning to undergo transformative political change. The Catholic Bishops released their epochal pastoral letter on 8th March 1992, and Chakufwa Chihana made his triumphant return to Malawi. He would get arrested just after disembarking from the plane at Kamuzu International Airport on 6th April 1992. Ralph sharpened his pen on the politics of the time and became a first rate journalist in addition to being a first rate creative writer. In 1994 we formed the Malawi Writers Union, and Ralph was a founding member. I was founding treasurer, and later became president after Edison Mpina’s (RIP) sudden resignation in 1996.

In 1995 my children’s book Fleeing the War won first prize in the British-Malawi Partnership Scheme, locally known as the British Council Write a Story competition. It was launched in 1996. Both at the prize-giving ceremony and the book launch, Ralph was present and covered the events. When I gave my acceptance speech, I alluded to something about freedom of expression that was not there during the one-party era. When that statement appeared in The Nation newspaper, I became very apprehensive. The Malawi Congress Party was no longer in power, but the less courageous among us were still cagey with what we said about the regime. I called Ralph and told him I was uncomfortable with how the statement had come out. I asked if The Nation could issue a correction. They did.

In later years, I came to regret my fear and to admire Ralph’s courage. While my journalistic escapades were limited to the sports page in The Daily Times and the book review page in The Nation, Ralph was on the front page. When the late Poulton Mtenje called and invited me to meet him at Blantyre Newspapers Limited one evening, Ralph told me I was probably being offered a newsroom job. The intensity of the politics was too strong for me and I decided I was happier editing primary school textbooks at the Malawi Institute of Education, and writing fiction, poetry and plays. And contributing to the sports and literary pages.

Ralph’s decision to quit the newsroom and stand on his own did not come easy. Having been transferred back and forth between Blantyre and Lilongwe, he was reluctant to be transferred yet again. He toyed with the idea of quitting a full time newsroom job and becoming a stringer. I thought he was crazy. True to his character of making bold decisions and not looking back, he took the plunge. He soared to even greater heights, as he was now a correspondent for the BBC, The Associated Press and the Pan-African News Agency. He took on lots of big projects with global media icons such as Brian Williams and Lawrence O'Donnell. And he travelled the world. It became his classroom.

Back on home soil, he ruffled feathers. Political partisans hated him when their parties and their leadership found themselves thoroughly muckraked. He was muckraking even before he launched his famous Sunday Times column Muckraking on Sunday. Aside from his much publicised arrest on 15th March 2005, together with Mabvuto Banda, there were other run-ins with the authorities that he chose not to talk about, expect to his closest friends. Some months after that arrest in March 2005, Ralph got a call from the New State House in Lilongwe. The erstwhile president, Dr. Bingu wa Mutharika, wanted to see him.

The earlier arrest had come and gone and the issue had been buried. Why did Bingu want to see Ralph again? He alerted a few close friends and asked us not to publicise the issue. He boarded a coach and arrived in Lilongwe. He was driven to State House, and was taken to a waiting room. Unsure what was going to happen to him, we had come up with a plan should there be the slightest indication that some trouble had befallen him. We had gathered direct contacts of individuals and organisations, both at home and abroad, who would be informed instantly.

Thanks to mobile phone technology, Ralph was able to update us every few moments. He was anxious, but he was not daunted. He waited for hours, as we monitored from our computer screens. The afternoon went and evening came. He was finally told that Bingu was too busy for that day, he would see him another day. We breathed a huge sigh of relief.

But the irony of it all was not lost on us. On several occasions I argued and disagreed with Ralph on what I thought was an imperative for African thinkers to defend African leaders from unfair criticism, particularly from the West. Often, the African leaders themselves undermine this very imperative by attacking their own citizens who disagree with them, leaving them no option but to seek protection from the very West itself. Years later, I began to see things from Ralph’s perspective. Although it mattered what the West said about African leaders, criticism from African citizens was meant to spur change in Africa. It was well meaning, and did not depend on what Westerners thought to legitimise it.

Later Ralph’s relationship with Bingu warmed up remarkably, but it did not cloud his judgment. Bingu would call Ralph once in a while to chat with him about his column. One year Bingu invited Ralph to join him on a trip to France. That still did not affect his judgment, leading Bingu to comment one day that the Sunday Times had a column specifically aimed at him.

The last two years of Bingu’s rule were filled with political tensions across the country. People deemed critics of his presidency were receiving threats. There were mysterious fires, some targeting markets, others targeting houses and offices. The then University of Malawi Polytechnic final year student Robert Chasowa was murdered. Ralph’s house was broken into and some effects were stolen. He did not think it was politically motivated, and did not want to discuss the matter further. That was enough to have silenced an ordinary critic, but Ralph did not see himself as a critic for criticism’s sake. He was a patriot. His love was for Malawi first. Everything else came second.

There is a coincidence worth noting that played itself out in Ralph’s last days. Exactly ten years to the day of his arrest on 15th March 2005, Ralph got an anonymous phone call. This was on 15th March this year. “You are stretching freedom of expression too far,” he was told. He did not recognise the voice. And he did not want this shared with anyone. The introvert that he was, as Peter Jegwa has described him, he never wanted to draw attention to himself. But it did not deter him from still adding a joke. “If you hear I’m writing graffiti on some prison wall like the other guy, don’t be too surprised! Hah! Hah!” he messaged me on whatsapp. I told him I would send a tweet, but I would not mention names. He was fine with that. He hoped the issue would die on its own. Apparently, it did.

When Nyasatimes approached a group of us in December 2014 and asked us to nominate Person of the Year for 2014, and to explain why, this is what I wrote about Ralph:

For speaking truth to power. Tenthani is widely recognised as the most important Malawian journalist and columnist writing today. He is a walking barometer of the Malawian political mood. He analyses Malawi’s political leadership with an even-handedness that is as clear as it is penetrating. He is very cool headed, which makes his writing uniquely persuasive. He accepts and appreciates criticism and responds in a calm-headed way, never losing his temper or looking down upon his detractors. He is a walking encyclopaedia of contemporary Malawian political history, remembering facts that are easily forgotten by the public but that have a poignant relevance to day to day life in Malawi’s politics. Presidents have come and presidents have gone, but his talented pen and keen eye for piercing language have always provided level-headed reflections and analyses that speak for millions of Malawians.
His journalism made Ralph a global Malawian, and his death has reverberated around the world. As of a few hours ago Google was returning 50,800 hits on his name, and still growing. There are articles announcing his death in different parts of the world, in languages too many to count. I had hoped to see him again today and for the next two days, but pictures of his stately casket, and of the brown freshly dug earth, tell a different story. A story of a genius resting blissfully in the depths of Bwanje Valley.