Monday, October 15, 2018

On the Petition Against the Gandhi Statue: Why Malawi Needs More Such Youth Activism

In a rather unusual move, on Thursday 11th October the Malawi Government responded to an online petition that has now attracted more than 3,400 signatures in a campaign to stop the erection of a Gandhi statue in Malawi’s commercial capital, Blantyre. The move was unusual because the only time the Malawi Government is moved to respond to anything is when people threaten to demonstrate on the streets. This time, it was a mere petition, online, and the government issued a response.

In a country known for what many consider to be docility and apathy especially on matters political, the kind of activism demonstrated by the young Malawians who have initiated the petition against the Gandhi statue is a burst of fresh air. If more young Malawians participated in this manner in issues affecting the country, perhaps the government and other responsible bodies and service providers would think twice before ignoring issues the way they are always perceived as.

I have identified at least eight reasons why many Malawians say they do not want the Gandhi statue. The first reason is that Mahatma Gandhi was racist toward Africans. The second reason is that Gandhi has nothing to do with Malawi, and Africa, for that matter. The third is that the Malawi Government seems to be accepting the statue from a position of weakness and poverty, coming as part of a package that includes a grant to construct an international conference centre in Blantyre, among other aid packages from the Government of India. The fourth reason is that the government has not consulted Malawians on the issue. Fifth, the Government of India is pushing an imperialist agenda, using its growing wealth and influence to position itself as a global player, at the expense of weaker, poorer nations.

Sixth, as former Vice President Dr. Cassim Chilumpha said on a panel discussion on Zodiak Broadcasting Station, the statue is being placed in a spot that is more prominent and visible than Malawians have honoured their own heroes. Besides, he added, the Malawian way of honouring people is to name roads after them, not building statues. And Blantyre already has a Mahatma Gandhi Road, he said. The seventh reason is that Malawians of Indian origin mistreat and look down upon black Malawians, and there are bad race relations between the two groups. The eighth reason is that, well, there is no reason. Malawians simply don’t want a statue of Gandhi, period.

A bust, looking like Kamuzu, in City Centre, Lilongwe (pic: steve sharra)

I would like to address the merits and demerits of each of these eight arguments, starting with the one that Gandhi was racist. The online petition against the statue makes generous reference to The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire, a 2015 book written by two South African academics, Ashwin Desai, of the University of Johannesburg, and Goolam Vahen, of the University of Kwazulu-Natal. The petitioners have selected several quotes in which Gandhi is caught in the act, so to speak. And the quotes are as unflattering as they are disturbing.

I heard of the book just when it came out in 2015, but I did not get a chance to read it until this past weekend. As I read through it, I was gripped by emotions of pain, disgust and disbelief. I came to appreciate where the petitioners were coming from, and found myself agreeing with their motion for the Gandhi statue to be stopped.

But I have been reading and teaching Gandhi since 2005, when my doctoral research, on uMunthu and peace education in Malawian classrooms, took me into the discipline of peace studies and the literature on nonviolence. I wondered why I had never read about this racist Gandhi, until now. Several questions ran through my mind as I read on. How far would the authors take Gandhi in their narrative? Would they follow him to his last days in 1948 when he was gunned down by Nathuram Godse, a fellow Indian who was opposed to Gandhi’s peace politics?

If Gandhi has stayed racist up until his last breath, how come he had become the global figure of peace and nonviolence the world holds him to be? Have we been fed a sanitised and politically correct version of Gandhi all these years, as Desai and Vahed claim in their book? If so, who was behind that, and what could their reasons have been? What will now happen to the discipline of peace studies and the practice of nonviolence once the rest of the world learns who the “true“ Gandhi was and what he believed about black people?

Before I knew it, Gandhi was saying his farewells across Durban, Transvaal and Cape Town, and the book was over. He returned first to Britain and then India in the second half of 1914, as the First World War was breaking out. The authors follow him to Britain and to India, where Gandhi continues serving the interests of the British Empire, helping to recruit Indian soldiers to fight on the side of Britain, and doing everything he could to impress the British that white people and Indians descended from the same Aryan race and should see themselves as close relatives.

Anybody reading Desai and Vahed’s book and stopping there will have no doubts about Gandhi’s racism toward Africans. However, Gandhi lived another thirty four years after returning to India. Desai and Vahed have little to say about those thirty four years, and although the title of their book restricts their scope to Gandhi in South Africa, the overall impression they create in the book is that Gandhi’s racist beliefs and attitudes about black people when he lived in South Africa remained with him all of his long life.

Not everyone espouses this perspective. In 1956 the Government of India embarked on a project to collect and compile everything written by Gandhi throughout his life. The result was 55,000 pages of 100 volumes of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. On 8th September 2015 the Indian Union Minister of Information and Broadcasting, Arun Jaitley, launched the e-version of the collected works. Desai and Vahed write in their book that they spent years consulting PDF versions of the collected works, and found material that had not been published hitherto.

In 2006 Indian lawyer and author Anil Nauriya published a book titled The African Element in Gandhi, whose purpose, he argued, was to unearth an  “underanalysed“ aspect of Gandhi’s stay in South Africa; that is, his relationship with Africans. Nauriya set out to answer a question that has been largely answered in the negative by Desai and Vahed: did Gandhi shed off his racism and evolve into a more sensitive, race-conscious and person who respected and valued African people?

Nauriya claims that Gandhi evolved, and that his evolution started in 1908, fifteen years after his arrival in South Africa. This may not be entirely accurate. Reading between the statements Gandhi made and continued making, but also his silences and omissions regarding Africans, Desai and Vahed retrieve material from the collected works that show Gandhi’s prejudice beyond his departure from the continent in 1914.

But Nauriya digs up material that does not appear to have been uncovered by Desai and Vahed. And read together with Gandhi’s campaigns against the British in the decades that led up to India’s independence from Britain in 1947, Gandhi evolved not only in his views on Africans, he also shed his long-held belief in the supremacy of the British Empire and Western civilisation itself. Whereas the British colonialists had arrested him no less than five times in his twenty one years in South Africa, they arrested him no less than nine times in the struggle for India’s independence. Desai and Vahed have not ventured into this latter-day Gandhi.

A piece of art also found in City Centre, Lilongwe (pic: steve sharra)

Another writer who also took up the task of uncovering Gandhi’s relationship with Africans and following him up to Inidia’s independence is Enuga Sreenivasulu Reddy, now 94 years old and retired. He has edited and published several books and articles under the shortened name E.S. Reddy. Reddy was born in 1924 in India but spent many years working as an international civil servant. He was a UN Under Secretary General and headed the UN Centre Against Apartheid. He worked with both the civil rights movement in the United States and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.

Because of his work with the UN and his involvement in anti-colonial struggles in India and in Africa, the longevity of Reddy’s work spans the last years of India’s independence, the civil rights movements in the United States, South Africa’s apartheid regime, and the full onset of independence struggles in Africa. He was there when WEB DuBois was part of the struggles both in the US and in Africa. These were struggles that saw leaders such as, Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Martin Luther King Jr, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Nelson Mandela, Kenneth Kaunda and many others lead anti-racist and anti-colonial campaigns in which India, the United States, and African countries were joined in one common cause.

This brings us to the second argument against the Gandhi statue, that Gandhi has nothing to do with Malawi and Africa. ES Reddy’s writings show that these struggles were intertwined and mutually reinforcing. We find these perspectives also when we examine what the afore-mentioned leaders wrote. They have been corroborated by Malawi’s own anti-colonial activists, including Henry Masauko Chipembere and Kanyama Chiume, as I will discuss in a little bit.

Illustrating how anti-racist and anti-colonial struggles intertwined and intermingled in a vortex that drew into the mix India, the USA and Africa requires going back to WEB DuBois and drawing parallels with the struggles that involved his contemporaries. As DuBois observed in an essay, nineteen months separated his birth date and that of Gandhi. DuBois was born in 1868 while Gandhi was born in 1869. Unrelated at this point but still relevant for the broader purposes of our discussion, then Nyasaland anti-colonial activist Rev John Chilembwe is believed to have been born in 1871.

It was only until after the First World War that DuBois “came to realize Gandhi’s work for Africa and the world,“ he wrote. With the Depression approaching, DuBois asked Gandhi in 1929 for a message for American Negroes, as per the language of the time. Gandhi obliged and wrote: “Let not the 12 million Negroes be ashamed of the fact they are the grandchildren of slaves. There is dishonor in being slave-owners. But let us not think of honr or dishonor in connection with the past. Let us realise that the future is with those who would be pure, truthful and loving“ (p. 91; W.E.B. Dubois: A Reader, edited by David Levering Lewis, 1995). DuBois published the message in the Crisis magazine.

In 1943 DuBois wrote in the Amsterdam News about his doubts over nonviolence, saying it worked in India where fasting, prayer, sacrifice and self-torture had been practised for three thousand years, and India’s population of four hundred million at the time was a force to reckon with. He believed these methods would be seen as a joke or insane if tried in England or in the US.

But when in 1955 Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on a bus to a white man, in Montgomery, Alabama, and black people went on strikes and boycotts that put an end to the discrimination, DuBois saw it as “a most interesting proof of the truth of the Gandhian philosophy“ (p. 92). He said this was more so as the protests were carried out by people who did not have knowledge of Gandhi and his work.

DuBois‘ own longevity overlapped anti-racist and anti-colonial struggles in the US and in Africa in a life that spanned 95 years. By the time of his death in 1963, he had renounced his American citizenship and was living in Accra, Ghana. He was buried there where his mausoleum is a memorial centre. Ghana had been independent for six years at the time, and Kwame Nkrumah had taken over the mantle of Pan-Africanism from DuBois.

Nkrumah was also an advocate of Gandhian nonviolence. In a speech he gave on 7th April in 1960, Nkrumah said “positive action,“ his term for nonviolence, had  “achieved remarkable success in the liberation struggle of our continent…“ (p. 48; Selected Speeches of Kwame Nkrumah, Vol 1, 1960). He went on to say “we salute Mahatma Gandhi and we remember in tribute to him, that it was in South Africa that his method of non-violence and non-cooperation was first practised in the struggle against the vicious race discrimination that still plagues that unhappy country.“

For a description of the role Ghana played in Malawi’s independence struggle, Kanyama Chiume’s autobiography (1982) is instructive. India itself played an important role, as described by Chiume, who met India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru in 1962. That was the time that former president Bingu wa Mutharika was a student in India, whom Chiume also met together with other African students. Chiume wrote that Nehru “executed all the decisions“ (p. 51) agreed to in their meeting, regarding supporting Malawi’s struggle, scholarships for Malawians to study in India among other arrangements.

On Henry Masauko Chipembere’s part, it is during his testimony to the Devlin Commission which was investigating events surrounding the 1959 State of Emergency that we learn of Gandhi’s influence on the tactics Malawians used to fight against British colonialism. Chipembere was regarded as a man who preferred the use of violence on the white colonialists and their “stooges,“ but he told the commission that the Malawians had discussed and utilised Gandhian non-violence methods.

He said he had personally decided on “something closer to Gandhi’s non-violence, bu with the difference that I would like to try negotiation first because Gandhi’s policy of non-violence implies action - that is passive resistance, but it seems not to include negotiation. I believe in negotiation first. If negotiation fails, resort to passive resistance“ (Chipembere: The Missing Years, p. 201).

Across the boarder from Malawi, Zambia’s first president, Dr. Kenneth Kaunda went as far writing an entire book on non-violence, which he titled The Riddle of Violence (1980). The first sentence in the book reads: “I was first introduced in a serious way to the ideas of Gandhi by Rambhai Patel, a Lusaka store keeper, who made rough and ready translations of some of the Mahatma’s writings, especially from his life story.“

Calling Gandhi his “mentor,“ Kaunda wrote that his own Christianity was aligned to Gandhi’s philosophy and it “deepened and broadened my own thinking.“ Kaunda said while he owed his faith to Jesus, “Mahatma Gandhi supplied the hope.“ And Zambia’s own independence struggle adopted satyagraha, the concept Gandhi had developed while in South Africa defining truth as a force driving the struggle. “So it was according to the principles of non-violence on the Gandhi model that the final stages of the freedom struggle in Zambia were conducted,“ wrote Kaunda (p. 18).

Having arrived at this juncture, contrary to the claims made by the petitioners and by Desai and Vahed, the sources discussed thus far point in the direction of Gandhi having evolved his views towards Africans over his long life. It should also be obvious, at this point, that Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence influenced anti-racist and anti-colonial struggles in South Africa, India, the United States and across Africa. Let us proceed to address the remaining arguments being made against the erection of the Gandhi statue.

It has been said that the Government of Malawi is accepting the offer of the statue because Malawi is a poor country and we are always pushed around by donors. According to the Gandhi World Foundation’s website, there are Gandhi statues in more than seventy countries around the world. When a Gandhi statue was unvelied in Abu Dhabu in February this year (2018), an Indian magazine reported that the number of countries with a Gandhi statue had now reached seventy five. As there are 54 countries in Africa, and many of them do not have Gandhi statues, there are both rich and poor countries around the world where there is a Gandhi statue. It therefore cannot be said that these are all poor countries being forced to receive Gandhi statues because of their poverty.

The argument that the Indian Government is using Gandhi statues to push an agenda to position itself as a global power merits consideration. Many rich and powerful countries use similar tactics to flaunt their influence. But the influence Gandhi had over anti-racist and anti-colonial struggles spread throughout the world from the 1950s to the 1990s even before India had the kind of wealth and influence it wields today. Thus that argument can also be dismissed.

The argument, advanced by former Vice President Dr Cassim Chilumpha, that the spot near Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital is unsuitable because it gives a foreign statue undue prominence over Malawian statues is rather amusing. If we want to give Malawian statues greater prominence than statues of foreign individuals, may I humbly suggest that we put our Malawian statues on the corner of Victoria Avenue and Sir Glynn Jones Road, in front of Mt Soche Hotel. That is a far more prominent spot befitting Malawian heroes. Another ideal spot is in the middle of Chichiri Roundabout. And for now, I will opt not say much about the names of these other streets in Blantyre.

Out of the remaining three arguments, one does not deserve a response, but two have merit and must be addressed by the Government of Malawi. There is nothing to say to the argument that there is no reason, Malawians simply don’t want the statue. But it is true that Malawians have not been consulted, and that needs to happen.

Thus far the debate has been quite acrimonious, emotional and fractious, especially on social media. Quite a few individuals have resorted to insults and innuendo against the idea of the statue and against individuals supporting the idea. Some have threatened that they will demolish the statue once it is constructed. Not very Gandhian.

A round about in Lilongwe City Centre (copyright: steve sharra)

The emotions must be acknowledged and action must be taken to deal with the grievances that are giving rise to the acrimony. It is an open secret that relations between black Malawians and Malawians of Asian origin are not the best. A University of Malawi lecturer interviewed by the BBC on the matter pointed out that there are simmering tensions between black Malawians and Malawians of Asian origin. Black Malawians feel that Malawians of Asian origin demean and undermine them, in ways that betray racist attitudes. This is both a perception and a reality, and it cannot be wished away.

Malawians of Asian origin have never fully integrated into the fabric that makes up life for ordinary Malawians. Most Malawians have never seen a Malawian of Asian origin teaching in a government school, working as a nurse in a government hospital, serving in the police service, vending in the streets, driving or calling a minibus, serving in other government ministries and departments and living the day to day lives ordinary Malawians live.

Yet Malawians of Asian origin are an integral part of the country and do serve the country in many roles, but these tend to be selective and specialised, and perhaps under-reported. There are historical, economic, cultural and political contexts that have created these fissures, and they need to be addressed if Malawians of all races and ethnic backgrounds are going to forge a better Malawi. We should not allow this moment to drift away and be wasted. We should use it to tackle these issues head on. We should also use this moment to start teaching ourselves more about the history of our continent and of our world, and the struggles that have given us the country we have today.

Gandhi’s greatest message was that there are a lot of ways of resisting, expressing dissent and bringing about change without recourse to violence. It is his teachings that gave birth to the exhortation “be the change you want to see in the world“. Strikes, demonstrations, boycotts, fasting, petitions (including the one that has brought about this debate) and such other methods of resistance draw from Gandhi’s non-violence philosophy. Hardly a school year goes by without hearing that students have destroyed a school; or that a community have set fire to a police station. Many times, these violent acts of destruction happen because non-violent methods have not been given a chance.

Malawi needs more of the activism demonstrated by the young activists petitioning against the Gandhi statue. I suggest that both the Indian High Commission in Malawi and the Malawi Government engage Malawians on this issue.

That petition itself is a Gandhian method of protest. Gandhi did not invent most of the non-violence methods now attributed to him, but he made effective use of them to the extent that they came to be associated with him. He was as human as any one of us and had his weaknesses. But he worked, throughout his life, to overcome them. He left the world a better place than he found it. That is a legacy worthy emulating.

Friday, July 06, 2018

‘That we be free from fear’: Thoughts on education and Malawi at 54

On 6th July 1964, fifty-four years ago, there were four secondary schools in Malawi, and not a single university. There was Blantyre Secondary School, Zomba Catholic Secondary School, Dedza Secondary School, and Mzuzu Government Secondary School. There were close to 360,000 primary school learners, and the country had between 3 and 4 million people. That year, 6,000 Malawians entered secondary school to start Form 1. The University of Malawi was opened exactly three months after independence, on 6th October 1964. Its first intake was 180 students (other sources put the figure at 90).

Fifty-four years later, there are over 1,400 secondary schools in Malawi and just over 380,000 secondary school students. About 100,000 students enter Form 1 each year. There are four public universities with about 20,000 students. The University of Malawi alone has 13,000 students. There are more than 28 private universities, accommodating what can be estimated to be close to 20,000 students, although the real number could be less or more than this. A Higher Education Management Information System (HEMIS) is expected by the end of this year, which should help with more accurate numbers.

The above numbers show what has changed on Malawi’s educational landscape since 1964. It looks impressive when compared to the numbers of fifty-four years ago, and puts to rest the argument that we rushed to become independent; that we should have allowed the colonialists to continue ruling over us so as to develop the country more rapidly. They ruled the country for seventy years, and the 1964 numbers represent what they achieved in that period. But compared to the potential that we have as a country, in terms of resources and talent, we could have done much more.

We have achieved gender parity in Standard 1 enrolment although we lose that parity starting from Standard 4. Selection to secondary school is also almost at par for boys and girls, although the pass rates both at Standard 8 and in Form 4 still favour boys. The MSCE results have been improving, especially in 2017. More boys and girls score 6 points at MSCE, which gives the impression that Form Four exams these days are not as hard as in the past.

My hypothesis is that kids today have wider access to general knowledge because of modern technology: smart phones, satellite TV, radio stations. Nutrition has also improved from several years ago, which has in turn improved academic performance. There are many more students sitting exams, a natural consequence of our population boom. When I sat my Form 4 exams in 1989, there were 13,000 of us. As I am writing, 209,000 are writing the 2018 MSCE. In statistical terms, the chances of more students scoring 6 points are far greater these years than they were in 1989.

We still have enormous challenges and are nowhere near where we should have been after 54 years. An incredible number of students who enter Standard 1 do not reach Standard 8. In 2017, just over 255,000 students sat the Standard 8 examination. When this class entered Standard 1 in 2009, they were just over 877,000, according to the 2013 EMIS (Educational Management Information System). Some 622,000 students did not make it to Standard 8, for one reason or another, usually to do with dropping out or repeating.

Of learners who enter Standard 1, only 16 percent go to secondary school, according to the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS) III. The total primary school enrolment currently stands at about 5 million, yet there are only 380,000 students in all of Malawi’s secondary schools. We have too many people out of the school system who should be in school.  A rough calculation of tertiary enrolment shows that there are not much more than 50,000 students in our colleges and universities. We have the lowest tertiary enrolment rate in the world, at 0.8 percent, as per the MGDS III.

We do not treat our teachers with the respect they deserve, especially primary school teachers. We have improved in paying them on time, but we are failing to pay some of them their leave grants. Each year many teachers are upgrading their qualifications but they are going for years without the government issuing them their well-deserved promotions.

When they upgrade, they leave primary schools and go to teach in secondary schools or teacher training colleges, because we do not have a structure for university-educated teachers in our primary school system. We deprive the primary school system of highly educated teachers, believing that primary school learners do not deserve well-educated teachers. This is a travesty.

We have finally began doing something about improving the education of primary school teachers from a two-year certificate toward a university diploma, and hopefully, eventually, toward a university degree. Minister of Education, Science and Technology, Hon. Bright Msaka, told parliament in March that consultations on this had started.

In fact, this has been on the agenda for the past ten years. It was provided for in the National Strategy for Teacher Education and Development 2008-2017, but not much happened in the ten years since that document became operational. The entry level requirements to go a teacher training college have been hiked to a minimum of four credits, a measure aimed at improving the quality of teachers.

Learners at January Primary School, Thyolo district
Infrastructure in rural schools, where the majority of Malawian children and youth are educated, remains in a state of disrepair. A few weeks ago the nation was shocked by the deaths of four learners at Nantchengwa Primary School in Zomba rural, crushed to death when a classroom block collapsed and fell on them. It had been constructed by the community in their desire to support their children’s education.

As has been the case for several years now, the education sector was given the biggest chunk of the national budget, at MK166 billion. In the 2017-2018 the education sector was given MK235 billion, which means that the 2018-2019 education budget is less than last year’s. This is surprising, considering that the 2018-2019 national budget has gone up from just over MK1 trillion to MK1.4 trillion (after a recent adjustment downward from MK1.5 trillion presented in parliament).

Youth unemployment has started dominating public discourse, a recognition of the dire straits many young Malawians are in. Because many youths do not have meaningful employment, they have become easy to manipulate and abuse for political purposes. With the 2019 elections approaching, it has been deeply disturbing to see youths being abused yet again, sent on political errands to terrorise journalists, civil society activists and others expressing their frank opinions about developments in the country.

Reports of people getting beaten up in the full presence of police, receiving death threats and having their rights to free expression and association violated are a throwback to the one-party dictatorship. It is as if the masses of unemployed youth are actually part of a deliberate plan to advance political interests.

There is a line in our national anthem that goes “join together our hearts as one, that we be free from fear…” One would think that in this day and era, we would have robust structures that promote debate and discussion over national matters in a free manner, devoid of fear and threats, but it would seem the closer 2019 approaches, the more steadily we are edging towards an abyss.

There is an urgent need to do something about the many Malawians who have been denied an opportunity for a decent education over the years. The Sustainable Development Goal for education stipulates free secondary school education, an idea that does not enthuse Malawians, owing to what happened last time we made primary education free. Today, primary education is free only on paper. In reality, parents and guardians of primary school children are paying for the education of their wards, only it’s not called school fees.

We have huge disparities between a few who can afford decent education in good private schools, and the many who go to poorly resourced public schools. We are a very unequal country, and that inequality distorts the discussion we need to have around providing quality education to everyone.

We need to seriously think of education as an investment that lays the foundation the country needs for development that is really meaningful for the majority. It is only when we can begin to address the inequality in our country, rooted in the disparities in educational opportunity, that we can begin to be truly free from fear.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Why (Most) Malawian Leaders Don’t Write Books: A Tribute to Sam Mpasu

When American journalist Thomas De Frank published a biography of late US president Gerald R Ford in 2007, he titled it Write It When I’m Gone. The book came out less than one year following Ford’s death in December 2006. As the title intimates, Ford had instructed De Frank not to publish any of the details from their numerous conversations, over many years, until Ford had passed on.

Every time I think about President Ford’s story, it takes me to our own first president, Ngwazi Dr. H Kamuzu Banda. There are quite a few people who knew the most about him, but they have never written anything about him. Is it possible that rather than “write it when I’m gone,” Kamuzu’s admonition to everyone who was close to him was “Never! Not even when I’m gone!”? How else do we explain the absence of biographies of Kamuzu from those who were closest to him, given Kamuzu’s place in Malawi’s and Africa's history?

Indeed, how do we explain the dearth of biographies or autobiographies by Malawi’s political leaders? If we can make an exception, it would be Dr. Bakili Muluzi and Professor Bingu wa Mutharika, both of whom published books whilst they were still presidents. But they were not autobiographies.   

This question vexed the late Sam Mpasu, going by the introduction to the second edition of his prison memoir, Political Prisoner 3/75, republished in 2014. The first edition was published in 1995, a year after the transition from one party rule to multiparty democracy. Sam Mpasu was on Thursday 15th February discovered dead in his house in Blantyre. Media reports said a post-mortem showed he had died of high blood pressure. Reports also suggest he may have died alone, and was only discovered after some days.

The late Sam Mpasu at a Malawi Writers Union event on 23rd December, 2017.
Photo credit: Steve Sharra

In the introduction to the second edition of his prison memoir, Mpasu states, poignantly, that there are no auto/biographies of all the presidents Malawi has had from independence, namely, Kamuzu Banda, Bakili Muluzi, Bingu wa Mutharika, Joyce Banda, and Peter Mutharika. He says this is also the case for vice presidents Justin Malewezi, Chakufwa Chihana, Cassim Chilumpha, and Saulos Chilima (he doesn’t mention Joyce Banda, probably because she eventually became president as well). If we can make another exception, Dr John Lwanda wrote Kamuzu Banda of Malawi: A Study in Promise, Power and Legacy, which came out in 1993. Otherwise much of Mpasu’s statement remains true.

He says this is the case even for religious leaders, including the late Archbishop James Chiona, Rev Dr. Silas Ncozana, Bishop Nyanja, Bishop Aipa, leaders from the Muslim faith, evangelicals and Pentecostals. The list goes on: lawyers, university students, army generals, police chiefs, top civil servants, and chief justices, among others. Mpasu suggests that reading about our leaders and their life stories would give us deeper insights into the kind of people they are. “We would have known the kind of presidents we were hiring to lead us. We would have known if they were going to betray our trust,” he writes.

Mpasu argues that we, and our democracy, are the poorer for this gap of knowledge. “In a sense, we have been led by people we did not really know and who we still do not really know, except in a very superficial way,” he says. More than fifty years after it was established, even the University of Malawi does not have a printing press or publishing department of its own, despite having what he calls an “excellent” Department of History which he says graduates professional historians every year. (There is Chancellor College Publications, and Kachere Series, both of which are associated with Chancellor College. They publish books, but are not university presses in the strict sense of the term).

We have National Archives and a Department of Culture, says Mpasu, “yet Malawians know so little […] about their own country or about the people who have shaped and are shaping their destiny.” From the same introduction to the second edition of the memoir, we learn from Mpasu that in 1967 Kamuzu Banda told a public rally that he had written an 800-page autobiography. Longman attempted to negotiate publishing rights, but they never saw the manuscript, and nothing was ever said about it again. “He must have had a lot to hide,” writes Mpasu.

We will return to this point shortly, but for now let us pick out some of the remarkable stories and unforgettable events Mpasu tells in his prison memoir. It has been observed that Mpasu was a gifted writer, and his literary prowess is on display on every page of Political Prisoner 3/75. The book starts out with how Mpasu was arrested, in his office on the third floor of Development House, Victoria Avenue, downtown Blantyre. It was a Tuesday morning, and the day was 22nd January, 1975. 

The eighteen chapters of the slim 158-page book take the reader through what happens that Tuesday morning at Development House, to his detention without trial at Zomba Prison, and later Mikuyu Prison, until the day of his release, on 1st March, 1977. It isn’t until three days after his arrest that Mpasu gets to know why he has been detained. On Friday 25th January he is taken to meet Focus Gwede, the powerful deputy head of the Special Branch of the Malawi Police. He would later head the Special Branch in the course of Mpasu’s imprisonment.

Gwede starts the interrogation by asking Mpasu who appointed him into the diplomatic service, and whether he had met any of Malawi’s dissidents while abroad. He had served in Germany and later in Ethiopia. “You wrote a book about the president. You said he has no friends,” says Gwede, finally revealing the reason Mpasu has been arrested. Mpasu explains that he indeed wrote a small novel titled Nobody’s Friend while he served as a diplomat, but it had nothing to do with Dr Banda. Mpasu asks Gwede if he has read the novel, but instead of answering the question, Gwede shouts at Mpasu and demands an answer from him.

Mpasu insists that the book is fiction, and that Gwede should have read it. Gwede doesn’t indicate whether he has read the novel or not, and instead says “there is a passage about a president being assassinated in that book.” Mpasu responds by asking Gwede if he has read William Shakespeare’s plays Hamlet, Macbeth or King Lear, all of which mention kings being assassinated. “Have you banned all those books because they mention the assassination of kings? Have you banned the Holy Bible because it mentions that Jesus was killed?”

This was 1975, and much more was yet to unfold under Banda’s dictatorship. “It is true that we had what looked like peace. But it was the peace of the cemetery,” writes Mpasu, in one of the most memorable lines of the book. “It was true that we had what looked like stability. But it was the kind of stability which is caused by overwhelming force.” Peace and stability were what one saw on the surface, but deep underneath, people were suffering. “When the thick boot is on the neck of a person who is prone on the ground, there can be no movement. The jails were full and murders were rampant. The murderers were above the law.”

Mpasu writes about his younger days, going to Dedza Secondary School in 1961, and in 1965 being among the one hundred students who inaugurated the University of Malawi in the city of Blantyre. At the beginning of his second year in the university, he was awarded a student leadership travel grant by the United States government, and visited the United States on a six-week tour. He was the only black person on the tour which attracted participants from Europe, Latin America, Asia and North Africa. While in the USA, in Atlanta, he pleaded with the organisers of the programme to arrange for him to meet with the Ku Klux Klan. The organisers “were embarrassed but I insisted.”

They arranged for him to meet with a lawyer for the Klan who was believed to be a member himself. Mpasu writes that he wanted to better understand what issues the Klan had with black people, but the explanations he got from the lawyer were not convincing, leaving Mpasu to wonder whether this lawyer won any court cases for the Klan. Whilst still in the US a friend from Finland tricked the second-year university student Mpasu into giving an improptu speech to a high profile Rotary Club lunch meeting, in Boulder, Colorado. He got a “thunderous applause,” and members came forth to shake his hand. The Finnish friend later let on that he wanted “the Americans to know something about Africa and Malawi.”

Upon graduation from the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College in 1969, Mpasu worked for Horace Hickling and Company, a trading company headquartered in Britain. He then joined the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Tourism, and after fifteen months, was appointed Second Secretary (Commercial) at the Malawi Embassy in Bonn, Germany. 

He served in that post for fifteen months again, after which he was posted to the Malawi Embassy in Addis Ababa. He served in Ethiopia for ten months, before being promoted to Senior Trade Officer responsible for domestic trade, back home. He had been back home for five months in that post when he was seconded to the Viphya Pulp and Paper Corporation, a government-owned company.

When the police came for him that Tuesday morning in January 1975, Mpasu had been at Viphya Pulp and Paper Corporation for twelve months. He was second in command. In Mpasu’s words, the Viphya pulp project was a vast undertaking, set to be the biggest Malawi had ever had up till then. It was going to employ seven thousand people working in logging operations, milling processes, converting trees into pulp, and exporting the pulp. It was expected to produce five hundred tonnes of pulp per day. People had been sent abroad, to Chile and in the United States, for training in areas that included use of oxen in logging, chemical, civil and mechanical engineering.

The week of his arrest, Mpasu had been scheduled to travel to Tehran, Iran, together with then Finance Minister, Dick Matenje. They were going to collect a cheque for US$50 million from the Shah of Iran, for his contribution to the project. Iran was looking to import pulp from Malawi to produce paper and expand the Iranian education system. The Viphya pulp project was expected to “transform the Malawi economy,” writes Mpasu.

Mpasu’s description of life in prison is as resilient and courageous as it is heart breaking. At Zomba Prison, he shared a cell with twenty-one other people, and they slept on the bare floor. Their blankets were worn-out and infested with “think, black lice which feasted on us throughout the night.” All twenty-two inmates shared one bucket as their toilet. It quickly filled up overnight and spilled urine and excrement onto their blankets and on to the floor.   

In Block B, the cell was right next to Condemned Cell Number One, which was death row. The death row inmates sang all night long, every night. The inmates there “were chained to steel hooks on the floor, all day, every day, waiting for execution.” Execution happened four times a year, in February, April, August and November. Most of those condemned to death had undergone trial in the traditional courts, where there was no legal representation. “It was very clear that many of those condemned men were totally innocent of the murder cases they were charged with. Their loud singing and prayers made this very clear.” It was easy for one Malawian to frame another and have them hanged, writes Mpasu.

He shares stories of people who found themselves in prison, some of them on death row, having committed no crime. In Karonga, a local chief ordered a Tanzanian tailor, who had lived in the village many years, to go back home and never to return to Malawi. The chief then framed another man, a known enemy of his, for purported murder of the tailor. The man was on death row, ready to be executed, when a relative of his spotted the Tanzanian tailor in Tanzania. 

He quickly mobilised other relatives who brought the tailor back to Malawi and to the authorities, and provided him as proof that he had not been murdered. The man on death row in Zomba was saved from the gallows days away from his execution. One director of Zomba Mental Hospital, the only psychiatrist in the country at the time, found himself at Zomba Prison on allegations that he was an agent of Malawian dissidents in Zambia, where he had grown up, when his Malawian parents worked there.

One fishmonger was picked by police from a roadside on suspicion that he had ran away from police. Women made up stories about their husbands and reported them to chiefs, and they ended up in prison, with no trial. One party functionary owed a chief money but instead of paying back the money, the functionary made up a story about the chief and reported him to Special Branch. The chief, Ngamwano, one of the local leaders who gallantly fought against colonialism and federation, died in Zomba prison. Mpasu tells gruesome, harrowing stories about inmates who attempted suicide inside a solitary cell, were rescued, and were taken to another cell for horrible punishment lasting several days.

On 14th February 1975, barely three weeks after arriving at Zomba Prison, Mpasu was transferred to Mikuyu Prison. There he found the likes of Machipisa Munthali, Dr Dennis Nkhwazi, Chakufwa Chihana, and Augustine Munthali, all of them “considered to be the most dangerous political prisoners.” There was also Alec Nyasulu, former cabinet minister and speaker of parliament. Mpasu does not describe how they had ended up at Mikuyu.

At Mikuyu Mpasu also found Dr Alifeyo Chilivumbo, professor of sociology at the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College. According to Mpasu, Professor Chilivumbo was taken in for dressing in a manner deemed rude to the Head of State. That was on graduation day at Chancellor College, which Dr Banda presided over. Professor Chilivumbo attended the graduation in a suit that had been considered not “his best suit for the occasion.” At graduation ball in the evening, which Dr Banda did not attend, the professor “was considered to have dressed well and better.” Special Branch took him to Zomba Prison and he was put on death row. For a reason Mpasu does not explain, Professor Chilivumbo was later moved to Mikuyu.

Some of Mpasu’s accounts are hard to believe, but where he has evidence, he provides it. His narrative corroborates what other victims of the one-party regime have also written, including Rose Chibambo, Kanyama Chiume, Henry Masauko Chipembere, Vera Chirwa, Jack Mapanje, among others.

When he got to Mikuyu, he was the third prisoner detained there for the year 1975, hence his prisoner number, and the title of his memoir. Prisoners one and two that year were policemen sent to Mikuyu because they had attempted to move women dancing for Kamuzu, to clear a path for his convoy. Kamuzu was returning from a state visit to Zambia, and was being welcomed by a large crowd that included dancing women, mbumba. When the two policemen asked the women to give way to the convoy, the women reported the two to a senior police officer, saying they were preventing the women “from dancing for their Nkhoswe Number One.”

Perhaps the most vicious irony in Mpasu’s prison memoir is what happened to Focus Gwede and Albert Muwalo. Gwede had become the most dreaded figure in the police intelligence service, a fact he had personally boasted about to Mpasu days after Mpasu’s arrest. Muwalo was the Secretary General and Administrative Secretary of the Malawi Congress Party, a very powerful position in the hierarchy of the party and the government. Muwalo “controlled access to Dr Banda,” writes Mpasu. Muwalo had the power to “terminate the political career of any politician in the Cabinet, in Parliament and in the Party.”

On 16th November 1976, Mpasu and his fellow inmates witnessed a most surreal spectacle. Focus Gwede and Albert Muwalo joined them at Mikuyu, having fallen out of favour with Kamuzu. They were each given separate cells. “I do not believe that either of these men would have been left alive, if they had been thrown in among us. They would have been beaten to death that same night.” Both Gwede and Muwalo were tried in the Traditional Court, where they were both sentenced to death. 

Gwede’s death sentence was commuted to life in prison, by Dr. Banda. Muwalo was not as lucky. In August 1977, nine months after he was arrested, Muwalo was hanged in Zomba Prison, together with other “criminals”.  Gwede was released from prison in 1993. He died on 14th March, 2011.

In the second edition to his prison memoir, Mpasu adds a conclusion, two and a half pages long.  He uses the conclusion to address one common complaint from readers about how he ended the book. He uses the two and half pages to describe, very briefly, what happened after his release. He mentions jobs he did, from 1978 up until 1994 when he was elected into parliament. He mentions ministries in which he served as cabinet minister, becoming speaker of parliament from 1999 to 2003, and going back into cabinet from 2003 to 2004.

It is yet to be known if Mpasu has left a manuscript in which he may have addressed events in his political life up until the time of his death. But his silence on some major developments in his life and in Malawi’s recent political history is deafening. Unless a manuscript surfaces in which it turns out Mpasu has addressed the glaring gaps, it raises exactly the same sense of intrigue Mpasu spoke of Kamuzu when he said Kamuzu “must have had a lot to hide.”

Some of the silences are loudly discussed in the public domain. The dominant one is the so-called “Fieldyork scandal.” When the United Democratic Front won the 1994 elections in May of that year, they had just over three months in which to fulfil their biggest campaign promise, free primary education. The new school year was scheduled to start on 26th September. There was need to purchase millions of notebooks, textbooks and pencils, amongst other education materials. Local suppliers asked for the opening date of the new school year to be pushed back to allow them enough time to provide the materials.

Court documents show that Mpasu proposed that a UK-based firm, Fieldyork, be awarded the tender, on the argument that they were read to provide the materials before schools opened. The then Minister of Finance approved local suppliers but not Fieldyork. Fieldyork submitted an invoice for GBP1,930,000 (approximately K1.9 billion in today’s currency), but did not provide a breakdown of the amounts involved. Court documents point out that the Reserve Bank of Malawi said there was a forex crunch, and had expressed preference for Malawi Finance Company, based in London. They had indicated they could deliver the exact amounts, at a quarter of the price.

As Minister of Education, Mpasu went ahead with Fieldyork anyway, who provided the materials in no time. He had run roughshod over the Central Tender Board and over the Minister of Finance. The government paid an initial sum of GBP300,000, but later President Muluzi cancelled the whole deal. Fieldyork sued for breach of contract, and government paid a further GBP500,000 to settle the suit, according to a PanaPress report of 4th November, 2005. On 8th April 2008 Mpasu was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment for abuse of office. He was released in August 2010, four years ahead of schedule, on good behaviour.

A 9th April 2008 Mail & Guardian article quoted then magistrate Chifundo Kachale as saying “It was clear that Mpasu cut corners to illegally award a contract to the British firm,” adding that “He [Mpasu] and others benefited from the irregular deal.” If there is documentation showing whether Mpasu personally benefitted from the deal, it yet to be made public. However, people who spoke with Mpasu over several years testify to his bitterness about how wrongly he was suspected of having benefitted from Fieldyork.

The Fieldyork scandal was broken by The Democrat, a hot-selling newspaper during the transition to multiparty and in the years after. Mpasu sued the newspaper in 1997 and won the case. Some have claimed that Mpasu’s legal action against The Democrat brought the paper down, but sources associated with the paper at the time contend that the publication had already become unviable by the time Mpasu sued. A decision had already been made to fold The Democrat, owing to debts incurred by the political machinery it was created to serve.

Mpasu is also celebrated as one of the people who stopped the “Third Term” train in its tracks. It was during his tenure as Speaker of Parliament that the proposal to amend the constitution and change the two-term limit for the presidency was defeated. In his 2017 memoirs of his time in Malawi, titled Malawi: A Place Apart, former two-time Norwegian ambassador to Malawi, Asbjǿrn Eidhammer, explains how the bill was defeated. The UDF had managed to bring opposition leaders John Tembo, of the MCP, and Chakufwa Chihana, of Aford, over to their side, “against the will of the majority of the MPs from the two parties.”

This happened on 4th July, 2002, which Eidhammer describes as “the most dramatic moment in the history of the eight-year-old democracy” then. A two-thirds majority was required to pass the bill, which needed support from some opposition MPs. Mpasu delegated the task of presiding over the session to Deputy Speaker Davis Katsonga, who announced that 125 MPs had voted in favour of the motion, while 59 had voted against.

That was just three votes short of a two-thirds majority, and thus the motion failed. Soon afterwards Mpasu was removed as Speaker of Parliament, and returned to cabinet where he served until 2004. Thereafter his life took twists and turns, with the Fieldyork scandal dogging him until his sentencing in 2008. For a writer, there was a lot of material. “There is so much to write about,” he wrote in 2014.

So why is it that Malawian leaders rarely write autobiographies? Why is it that Malawian writers and historians rarely write biographies of our leaders? Is it that our leaders have “a lot to hide,” to use Mpasu’s own words? The dearth of biographical information is glaringly present even in Malawian media, where journalists rarely provide any meaningful background detail to people in the news.

Writing biographies of prominent people requires a huge amount of skill, dedicated time, space and access to rare sources. Where the subject does have “a lot to hide,” the task becomes much harder, risky and daunting, fraught with legal folds and layers that would put off even the most spirited writer. Very few individuals are willing to accept, let alone own up to atrocities committed by their family members.

But writing also requires talent, or at least a passion that can be converted into talent. Late Mpasu had both talent and passion. His degree from Chancellor College, in 1969, was in English Literature and Economics. It is rare to find such interdisciplinarity in universities these days, narrow specialisation having overtaken broad, well-rounded, multidisciplinary inquiry.

Beyond individual effort and passion, there are broader political, economic and ideological considerations also. As I have pointed out elsewhere on this blog, Malawian creative writing has not been spared ramifications from adverse global developments. Neoliberalism and the privatisation impetus, imposed by the World Bank and the IMF, robbed Malawi of its once thriving bookshops. This affected not only the availability but also the quality of reading material Malawians have access to. You can’t have a thriving writing culture when you don’t have a thriving reading culture.

Current global ideological trends are relentlessly pushing toward more and more privatisation and less and less government. In countries where government-driven social services have never benefitted the majority, neoliberalism is eroding even the little gains governments achieved. If we agree with late Sam Mpasu that writing is important for a nation’s development, we should not leave this enterprise to its own devices.

As Kenyan scholar-activist Dr Wandia Njoya puts it, “there is no civilisation, no freedom, unless one can imagine the world they are fighting for.” Writing, in its auto/biographical and many other forms, is a great way to imagine and create the Malawi and the world we want. But the opportunity to spend time thinking, writing and imagining does not come on a silver platter. We must demand, and provide, the time, the space and the money. This is a task our institutions of higher education, research, cultural heritage organisations, media, and publishers, must consider seriously.

Were he to be true to his word about the importance of biographies of and autobiographies by leaders, political or otherwise, there is probably a lot that Sam Mpasu either wrote, since his last prison stay in 2010, or planned to write, in the coming years. As of now, we do not know whether he wrote about any of this or not. He did his part though, and remarkably so. He has left us with enough material to pick up from where he left. Only time will tell if we will be up to the task.