afrika aphukira

Midwiving the Afrikan rebirth. . . Views of Afrika and the world, on the path to the renaissance, from a social justice and an Afrikan epistemological perspective--uMunthu. Includes specific commentary on Malawi and Sub-Saharan Africa.

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.

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View blog reactions posted by steve sharra @ Wednesday, February 21, 2018 1 comments

Thursday, October 05, 2017

What drives Malawian teachers: Thoughts on World Teachers Day 2017

In mid-September, some three weeks ago, I was home in Ntcheu for ziliza (unveiling tombstones for departed relations). I used the occasion to stop by Chikande Primary School, where I started my teaching career. I taught there from January 1990 to July 1993. 

I entered the first classroom I taught in, which was Standard 2 at the time but is now Standard 3. It was unlocked, and I saw that it now has a cement floor. There was no cement floor in 1990, just a mud floor that the students swept daily and moistened weekly.

As we were waiting for the ziliza ceremony to start, a man beckoned to me to go and sit next to him. I needed to go and announce my arrival to other relations, so I motioned to him that I would see him later. He came up to me after the ceremony and wondered if I remembered him. I did not. “You taught me in Standard 3 at Chikande,” he said, and mentioned his name.

I instantly remembered him. That had been twenty-six years ago. He was now a fully grown man. The next person who came to also remind me that I taught him was unmistakable. He too was now a fully grown man but had changed very little. I even remembered his name before he could remind me. Both men went up to Standard 8 at the school, left school, and raised families. They became subsistence farmers.

At the school, save for the cement floor, and a new structure being constructed on the edge of the school forest, very little has changed in the twenty-four years since I left. But the area now has a community day secondary school. In those days the only secondary school in the entire district was Ntcheu.

Bilira had a long running distance education centre which provided an alternative secondary school opportunity to those not selected to Ntcheu, but it was not the same as being selected. There were successive years when no one was selected to a secondary school from Chikande. In lucky years, one would be selected. In luckier years, two.

When I left Chikande in 1993, I went to teach at Gunde, near Khwisa, on the Ntcheu-Balaka border. I stayed there for one term only, before leaving to go and work at the Malawi Institute of Education (MIE). From MIE I proceeded for further studies in teacher education, my current professional and academic occupation.

Most of my students at the Catholic University of Malawi, where I currently am, are student teachers who are either preparing to go into the teaching profession, or are experienced teachers upgrading from a primary teacher’s certificate to a university diploma or degree. Some are already teaching in secondary schools, but those teaching in primary school will soon leave to teach in secondary school upon completion of their studies.

The Catholic University of Malawi’s Faculty of Education offers a weekend option in addition to its residential programme. Teachers arrive on Friday evening, attend classes on Saturday and Sunday, and return to their duty stations on late Sunday afternoon or Monday morning. Some come from as far as Nsanje in the south, and others from as far as Nkhotakota. Colleagues talk about this one teacher who used to come from Chitipa.

These teachers are driven by what once drove me when I was a classroom teacher. I was driven by a desire for higher education. The prestige that comes with higher qualifications was a big factor, but an even bigger factor was the fleeting glimpse of the greater knowledge that lay out there beyond the curriculum we were working with. I see this desire in the teachers who are upgrading today.

They are hoping to escape the dead-end of what life has become for many Malawian primary school teachers. But they are also craving for deeper knowledge of curriculum, pedagogy and research so they can become better teachers. The career path in our country’s primary teacher professional development trajectory is yet to catch up with the desires of these teachers. We remain stuck in a mentality that regards primary education as deserving of only bare, minimum, basic qualifications, and not deeper academic and pedagogical knowledge offered at a university level.

Thus these teachers get their university diplomas and degrees, and the only way to recognise their new qualifications is to send them to teach in secondary schools. Primary schools are thus deprived of better qualified and educated teachers because the system operates on the premise that only secondary schools deserves such teachers. Even the National Strategy for Teacher Education and Development (NSTED), the ten-year policy plan that has guided teacher education and development in this country since 2008, and expires this year, is cognisant of this conundrum. It offers no direct solution.

Talking about policies, we are a nation that specialises in well-developed and expertly articulated plans at the national level. When it comes to implementation, you would be forgiven for concluding that the policies were developed for another planet. This has become the bane of our developmental aspirations. And we do not spend enough time analysing the root causes underlying our failure to implement our plans.

To the extent that when Oxfam held public discussions around its 2016 report on inequality in Malawi, titled A Dangerous Divide, one of the report’s co-authors, Dr. Richard Mussa (RIP), suggested that what Malawi needed was not a National Planning Commission. Rather, what Malawi needed was a National Implementation Commission.

We have ended up with a National Planning Commission, all the same. The nation is waiting, with bated breath, what direction the commission will take the country into. Even more importantly, the nation is waiting to see what new ideas the commission will bring that will transform Malawi into a nation that implements it policies.

Giving a keynote address at a land governance and research conference at the University of Malawi Polytechnic in September, Professor Blessings Chinsinga shared an anecdote what made everyone in the audience wince. A Malawi government delegation is said to have visited Rwanda to learn some lessons in development from the Rwandans. This happened not too long ago.

Opening the meeting, a Rwandan minister wondered why Malawi was coming to learn from Rwanda. After all, Rwanda visited Malawi several years ago, and borrowed Malawi’s Vision 2020. The same anecdote has also been shared about Singapore, who also came to learn from Malawi some decades ago, and today they are so developed they are at par with the so-called developed countries.

We need to exert energy and expend time examining the planning-implementation discrepancy. One possible explanation is what I see as the socially constructed gap between the educated elites and the rest of the population. This is a gap resulting from restricted access to education, best illustrated through numbers of people who survive the education system and those who do not. I have discussed these numbers on this blog before, but it helps to rehash them.

Annual enrolment in Standard one has approached the one million threshold over the last eight years. However by Standard eight, only 250,000 or thereabouts survive the eight-year cycle. Of these, about 100,000 will find space in public and private secondary schools, in conventional and alternative programmes.

From a population of about 5 million learners in primary schools, our secondary school enrolment is no more than 400,000. It gets even narrower at the tertiary level, where it is less than 50,000, to use a generous estimate. To put this in perspective, this year, the four public universities took in 4,600 students.  

These enrolment trends are historical. For much of the colonial and missionary era, the emphasis was on primary education only. There was no secondary school in Malawi until 1941. Even after independence in 1964, despite massive enrolments both in primary and secondary, the rate of increase was not enough to bring drastic, far-reaching changes to the social landscape.

The result is that as of 2016, only 30 percent of Malawians aged 15 and above have attained a secondary school education. the majority, 70 percent, have not. Therein lies one possible explanation for the chasm that characterises the elitism of policymaking and the absence of implementation.

Another possible explanation comes from Dan Banik and Blessings Chinsinga in their 2016 book, titled Political Transition and Inclusive Development in Malawi: The Democratic Dividend. The two professors of public policy, who co-edited the book, argue that Malawi’s institutional characteristics and requirements for development on the one hand, and democracy on the other, are pulling in opposite directions.

In other words, there is a contradiction between our development aspirations and our political practice. Again, this needs further analytical discussion, but as can be seen from how political parties behave when they are in government, political interests overshadow development interests. But these are effects, rather than causes.  

What does this all have to do with the education system, you may be wondering. A lot, I argue. Particularly when we think of World Teachers Day today and its theme, Teaching in Freedom, Empowering Teachers. UNESCO have pointed out that teachers are key to achieving the 2030 Education Agenda, if not the whole SDG agenda itself. Several memes shared on social media today have carried the message that teaching is the “profession that creates all other professions.”

In Malawi, teachers are repeatedly told about how much they are valued, but that is how far it goes. A quintessential moment was when President Peter Mutharika inaugurated Chiradzulu Teachers’ College on 16th September 2015. Said the president:

We must provide teachers with necessary resources and respect them because teaching is the mother of all professions. 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. 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.

That was 2015, and this is 2017. It is not the last time teachers will hear these sentiments. They have become woven into the rhetoric that forms part of the policy-implementation discrepancy. Thus our education system is ensnared in the complex maze of excellent policies that remain unimplemented.
My students and I marked World Teachers Day today with an educational visit to the Providence Industrial Mission, in Chiradzulu, some 13 kilometres from campus. 

We spent the afternoon touring around PIM and learning about the educational aspirations and achievements of Reverend John Chilembwe. We sat in a classroom at the primary school and listened to a lecture by a primary school teacher, Mr George Nasolo. Mr Nasolo has extensively studied and researched John Chilembwe and the PIM.  I wrote about him in an earlier blog, in January this year.

He is one Malawian teacher who has sought to teach Malawians about John Chilembwe based on empirical evidence obtained from sources that knew Chilembwe and lived in his times. Many of these sources have since passed on, but there is a lot of material that still fascinates audiences.

Mr Nasolo is one example of many Malawian teachers who are talented and have the capacity to produce remarkable knowledge. These are teachers who have the potential to transform the knowledge landscape of this country; teachers who are pursuing intellectual freedom and empowerment in a fractured policy-implementation climate. They are driven by a craving for higher education, and deeper knowledge, for their students and communities. The same cravings that drove me nearly three decades ago.

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Thursday, July 06, 2017

Thoughts on Malawi at 53: History, Education and Human Dignity

I would like to preface the thoughts below by offering my deepest condolences to the families of the Malawians, many of them reported to be children, who were killed in the stampede at the Bingu National Stadium today on 6th July. I convey warm thoughts to the injured and extend hope that they will get better soon.

My effort today is an attempt at crystalizing disparate thoughts that I have been pondering for many years, on human dignity. I believe this lies at the core of what we ought to be focusing on as a nation. And I believe the education system, and its origins, are a central narrative to this. In this discussion I provide an overview of what the education statistics looked like at independence, and how, 53 years later, we are yet to seal the chasms created over a hundred years ago. 

Overall, I am concerned with how the adoption of modern education in our country, and the minimal requirements we set for the teaching profession, have meant that huge numbers of Malawians have been stripped of their human dignity.

In 1964, Malawi had just over 3 million people. There were about 360,000 students enrolled in primary school, and about  6,000 secondary school students. Some 1,368 students were in teacher training colleges; 381 in technical and vocational colleges; and 180 in university. These numbers are from the Education Management Information System or, the Education IFMIS (without the cash).

There was no secondary school in Malawi until 1941. That was 66 years after the first primary school, opened in 1875. Not that there was no education system in the land before the missionaries, just that it was not institutionalised the way modern schooling is.

The colonial government opened Blantyre Secondary School in 1941, before opening Dedza Secondary School ten years later, in 1951. Mzuzu Government Secondary School, the third government secondary school, opened in 1959. For the missionaries, their first secondary school opened two years after BSS. This was Zomba Catholic Secondary School, of the Roman Catholic Church, which opened in 1943. For these facts, we are indebted to Kelvin Banda (1982). 

The late establishment of secondary schools meant that secondary school education was a privilege reserved for very few people. At the time of independence in 1964, the gap between primary and secondary school was already very wide. If it were to begin to bridge the gap, secondary school enrolment needed to multiply many times over.

Today, 53 years later, there are about 18 million of us. We have about 5 million primary school students, with girls outnumbering boys by about 6,500. In Standard 1, about 15,000 more girls enrol for school than boys, at least as of 2015. But secondary enrolment still lags very far behind. As of 2015, the most recent official statistics available, we had just about 360,000 secondary school students, with boys outnumbering girls by about 23,000.

In May this year, just over 271,000 students sat the Standard 8 primary school leaving certificate examination. When this class entered primary school in 2009, there were 877,217 of them, according the 2013 EMIS. Only a quarter of that number survived the eight year cycle. More than 600,000 either dropped out, or are repeating. 
 In 2016, that figure was 255,000, for students who sat the PSLCE. They had survived from 850,000, the number that entered Standard one in 2008. Again, 600,000 students had fallen by the wayside over the eight year cycle. It has been that way for decades. 

Out of the 271,000 who sat the PSLCE a few weeks ago, about 75 percent or so will pass the examination. Government secondary schools will take in about 80,000 students, and private secondary schools will take in about 20,000. Of the remaining 171,000, a few thousands will enter what has become known as open day secondary school. Previously known as “night school,” the open system accepts any student, regardless of age, as long as they have a Standard 8 certificate. They come in the afternoon and learn for three to four hours.

The tertiary and higher education statistics are even bleaker. The last time EMIS data included tertiary and higher education was in 2011. Then, it was reported that the country had 12,203 university students, 6,105 technical and vocational students, and 10,993 students in teacher training colleges across the country. This showed a total of 29,301 students in all of Malawi’s higher and tertiary education institutions as of 2010.

There have been quite a few remarkable gains over the decades. More girls are getting into school, and are outnumbering boys in the Form 1 selection. In 2015, 37 percent of girls who passed were selected to secondary school, against 35 percent for boys, a trend that started in 2013.

Improvements have also been registered in the teacher training programmes. In 2015 the teacher training colleges enrolled more female student teachers (5,890) than males (4,304), a difference of 1,586 in favour of females. The male-female ratio for primary teachers has also improved in the last five years. From 62 percent male teachers against 38 percent female teachers in 2010, male teachers were now down to 58 percent, against 42 percent for female teachers, in 2015.

However these figures change drastically from upper primary into secondary. In a sample of teachers of English in 100 primary schools and 12 CDSSs in Thyolo district, there were 410 male teachers, compared to just 39 females.

In broader terms, the historical inequality in access to education has persisted over the decades. As the 2017 PSLCE numbers show, the majority of Malawian children who enter primary school never finish the eight year cycle, a trend that goes back fifty three years. As the 2016 Malawi Demographic and Health Survey reveals, almost 70 percent of Malawians aged 15 years and above do not have a secondary school education. The numbers are worse for women, at 74 percent.

All these trends, decades in the making, begin to have a knock-on effect on the kind of nation we have become. Perhaps the most significant, yet intangible effect is on the human dignity of ordinary Malawians. The majority, as the numbers show, have not been given the opportunity to access a commodity that came with Western colonisation and replaced traditional forms of being human and the collective respect accorded to individuals.

And this is not peculiar to Malawi. It is a legacy of global colonialism in many parts of the world. As a species, we have not spent enough time and intellectual resources examining this phenomenon and using the school system to deal with its pernicious legacy.

Consequently, it is not of much surprise that as a country we have significantly low levels of civic involvement, economic participation, and political engagement. A recent book, edited by Dan Banik and Blessings Chinsinga argues that Malawi’s political system is at odds with its development goals. The country’s political system and development agenda are pulling in opposite directions. It is a complex phenomenon that requires careful examination, especially as it infiltrates the education system and influences what is taught and learned, and how.

The historical elitism and exclusivity of the education system extends to language, where the primacy of English has become a virtual proxy for academic pedigree and intellectual acumen, pushing endogenous forms of knowledge into oblivion. As a result, a large population of Malawians are kept outside the dominant knowledge production and political governance systems.

It also means the ways of knowing and living that many Malawians utilise on a day to day basis are excluded from educational, political and economic officialdom, creating a form of arrested development. Mwalimu Julius Nyerere referred to this as “the worst of both worlds” (1967). What he meant by that was that modern Africans had abandoned traditional ways of living and knowing, and were no longer excelling in them. Compelled to adopt foreign knowledge and governance systems, they were not excelling in them either. They are thus neither experts in African ways of being, nor in the newly adopted foreign ways.

Our teacher education system is struggling to keep with the demands of a 21st century education dynamic. Malawian primary school teachers have always received the bare minimum education required, and no more. Although this has been more acute in primary than secondary schools, the majority of secondary schools suffer from the problem of teacher quality as well. In private secondary schools, 72 percent of the teachers were unqualified, in 2015.

Regionally, our neighbours, and much of the world, have moved toward university diplomas and degrees for primary school teachers. In the world’s best education systems, the minimum qualification to teach in primary school is a masters’ degree. We are stuck with the age-old certificate, given after one year of theory and one year of practicals.  There have been efforts to move in the direction the rest of the world is moving, but the size of our economy, coupled with dizzying levels of waste, remain a stumbling block.  

There is an insatiable appetite amongst teachers with a primary teacher's certificate to obtain diplomas and degrees. Because our teacher development system is yet to find a way of handling this, those who obtain higher qualifications are pushed out of primary schools into secondary schools or other jobs outside the teaching profession. It is as if we do not believe that primary schools deserve well educated teachers.

Yet the teacher education policy expresses a clear desire for a highly educated and well prepared cadre of teachers. The National Strategy for Teacher Education and Development (NSTED) 2007-2017 observes that the best primary teachers always shift from primary school to secondary schools. This, the NSTED argues, has “weakened both primary and secondary sub-sectors” and quality both in primary and secondary schools “has been compromised”.

The reason this has been happening is the absence of a mechanism to recognise and reward higher qualifications so teachers who upgrade can stay and continue teaching in primary schools. That would allow our primary school children to be taught by well qualified, highly educated teachers. But a deeper reason is the absence of an education philosophy that recognises the central importance of highly qualified teachers at the earliest stages of the education system.

The origins of this absence of a philosophy of teacher excellence right from the nursery stages go back to the introduction of modern education in Malawi. When the missionaries established the first modern school in Malawi, in 1875, the primary purpose of education was to teach people how to read the Bible and thereby spread Christianity. 

Thus there was rapid expansion of primary schools offering basic education in reading, writing and arithmetic, with a little technical education. Secondary and tertiary education were not available in Malawi; people had to travel to other countries in the region. Thus, secondary and tertiary education are still relatively new in Malawi. This has had an effect on how we have envisioned who can become a teacher. And being a teacher in Malawi brings issues of human dignity to the fore.  

Human dignity is hardly talked about in public discourse, in Malawi or elsewhere. It is not an attractive topic in public policy even at the global level. But that is what more than a century of colonial subjugation and Western epistemological dominance has wrought. What makes it more insidious and therefore hard to comprehend is the English language that I am using to express all this. Being “educated” in today’s world, in this part of the world, means being inextricably bound up with a globally dominant colonial language.

English derives its dominance and sustained support from elites because it accords “educated” people a form of human dignity stripped from the egalitarian norm which tradition placed on every individual. The sense of exclusivity gained from the education system resides in the particular ability to speak a language that bestows global privilege on one and sets one apart from the rest of one’s folk. This explains the extent Malawian elites will go to prove what they believe to be the uselessness of Malawian languages.

No one is disputing the importance of English. That is beyond debate. It is amazing how dichotomous the debate quickly becomes. The dominance of the English language in all of government and commercial business restricts participation to the estimated less than 10 percent of Malawians who are conversant with the English language. We need to think about the remaining 90 percent who do not use English. What Malawi needs, looking ahead, is an active agenda to make translation the centre of knowledge production. Our country needs to make global knowledge available to ordinary Malawians, in their own languages, and to make Malawian knowledge available in global languages.

That would enable transfer of knowledge at a scale that would catalyse self-empowerment, economic growth and socio-economic development.  A two-way transfer of knowledge between global languages and Malawian languages would mean that knowledge of mathematics, science and technology would be available to the majority of Malawians, including the 70 percent who do not have secondary level education. That would change the fortunes of the many Malawians historically denied access to education. Ultimately, it would proffer Malawians the dignity stripped from their humanity by colonial subjugation. That is what would put us on the way toward genuine independence.

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Sunday, January 15, 2017

Chilembwe’s continuing struggle for African dignity

On the afternoon of Tuesday 8th November 2016, I took my History of Education first year class at the Catholic University of Malawi to Providence Industrial Mission (PIM). We had read about John Chilembwe as one of Malawi’s early pioneers in modern education, in Kelvin Banda’s 1982 book A Brief History of Education in Malawi. Being no more than 10 kilometres away from campus, we decided it was worthwhile to go and see this historical place.

Our visit had two parts. First, we were given a lecture on who John Chilembwe was and how he founded PIM. The second part was a tour of the place. The lecture was fascinating. It was delivered by Mr George Nasolo, a teacher at the local primary school, a historian of Chilembwe, and a resource person at PIM. Mr Nasolo has spent a lifetime researching Chilembwe. My students found it disconcerting that while Mr Nasolo possesses encyclopaedic knowledge on Chilembwe, he has never written a book on him.

Mr George Nasolo. Photo copyright Steve Sharra
There are quite a few books and scholarly articles on Chilembwe, not to mention scores of newspaper articles published in John Chilembwe Day Supplements come every January 15th. Most notable among the books is George Shepperson and Thomas Price’s Independent African, published in 1958, as well as DD Phiri’s Let Us Die For Africa, first published in 1976 under the title Malawians to Remember – John Chilembwe. There is also George Simeon Mwase’s 1967 book Strike a Blow and Die, edited and introduced by Robert I Rotberg.

Amongst the scholarly articles is one by the late Dr. Mekki Mtewa, published in 1977, which I discussed in a 2007 blog article. Then there are others by Robert Rotberg and David Stuart-Mogg, and many more. DD Phiri published a play titled Let Us Fight For Africa, based on Chilembwe’s story. Phiri wrote in his Daily Times column of Wednesday 11th January 2017 that Chancellor College Publications had translated Let Us Fight For Africa into Chichewa, as Tiwombole Africa.

That Tuesday afternoon on 8th November 2016, Mr Nasolo told us things that have become common knowledge about Chilembwe, and things that are not well known about him. The remainder of this article is based on what Mr Nasolo told us, based on his research. It may be corroborated with what has been published elsewhere, but it may also contradict accepted wisdom on Chilembwe. Research on and interest in Chilembwe has been growing in recent years, which means the various Chilembwe narratives will be subjected to critical appraisal, both academic and journalistic. Malawian film makers Charles Shemu Joyah and Muti Phoya have been planning Chilembwe films in their respective rights.

Early on in his talk, Mr Nasolo corrected an error about Chilembwe’s birthplace, which says he was born near Mbombwe Hill. He said there was no hill called Mbombwe, but rather a stream not too far from where we were. He said Joseph Booth, the white evangelist who groomed Chilembwe and took him to America, was in fact an Australian. He said he had not been able to establish how come Booth took Chilembwe to America rather than to Autsralia.

Mr Nasolo said he had also been unable to establish with certainty that the group Chilembwe sent to steal guns and ammunition at Mandala actually succeeded in stealing guns. He said at the onset of the first World War, a war Africans were forced to fight alongside their oppressors, Chilembwe sent a letter to the German Army in Tanganyika. He sent the letter through Yotamu Bango, who walked from Chiradzulu to Tanganyika. Chilembwe was seeking the support of the Germans in his own struggle against the British. Chilembwe never heard from Bango again, and nothing is known as to what happened to the letter.

Nasolo narrated events leading to the killing of William Jarvis Livingstone, a cruel estate manager, and grandson of Scottish explorer David Livingstone, according to George Shepperson’s foreword to DD Phiri’s 1999 edition of Let Us Die For Africa. The killing, according to Nasolo, involved the connivance of Livingstone’s African cook, Lanjesi. Lanjesi was in turn executed by Livingstone’s white colleagues after he failed to say what he knew about how Livingstone was killed.

According to Nasolo, Livingstone’s house in Magomero stands to this day. It is said to have a pit inside it, believed to be where Livingstone dumped bodies of Africans he routinely killed. His grandchildren visited Magomero recently and asked to perform a rite inside the house, according to Nasolo. He said the government did not permit them to do so. He did not elaborate why.

Nasolo also pointed out that Chilembwe’s descendants dispute the accepted narrative that Chilembwe was killed. They say he fled to Mozambique. Nasolo said there was no evidence for that version. He said his research shows that Chilembwe was caught as he was about to cross into Mozambique, headed towards East Africa. They shot him dead, and took his corpse to Mulanje boma. There the governor was unhappy that he had been killed, preferring he had been caught alive to answer for Livingstone's murder. His corpse was thrown across from what is today Mulanje Prison, in Esperance Estate. He had a son and two daughters. The son died in 1976, having lived in South Africa for many years.

The PIM Church rebuilt between 1928 and 1933
What Chilembwe built at PIM was destroyed by the colonialists in response to the 1915 uprising. But PIM still stands to this day, owing in large part to Dr. Daniel Malikebu. According to Nasolo, Dr. Malikebu has told his own life’s story in a book titled My Vision. Nasolo explained that Dr. Malikebu also studied in the United States, having walked on foot from Chiradzulu to Dar es Salaam, from where he did odd jobs to enable him buy ship tickets to the Britain, and onward to the United States. He got his medical degree from Meharry Medical College, in 1911.

When he finished his medical degree, Malikebu announced that he wanted a wife before returning home to the then Nyasaland. He was taken to Spelman College, an institution for black women in the US. The women were asked to line up for Malikebu to choose one. He settled for a Ms Zeto, from Zaire. The couple were denied entry into Nyasaland in 1921. They went to Liberia instead, where Malikebu practised medicine. A number of Africans petitioned the government to allow Malikebu and his wife into Malawi, and they arrived on 3rd June, 1926. It was under Malikebu’s leadership that PIM was rebuilt. The magnificent church that stands at PIM today was constructed by the Africans themselves.

This year, 2017, marks 102 years since the Chilembwe Uprising. It is a part of Malawian history that has been subjected to growing research, revision, and renewed interest. But there has also been a growing scepticism and ambivalence amongst some Malawians. Criticisms have been levelled at Chilembwe for the violence he resorted to against European brutality. There have also been claims that Chilembwe did not have a nationalist vision, as his struggle was localised to his immediate environs in Chiradzulu.

In today’s Sunday Times, Eston Kakhome has written a strongly-worded argument against holding up Chilembwe as a hero. He argues that Kamuzu achieved much more than Chilembwe, and is more deserving to be on the newly introduced K2000 note, than Chilembwe. He calls the elevation of Chilembwe into a national hero, with a national holiday and his face on Malawi’s highest currency denomination, a distortion of Malawi’s history. Other attacks on Chilembwe’s legacy are appearing on social media with increasing frequency.

Sanjika Rock, where Chilembwe is said to have spend countless hours studying and praying.
 Photo credit Steve Sharra
These are criticisms that appear to come from people who have not read deeply into Chilembwe and the era he lived in. In his introduction to Let Us Die For Africa, DD Phiri writes that that the title is taken from Chilembwe’s speech delivered on the eve of the uprising. That alone shows how Pan-Africanist Chilembwe’s worldview was. He has been called a Pan-Africanist by scholars who have researched his story, including Shepperson.

That Chilembwe used violence against the settler colonialists sounds unpalatable to our 21st century sensibilities, but this must be analysed in the context of the Africa Chilembwe lived in. Africans were subjected to physical and psychological violence every day of their lives, by foreigners who invaded their lands and dehumanised them. He may have made mistakes, but the broader vision of his struggle far outweighs his shortcomings as a leader.

Comparing Chilembwe to Kamuzu is to judge two different people who lived into two different epochs. A more productive exercise would be to look at the ways in which the two men contributed, in their different ways, to the founding of the country we have today. Chilembwe was driven by a profound desire for dignity for African people. There are things that Kamuzu did that dehumanised Malawians and flew in the face of what Chilembwe fought for.

Today, Africa’s struggle is for human dignity, long denied through educational, political and economic systems that glorify and reify Eurocentrism at the expense of the continent. It is not uncommon to hear young Malawians today say Chilembwe acted too soon; he should have allowed the whites to continue “civilising” and “developing” us. Too many Malawian elites go about life oblivious of the history that gave us freedom from colonial rule. Too many Malawian elites have no shared appreciation of Chilembwe’s struggle for the dignity of Africans, and how that struggle continues to this day.

Note: Since publishing this piece, I have heard from Arthur Nanthuru, a Malawian attorney, who reports being in possesion of , in his words, "a copy of an inquest report on Chilembwe's death. He and his brother were identified during the inquest which took place on 4th February 1915 at Mulanje boma. They had been shot dead the previous day by Constable Garnet Kaduya." 

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Thursday, December 15, 2016

Malawi’s public education system: from planning to implementing

If Malawi truly wanted to improve the quality of public education, three questions would need to provide guidance. Which local, endogenous wisdom would we draw from? Which countries’ models would we want to learn from? And, how would we want the learning to look like? Although there are no easy answers to these questions, there are good reasons to pursue them.

Drawing from local, endogenous wisdom is important because learning from other societies is as inevitable as it is messy and complex. You can never borrow and transplant an entire system. You can only adapt what you are borrowing to an already existing, endogenous yet dynamic system. For which countries to borrow from, this is not a straightforward matter either. There are successful education systems in the global North and in the global South, with very different cultures.

As to how we would want the learning to look like, we would want to learn on our terms, not on the terms of those we are learning from. That is how successful egalitarian societies have managed to achieve their success.

A teacher continuous professional development session in Thyolo
What we know thus far about successful egalitarian education systems is that not only do they understand the significance of making their teachers the best educated and most prestigious professionals; they actually make the necessary investments. All countries say education is important. The difference between successful nations and unsuccessful ones lies in going beyond the rhetoric and implementing national plans.

On 16th September 2015, President Professor Peter Mutharika opened Chiradzulu Teachers’ College and said what must have been the most pleasing statements any Malawian educationist would want to hear. The president said, as quoted in Nyasatimes, “We must provide teachers with necessary resources and respect them because teaching is the mother of all professions. 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.”

The president went on to say: “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.” As I have pointed out elsewhere, these were very powerful, delightful things to say and Malawians are waiting to see the fulfilment of those promises. If what the president said were to become reality, Malawi would have one of the best education systems in the world.

There are countries that have actually made good on such promises. In Africa, Zimbabwe is one example. In Asia, there is Singapore, Japan and South Korea. In Europe, there is Scotland, Germany, and Finland, among others. What these countries have done, particularly Finland, is to make teaching the most prestigious profession. Finland’s teacher preparation programmes are the most selective, admitting only the best scoring students and subjecting them to a rigorous interview process before finally accepting them into a teacher education programme.

The minimum qualification to become a teacher in Finland, starting at the preschool level, is a research masters’ degree. The result is that the Finnish education system ranks amongst the best in the world, despite having slipped in PISA rankings since 2012 (In the 2015 rankings, released on 6th December 2016, Singapore took the number one position). Teachers, educationists and researchers from around the world go to Finland to learn how the country achieved this.

In the 1950s Finland was a largely agrarian society with very low school enrolment and transition rates. In the 1960s the country made a decision to transform its economy, and it started with the education system. In 1968 the country changed its basic education system and introduced comprehensive and compulsory education from Grades 1 to 9. They changed teacher certification requirements, introduced a new curriculum and started providing free meals to all students.

The country consolidated these changes by decentralising control to local municipalities and assemblies, and later shifted from an industry-based economy to a knowledge-based economy. Education became the basis for innovation, open-mindedness, and flexibility. Students were taught to be responsible for their own learning, and schools and teachers were given autonomy. Top-performing students were incentivised to join the teaching profession, resulting in highly educated professionals who were trusted.

Critics like to point out that Finland has a very small, homogenous population and therefore it cannot be a model for countries that differ from its makeup. That is well and true, but it does not negate the importance, nor the feasibility, of heavily investing in teacher education and professional development, and fostering responsibility for students’ own learning and self-awareness.

If Malawi were to transform its education system and improve the quality of education, we would need to start by conscientising ourselves to endogenous forms of knowledge that define who we are as a country. We would then be in a position to determine what we wanted to learn from others, on our terms rather than on the terms of those we were learning from.

We have not done a good job of learning or borrowing, and that is why we have mismanaged our education system. The results have had adverse effects on much of our society. One particular form of endogenous knowledge we have not explored is that of uMunthu; the human dignity imperative.

The most recent education statistics, from 2015, show a few gains and many losses. We have improved in net enrolment and at least 95 percent of our six-year olds are entering school. The problem is that they are not persisting to completion. We have made great strides in getting girls into school, who now outnumber boys in primary school by a small margin. Girls also outnumber boys in Form 1 selection, and our teacher training programmes are now enrolling more female student teachers than males. We are training more teachers and the qualified teacher pupil ratio is slightly improving.

A significant percentage of primary school students drop-out annually (3.8 percent) and, an even higher percentage repeat annually (21.9 percent). By the time they reach Standard 8, up to 68 percent have dropped out or are repeating. Of those who finish Standard 8, only 36 percent transition to secondary school. In terms of net enrolment, the percentage of 13-17 year-olds who are supposed to be in secondary school, only 15 percent actually are.

Our secondary school system leaves out so many young people it has become dangerously unsustainable. The majority of Malawians 15 years and above have never attained a secondary school education. The figures stand 64 percent for men and 74 percent for women, according to the 2016 Malawi Health and Demographic Survey (p.11). For those who do attend, the quality is very poor, except for very few in elite public and private secondary schools. The majority of teachers in community day secondary schools are unqualified. It is even worse in private secondary schools, where 72 percent of teachers are untrained.

We have a textbook shortage, but it is made worse by irregular distribution and uncertainties in supply. It is a common sight to see twenty students sharing one textbook while new, unwrapped books are kept inside cupboards in headteachers’ offices for fear that if they get damaged there will be no replacements. We have many students both in primary and secondary schools who go for years without touching a textbook. These students end up in universities and are unleashed onto the streets.

In the tertiary and higher education system, our approach to solutions has been more politically-driven than based on sound thinking. The quota system, officially termed equitable access, is supposed to be used to level the ground for students disadvantaged by poverty, gender and disability, but it has become a tool that punishes high performing students even from among the disadvantaged groups. We need to address resource imbalances and shortages at the primary and secondary levels so as to give everyone a quality basic and secondary education.

We also need to acknowledge that a few private universities now offer alternative options to high performing students. These institutions deserve government support. They are now taking in the many qualified students left out of the public universities. Levelling the ground from basic education and utilising the private universities to widen access would eliminate the need to apply quotas at the higher education level. It would leave academic merit as the only criteria.

The higher education system itself is now reeling from years of elitist exclusivity and arrested development. The decades-old failure to expand access has created bottled-up pressure that is now exploding due to escalating costs amidst rapid expansion. The debate around the fees hike is undifferentiated, pitting two sides that are using sweeping statements to argue that the fees are either justified or they are too high. Missing from the debate is a discussion of how to use data and verifiable records to make students from wealthy families pay, while providing loans and scholarships to those who cannot.

Within three months of its loans recovery campaign, between April and June 2016, the Higher Education Students Loans and Grants Board (NHESLGB) was able to recover K27.5 million, from 2,700 former students. This averaged K10,000 per former student, very little when compared to the actual amount spent to educate them.

The NHESLGB has the potential to become an important part of the solution to the problem of higher education fees, especially if it can recover loans at current exchange value and inflation, with interest. It needs to find bolder ways of growing its fund base. The lesson from successful education systems is that their governments use aggressive taxation, particularly from natural resources, to generate enough revenue to provide higher education to as many citizens as possible. We are on the extreme end of the continuum.

The current capacity of our higher education misleads us into thinking that the majority of our secondary school leavers do not qualify for university education. In fact they do. Every year no less than 70,000 pass the MSCE but only 6,000 or thereabouts find space in our public universities. An even smaller number go to private universities. The reality is that many more students deserve to be admitted into higher education but capacity problems deny them this opportunity.

If we truly wanted to improve the quality of education in Malawi, we have the knowledge and the expertise. We know where to learn from. Our leaders say all the right things but fail to put them into action. It has become cliché to say what we lack is political will, shorthand for inaction due to politicised rather than national visions. It is time we moved from a planning nation to an implementing one.

A version of this article appeared in the October 2015 issue of The Lamp magazine.

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