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.

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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Thursday, September 08, 2016

Literacy, Language and Power: Thoughts on International Literacy Day 2016

It warms my heart that today, 8th September 2016, Malawi is celebrating the International Literacy Day on its designated day. More often than not, we are jolted into action after seeing what other parts of the world are doing on the day, and then we go “Ah! So today is International Literacy Day? Let us choose a day to commemorate it.” So we end up doing the commemoration in the latter part of the month, or even in October.

This year, a press release was floated in the papers a week or so ahead of the day. Two ministers, for Education, Science and Technology (Dr. Emmanuel Fabiano), and Gender (Dr. Jean Kalilani) are expected to be at Champiti Primary School in Ntcheu district to commemorate the day.

Photo credit: Steve Sharra
This brings back memories of how we commemorated the day in 2010. A few weeks to the day, I went around knocking on people’s office doors at Capital Hill asking if there were any events planned to commemorate the day. I went to the Ministry of Education where the then acting Secretary for Education, Science and Technology was not in office that day. His secretary referred me to one of the directors. The director told me that the Ministry of Gender had traditionally commemorated the day, so they might be better placed to know if there were any events being planned.

I went to the Ministry of Gender, met a director, and learned that there was no event being planned. Shouldn’t this be a Ministry of Education event, actually? Asked the director, rhetorically. As I wrote in a blogpost in 2010, it dawned on me that “literacy” in Malawi’s seat of government, at least as of 2010, was understood as “adult literacy.”

It wasn’t until I met the National Librarian, Mr Grey Nyali, that we managed to put together an event. We went to Zodiak Broadcasting Station, where Winston Mwale, a former teacher turned journalist, jumped at the idea. We pre-recorded a one-hour panel discussion, which aired on ZBS on 8th September 2010.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the International Literacy Day. The theme this year is “Reading the Past, Writing the Future,” according to UNESCO. As is the case every year, the UNESCO International Literacy Prizes are being awarded. They are the King Sejong Literacy Prize and the UNESCO Confucius Prize for Literacy.

The King Sejong Literacy Prize is being awarded to organisations in Vietnam and Thailand. In Vietnam the Center for Knowledge Assistance and Community Development is working to bring books to rural communities. In Thailand the Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia, at Mahidol University, has a programme that promotes multilingual education.

The Confucius Prize is being awarded to three winners in South Africa, Senegal and India. They are the South African Department of Basic Education, for a mass literacy campaign; the Directorate of Literacy and National Languages in Senegal; and the Jan Shikshan Sansthan organisation, in Kerala, India.

All the five winners appear to have a common cause: promoting literacy amongst marginalised groups. Although the winning organisations seem to be going about pursuing this common interest in various ways, at the core of their endeavours is the role of language in promoting literacy. Two problems continue to pose a remarkable obstacle in the way we think about literacy.

The first problem lies in the way literacy is understood in most societies. Because we see the school as the primary agency for imparting literacy skills, we think of literacy in academic terms only. Reading and writing tend to be the standard markers of literacy. We do not think of literacy in cultural and organic terms, referred to as “vernacular literacies” by the literacy researcher David Barton.

Barton (2007) argues that we enact literacy activities in our everyday lives, many of them hidden from public view, and occurring outside reading and writing. Examples include how we relate with others, earn livelihoods, feed ourselves and our families, and acquire new knowledge, among others. When these activities do not involve overt reading and writing practices, we do not think of them as literacy events.

The second problem is the tyrannical dualism that resides in officialdom and defines language as either official or national. This is particularly the case in countries that were formerly colonised. The ruling elites of these countries think of language in either-or terms, and impose English, or whichever colonial language the country inherited, as the official language. The idea that an indigenous language can be given the same status as the colonial language and co-exist with it is anathema to them.

There has been a plethora of research and advocacy, from universities and international cultural organisations such as UNESCO, arguing for the importance of linguistic diversity in national language policies. Much of it falls on barren ground. The elites have dug in, and have bought into the linguistic monoculture sold by English-only imperialism.

Everyday litreacies. Photo credit: Steve Sharra
In most formerly colonised countries, indigenous languages are not taught in the public school systems. When they are, they are used for the first four years of primary schooling, after which English takes over. In the case of Malawi, the Education Act of 2013 goes as far as prohibiting indigenous languages from the school system, declaring English as the language of instruction from Standard One.

But English imperialism is global. In a 2010 article, Sonia Nieto, now professor emerita of Language, Literacy and Culture at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, wrote about the struggle for linguistic diversity in American schools. She wrote about how as a child, she was told not to speak Spanish on school premises because it was “rude.” This was one example, of many, which demonstrated to her the “power of language to either affirm or disaffirm one’s identity.” Nieto argued that for 21st century education, “knowing more than one language is an asset rather than a disability, particularly in these times of globalisation and increased immigration.”

In a 6 September article on The Conversation, Carolyn McKinney and Xolisa Guzula, a University of Cape Town professor and PhD candidate respectively, write about how South African schools “use language as a way to exclude children.” Written in the wake of revelations about South African schools which discipline students for speaking indigenous languages, they point out that recent research in language, bilingualism and bilingual education shows that there are academic benefits to students being allowed to use more than one language in the classroom.  

What I find surprising is that this comes as a surprise, at least in South Africa. In Malawi and in much of the Southern African region, indigenous languages are seen, by the elites, as a burden that needs to be rid of. Almost all private schools in Malawi prohibit students from speaking Malawian languages on school premises. The idea behind the trend is that students will improve their spoken English if they are prevented from speaking indigenous languages.

The imperative for students to improve English proficiency is as undeniable as it is well meaning. English opens doors to advanced knowledge and to careers. The problem arises when this belief is taken to extremes and becomes what Nieto calls an “ideology of exclusion and dominance” that views diversity as a negative rather than a positive. McKinney and Guzula say this ideology sees “language as a problem” instead of a resource. It is an ideology borne of what they term “Anglonormativity”, the perception that if one is not proficient in English, one is deficient.

When I was in secondary school, at Nankhunda Seminary and later at Police Secondary School, my best friend and I made an agreement that we would speak to each other only in English. A few other friends joined us. It helped us enormously, and enabled us to become proficient in English. It was an arrangement we made willingly without coercion from school authorities. As a result, we became creative in how we went about improving our English. We competed in who would read the most novels in one week, and who would write the most fiction.

The problem with schools prohibiting the use of indigenous languages and forcing students to speak English only is that it reinforces everything that is negative and hated about schooling. It curtails students’ motivation to learn, and stifles their creativity. It prevents students from developing responsibility for their own learning, the most important cognitive skill schools should teach.

English becomes associated with fear and a deep sense of inferiority. It becomes one of the reasons many students fail in school and in life. It is important that we encourage students to become proficient in English, but fear and dread and are not the best approaches to achieve this.

Malawi’s abysmal educational attainment statistics are a consequence of these beliefs and vices, carried on into adulthood and perpetuating themselves in our society. Every year close to one million Malawian children enter school. After eight years, only 250,000 survive to sit the primary school leaving certificate. After four years, 150,000 of them survive to sit the secondary school leaving certificate. Of these, no more than 50,000 make it into tertiary education.

Photo credit: Steve Sharra
The verdict on these hundreds of thousands of students that do not make it to the top is that they are failures, a label that becomes self-fulfilling, and life-long. Yet many of them are very bright people with diverse gifts that are neither recognised nor rewarded. As Julius Nyerere put it in 1967, Africans now get the “worst of both systems.” The modern education system fails too many people, who have nothing to fall back on as the indigenous knowledge systems that sustained life before Westernisation have also been destroyed by colonialism.

The challenge of language and literacy educators today is to support teachers, schools, students and communities with intellectual contexts in which multilingualism is seen as practical and beneficial. Such contexts range from personal anecdotes and experiences to research practices and policy imperatives in local and global contexts.

For us in Africa and in formerly colonised parts of the world, Ngugi wa Thiongó (2005) has laid this out as “the challenge of our history.” That challenge is for African intellectuals to “do for their languages and cultures what all other intellectuals in history have done for theirs.” It is fitting that in commemorating this year’s International Literacy Day, UNESCO is calling for “Reading the Past, Writing the Future.”


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Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Ascent into the Ages: Mikelle Antoine, In Memoriam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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Monday, October 05, 2015

Empowering teachers: Thoughts on World Teachers’ Day 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, September 28, 2015

Kicking away the JCE ladder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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