When I started blogging in 2005, I gave my blog a Chichewa name. Chichewa is my first language, spoken by more than 80 percent of Malawians. It’s also spoken in parts of Zambia, Mocambique and Zimbabwe. I gave my blog the name “Afrika Aphukira.” In Chichewa that translates as “Africa will have a rebirth.” It’s been eight years since, and every other African country seems to be undergoing a rebirth, with the exception of Malawi, if you ask the average Malawian.
Two weeks ago, the Africa Progress Panel released the 2013 Africa Progress Report. The foreword, by Kofi Annan, chairperson of the Panel, starts with the following sentence: “Africa is standing on the edge of enormous opportunity.” Headlines from global media are salivating on new discoveries of mineral and oil deposits in the African soil. Sceptics have retorted with the line: Africa is rising but Africans are not. The same 2013 African Progress Report reveals that Africa is losing $34 billion annually from its mining and oil deals.
Researchers from Oxford University have given Malawi 74 years before the country can eradicate poverty. That gives us up until the year 2087. When I first saw this headline in the Daily Times of 22nd March this year, I thought of the millions of Malawians for whom daily life is a struggle. I thought of the glaring contradictions: glamorous shopping complexes facing the most dilapidated market squares, separated by a heavily potholed Devil Street.
I thought of this particular stretch in a busy part of Old Town Lilongwe: a bank, a superette, an expensive restaurant, a mobile phone company, and two upscale car dealerships. Look at the street running along these structures, and 74 years doesn’t look enough. Then I thought of those who had already had their poverty eradicated.
The African rebirth I am envisioning is not based on global media headlines. It is Africa-owned; it derives its meaning from the term ‘uMunthu.’ This word means personhood in Chichewa. uMunthu is about how our humanness is tied to that of others. We say “You are, therefore I am.” The question I always ask myself is: what would it look like if uMunthu were at the centre of social policy and governance? Let me illustrate this.
In June 2010 I met a group of teachers from several primary schools here in Lilongwe. The purpose for the meeting was to start what we hoped would be a forum where teachers would regularly meet and help one another become better teachers. A bigger goal was teacher empowerment; an attempt to address the helplessness and hopelessness many teachers feel about the conditions of their schools and their profession.
As I returned to my car at the end of the meeting, I was approached by one teacher. His name was Amos Matchakaza. Amos asked for a ride to a local college, where he was studying for his bachelors’ degree. I asked Amos how he was managing to pay for his bachelors’ degree courses from his teacher’s salary. He said 90 percent of his salary went to pay for tuition. They had had their electricity disconnected because they couldn’t pay the bill. He was not eligible for any government loan, nor any form of support towards his higher education. He was only able to make it because his wife was also a primary school teacher.
That evening I tweeted about Amos. A friend of mine, and former classmate from primary school, sent me a direct message. His name was Hastings Fukula Nyekanyeka. He wanted to know more about Amos. Hastings promised to support Amos until he finished his bachelors’ degree. That was June 2011. In March this year 2013 Amos graduated with his degree.
On 10th November 2012 the weekly Malawi News published a story about Mike Demesterb Nkhoma. Nkhoma dropped out of Form One, first year of secondary school, because his father could not afford the school fees. He started working as a garden boy for a lecturer at the University of Malawi’s Kamuzu College of Nursing. Her name was Juliana Lunguzi.
Juliana sent Mike to a boarding secondary school. Mike scored distinctions in Mathematics, Agriculture and Biology, and was selected to the prestigious University of Malawi College of Medicine. Juliana kept supporting him, and in November 2012 Mike graduated as a medical doctor. Today Dr. Nkhoma is practicing medicine at Malawi’s biggest referral hospital, Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital.
Even more remarkable is the example Mike set for his sister. She had dropped out in Form Two, second year of secondary school, for the same reasons as her brother. She got married and went on to have four children. Her brother Mike’s story made her rethink her future. She went back to secondary school. She made it to the University of Malawi’s Kamuzu College of Nursing, and is in her final year of her bachelors’ degree programme. Then there is the story of William Kamkwamba, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.
The reason why many Malawians do not achieve their ambitions is how we look at human potential. We look at human potential as a fixed quantity. If one fails at school, they must be dull. This thinking leads to policies and practices that limit the potential of many Malawians. It has led to policies which favour heavy social investments in elitist structures, and little to no investment in the lives of poor people. That is why in Malawi today the government pays millions of Malawi kwacha every year to students attending public universities, while tens of thousands of younger Malawians drop out of primary and secondary school every year because they cannot afford the fees or the expenses associated with going to school.
In its Malawi Demographic and Health Survey 2010, the National Statistics Office reported that 70 percent of Malawians aged 18 years and above have never had a secondary school education. Some of the reasons for this are lack of resources and the size of the Malawian economy. But a less discussed factor is the assumption, prevalent in our policy making, that intelligence and human potential are limited.
The stories I have shared today confront these assumptions. These stories offer a beginning for us to define the rebirth of the country, and of the continent, on our terms. These stories are the reasons why I still believe in the coming rebirth of Malawi, and of Africa. They are the reason why I still believe in uMunthu. Thank you.