Monday, April 28, 2008

Kenya in Malawi

Everyone is writing about a repeat of the Kenya violence in Malawi. But are we getting the question right?

Since Kenya’s main opposition candidate Raila Odinga rejected last year’s December 27 presidential election results, tribal clashes have claimed over 1,000 people in the East African country.

Some Malawians have argued that the Kenyan experience is likely to happen in Malawi after next year’s elections. The latest of such arguments being a two-page article by Wilson Mandala in Malawi News of February 16. While describing the Kenyan scenario, Mandala and others have not succeeded to draw a real connection between the social set-up of Malawi and Kenya.

What is the source of the violence in Kenya? The election dispute is just the immediate trigger. Kenya has had tribal violence for decades.

Tribalism is everywhere in Kenya, even in churches and universities. Inter-marriages are almost an impossibility. Even the moment you meet Kenyan professors, you know this one is Kikuyu, that one a Luo. Journalists, too, work on tribal lines although they are supposed to be impartial. This is far from the case in Malawi.

Consider 1992 when 1,500 Kenyans were killed in tribal clashes over land. Think of 1997 when 200 people died in Mombasa when tribal clashes erupted.

Kenya has 36 million people with more than 40 ethnic groups each with its own culture. The main groups, according to government statistics, are Kikuyu, 22 percent; Luhy, 14 percent; Luo, 13 percent; Kalenjin, 12 percent and Kamba, 11 percent.

The people are so visibly different in appearance and lifestyle that one wonders why they came to be in one country. The reason is simple. The boundaries in Africa were done at a table in Berlin in 1884. The colonial masters considered their economic gains not of the people of Africa.

To understand the uniqueness of each tribe study the Maasai who live a nomadic life, even in the capital Nairobi where they are seen in traditional attire, a stick in their hand. They believe all the world’s cattle—yes, all the world’s cattle—belong to them.

Apart from the tribal differences, poverty also plays a major role in violence. A Kenyan government report released eight months ago, showed that 16 million Kenyans were in extreme poverty.

Such people live in areas like Lang’ata which is described as one of the world’s biggest slums. It is in such slums that by November, 2006, gangs were almost taking administrative control, setting up parallel justice structures. The gangs were meting out instant justice and were unleashing terror on traders, landlords and hawkers who disobeyed. Everyone who revealed the gang’s identities was killed as a warning.

"The gangs have permeated every matatu route and every aspect of life in the sprawling Mathare slum, one of the oldest in the city. Their operation zones have become too dangerous for police foot patrols. In fact, parts of the city have become no-go zones for police," reported Sunday Nation of Kenya (November 12, 2006).

There were several gang groups but two major ones took centrestage. These were Taliban and Mungiki. Some of these were disconnecting people from Kenya’s official electricity power supplier and connecting them to illegal lines whose rates were exorbitant.

Nothing like this has ever happened in Malawi and it is not intellectually reasonable to conclude that Malawi will next year experience the kind of violence that has characterised post-election Kenya.

Kenyans will not tremble at the sound of a gun. Shoot in the air and see how far Malawians will go, running away. Have you ever wondered why strikes at the Polytechnic take a minute or two on the Masauko Chipembere Highway? Once the Police, who are metres away come and shoot tear-gas, the strike is over. The opposite is true elsewhere like Kenya.

The story of opposition leader Raila Odinga also matters. He is a Luo, from western Kenya near Lake Victoria just on the border with Uganda. His constituency in Nairobi, where he has fanatic support, is called Lang’ata and hosts one of the world’s largest slums.

This is an area that loves violence. So, when Mwai Kibaki was declared winner of last year’s elections, people of Lang’ata had an excuse for violence.

Odinga is a principled politician who commands respect in Kenya that people are willing to kill and die for his sake. His father, Ajuma Oginga Odinga, started politics as a close colleague of Jomo Kenyatta but became leader of opposition in Parliament after resigning as vice-president in April 1966. He accused his Cabinet colleagues of acting against him.

Up until now the senior Odinga is respected by Kenyans from almost all tribes, especially the Luo. What he did over 42 years ago, is what his son, Raila, did a couple of years ago. He resigned from Kibaki’s government and became part of the opposition.

The young Odinga commands a lot of respect and this is one reason people are willing to kill and die for his sake. No politician in Malawi commands such respect and, therefore, no Malawian can die for them. Is Bakili Muluzi that popular that anyone would be ready to die for him? Not at all.

Do people love Bingu wa Mutharika that if he were to lose, they would kill and be killed? No.
Beyond this, Kenyans believe the Kikuyus have had their share of political power for too long because Jomo Kenyatta and Mwai Kibaki are Kikuyus while Daniel Arap Moi is a Kalenjin.

This is one reason Raila Odinga organised small tribes to fight against Kibaki. The presidency in Malawi has been rotating, although not so well. Kamuzu Banda was from Kasungu. Muluzi was from Machinga while Mutharika is from Thyolo. We do not know where the President after Mutharika will come from.

No tribe in Malawi is richer than the rest while in Kenya people think the Kikuyus have benefited economically more than any other tribe. They farm fertile highlands near Mount Kenya where they grow coffee and tea. Is there such a scenario in Malawi? No. No single tribe owns fertile land. No single tribe is sitting on gold for it to claim anything strange.

The violence in Kenya is unique to Kenya for clear reasons. It is not part of Malawi’s culture to engage in violence that takes away lives beyond count.
Kenya will not happen in Malawi. The likelihood is just too small to be engaging.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

After Twelve Years

I don’t know the reason this story kept coming to me last week. But it’s important to share with you, dear readers.

Three decades ago, this happened in Zimbabwe. At the headquarters of one church, three top leaders—the president, secretary and treasurer—often disagreed. The first two were from one tribe and the treasurer was seen as being stubborn because he was not of the same tribe as the president and the secretary. The two were pastors and the treasurer was simply a professional.

The president and the secretary tried to fault the treasurer on professional grounds but the man was just clean. He did his job smartly, making sure all offerings and tithes were used for intended purposes.

But they found a way—and it was a long time plan. They arranged lateral transfers of secretaries and gave the treasurer one of their own tribe.

One day, on a Monday morning, all were present at work. They went to morning devotions and proceeded to their offices. The treasurer called his secretary to arrange work for the week: meetings, visitors and things like that. Suddenly, the secretary jumped from her chair, ran away, shouting "My boss wants to rape me!"

The treasurer, in his chair, was surprised. He froze. Everybody else followed the secretary. The president and the secretary were there, too, asking what had happened. She explained about the attempted rape and the treasurer was suspended, later fired.

They were happy that the man from a different tribe had been fired and they would have a tribe-brother as treasurer. The treasurer was disgraced. His wife was angry. Their two children, 10 and 12, were disappointed. "Why did dad rape his secretary?" They asked themselves without any answer, without noticing the difference between attempted rape and rape. By this time their parents had separated. The mother could not live with a man who wanted to rape a secretary. The separation reminded the children of a bad father.

Years passed. The secretary was rewarded. Remember all this at a mission, a church’s headquarters. All this by men of God.

Twelve years passed and, one summer, a pastor was preaching at a camp meeting in Zimbabwe. The pastor, old and with a faint voice that could hardly be audible on a microphone, read from Mark chapter five, verse 25 to 34. It’s a story about a woman who had a disease of blood for 12 years. One day, desperate for healing and with faith, touched the garment of Jesus who Christians believe is the son of God.

She got healed and Jesus knew some power had gone out of him after a touch of faith. "Who touched me?" Jesus asked. And his disciples wondered at Jesus’ reasoning because there were multitudes touching each other. "But the woman fearing and trembling, knowing what was done in her, came and fell down before him, and told him all the truth. And he said unto her, daughter, thy faith has made you whole; go in peace, and be whole of thy plague."

The pastor’s voice emphasised this section and raised his volume, saying, "This woman was sick for 12 years but Jesus healed her. You might have kept a sin for 12 years but if you give Jesus a touch of faith today, he will forgive you."

That woman, the secretary who faked rape stood up, walked down to the pastor and offered herself to God. "I lied that my boss wanted to rape me," she said. "But it was a scheme. Two pastors asked me to do that so the treasurer could be fired. I want God to forgive me." They prayed together. The fired-treasure got the news and for the first time in 12 years he got back his energy. He had lived in shame all along. Who could understand him? A woman’s evidence in sexual issues is regarded as gospel truth. He failed to understand how tribalism could be stronger than Christianity.

His wife and two children got the news as well. The children were grown-ups now at 24 and 22. They reunited and became a family, once again. They invited the secretary and prayed with her. This story has remained a testimony for years and it has been retold hundreds of times.

It came back to me last week and I am still wondering why I remembered this story. But I thought I had some lessons. Are you, too, learning something from this story?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Zebedee's Column

Zebedee has been writing in Malawi News for 15 years now and this is a remarkable achievement desrving a celebration of somekind, if we really care to celebrate our artists.

I first came into contact with Zebs from his first entry. Then I was a boy in Form One at Ulongwe MCDE Centre and, to be honest, the column did not make sense to me.

Even when I was in Form Four. I remember my friend Devi Chitenje asking me one day, "What does Zebedee write?" We were in the bush studying in readiness for MSCE 1996. I don’t remember my answer but I do remember that Devi and myself were supporters of Bakili Muluzi and because Zebedee often disagreed with Atcheya, we disagreed with the columnist.

The change in me towards Zebedee was in May 1999. I was selected to the University of Malawi and after a few lessons in sociology and history, my eyes were opened. Now I saw things beyond the ordinary. Thanks to Kings Phiri and Jubilee Tizifa.

The likes of Charles Chilimampunga and Willie Nampeya gave me more reasoning skills than I had known. Since then, I learned to doubt everything, as Francis Chikunkhuzeni later emphasised in his classes.

That same year, 1999, I fell in love with Zebedee. Not only his ideas but also his style. He is a fine writer and I have said this in public including my column in Nation on Sunday, PlainView. I buy Malawi News because of Zebedee. Even if the front page of the newspaper was blank, so long I am asured of the column, I would buy the paper.

So, as he celebrates 15 years of writing—there was a break for months, I remember—I join Zebs in saying woyeee!

But does this mean Zebedee appeals to those who have been to university only? I am afraid, it seems so. But nothing wrong anyway.

Whatdo you think of Zebedee?

Monday, April 21, 2008

Assault on languages

There is a heavy assault on some tribal languages in Malawi. It is the case almost always. Some languages are used to represent low class and backward thinking. How dangerous is this trend?

The cartoon in one weekly, last year, looked innocent, meant to entertain.

It depicted Dziwe la Nkhalamba at the foot of Mulanje Mountain. A boy was fishing, saying he was tired with green vegetables and wanted to eat fish. As he held the fishing line, waiting for a catch, a ghost, bright like the rising sun, appeared from the pool.

It spoke in Lomwe tongue and the boy was terrified. He did not have the energy to run away. What was the cartoon’s message?

The surface meaning was nothing really, just to make people laugh that someone who wanted to eat fish ended up being so frightened that he forgot all the desire for fish yet was held by some magic power that he could not run away.

But the deeper thought is something different. The ghost did not speak in Lomwe tongue by accident. The areas around Mulanje Boma up to Likhubula and Chambe on the mountain are occupied by the Mang’anja people. So, why did the spirit speak in Lomwe?

Perhaps because the pool is in Mulanje where, as some people believe, Lomwe was supposed be spoken. Yet this is not enough. The main reason is that the Lomwe are—for whatever reason—people associated with magic.

This is partly the reason magicians practising in Balaka, Blantyre and Nsanje, even in the Central region, have addresses that show they are from Mulanje. Such herbalists are all over in the country. They think the Mulanje-address makes them powerful and, maybe, people tend to believe herbalists from Mulanje as being effective.

That cartoonist did not originate the idea of associating Lomwe with magic. It was not a reality he constructed. He simply reflected it. But by doing so, he kind of confirmed it as right, which was wrong to come from an artist.

But it is not cartoonists only who portray Lomwe as a language associated with magic. Actors from big and small, old and new drama groups, are in the trap, too.

A lomwe accent is used to represent a village folk not yet conversant with urban life, someone not in-the-know, or, to be blunt, an ignorant person. A person who comes to town and fails to use a flask, a kettle, a pressing iron or a toilet will have a Lomwe accent.

That makes people laugh as he or she shouts ‘hayi, handikadziwa’ or ‘hamunandiuze’. It is, in a way, portrayed like a language of ignorance.

Even in radio plays, Lomwe accent is used in not so good roles. One radio series has an actor who plays the grandmother role and to emphasise her old age, especially to sound like one without teeth, she uses Lomwe accent.

She has been doing this for years and that is what makes her an actress. Not only that, often she is not knowledgeable and what she says does not seem to carry weight to other actors. The script writer and the producer have listened to this all this time and they find it fine, just part of drama.
Yet these plays are meant to communicate some important messages on health and development, for example. How do messages get across to the Lomwe when their language is used negatively? This is a question not yet answered.

It does not need a whole year’s research. Just spend an hour listening to the radio on any day—there are a number of radio plays nowadays—and you will catch actors assaulting languages in a way that will frighten you.

Sena, too, is a language under assault in drama. It is a language for house-servants. It is also a tongue for the rural folks who does not yet understand town life. There is one actor who has consistently used Sena accent in all his roles as houseboy. The drama group uses him as a house boy but the main role is stage organiser. He does that as a servant making a house which turns to be the stage. Throughout the years, he has been making fun of Sena by mimicking the Sena.
The point to make is that these actors speak like any other Malawian but when it comes to acting they adopt Lomwe or Sena accent.

Yao is a victim as well. Consider this. A company is promoting its products and services through a competition and to do that it hires two actors who have to show that the services of the company are even for the rural, not-so-educated people.

One of the actors speaks like a Yao from Mangochi, saying he was cycling to Blantyre to claim his prize. The other actor, who speaks like any Malawians would do, seems to laugh at the idea that his friend is cycling to Blantyre. If they were in and from Mangochi, why didn’t both of them speak the Yao accent so as not to show one language as backward?

It is clear that some languages have been misused in arts to represent backwardness, ignorance and a bit of lack of civilisation. It is so rooted in arts, especially drama, that a watchman or anyone doing menial work acts with a Yao, Sena or Lomwe accent.

Just take an afternoon to any theatre and watch how actors and actresses will assault some of the country’s languages. The actors who represent the languages as backward take the blame.
But the radios that air the plays share the blame too. So too the print media, newspapers and magazines that carry cartoons depicting some languages as inferior.

This is at a time when some of our languages are dying. Lomwe, for example, is spoken in Phalombe and the Chinyama-Mbiza belt of Mulanje. Speakers are old people. Young ones are not that interested, sometimes. If this assault continues, 50 years from now, countable people shall be speaking Lomwe.

The assault is something we hear and know about but pretend it does not exist so long it suits our desire to make money out of art and our quest for entertainment.

But it is not too late to change. In fact, change for the better is never too late to be ignored. Now that Centre for Language Studies has organised a language conference, it might be great to discuss this assault on languages and be in the forefront to help artists reverse the trend for the sake of our languages before another cartoonist chooses Lomwe as a language of a ghost.

What Would Bob Say?

King of reggae Robert Nesta Marley was great and remains so 26 years after his death. What would have been his view of the world today?

Michael Elliot, a former law professor at London School of Economics and Political Science, now editor of Time International, understands arts well.

"If you are a writer on contemporary issues," he says, "and aspire to immortality, then your pen better have something special in it."

King of reggae Bob Marley had a magic pen that tapped from his fine artistic mind that had something special—and great. He had a special voice, too. His music remains popular 26 years after his death. He sung about peace and justice, equality and fairness. He died young at 36 from a cancerous brain tumour on May 11, 1981, in Miami, Florida.

Bob was born on February 6, 1945, to an English father and a Jamaican mother, but he chose Africanness and grew up in Trenchtown, an impoverished yet comfortable community near Kingston.

Along with Peter Tosh, Bunny Livingston, and a few others, Bob went on to form the Wailers in 1964. By 1970, the group was an international success. Some left the group but Bob continued his career rising as an ambassador of peace. He rose while his health was failing him, especially from May 1977. He had cancer. Yet in that pain he was for peace. The National Stadium in Kingston was the place on the night of April 22, 1978, when Bob brought two Jamaican sworn political enemies, Prime Minister Michael Manley and leader of opposition Edward Seaga, on-stage.

Then Jamaica was in turmoil with political violence and bloodshed. Members of the warring factions of both parties formed a peace committee and Bob was part of the process. He staged the Bob Marley One Love Peace Concert.

Bob, like a joke, invited the two leaders on stage and told them to shake hands and forget political hatred. From that day, violence stopped and the two political foes became friends. Just two years on, in 1980, Bob was in Zimbabwe performing at the country’s independence. He had a special song titled Zimbabwe.

Every man gotta right to decide his own destiny,
And in this judgement there is no partiality.
So arm in arms, with arms, we’ll fight this little struggle,
'Cause that’s the only way we can overcome our little trouble.

Every man got a right to decide his own destiny? This is a powerful line, meaningful too. And philosophical. What would Bob have said if he saw a ruined Zimbabwe? What would Bob have said of the March 29 presidential elections whose results have not been released? He would have cursed Robert Mugabe.

Bob would have campaigned for land to black people. But he would also have wondered; he would have asked President Robert Mugabe: What is it you are doing to your country? Why are you clinging to power when people want change?

That, though, would not have been the end. Bob would have performed a peace concert where sworn enemies like Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai would have embraced and buried the past for the sake of Zimbabwe and Africa.

Bob thought of Africa as his home. He understood that slavery separated him from his ancestral land. He knew that there were white slave buyers and black slave sellers, hence he believed that Africans didn’t need to betray each other anymore. Africans, in the view of Bob, didn’t need to kill each other.

This is the reason he sung War. He starts by quoting Emperor Haile Selassie in the first stanza and sung it well.

Until the philosophy which hold one race superior
And another
Is finally
And permanently
And abandoned
Everywhere is war
Me say war.

Bob hated killing. If he were around, he would have reproved the black people who shot Lucky Dube in South Africa. Bob would have asked the killers to respect life.

Elsewhere, Bob would have failed to understand Osama bin Laden for killing thousands on September 11, 2001. But Bob would have gone ahead to tell President George Bush that he is no different from bin Laden because he, too, is killing thousands in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Bob would have told Osama and Bush that they are killers. He would have said: "Osama, stop de killing in the name of religion coz Rasta say no." And turning to Bush, Bob would have said, "No murder in de name of spreading demon class [democracy]. Jah rule is peace. I ‘n’ I, Rasta."

In Malawi, Bob would have told President Bingu wa Mutharika to rule this Jah (this is God in Jamaican creole, nothing wrong) land with honesty in all matters. He would have gone on to tell Muluzi to respect the will of the people by leaving politics.

Bob would have further told artists to leave arts once they go into politics. He would have urged musicians and dramatists never to abuse their talent for the sake of politics because politicians die but artists live on after their death.

To Mo Ibrahim, the Sudanese-born telecommunications entrepreneur, Bob would have told him to spend his money on health as Bill Clinton is doing, not awarding retired presidents as a way of encouraging good governance on a continent blighted by corruption and a frequently loose adherence to democratic principles.

Instead of giving winners $5 million over 10 years and then $200,000 a year for life, with another $200,000 annually for "good causes" they espouse, Bob would have proposed that this money be used to reconstruct ghettos like Ntopwa in Blantyre and Mgona in Lilongwe.

The world today longs for a person with Bob’s senses, a man who saw the past and discussed the present for the sake of the future. That is what Michael Elliot, that fine writer of Time Magazine, calls "something special in a pen."