Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Our Beautiful, Life Saving Ways of Life

Not everything western is good. In fact, there is a lot of good in African faith and cultures. Malawi needs to single out the best of its cultures.

Michesi Mountain in Phalombe is as high as Chiradzulu Mountain. But this is where similarities stop and differences, stark and clear, start.

Chiradzulu Mountain, some 15 kilometres from Blantyre, is bare. Once covered with trees, it is bald. Three decades ago, the mountain was green with trees. All that is gone. Now, the few trees that remain are being turned into charcoal mainly sold in Blantyre.

Sixty kilometres away from Chiradzulu, is Michesi, a highland covered with trees, some growing at the foot of the mountain.

Why do the people of Phalombe preserve trees when elsewhere trees are cut as if they were not of any use? Is it because the mountain is a protected area? Why then is Chiradzulu Mountain, a protected area as well, bare?

One reason, and perhaps the main one, is faith. People in Phalombe believe the mountain is the dwelling place of ancestral spirits, the messengers of their God, and cutting down trees deprives spirits of their dwelling place which is an unforgivable sin.

"The belief that there is someone invisible watching you, always, is strong here; and if you cut trees spirits will punish you," says Bright Molande, a cultural theorist in the English Department at Chancellor College. "This is their faith."

How do the people get firewood, then? Spirits dry some trees, especially branches which people collect. It seems their God knows and understands people’s needs and provide firewood in mysterious ways.

The story of Phalombe is just one evidence of the importance of cultural beliefs and faith in our daily lives from health through agriculture to economics.

This was so hundreds of years before the arrival of Islam and Christianity which assumed that there was little good in Africa. The missionaries called almost everything we were doing pagan, even our names. So, at baptism, they gave us English names: Mwaiseni became Michael, Mwiza became John while Tadeyo became Paul.

Our music instruments were called pagan. Don’t use drums, they said, use keyboards and organs. Yet the sound is the same. A keyboard produces the sound our drums produce. The electric drums that came with the missionaries produce the same sound as that done by maseche and visekese.

They doubted our initiation programmes and called them pagan. Even now they don’t understand our ways of life. They say we don’t discuss sex with our children. Yet Malawi has ways sex is discussed: a man talks that with his nephews, a woman her nieces.

Our faith in God is as old as man’s history in this part of the world, hence names like Chiuta, Mlengi, Namalenga and others. Mbona and Mlauli were messengers of our God. Their story is, in some ways, like that of Jesus. In fact, every society has its own version of God and his sons and messengers only that the story of God and Jesus was chronicled and made popular by the West.

"In traditional African society, the sacred and the secular are inseparable says," says Somadhi Adewale, a scholar on Yoruba religion in Nigeria. "There is no compartmentalisation of life. What religion forbids or condemns society also forbids and condemns, and similarly society approves those things which religion approves or sanctions. An offence against God is an offence against man, and in like manner an offence against man is an offence against God, since man is a creature of God. Either offence is criminal."

Traditional African religion (TAR) has no documents showing what is legal or illegal, but it has a code of conduct which people know. This code constrains individuals to live in conformity with the well-being of society.

In African morality, says Francis Kasoma, a Zambian professor of ethics, a good thing is that which benefits society, not an individual.

This is communal life, which the retired Reverend Stewart Lane of the Anglican Church describes as "God’s way of life". Yet individualism is taking root in our society. The West which brought Christianity also brought individualism which is slowly replacing our ways of communal life.

As long as morality and spirituality are concerned, Africa has been doing fine for centuries. Forbidden criminal actions include adultery, breach of covenant, burglary, fornication, incest, kidnapping, irreverence and unkindness to parents, lying, murder, rape, seduction, speaking evil of rulers, swearing falsely, theft, sodomy and malice.

What did the West bring? Christianity or their culture? A critical analysis concludes that Christianity was used as a vehicle to carry the missionaries’ culture. Education, too, was a means of bringing their culture to Africa. Religion was not about faith only, it was also about culture: their food, dressing, etiquette, and values.

The trouble, as Buti Tlhagale, the Catholic metropolitan archbishop of Johannesburg says, is that the meeting of African culture with the western and Christian cultures was not "an atmosphere of mutual tolerance and [a] search of those common elements that reinforce the values embedded in each culture".

"This has not always been the case," says Tlhagale. "Colonialism did not create space for the African culture. The dominant group did not recognise that African culture had its own wisdom, insights and values that informed the lives of Africans. African culture appeared to have had an arrested growth. At any rate, the aspiration of the dominant group was to civilise the Africans or to assimilate them into their culture."


Weeks ago, Michael Jana, a lecturer at Chancellor College, wrote in defense of the involvement of traditional leaders in local governance. His argument was that Malawi does not need ward councilors because there is an established local structure of traditional leaders.

Participation of people in planning, implementation and evaluation of their development activities at local level ensures that the activities are relevant to local needs. This, in turn, is believed to lead to empowerment of the poor, effective public service delivery and reduction of poverty.

"One avenue of people’s participation that forms a significant part of local governance in liberal democracy is the election of ward development representatives, also known as ward councilors, to represent the development needs of the people at local and district levels," says Jana.

In Malawi, the district assembly, which is influential in development, is supposed to consist of elected ward councilors, elected members of Parliament, traditional leaders (who do not have voting powers), and five people from civil society appointed by elected members of the Assembly.

Jana says by excluding ward councilors, "Malawi can achieve a more legitimate, cost effective, democratic and motivated local governance than the one that currently provides for the inclusion of ward councilors".

Village heads are best suited to represent people in development matters. They know every person in their areas. Take your example. Your village head, most likely, knows where you live and work. He or she knows you by name. This is true of the rest of the people from your village.

Your village head knows the needs of the people better than a ward councilor. The challenge is that we have copied what we think are democratic structures from the West at the expense of our own democratic structures. This assumes that democracy is not African which is not true.

"Who killed African democracy?" Asks Professor Ali Mazrui, one of Africa’s brilliant minds. "The cultural half caste who came in from western schools and did not adequately respect African ancestors. Institutions were inaugurated without reference to cultural compatibilities, and new processes were introduced without respect for continuities. Ancestral standards of property and legitimacy were ignored."

To understand how our ways are best suited to our needs, consider population and housing census. This is work village heads can handle professionally. Each village or a group of villages can appoint an individual, a retired civil servant, for example, to be trained by the National Statistical Office (NSO).

This person would collect data and hand over to a village head who would, in turn, hand over to the group village head, to the T/A and finally the district commissioner who would send the data to NSO.

This is a lot cheaper and convenient than the current set-up. Each village knows its people pretty well. It could be in cities and towns where NSO would hire enumerators. This is if we were serious with our traditional governance systems which the West does not understand because they don’t have a similar system.

Orphan care

One area where western life has shaken our society is on orphan care. Government’s official policy is that orphans should live in families with aunts, uncles.

Unfortunately, the African family tree is being broken and being replaced with the western family tree in which a brother is called an uncle. A family is a man, his wife and two or three children. The rest should be in orphanages where they live among themselves, children without parents. They see the world of children with parents as something far away, in some distant land where life is all honey and milk.

What society are we bringing up in orphanages? It is difficult to make conclusions now. But one can imagine that a generation of people growing up away from families will have difficulties to appreciate family values, and the fall of the family unit, is the beginning of the fall of a society.

"This is a fair conclusion," says Charles Chilimampunga, a sociologist at Chancellor College in Zomba, "especially when children at an orphanage don’t have an opportunity to interact with [adults]."

Chilimampunga says a child grows well by interacting with adults and children. "Children who grow up in orphanages lack interaction with the wider communities," he says.

Where has the idea of orphanages come from? Now the concept is established. Even people who can look after children whose parents have died are searching for some orphanages to raise their children. Some single parents are running away from responsibility and taking their children to orphanages. It’s almost a crisis.


Our ways of life ensure that we grow up healthy people. Expectant women are not supposed to do hard pieces of work. There are times we laugh at ourselves for cultural practices like chokolo.

But have we done a historical analysis of the practices? Chokolo is a practice that enables a man to marry a widow of his brother. We need to think of this in terms of the 19th Century when people lived in small communities, which were far from each other.

Chokolo came about because once a man died, patriarchal societies felt sorry to let a kind woman leave their village. So, they gave her another man. It was also a way of lessening her burdens. Where would she go? Her home? She would find no land. She would be a stranger. Finally, it was a way of ensuring children grow up within the family.

Compare this with our society today. A man dies and his widow marries again. The new husband is not satisfied with his wife. He rapes his stepdaughters.

Chokolo has been with us for decades, even religion tolerated the practice. It has just been labeled bad after HIV started devastating Malawi. Where were the evils of chokolo all this time?

Once upon a time, children were not allowed to eat eggs. We often laugh at this and label our forefathers backward. But even today cholesterol in eggs is bad, not only for children but for adults as well. The recommended maximum number of eggs is four per week.

In this case, our parents were more brilliant than us in the modern world who insist on meat, eggs, and meat products and despise nutritious vegetables like bonongwe, luni and ntapasya.

Our traditional ways of healing like vimbuza are not magical. They are psychological; they use psychoanalysis. A person who is depressed needs some serious entertainment. Our parents explained depression as mizimu, an attack from spirits. They devised what they thought was a magical way of healing. But the truth is that the dance entertains a person in a way that takes away worries.

Each of our ways of life can be explained. They are helpful in all senses. The reason people of the Shire Valley don’t make ridges is that M’bona would have problems walking. This is the theoretical framework. The practical aspect is that the Shire Valley area does not need ridges because it is a flat area.

Dress and God

One evidence that religion was used as a way of bringing western culture is dressing. If one is to preach in a church, they must put on a neck-tie and a jacket.

But jackets and neck-ties are not religious, they are cultural. Is he a God of western dressing only and not the African gear? Why should a Malawian Muslim dress the way Arabs do in the Middle East?

Sheikh Dinala Chabulika of the Islamic Information Bureau says a Muslim can put on a jacket and a shirt during prayers. "It is a requirement that we must hide our nakedness," he says, "which for man starts from the knees to the navel."

This means that so long a man covers himself from the knees to the navel, he is welcome in a mosque. Why, then, does it seem a must that Muslims should dress like Arabs? "It is a question of the background of religion. The founders [of all religions] were dressing in a given way and we are trying to dress like them," says Chabulika.

Here is the answer. It is not religious to dress in anyway. Africans are simply trying to dress like the people who brought a new religion, a new religion because we had our own which they described as pagan.


Not everything African is evil as we are made to believe. Using herbs as medicine is not evil. What is the difference between SP and a liquid from boiled peach leaves? They both cure malaria, only that the liquid has not passed through a factory. Is the herb at Limbe market evil because it did not pass through some factory in Mumbai, India?

It is time to reflect on our ways of life and discover those we believe will benefit us. There is a lot we are losing by abandoning everything African and adopting everything western. Agriculture is just one example. Manure from animal waste is a lot better than fertiliser that is destroying our land.

Faith is another. Now people have cut trees even in places marked as protected areas. People are breaking rocks everywhere as if we don’t need them anymore.

Faith, our faith and cultures, are crucial elements in environmental protection, health, agriculture, governance, development and morality. The example of Michesi Mountain in Phalombe where trees are not cut anyhow, is just one. Malawi can chronicle several others to confirm this argument.

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