Monday, September 29, 2008

Sharing the National Cake

My life has been a journey. I sat for primary school leaving certificate examinations (PSLC) twice, hoping for selection to Balaka Secondary School, but I ended up at Ulongwe MCDE Centre on the road to Mangochi.

My MSCE in 1996 was wonderful. Being the second group to sit for MSCE at Ulongwe MCDE, people did not expect much, really. Studying using a chikoloboyi at night was trouble.

But I managed to get 26 points and this was not easy. But remember that the first time I saw a test-tube was in a biology practical examination in the laboratory of St Charles Lwanga MCDE Centre at Balaka. And the examination was after midnight, because we were waiting for the owners of the school and those from Phalula MCDE Centre to finish.

Now compare my situation with someone who was at Zomba Catholic Secondary School, a school with a library, qualified teachers, a laboratory and electricity. You cannot begin to compare, you can only contrast. Then the next step was to travel to Blantyre to sit for the university entrance examination (UEE). I had no idea how it would be.

No wonder I was not selected to go the University of Malawi. I had 58in mathematics, 64 in language skills and 54 in reasoning skills. My average was 58.6. The minimum average for selection was 50 but because a lot of people performed a lot better than me, I was not picked.

After close to three years in the city, I was able to prepare for UEE in 1999. My great friend Rodney Mpinganjira coached me in maths. I read a lot of books and improved my reasoning skills.

Come selection, I was picked. Why? I will tell you. The questions I met during UEE were for city people, and I had become one. Our examinations are formed on the assumption that we all grow up in cities with exposure to electricity and technology and media and ideas. If I was in the city, I would have been picked at the first attempt of UEE because I was intelligent in all senses only that circumstances worked against me.

The solution to my dilemma and that of other rural folks is quota system. If it were quota system then, the university would have said, “look here, there is this boy from Balaka who has qualified to be selected but there are many above him. Let us give this rural folk from an MCDE centre without electricity the opportunity to study in the university.”

After giving such an opportunity to 200 or 250 rural folks, the university committee would select the rest on competition. Remember that I qualified for selection only that more people scored better than me, not because I was less intelligent but because I was not exposed to similar circumstances as town folks.

My plain view is that Malawi is living in a number of illusions. One of them is that merit means getting the best without considering circumstances of our young people, especially those growing up and living in remote areas. We have condemned them to their small corners of the country. We are keeping the education national cake to town folks, those who know a bulb, a socket, a tap and a kettle.

Another illusion is the law that bans matola on the assumption that we have an effective public transport when the majority of our people depend on matola.

We need to think through our situation and use laws and systems that suit our development needs. Let us ease transport problems by allowing matola in those areas where there are no buses. Let us adopt quota system and give the boy and girl in Hewe, Chididi or Khola a chance to eat from the national cake.


This piece is dedicated to my friend—well, he is my brother—Bright Molande who introduced me to Theory at MA level at Chancellor College. He is a great scholar whose reputation as a cultural theorist and postcolonial scholar is growing in Africa and Europe.

He left for Essex University, (outside London) for his Ph.D. This is where, years ago, he was the only African in a class of 49 and was the first to finish an MA programme meant for 12 months in nine months—and with a distinction! But now he will have to spend at least three years away. Bright, my heart goes with you. My heart remains with your family. I will be there when you come to take your family.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Wisdom of Africa

Africa is a continent with unique philosophies that can make the world a better place. Malawi needs to tap from the past to answer some crucial questions of the present and the future.

Some 20 Mandinka boys of West Africa were about to become men, to pass through the last part of the rite of passage called initiation.

But the boys had to master the knowledge of their tribe. That was Africa of centuries ago. Some of the issues had to do with wealth, marriage, family and war. The story of Africa’s past titled Roots, in book and film, is powerful.

“On how many sides should you surround an enemy in war?” Asked the Kintango or initiation teacher. “Four,” answered one of the initiates. “Wrong,” said the teacher, adding: “Never completely encircle your enemy. Leave him some escape, for he will fight even more desperately if trapped. The aim of war is to win, not to kill.”

This wisdom is unique to Africa. It is a kind of philosophy that US President George Bush and his friend Tony Blair have not mastered. The aim of war is to win, not to kill. But the war in Iraq is about killing, not winning.

The idea of killing as is the case in DR Congo, Somalia, Ivory Coast, Burundi, Central African Republic and Darfur—the shame of the continent—is not African. These are conflicts that have a heavy alien influence that is using unpatriotic Africans. The challenge for Africa is that some people are willing to be used, even abused, to kill fellow Africans.

The Mandinka boys also learned that battles should start in late afternoon, so that any enemy, seeing defeat, could save face by retreating in the darkness.

The idea of long wars is not African. Almost all African wars—typical African wars—in history were brief. Wars lasted less than a week, no more than two weeks. This idea of a war that seems endless as is the case in Iraq is not African.

Often a war between African tribes lasted hours. The wars of Shaka Zulu were brief. The problem was that he fought so many wars and his army became tired. That wars should start in late afternoon and let the defeated enemy run away under the cover of darkness, with his dignity intact, is truly lacking in today’s world where people are defeated physically and psychologically in broad daylight.

Contact and dialogue is typical African. People used to talk to each other, often away from masses. Secrecy is typical African. Sensitive issues were kept in secret to keep concerned people’s dignity. All in all, the understanding was that even the defeated have dignity.
It is a lesson that Nelson Mandela got in his boyhood, that enemies should be defeated with their dignity.

“I learned my lesson one day from an unruly donkey. We had been taking turns climbing up and down its back and when my chance came I jumped on and the donkey bolted into a nearby thorn bush. It bent its head, trying to unseat me, which it did, but not before the thorns had pricked and scratched my face, embarrassing me in front of my friends. Like the people of the East, Africans have a highly developed sense of dignity, or what the Chinese call ‘face’. I had lost face among my friends. Even though it was a donkey that unseated me, I learned that to humiliate another person is to make him suffer an unnecessarily cruel fate. Even as a boy, I defeated my opponents without dishonouring them,” writes Mandela in his book Long Walk to Freedom.

This wisdom is for the people of Africa and the East and this is what has made Mandela the world’s greatest man now living. Apartheid was evil in all senses. But when Mandela came to power, he did not embarrass the white South Africans who perpetrated apartheid.

He extended forgiveness to people who had just been oppressing him and his people. Mandela invited the whites into a government of national unity. This is one great thing that Mandela got right. It is a lesson that has stuck with him from childhood days, from playing with animals.

Which is why children should be left to play around with friends, even if it means away from home. The challenge is that today’s world is so unsafe that once children play away from home, parents fear they may be defiled.

This is wisdom that President Robert Mugabe missed. He has worked to embarrass his enemies, the white Zimbabweans who grabbed land from black Zimbabweans using untold force. The idea of getting back land was good. But the means were wrong. Mugabe should have asked for wisdom from Mandela. Evil for evil is not African. It is alien, strange among the people.

If Mugabe had been kind yet tactful like Mandela, Zimbabwe would not have been in the problems as is the case now. The eye-for-eye or tit-for-tat approach is working against him. What Mugabe forgot is that the whites are the owners of tit-for-tat and they have hit hard at Zimbabwe.

The tit-for-tat is bringing squabbles that seem to have no end. Saddam Hussein was evil but hanging him without dignity was also evil.

The US and Iraq should have learned from Africa of the past where capital punishment went with dignity. The story of Sikusinja ndi Gwenembe summaries it all. Once Sikusinja confessed that he had killed his younger brother, Gwenembe, the elders of the village ruled that Sikusinja was not fit to exist in society. He was to face death sentence, but with honour.

It was all normal, a day of hunting. All men went out into the bush and Gwenembe was among them. Then, an antelope appeared. One man hit at it.

Gwenembe ran to finish the animal. The few who knew the ‘plan’ ran to the other side. Two or three men ran together with Gwenembe and hit at him. He cried. Then silence. He was no more. The rest of the village heard that Gwenembe had gone missing while hunting. In their minds, he died a manly death, in the bush while hunting. That was dying with dignity; in secrecy, of course, which was typical African.
The same was for Nigeria where Ikemefuna, that boy captured in a short war, was to be killed. He was not hung like Saddam.

Ikemefuna was taken by elders into a forest where he was killed with a machete and life went on for the rest of the people.

Opening fire at people in public is not African. Keeping children without parents away from home, in their own places called orphanage is not African. In Africa one is never an orphan because there is always a family—what some call extended family system—that takes over the responsibility of looking after children whose parents died.

Announcing that ‘we have assisted so and so or orphans with this and that’ is not African. Fighting cultural practices like chokolo, kupita kufa and fisi in a way that brings shame to their custodians is not African. That is partly the reason the war against these is not successful enough to show results.

Longtime ago, when some 20 Mandinka boys were about to become men, to pass through the last stage of the right of passage called initiation, they learned wisdom of the people, wisdom of Africa.

This is the wisdom lacking in what are turning to be modernised societies. One real way of making Malawi a better place, especially in matters politics, is to go back to the wisdom of the people, wisdom of Africa.

“...when we are at our best, history and heroes enable us to look ahead, not backward,” says Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek.

History, true history of ourselves, is what Africa needs today.

Strategic Journalism

Why are Malawian journalists often called partners—and not participants—in democracy or development?

The reason is simple and within the journalists themselves. Media practitioners in Malawi have stuck to reportarial (the he or she said type) as opposed to participatory journalism (research, analysis and interpretation of events, issues and opinions).

But it is not surprising. In fact, it is historical. The one-party era didn’t help matters. Journalists were as good as copy typists, repeating what the minister or government official says.

That is still in us, so much so that we don’t go beyond the surface. That is why there is so much of “Government has said this or that” reporting in the media in Malawi.

The journalist, in this case, is like a microphone, transmitting whatever the user has said. It’s journalism, of course. But a very small fraction of a journalist’s five functions.

The first three—surveillance or information, entertainment and linkage—are obvious. These functions demand reporting that that is often event-based.

Everyday, journalists inform people. The media—especially radio, television and internet—also entertain audiences. The last two functions of interpretation and transmission of values or socialisation are difficult to satisfy.

Newsweek Internation editor Fareed Zakaria calls the satisfaction of these two functions participatory journalism. A better term is strategic journalism.

Zakaria, a former professor of political science at Harvard University, sees journalism as “a participant in world affairs” and that it’s impossible to pretend to be aloof from everyday world tears and victories.

This calls for a satisfaction of interpretation and socialisation functions which require journalists to research, analyse and write powerfully in order to persuade, for example.

In short, journalists ought to become public intellectuals because a newspaper, radio or television is a street classroom. And a teacher who comes to a class simply to read from a book is not worth the job. So is a journalist who simply quotes people without an element of reasoning.

A good professor reads a lot, does a lot of research, thinks a lot and engages students in dialogue and reasoning.

That is what journalism ought to do. Why, for example, is domestic violence happening in a way we have never heard before? A journalist ought to research, not simply sit on a desk and call people and ask questions.

The people we call need answers as well. We often rush to officials to ask about domestic violence and they often give shallow answers that cannot move a nation.

A typical example is what NGOs said on Section 65, a lot of it lacking substance, no insights, no analysis. The Human Rights Consultative Committee (HRCC) claimed President Bingu wa Mutharika is inviting civil unrest because of his actions over Section 65 and Parliament. Civil unrest?

Perhaps at gun point. Does anyone see Malawians going to the streets to demonstrate against proroguing of Parliament? Section 65 is not a matter of survival for Malawians. On the hierarchy of needs, it comes at things we can do without, meaning it is not a basic need.

Budget, on the other hand, is a basic need. It is a question of our nation’s stage on the way to its full lifespan.

But as journalists we have gone ahead to quote every NGO official without any question. That ought to change. Journalists need to read and take sources to task. A journalist who is a public intellectual would look at issues to do with Section 65 and social response to political changes.

Our newspapers need analysis and sythesis that can help change a person’s behaviour. The interpretation and socialisation functions can fight Aids and domestic violence.

That is not all. We shall also set the agenda. Agenda Setting Theory describes a very powerful influence of the media—the ability to tell people what issues are important.

This theory, better known as function, dates to as far back as 1922 when newspaper columnist Walter Lippman was concerned that the media had the power to present images to the public.

Then from 1960s Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw investigated United States presidential campaigns in 1968, 1972 and 1976.

In a research done in 1968 they focused on two elements: awareness and information. They attempted to assess the relationship between what voters in one community said were important issues and the actual content of the media messages used during the campaign.

McCombs and Shaw concluded that the mass media exerted a significant influence on what voters considered to be the major issues of the campaign.

Scholars assume that journalists do not reflect reality; they filter and shape it and concentration on a few issues and subjects leads the public to perceive those issues as more important than other issues.

“The press may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers [and listeners] what to think about,” said Bernard Cohen in 1963.

One of America’s recent greatest article was Zakaria’s 7,000 word special report: “Why They Hate Us?” which appeared in Newsweek International three weeks after 9/11. The article suggested causal factors of terrorism and it remained the source of debate for weeks, even months.

This is what Malawian journalists were supposed to do with domestic violence and the Section 65/budget saga, to go beyond reporting cases and dig deep into society to find clues to this and, of course, other puzzles.

But it’s not every journalist who can interpret news or write powerfully to transmit values and set the agenda.

It seems journalists concentrate too much on media freedom which is a myth, after all. We need media freedom but more importantly education to free our minds and the minds of our audiences.

That way, says Plato in The Republic “our job ... [becomes] to compel the best minds to attain what we have called the highest form of knowledge, and to ascend to the vision of the good.”

Five Faces of Bingu wa Mutharika

President Bingu wa Mutharika likes to be in the limelight. He likes to be in the lead, too. This was clear from his childhood at Kamoto Village in Thyolo, where he wrote his name on a baobab tree about six decades ago.

The tree stands where it stood. The name still visible, although the tree has grown and the letters have gone faint. That attempt to keep his name on a tree was a show-off, fun and power of childhood dreams. This is a surface interpretation. The depth of it was that Mutharika wanted to grow like a baobab which is what he has done.

His presidency which he assumed on May 24, 2004, is the culmination of his life, a journey that is showing five clear faces.


Mutharika wanted to become president of Malawi long before independence in 1964. “If he did not want the highest office,” says a source in Thyolo, “then he wanted something big. I suspect he thought he would be the second president of this country.” And as if he had forgotten, he continued. “Even the first. He was a boy with a big heart.”

So for four decades Mutharika was preparing for the highest office in Malawi and he did not keep this a secret. He told people he met while working outside Malawi.

A Blantyre woman in her 70s remembers meeting Mutharika in 1970s. “I knew that he wanted to be a president long before my last born [who was born in 1979],” she says. “Not because he wanted to get rich, but to develop Malawi.” No wonder in 2004, she advised her children and grandchildren to vote for Mutharika. “He has plans for this country,” she told her children who doubted the UDF candidate.

Those were his wishes and he had to strategise which he visibly did from 1998 when he announced that he would contest the 1999 elections on his United Party’s ticket. He came out last in the presidential race.

That, though, was not his end. He dissolved the party and joined the UDF. He worked with former president Bakili Muluzi and won his confidence. In the end, he was made presidential candidate. How did he manage to win Muluzi’s confidence?

Part of the answer is in what Ken Zikhale Ng’oma told the media in 2005 that Mutharika used to send sugar and other things to Muluzi’s mother at Kapoloma in Machinga. It might have been real sugar or something sweet like sugar.

The real test, though, was during the campaign when Mutharika played second fiddle to Muluzi. For records, Mutharika is more educated than Muluzi; Mutharika is older than Muluzi. But during the campaign, Mutharika taught people a lesson of humility which is a great lesson in life.

He spoke to please Muluzi. Mutharika was, in fact, given two minutes during which he had to say his plans for Malawi and thank Muluzi for developing this country.

The acceptance of this and the humility it carried were a strategy. Just that. Speaking to Chancellor College students two years ago, Mutharika said he has a formula to the highest office in the country. He did not elaborate but, most likely, he meant his strategy: How he has worked through the decades to get the presidency.

Yet his formula might not work again because circumstances may not allow. But still there are lessons from his strategies.


This term refers to someone who sees what will happen in the future, some kind of a prophet. But in case of Mutharika, he sees what others don’t see.

Throughout the decades, children in Malawi were taught that Malawi is a hinterland, a landlocked country away from the ocean. Mutharika came and said no. There are Shire and Zambezi rivers that connect Malawi to the Indian Ocean, he said and came up with Shire-Zambezi Waterway Project.

It is not yet done but it is a project that gives hope, a plan that opens eyes and shows that geography is not destiny as Napoleon said—he was wrong—but what people decide to do with their geography.


One academic staff from the Department of Political and Administrative Studies at Chancellor College says Mutharika is rewriting political science theories.

Once he won the presidency, his mentor, Muluzi, organised a coalition of parties to make a majority in Parliament, so that Mutharika could not have challenges with the budget, for example.

But Mutharika turned down the offer by leaving the UDF and choosing to work with a minority government which, some thought, would not work.

But he has survived for a full term—almost. There was Section 65, now forgotten. Malawi has survived although it appears it is Mutharika who has survived.


The feeling among Malawians, those who put Malawi first, is that “yes, we can!” There is a kind of confidence and pride that Mutharika has invoked in Malawians who love Malawi, not political parties.

He has given hope in the face of difficulty and uncertainty, a belief in things not seen, a belief that there are better days ahead, beyond the darkest years. He had an ailing wife. He had impeachment threats. He had a budget that was being troubled every year. But he kept ruling this country as if everything was fine. He took a longer view and not an immediate one which is often full of the present, the troubles, and not hope at all.


Mutharika has said things that were meant to provoke thinkers but, sadly, such speeches go unnoticed. The media goes for the ordinary political tones but not the theoretical depth. Speaking in Mzimba recently, Mutharika said our culture is superior to all foreign cultures. He even spoke of “our God” versus “their God”.

He meant to celebrate the African Synod of the Catholic Church. He meant to say Nyau is as good as Christianity only that Nyau has been demonised while Christianity has been over-praised. Mutharika meant to say Chipembedzo cha Makolo is equally powerful as Christianity.

By saying this, Mutharika was confirming that our ways of life are more important than the ways of the West and the East. This is in line with his thinking which has defied international advice.
Mutharika has implemented the fertiliser subsidy programme against advice from the West.

He meant to say our MPs can dress the Malawian way in the House. Mutharika meant to say that our Speaker, lawyers and judges can dress the Malawian way while on duty.

Sadly, the President said this while dressed in a suit like a white man. It would have carried weight if he said so while putting on something African. He would have sent a powerful message if he went to the UN General Assembly dressed the African way, not the English way.


The first four faces are good for Mutharika. They single him out of the two other presidents who have ruled Malawi: the Ngwazi with an iron fist and Muluzi in a free-for-all administration.

Right from his inaugural speech, Mutharika talked of being different, mainly from Muluzi. Mutharika knew Muluzi had failed Malawi and, being a strategist, Mutharika calculated how to win the support of Malawians who had denied him the vote having won with a mere 34 percent.

He spoke in new tones. He won wide support both national and international. He would have a Cabinet of about 20, appointed on merit. But by attempting to be different, Mutharika is becoming like any other president in Malawi.

One area Mutharika wanted to be different was the Cabinet. He promised a small Cabinet of technocrats. But now he has a Cabinet of 41 members. Faced with political challenges, Mutharika acted the way Muluzi did by blowing up his Cabinet to appease some politicians and have the illusion of winning support from their areas. But he has resisted the temptation to buy political loyalty visibly.

So, Mutharika may, after all, not be that different. He is just like any other president; somehow like Kamuzu, somehow like Muluzi. Yet different, in a way.

Reality of Fiction

The world’s two most talked about people are John McCain III and Baraki Obama, men who have presented themselves to the US as potential White House tenants.

They are both authors of several books each, and they are almost equally good writers although Obama is better than McCain at pen.

Obama writes with ease and has both style and substance. Even when he speaks, style and substance are visibly present.

McCain is obsessed with heroism and honour which, in the US, come from a service in the army where McCain spent years as did his father John McCain Jnr II who died in 1981 and grandfather John McCain Snr.

McCain III books are usually about war heroes. No wonder in 2001, Jonathan Karp, then editor at Random House, asked Mark Salter for a book idea for McCain. Karp published Faith of My Fathers, McCain’s 1999 memoir, and it had been a critical and commercial success.

Karp asked whether McCain would answer the question: who are your heroes, and why? Heroes, McCain told Salter, who are my heroes? “And the first guy out of his mouth was Robert Jordan,” Salter recalls.

Now Jodarn is the protagonist of Ernest Hemingway’s novel of the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls.

“He’s fictional,” Salter replied.

“Yeah, I know,” McCain said, “but he was everything a man would want to be.”

He was everything a man would want to be? So, how real is fiction that a real man like McCain, someone as real as wanting to be in the White House, should want to be like a fictional character?

Hemingway’s Jordan is a college professor from Montana who goes to Spain as a freedom fighter in the war against the Fascists in 1937. He does his duty, falls in love and, at the climax of the novel, suffers a seemingly fatal wound from a shell.

In the last moments of his life, Jordan is left alone with his machine gun on a hill to die and waiting to kill a pursuing enemy before he himself succumbs. But in that moment he muses on love and fate and duty and death. “You have had much luck,” he thinks. “There are many worse things than this.... He looked down the hill slope again and he thought, I hate to leave it, is all. I hate to leave it very much and I hope I have done some good in it. I have tried to with what talent I had. Have, you mean. All right, have.”

Then comes the line McCain remembers best: “The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it.”

“In talking about the book—which he does often—McCain seems to thrill to Jordan’s fatalism, the stoic acceptance of sacrifice in a larger cause, the image of a good man playing his part in the battles of his time, dying nobly in the knowledge that nothing on earth will ever be precisely the way we want it to be, but that we must fight on, for such is the lot of man,” says Jon Meacham, Newsweek editor, in an eight-page profile of McCain two weeks ago.

Jordan’s target, Lieutenant Berrendo, unaware that someone is lying in wait, is riding into range. “Robert Jordan lay behind the tree, holding onto himself very carefully and delicately to keep his hands steady,” Hemingway writes. “He was waiting until the officer reached the sunlit place where the first trees of the pine forest joined the green slope of the meadow.”

Jordan, at this point, prepares to take his shot—and the novel ends with these words: “He could feel his heart beating against the pine needle floor of the forest.”

This story ends in a tragic way, yet romantic too, because Hemingway leaves his hero alive, just for a moment, on the forest floor, preparing to do one last thing, noble thing for a soldier. McCain’s hero may hate to leave the world, but we do not see him do it: what we see, instead, is a good man hanging on, clinging to life, fighting on even at the point of death.

“He [Jordan] was everything a man would want to be,” says McCain of this hero depicted in his last moments of life, about to die, yet left alive.

No wonder McCain has been fighting for the White House for years. But perhaps the US is far away from Malawi and while it may ring social and economic bells, Kenya might do that better.

Matigari, the hero of Ngugi wa Thiongo’s 1986 novel of the same name, is through with his war with Settler Williams and the warrior is going home. It was 1986, and the fictional Matigari emerged from his hiding place and the pages of the novel.

“The real Kenyan police,” recalls literary scholar Frank Bures, “hunted the man people were whispering about, this Matigari who was roaming the country, escaping from prisons and mental hospitals, asking everyone where he could find truth and justice.”

The story is that Matigari taunted and challenged the paranoid regime of Kenya’s former president Daniel Arap Moi, and the president wanted Matigari stopped and arrested. But later, the police determined that Matigari was fiction and they seized all copies of the book so that people should not read this novel.

Why does fiction—an imaginative creation or a pretense that does not represent actuality but has been invented—shake reality?

“It is because fiction is a reflection of reality,” says Bright Molande, a University of Malawi lecturer in a branch of literature called Literary Theory. “There can never be anything called fiction,” says Shemu Joya, author of Madam Diseh, a powerful short story that remains so decades later. (You are missing a lot if you haven’t read Madam Diseh in Namaluzi.)

Fiction is human imagination, says Joya, which comes from experience and experience is reality. “Fiction,” he says, is just another dimension of reality.

Fiction can be imagined. Yes. But can one imagine something out of nothing? Some artists will say yes. But a practical answer, as Joya says, is no. A cartoonist, for example, cannot necessarily imagine a face that does not exist. Take, the example of Amtchona. Isn’t there someone who looks like Amtchona?

Could it be that James Kazembe formed Amtchona out of nothing?

“In creating Amtchona, I was inspired by a man from home in Balaka,” says Kazembe. “He used to drink with his wife and sometimes they could fight, with the man winning today and the woman winning next time. The face is of that man. I just put in some exaggerations like the long neck, the jacket and the shoes.”

So, the conclusion of the matter is that fiction is created from reality and fiction reflects reality. In fact, fiction is just another dimension of reality, meaning fiction can solve real problems like HIV, Aids and violence.

“I would support that argument,” says Joya. “The way fiction does it is that it creates images in which people see themselves.”

The importance is that fiction points a finger at a person without necessarily pointing a finger at them. It would be evil to call someone a fool. But fiction can create a foolish character and people can identify themselves with such a character.

Chinua Achebe offers a practical example in Things Fall Apart. Ikemefuna is a boy given to Okonkwo by a neighbouring village which was defeated in a war. Ikemefuna lives in the hut of Okonkwo’s first wife and quickly becomes popular with Okonkwo’s children. He develops a close relationship with Nwoye, Okonkwo’s oldest son, who looks up to him.
Okonkwo, too, loves Ikemefuna, who calls him “father” and is a perfect clansman, but Okonkwo does not demonstrate his affection because he fears that doing so would make him look weak.

Now the oracle had decreed that Ikemefuna must die. Obierika, the wise man of Things Fall Apart advises his friend, Okonkwo, not to take part in the killing.

But Okonkwo, fearing fear, is the one who kills the boy when he runs for safety.

Obierika was not amused. But he did not call Okonkwo a fool. Instead, Obierika—who in a way represents the voice of Achebe—tells Okonkwo that the oracle had commanded the death and Ikemefuna was supposed to die. But did the oracle appoint you to be the killer? Obierika asks Okonkwo.

It’s a fine argument that can be used to fight practices like fisi, kupita kufa and chokolo, not the non-artistic ways NGOs are using. Some NGOs have mastered antagonising some cultural practices instead of working on the minds of those whop promotte the culures the way Obierika worked on Okonkwo.

“To a large extent, Western societies have changed because of literature,” says Joya. “Laws have changed because of literature or fiction.”

This is so because fiction has power. In fact, the whole world has changed because of fiction, a reflection of reality. Joya argues that Jesus, believed to be the son of God, used fiction to teach effectively. The parables are fiction, says Joya, and billions know the parable of the Good Samaritan, a powerful story that teaches love.

No wonder, Jon McCain loves a fiction character. No wonder former president Moi sent Kenyan police to arrest Matigari, a character in a novel, on the streets of Nairobi. This speaks a lot that fiction is not fiction at all. It is another dimension of reality.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Corporate Citizenship

The story on Illovo which is posted here is an example of excellent journalism which I prefer to stories like ‘Illovo Donates to X or Y’, which unfortunately, companies in Malawi like, the media too.

I don’t write donation stories or similar stories because I want to do excellent journalism and I think the story on Illovo is an example of such kind of brilliant journalism. The genesis of the story was in January this year when I went to Shire Valley to assess the flood situation—this was a consultancy for World Vision Malawi—and I met people who had been displaced by floods and they told me the first help they had—shelter, food—was from Illovo.

This is a story, I thought. But for me, the story was not that Illovo had helped those affected by floods. Instead, the story was what Illovo is doing in Shire Valley, hence I had to visit the company and other areas for the story. (It is also important to say that I used my own car and my own time.)

I have worked for five years but during this period of excellent journalism, I have not met a company that is so committed to its social responsibilities as Illovo.

Still, as we say, there is a lot Illovo can do. But to what extent can it take its corporate citizenship? This is a good question because this year the company made a profit of K7 billion before tax. It came to K5 billion after tax, meaning Illovo paid K2 billion in taxes. This is a lot of money to government.

But K5 billion profit is also a lot of money, meaning Illovo can do more than it is doing. Yet we should remember the shareholders want profit. One thing I think Illovo should do is to establish a community radio station for Chikwawa and Nsanje.

Such a radio can help preserve songs of the area by way of recording them. The radio can entertain people after a day of work at Illovo and elsewhere. The radio can be an important tool to perform the surveillance function of journalism: to warn people of floods, for example. The radio can help with agriculture in the area. (Awareness on health and environment, agriculture—how to care for Illovo cane estates.) In short, the Shire Valley is unique: it has its own needs and requires its own radio station which can address the needs of the area while connecting people with the rest of the country and the world.

It is not an expensive venture. This is something Illovo can do. Otherwise, we should not demand too much from the company because it has done a lot in health and environment. But the room to do more in social responsibility is there, Illovo.

Finally, let it be known that Illovo is a model. The challenge is to remain a model and do better than it has done now. I hope some day, I will visit Dwangwa for a similar story.

Shire Valley Minus Illovo Equals Impossible

How important are big companies to a country? The example of Illovo’s citizenship in the Shire Valley shows Malawi needs big investments. Here is the story.

The sugar starts at Kamuzu Bridge in Chikwawa. The roadblock and police shelter were donated by Illovo Sugar (Malawi) Limited whose corporate colours welcome road users on M1 to the Shire Valley.

The Illovo colours have two meanings: one, that you are entering an Illovo zone, which is true, of course; and, two, that the company is not for profit only. It has a social responsibility towards communities near its estates and the country as a whole.

Chikwawa is some 30 kilometres from Nchalo and the roadblock is a powerful notice of the Illovo zone because not long from here, the M1Road passes through sugarcane estates, green carpets that stretch hundreds of hectares. These are estates of Illovo, the country’s sole sugar producer with agricultural and milling assets at Nchalo and Dwangwa in Nkhotakota, and headquarters in Limbe, Blantyre.

Illovo’s strategy is clear: “To be welcomed in communities in which it operates because of what it does, how well it does it and be accepted as a progressive company by all communities.”

What would life have been in the Shire Valley without Illovo? “It would have been impossible,” says Frank Phiri, managing director of Mukukha Enterprises, a cane cutting contractor.

Phiri’s response is a fair assessment of the impact of Illovo on communities in the Shire Valley. The sugar company is sweetening people’s lives from business to health to agriculture. Illovo has one main clinic and six satellite clinics at Nchalo.

Dr Albert Mkumbwa is in charge of health services at Nchalo and has statistics at his lips. This is so because he spends one hour per clinic per week, meaning, people who use these clinics have access to a doctor. (Some districts in Malawi do not have doctors and the best people can get is an experienced clinical officer who turns out to be district health officer, positions reserved for doctors.)

“Our clinics serve between 35,000 and 40,000 people,” said
Mkumbwa. “We are also working together with Montfort [Mission Hospital] where we send clinicians once in a while.”

Illovo clinics at Nchalo are offering almost all services required of a district hospital in Malawi except for radiography. When there is need for such services, clients are sent to Montfort or Blantyre, in case Montfort does not have appropriate machines.

But the common problems like malaria, diarrhea and AIDS are handled at Nchalo. All staff members and their dependants get free services and Illovo is the largest single employer in Malawi with 5,500 permanent staff and offering 2,500 seasonal jobs.

Beyond this, services like cane cutting and weeding are outsourced from contractors and employees from such firms get free treatment from Illovo clinics which offer testing and counseling and CD 4 count. White blood cells are monitored and ARVs offered to those in need. As at now, the clinic has 575 people on its ARV programme. Of these, 176 are employees while 399 are dependants.

“We have ARV stocks to last for the next two years,” said Mkumbwa, pointing to cartons of the drug. Illovo clinics hold two HIV testing weeks every year, first during the July national week and, secondly, Illovo’s own week in December after World Aids Day.

“In July last year, we tested 881 people while in December we tested 939 people,” said Mkumbwa.

The main clinic at Nchalo is smart. The corridors are not filled with drug and detergent smells. People sit on clean benches, the floor is well mopped, almost always. Staff work throughout the day and there are a couple of staff members at night to attend to emergencies.

There is a morgue that can keep six bodies for as long as two weeks. The mortuary at Chikwawa District Hospital has no freezing equipment. It is simply air conditioned and can keep bodies for hours otherwise they would decompose.

On the Wednesday I visited the clinic, the body of Senior Chief Ngabu’s mother was in the mortuary of the Illovo Clinic. This confirmed the usefulness of Illovo to people of Shire Valley because the chief lives some 20 kilometres from Nchalo on the road to Nsanje.

Illovo is not in treatment only but also in primary health care, especially prevention. There is a public health office headed by Anaclet Lupiya, a product of the University of Malawi’s Environmental Health (EH) programme, running prevention initiatives on malaria and HIV, among others.

But not all people can come to Illovo clinics because not all are employees or dependants of Illovo staff. People from surrounding communities go to Montfort Hospital, a 120-bed Catholic Church institution within Nchalo Trading Centre.

Dr Symon Chiumia is medical officer for the hospital and he is here because his salary is sugar-coated by Illovo. The company also tops up salaries of hospital administrator and radiographer. Graduates from the College of Medicine often avoid Chikwawa and Nsanje and those working at Illovo and Montfort are often the only doctors in the districts.

“We have a good working relationship with Illovo,” said Chiumia. Illovo provides drugs valued at K135,000 to Montfort Hospital quarterly.

Illovo renovated the hospital’s labour ward, the radiography section and bought a new radiography machine and air conditioners to keep the rooms cool. Illovo supplies raw water to the hospital. This list is not yet over.

Illovo donated an X-ray machine valued at K3 million. Illovo renovated the X-ray room. Illovo donated air conditioners for a second doctor’s house. Illovo donated a laundry machine for the hospital. Illovo maintained the hospital’s laboratory. Illovo bought a new water pump when the old one was burnt down.

In short, Montfort Hospital lives on Illovo to a reasonable extent. The existence of the hospital at current standards would be almost impossible without Illovo. The mission hospital serves thousands of villagers who pay negligible fees.

“Illovo,” says the company’s guidance on social responsibility, “endeavours to coexist harmoniously with its surrounding communities by, among other things, operating a social responsibility fund which is used to support hospitals, schools, orphanages, donations to some important government and religious functions, HIV support groups, road and bridge maintenance mainly but not exclusively in communities surrounding the estates.”

After health care, so what? Illovo, it’s becoming clear, realises that an effective workforce comes from a pool of health people.

Nchalo estates and mills are the largest employer in Shire Valley, perhaps in Southern Region. Is there a bigger employer than Illovo? In addition, contractors that offer services to Illovo employ hundreds of people.

Unitrans Malawi Limited is Illovo’s biggest transport provider, moving 1.4 million tonnes of cargo a year. Unitrans employees between 700 and 800 people during sugarcane season which starts in April and ends in November. Piet Steyn is transport manager at Nchalo and knows well what Illovo has done to transporters. Illovo, he said, is a big customer and this is not the case with Unitrans only.

Farming and Engineering Services is also stationed at Nchalo to maintain Illovo fleet and machinery. The company, according to national services manager Nark Gallowey, employs 14 men and one woman at Nchalo.

Builders and carpenters are enjoying contracts from Illovo. Harry Amos is part of Tonse Building Contractors while Noel Chapola runs Umodzi Joinery Workshop. Both and their partners are earning a living from Illovo contracts.

Illovo, in case you didn’t know, once grew maize and government used the yield for seeds which were donated to poor families across the country as starter packs. The company is involved in afforestation as well and is leading by example.

But it is Frank Phiri of Mukukha Enterprises who is a typical example of Illovo’s impact on Shire Valley and Malawi. He is a product of Bunda College and worked with Illovo for 26 years from 1979, until he resigned after winning a five-year cane harvesting contract. He has done four years and hopes the contract will be renewed.

“Outsourcing is empowering people,” he said. “When I was an employee, I was contributing taxes to government but not that much. Now, I return taxes in excess of K4 million a year.” His firm employs about 500 people every harvesting season.

There are several townships and villages around Nchalo estates and Kalulu is one of them. Years ago, people had an open ground market. They were scorched by Shire Valley’s hot sun. Temperatures in Chikwawa and Nsanje reach 42 degrees Celsius at the peak of the dry season. People at the market suffered from rains as well.

Now Illovo constructed a market, fenced with brick walls. What is more? The company supplies water to the market. This is possible because Illovo has 11 water treatment plants at Nchalo.

John Falamenga is an operator at one water plant. He treats 380 cubic metres of water a day and hundreds benefit. Ndirande Village is by the water tank and people from here drink from taps outside the plant. If it were not for Illovo, people would have been drinking from Shire River, a couple of kilometres away, and risking their lives to crocodiles and unclean water.

The greatest news in Shire Valley is about Kasinthula cane growers limited where lives are changing, people are moving from poverty to wealth and learning to live decent lives. One challenge in the Shire Valley is that people have wealth—cattle and money—but still live like poor people.

The trust is changing all that. It has 282 farmers who produce 76,000 tonnes of sugarcane per year. The farmers have a ready market at Illovo. The company helps the farmers with procurement of inputs and, being big, has bargaining power.

“The main benefit of the farmers is that the scheme provides a ready market,” said Brian Namata, general manager of Kasinthula cane growers limited. The processes of how the farmers sell their sugarcane and get their money are all interesting. But the visible signs of the changes of their lives are even more interesting.

Chinangwa Village, some five kilometres from Chikwawa boma, is a shining example seen clearly through Bies Ellod, a 26-year-old man who has two-and-a-half hectares of sugarcane. His wife and son of two years, seven months were not at home when I visited them recently.

Ellod and his wife have built a three-bedroom house with a big sitting room, a kitchen and storeroom. It is a house that would fetch about K30,000 in Chimwankhunda Dam in Blantyre or Area 25 B in Lilongwe.

Wiring was done and the house is ready for electricity. In fact, Chinangwa Village has electricity almost ready. Most houses are just waiting for Escom. Power lines are all over the village. Escom is yet to procure metres.

The village has been transformed and thanks to sugarcane farming. Beyond that, the changes are because of Illovo. People of Shire Valley have been engaged in business and it is more profitable than growing cotton. The cane growers are assured of a minimum price that covers production costs and profit. It is called fair trade.

On the day Escom brings metres to Chinangwa Village and connects people to power, there shall be celebration. Ellod’s wife will no longer need firewood. She will cook using a hotplate. This will not only make her life easy, but forests will be saved; trees that are not there, anyway. Children will study at night and, most likely, school results will improve.

Electricity is just a plus because they already have borehole water and a clinic that is partly, perhaps mainly, serviced by Kasinthula cane growers limited.

This will be a model village, a real show how a socially responsible company like Illovo can transform lives. These are lives at national level because the company is the biggest single employer and works in a way that impacts directly on people.

Yet there is more than this. One major impact of Illovo on Shire Valley—Illovo management does not realise this, though—is that the high living standards of the staff at Nchalo are a motivation to the area’s young people.

The pupils and students of Nsanje, especially Chikwawa, see immediate benefits of education as they see men and women drive poshy cars to Blantyre and around Chikwawa and Nsanje. They see how people can turn sugarcane into sugar and this amazement encourages them—most of them—to work hard in school.

No wonder the Shire Valley has produced people like Bernad Thole, a chemist and dean of applied studies in the University of Malawi. This motivation is especially important in a country where musicians sing against higher education, where people think all educated people must be rich.

Illovo is most likely Escom’s biggest customer. The work at Nchalo makes this assumption believable even without checking with Escom. In an interview Escom’s public relations assistant Chikondi Chimala confirmed that Illovo is not only the biggest customer but also a responsible one; the company does production at night and thus does not congest Escom power distribution which is high during the day.

This means big companies get big companies and that if a country has several big, responsible companies, life would really change for the better in visible ways.

But there are challenges: more businesses mean more money in people’s pockets, including children’s pockets. As a result, they may not go to school. Money tends to prevent people from thinking and, in such circumstances, the spread of HIV rises. These are challenges at personal level. Illovo cannot follow people into dark corners.

Perhaps we need patience. Some day, Malawi shall be a fully developed country. It takes time. It also takes the efforts of the private sector and government to lift people from poverty.

Illovo is clear evidence. The sugar group is sweetening food and lives of Malawians, especially those in Chikwawa and Nsanje. The roadblock at Chikwawa is just an entry point into a great story, now told, in part though.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Ntaba Explains Ambitions

I spoke with Hetherwick Ntaba on several issues.

Me: It’s three or four years since the Democratic Progressive Party was born. Where is the party now?

Ntaba: The party has registered tremendous growth way beyond our expectation. We have support throughout the country. We have structures not just the national governing council (NGC) but also regions, districts, down to area level. Some constituencies have 200 area committees.

Me: Have you had the opportunity to tour the party structures yourself?

Ntaba: I have been on the ground. My colleagues have been in various parts of the country and visited various area committees. In fact, even at area committee level, we have names of members, 75 names. My colleagues and I have visited all area structures in the country.

Me: That appears admirable growth, especially because you have names of area committee members. And it is proper that such people should feel to be participating in the party’s affairs by, for example, voting in a convention. When will the DPP hold a convention?

Ntaba: That is a perennial question. Every media person wants to know nothing about the DPP but the convention. We will hold a convention soon, definitely. We will let people know.

Me: There is a lot of talk, disagreements and sometimes quarrelling regarding DPP primary elections. Some talk suggests that some constituencies will not have primary elections.

Ntaba: There will be primaries in every constituency.

Me: Is that so?

Ntaba: Every constituency will have primaries. It is a democratic, a progressive party, you remember? The most democratic and most progressive way of determining who is the people’s choice, who will stand for the people on the DPP ticket, is through the people. Now you are saying there is trouble, quarrelling. I think there is vigorous debate. Where there is a good thing, a lot of people want to be part of it. A lot of people want to contest on the DPP’s ticket.

Me: What is good about the DPP, isn't it that it is a ruling party and most people want to be associated with the party?

Ntaba: That is not all. There are policies, there are achievements under the leadership of the party. People are flocking to the DPP because of the quality of the government.

Me: And how are you going to manage these aspirants? Is this the reason the DPP is asking every aspirant to contribute K50,000?

Ntaba: What we have said is that there will be a participation fee which will be non-refundable.

Me: And how much will that be?

Ntaba: I don’t think I would want to discuss those particular details. But just be informed that there will be a participation fee like the nomination fee when you run for Parliament, just to indicate that a person is a serious contender. Some people will just throw in their names. But there are also many other reasons why people charge participation fees.

Me: Yes, because money is not the only thing to measure a candidate’s seriousness or commitment.

Ntaba: You are right. If there are other ways let us know.

Me: But I am not a DPP member to be advising you. I am a journalist.

Ntaba: You are a human being, you participate, you have observed a lot of political parties and governments that demand a participation fee to be paid. There is nothing strange here.

Me: You have expressed interest to contest for Parliament, isn’t it?

Ntaba: Yes.

Me: Some people are wondering why a whole chief political advisor to the President and secretary-general of a party should contest for Parliament instead of serving the country in those two positions?

Ntaba: We have ministers, secretaries-general of parties, the president of MCP, contesting. Chairmen of some reputable organisations are contesting. Someone who was vice-chancellor of Mzuzu University has shown interest. Chief executives of some reputable organisations are all running for Parliament. I don’t see why that question should only be put to a secretary general of the DPP.

Me: Specifically in your case, it might be that you are in appointed positions and you are never sure how long you will be in those positions unlike a parliamentary seat which you are assured of a five year job.

Ntaba: Is this the reason you think I am contesting? People are entitled to their opinion. In my case, that is not the reason I am running. I have been an MP in that constituency having won over 90 percent of the vote. I want to serve people the way I did.

Me: But you once lost, how sure are you that you are going to win this time?

Ntaba: You don’t run into a race unless you know you are going to win. I am 100 percent I will win this time because I know why I lost.

Me: If you know why you lost why did you run because you say a person does not go into a race unless they are assured of victory?

Ntaba: I have known now. When a person dies, you do a postmortem to know why the person died because you want to know how to handle a similar case in future. I did a postmortem when I lost and found reasons why I lost and this time I don’t want to repeat those particular shortfalls.

Me: Finally, what is your message to Malawians as voter registration is in progress?

Ntaba: I think it’s important for all Malawians to go and register regardless of their affiliations. There may be some who may [discourage] some from registering because of political, religious and tribal reasons. The President took time to register. That should speak a lot. The registration staff could have gone to State House to register the President. But he went to register himself, a clear indication that this is a serious mater and we all need to take it seriously.