Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Counting the Years, Day and Night

Now that we are 15 years old, it is proper to jump and celebrate this all important anniversary which, in a clear way, confirms our energies and number one position on the print media market.

On a cold July, 1993 afternoon, about five people were in a studio at the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC)—there was one radio station, then—to record a promotion for The Nation, a new newspaper on the market.

"They are a mouthpiece of cassava growers," said one voice.

"Wrong," said another. "They are a mouthpiece of the poor."

"You are wrong," said yet another. "They are a mouthpiece of a political party."

"Wrong," said yet a fourth voice. "They are a mouthpiece of all."

There was one immediate dilemma. The promotion didn’t come to an agreeable conclusion. This, in part, meant the newspaper would be for all, which, I think, remains the case today. But there was a high mountain to climb. The market was already crowded with established media houses.

Some have suggested that there were over 30 newspapers in 1993.

Was there a market for a new newspaper? The immediate answer, perhaps the only one, was no. But the question is illegitimate.

There will never be a market for a new product, never. Every product must create a market. The counsel from a Spanish poet Antonio Machado (July 26, 1875-February 22,1939) is clear in his poem Pathwalker: "There is no path, You must make the path as you walk."

The new newspaper made its own path and walked on it; The Nation, coming out twice a week on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, made its own market that has grown and today, 15 years later, Nation Publications Limited (NPL) is a proud owner of four products: The Nation, Weekend Nation, Nation on Sunday and Nation Online. We are on the streets seven days a week and online 24/7.

We boast of the highest—though not satisfactory—circulation and an assembly of a cream of journalists in the names of Peter Kanjere, Garry Chirwa, Gracian Tukula and Mabvuto Banda. This seems great and there is a tendency in such times to forget where we have come from.

"NPL grew from an idea—a seed," recalls chief executive officer Mbumba Achuthan. "An idea to come up with a paper that would disseminate truthful information at a time when information was a highly sort-after commodity."

Thus the genesis of NPL was like a small seed, a mustard seed perhaps, too small to make an impact on anything yet when it germinates, it grows big and offers shelter to people and animals.

Three people came together. Aleke Banda, Achuthan and Ken Lipenga and discussed the idea of a newspaper. Big things, as NPL confirms, start from ideas, not money. What we lack are ideas not money, because ideas bring money while money does not necessarily bring ideas.

Later, Lipenga brought in Alfred Ntonga from Blantyre Newspapers Limited (BNL). Achuthan roped in Billy Mphande, our area manager for the Centre, who retires later this year. Achuthan and Mphande met at The Monitor newspaper, a daily that died an artificial death.

Alfred Ntaula joined the team. He was from The UDF news. Bertha Masiku, the MP for Blantyre Blantyre City West was heading the advertising section. Mphande brought in for Masauko Chiomba, now business manager for our Mzuzu office. Finally, a messenger was employed.

It was a team of seven people, excluding Aleke, of course, who became chair of NPL. Humble resources too: a family car, a typewriter, a computer, some furniture. Lipenga brought his personal computer. Just like that. And a journey started with the first step.

"Nothing was impossible because we worked as a team," recalls Achuthan.

They could go anywhere, at any time, and do anything. Achuthan—then managing director, now chief executive officer—went on editorial assignments. Mphande did the same. Yet the two were not part of the newsroom.

How, then, did The Nation make its own market when newspapers were dying? One project that carved a place on the market for The Nation was the 1983 Mwanza murder stories. The small team of NPL staff cracked the idea of following up. They decided that if the people who killed the three ministers and one MP were to be found, The Nation, a biweekly, should be the paper to find them.

It worked by cooperation, of course. It was the chief accountant Mphande who pledged to provide a source who worked for the Police and was sent to take pictures at the "accident" place at Thambani.

He was called Mr X by the newspaper and worked with editor-in-chief Lipenga. The two formed a team. Mr X took Lipenga to a former PMF man who actually killed the three ministers Dick Matenje, Aaron Gadama, Twaibu Sangala and MP David Chiwanga for Chikwawa.

"The guy was tall, heavily built, short tampered, deeply suspicious and capable of killing a fellow human being," recalls Lipenga in a 1998, August, interview with The Nation.

Lipenga went to the killer’s home which remains anonymous up to now. The man was uncomfortable, says Lipenga, and in his drunken state, wanted to go away before the meeting was over.

Lipenga had to persuade him to stay by offering to buy Kachasu. When the illegal drink came, Lipenga had to partake to confirm the rapport between them. Now, Lipenga was not just another journalist on the street. He was editor-in-chief and a PhD, a man who would have been professor had he stayed on Chancellor College where he worked in the English Department.

This was a practical and theoretical journalism lesson: that sometimes we have to go down to the level of our sources to get information on behalf of people, information for a big story that can shake a country.

Once the story was out, The Nation became a giant of the streets. The Bakili Muluzi administration instituted a commission of inquiry and the result was the house arrest of first president Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda and some of his close associates.

They were acquitted, of course, but the aim of The Nation was not to get anyone in prison. It was, as Achuthan says of the founding principle, to tell people the truth on issues of national importance.

Since then, NPL has remained the country’s number one media house. Saturday Nation (now Weekend Nation) followed, then came Nation on Line and, finally, Nation on Sunday. That is not all. NPL has a fully fledged design studio where advertisements are made. It is under
ImangiNation, a subsidiary of NPL, now becoming almost a group of companies.

Early Days

When there was Operation Bwezani, recalls Achuthan, "we all spread out into different parts of the country to get what we could [and] when it came to production time, we all worked together to put everything together. Some of us even went on delivery, served coffee and tea to people, sold adverts—did everything. It was a good training ground in writing, editing, designing, distribution—everything."

The lifeline of any private media house is advertising and even here NPL is leading the way. But it was, as usual, a humble beginning with few clients from the editorial front, most of them contacted as individual friends but in other cases contacted from a purely sales point of view. Achuthan remembers Maurice Newa well

"He was instrumental, while at Lever Brothers [now Unilever], in introducing big advertising as we know it today," says Achuthan. "He took that culture with him to BAT and then on to Sobo and it spread from those points. We also dealt mainly with Top Advertising and later organisations such as Marketpoint. Others came onto the scene."


Nation has grown technologically from one computer and one typewriter to state-of-the-art technology. We have perhaps the best machines in town.

Our computers are on local area network. We get Reuters copy electronically. This is unlike in the past when we used to go to Malawi News Agency (Mana) to get Reuters copy on paper, bring to office and typeset. Now everything has gone satellite.

Even printing has gone technology. In fact, in the early days, we used to print in Lilongwe from Blantyre for printing and distribute thereafter. Next our paper was printed at Blantyre Printing and Packaging (BP&P). But later we bought our machine, a web offset, from United Printers which we sold to Fattani Printers after acquiring a modern web printer.

In the early days, NPL developed ties with a Netherlands organisation that advises businesses in developing world.

"An elderly gentleman named Ben Romijn came thrice to work with us and help us set standards and benchmarks," says Achuttan. "He helped us with our first survey which set the direction for later surveys which we have consistently carried out to tell us our place on the market. He also helped us establish benchmarks in many areas of our operations, especially editorial."

The advantage was that NPL was able to send people to Holland to learn about newspaper operations and this helped us in setting and correcting our operations.


Minutes after five in the afternoon on a Thursday, Roblee Mkamanga, the circulation manager, is busy in her office, making sure all subscribers and readers will get their paper the next day.
She is printing the circulation list, which her office does everyday, making sure it is accurate and up-to-date. Meanwhile, there is sound from the printing house, indicating work in progress.

They have just started printing the inside pages like features, business, leisure.

But the newsroom is not yet through with Friday’s newspaper, especially pages one, two, three and some sports pages, mainly the back page. Elizabeth Lisuntha Banda, the deputy editor responsible for current news, is busy reading stories and deciding with her editor Edward Chitsulo, which story leads.

By this time, most staff of NPL are at home. But as some staff get out of the gate, others are reporting for work in the print section. The newsroom is making last touches. Lizzie Lupiya, the designer of front page this evening, is receiving stories to start her work.

Aubrey Mchulu, the stonesub this evening, is waiting to read all the stories on pages one, two, three and sports pages. This is one way of making sure we have perfect text and pictures because the stories have already been read by two people.

As the newsroom finishes its work, the design studio gets busier making films that go to print. By this time, the advertising department is at home. They are through with adverts by about 3 pm. Films for advertisements were ready by five. Adverts for Weekend Nation and Friday’s The Nation have been done.

By 11 pm on Thursday night, printing of The Nation for Friday is over and it is being packed for Lilongwe and Mzuzu, so that circulation driver Charles Bonde should be in Lilongwe about dawn.

He stops over several places to leave newspapers on the way. By 3:30 am, he is in Lilongwe and some newspapers are leaving for Mzuzu, so that by 7:30 am people have the paper.

This, too, is the time some editorial staff are arriving at work on Friday for Weekend Nation and Nation on Sunday production. Staff who work on The Nation are on weekend, call it early weekend, because they work Sunday to Thursday, while those on Weekend Nation work Monday to Friday with Nation on Sunday staff working Tuesday to Saturday.

Ours is a place that is busy seven days a week throughout a year, hence we are counting the years, day and night.


NPL started in a house of a politician. Aleke had been released from Mikuyu Maximum Prison and joined the United Democratic Front (UDF), the original one which everybody describes as a team of dedicated politicians who wanted political change and development in Malawi.

Just when The Nation was launched Achuthan, recalls Lipenga, told Aleke: "You do realise, chief, that even if you took up a position in the new government, this paper would not always toe your line, don’t you?"

The result was a media house that has developed a reputation of honesty and balance. It is a media house that remains number one, partly because of its independence. Even when Aleke was in government, NPL did its work thoroughly, checking both the ruling and opposition parties.

Now that he president of Progressive Peoples Movement (PPM), NPL would have been championing the party. But that is not the case.

"Pressure from outside has always been there," says Achuthan. "AKB has withstood a lot of heat right from the time that NPL was established to now. His political colleagues have not always understood the role he has played in respecting the fact that if we are to do a good job, we should remain independent of him and his politics or any other politics for that matter.

"Some of his political colleagues have thought that he drives us to write certain stories or editorials. Some have even gone as far as to think he actually writes! Far from it. Many would be surprised to know that he reads and knows about the content of the newspaper at the same time that the rest of the readers do," she says.

This is so because of our editorial policy, our code of conduct and all other policies we have and the pride that we have in doing our work.

Everything else, as Achuthan understands, rests on editorial content, hence she "can confidently say that [Aleke] has trust in me and Alfred Ntonga’s leadership of the newsroom". Ntonga is deputy CEO and editor-in-chief.


What NPL does Achuthan want to leave to the next CEO, whoever he or she shall be? "A stable, strong, forward-looking and respected NPL, a platform of excellence that creates opportunities for its clients, staff and shareholders in Malawi and beyond," she says.

These are wise words that go well with what the founding editor-in-chief Ken Lipenga said in 1998 when NPL celebrated five years.

Last word? Jika Nkolokosa, then editor of NPL, asked Lipenga. "Congratulations for turning five, and hope to be there when The Nation turns a hundred, which it will."

Indeed it will. But as for now, we are 15 and that is our limit of celebration. Yet that does not stop us from hoping for a bigger future, especially when we shall hit 100 in 2093. Lipenga, now Minister of Economic Development, just like most of us, will for sure not be there, physically. But our names shall remain in the history of NPL.

The advert recorded that cold afternoon in July 1993, will be played again in 2093, perhaps. Then people will marvel at NPL: that it started with seven people in a crowded industry, employed about 200 people in 2008 and will be leading the way in 2093. Happy birthday NPL!

Friday, February 20, 2009

One Foot Ahead of Another

I don’t know why these thoughts have been coming to me lately, since four weeks ago to be precise. I was on a mental journey on the Masauko Chipembere Highway, the new double lane road.

I was walking, not riding any metal. I realised several truths or assumptions. One, that walking is the best means of transport. No tyre puncture, no engine jerks, no traffic police. You are sure of reaching your destination so long you are well.

Walking makes you meet people and see things, issues on the road. In a car, you are detached from the real world. You see a distant world.

On the ground, while walking, you meet people. You see magicians doing their work outside Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital. You see people seeking help from the magicians or just passing time by watching them help or cheat people, often those desperate for a relief from some kind of pain.

Distance, I also realised, is best measured by time, not kilometres. It will take 20 minutes of walking from point A to point B. That gives a sense of distance in kilometres.

If it were not for the rocks, you would walk for 10 minutes. Thus we know the distance is short in length but there are so many obstacles on the road which is part of life. One can live briefly but suffer a lot during such times. I have seen children born with diseases that cause a lot of pain; children who live six or seven years of pain and die at eight.

These are lessons from life, journey of life in which we meet people on the via, on the way. All such thoughts came to me during my mental journey. But I still don’t know why these thoughts were puzzling me.

But one fundamental lesson I got during the walk is courage and being adventurous. We must never be afraid of changing lanes. Whether you are on the left or right, the journey remains one to Limbe or Blantyre. Life is bigger than one lane. Come on! Move from one lane to another.

That is life. To stick to one lane, one thing, one place, one destination, is not practical and not part of the journey to better life. The idea of sticking to one whatever is for those who are afraid of new destination.

All roads lead to one destination. Only that some roads are long, others short. Clever people, those who know what they are doing, walk on the possible short route, yet walking all journey, in its fullness. And fullness can be in turns, a circle kind of.

Another lesson is that it is not harmful to go back. It is a question of what you want to do when you go back that matters. An American man was saved from a hospital that was on fire and upon remembering that he had kept $1,000 in his pillow on the hospital bed, he went back to get the money. (This amount, in 1902, was a lot of money.) Now hear this: he became the only one to die in the fire accident.

A boy in Liberia once joined his friends running away from a rebel attack on their village. After about a 100 metres, he remembered he had forgotten his Bible. He went back home to carry it. Just then, all his friends who were running away were shot. He became the only one to survive and tell the story. He was left to tell.

Both the man and the boy went back. But one went back to salvation while the other went back to destruction. These choices are part of the journey of life, on whatever road you are walking.

You can go back and forward. Nothing wrong. But have a meaningful aim for going back. You can change lanes, nothing wrong but have a meaningful goal for doing so. You can run or jump.

Nothing wrong. But have a good goal for doing so. You can stop and talk to others on the way, the via. Nothing wrong, so long you are in a profitable talk. You can jump over a space. Nothing wrong, so long it is a necessary step on the journey towards your goal.

Such is life, a journey of questions and answers. Those who find answers to their questions move on, and they proceed. Those who don’t, well, I don’t know what happens to them. You can guess.

My plain view is that I don’t know why I am writing about these issues. I don’t know. May be they touch your soul, but still I don’t know why I am writing about these issues. I don’t know.

New Era of Politics

President Bingu wa Mutharika is rewriting history to make history. But it takes a sober mind and terrific analysis to reach such a conclusion.

He has redefined politics and a new era of politics has dawned on Malawi. Or, said in straight terms, Mutharika has defined politics correctly as administration of state affairs, not addressing rallies, not buying opposition MPs, not unleashing violence on people with alternative views.

But it has been difficult for some to understand that Mutharika is a politician, so he has been called an economist.

Perhaps it is a question of balance: How should a President balance between party politics and state politics? But the most important re/definition Mutharika has ever done is, perhaps, his choice of Joyce Banda as running mate in the May 19 presidential polls.

Mutharika has introduced a new dimension to presidential politics. He might be old, but he is experimenting new methods that even younger politicians are afraid of trying.

The fundamental question asked by presidential candidates in the choice of a running mate is region or place. This has remained a fundamental question since multiparty was reintroduced in 1993. (Malawi was a multiparty state in 1964 until 1971 when the Malawi Congress Party decreed that it would be the only party in the country.)

Two major contestants in the May polls have running mates based on place. John Tembo has Brown Mpinganjira, so he can woo the Lomwe belt vote for the MCP candidate. Mpinganjira also wants to use his (declining) popularity among the Yao in the Eastern Region to add votes to the MCP.

Muluzi is targeting the Central, hence picking Clement Stambuli. Muluzi has ever targeted the Centre since 1994 when he paired with Justin Malewezi.

The practical choice for Mutharika, according to Malawian politics, should have been from the Central or the North, so he could appeal to a place, a region and a tribe. This is how politics works in Malawi and it was regarded as the way it shall work forever.

But Mutharika has thought about this political clue and found it wanting. Instead of a running mate from the Central or the North, he has picked from the South. He is not appealing to place. Mutharika is not targeting a tribe.

"It is surprising because given the realitie Malawi’s politics to date, one would have expected the DPP’s decision to reflect some kind of regional balancing that has been at the heart of Malawi’s politics," said political economist Blessings Chinsinga in Nation on Sunday this week. "The decision, perhaps, heralds a new era of politics, less beholden to regional considerations but rather driven by issues."

Yes, it does. Mutharika, the politician, has appealed to something greater than region, something greater than tribe. He has appealed to sex and gender which are universal unlike place, region and tribe which are particular.

The choice of Banda has made Mutharika and his running mate appeal to people of different tribes, people from all corners of Malawi.

Or, put it this way, by choosing a running mate from his own region, Mutharika is a sending a powerful lesson that time for tribal politics and politics of place is gone. Instead, this is time for universal issues of gender, development, hard work and visionary leadership.

But the great question is whether or not Mutharika is right to bring an end to politics of place. First President Hastings Kamuzu Banda came from Kasungu. Did the district benefit more than any other? Muluzi comes from Machinga. Did the district benefit more than any other. Mutharika comes from Thyolo. Is the district any better than the rest of Malawi?

Place does not offer anything tangible apart from an illusion of a sense of social and tribal security. Mutharika has gone above cheap politics of place or region and thought of national issues, even international commitments, on gender and development.

This choice is a test of place versus universality because gender is universal; it cuts across cultures, religions and lands while place is cultural, place is religious, place is particular, place is tribal,

Beyond this, the choice of Banda says a lot to a majority of voters who are between 18 and 35. Anyone who wants to win the May 19 elections must appeal to this age group.

It is an age group that does not take tribalism at heart. They are marrying across tribes. They do not believe in employing on tribal lines. Those stuck in tribalism are mainly above 40. This is not that there isn’t tribalism in people below 40, but the degree is not as strong as is the case in people above 40.

The history of revolutions, the story of new political eras, shows that it is the youth who bring such changes. It was so in France; it was so in Iran.

It will be so in Malawi. A new era has come and Mutharika has read the politics rightly.

Sharing Justice

It is World Day of Justice, not just justice as in court of law but also as in accessing benefits from state resources, medicines being one of them.

Usisya in Nkhata Bay in the North of Malawi is a food secure area. There has not been relief distribution in the area for the past 10 or so years.

But people have problems with access to health facilities and, therefore, access to medicines because Usisya is a mountainous area. In fact, it is so mountainous that mobility is a big problem, according to Tonderai Manoto, programme manager for Temwa.

Temwa is a reproductive health organisation with administrative offices in Mzuzu and a field office in Usisya where it is running, among other programmes, a mobile voluntary counselling and testing (VCT) and home based care (HBC).

"Without the mobile VCT," says Manoto, "I don’t know what people of Usisya would have been doing to access health services."

There is one road from Mzuzu, teh capital of Northern Malawi, to Usisya and it is a bad road that needs 4x4s. And when the road’s condition moves from bad to worse, service providers have one option: water transport.

This means Manoto and his team have to board Illala at Nkhata Bay district headquarters and go to Usisya on a Sunday and return to Nkhata Bay eight days later, because they can’t spend on hired boats using project funds which must, as much as possible, be spent on beneficiaries.

The people of Usisya are lucky to have Temwa which goes about the place, following people in their homes and areas. People of Nsanje and parts of Thyolo that border Nsanje and Chikwawa in Southern Malawo are not so lucky. They are far from any health centre. They are far from the Holy Trinity Hospital at Muona, a Catholic health institution in Nsanje.

Transport is a problem on this part of the Shire Valley also called East Bank. Like in Usisya, it is 4x4s that are safe on the East Bank Road.

But people have to travel, especially to hospital. Luckily, somehow, the road has been rehabilitated but with rains it tends to get damaged. Added to that, floods and swelling rivers often cut off whole villages from health institutions like Holy Trinity.

Such people cut from health institutions are, in a way, being denied justice by natural causes, of course—but they are still being denied justice. There are two forms of justice, says Edge Kanyongolo, a respected law academic with the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College in Zomba.

The first is distributive justice which refers to distribution of advantages and disadvantages or benefits and burdens. Roads are benefits, meaning state resources towards construction of roads should be distributed equally in a country. So, too, medicines which are an example of a benefit or an advantage.

The second form of justice, says Kanyongolo, is corrective which is premised on the assumption that every society has equilibrium, some point of accepted norms and that when a person behaves differently, in a deviant way, he or she must be corrected and brought back to the accepted behaviours at the assumed equilibrium.

This is what happens when people are sent to reformatory centres like Chichiri Prison for adults and Mpemba Reformatory Centre for boys.

It is the first form of justice—distributive—that the Malawi Healthy Equity Network (MHEN) is concerned with and wants to highlight today on the World Day of Justice. The organisation is insisting on access to medicines as they relate to issue of equity and health rights.

MHEN is talking about essential medicines like co-trimoxazole for opportunistic infections in antiretroviral therapy (ART) clients and malaria treatment at a time the disease is the number one killer of children under the age of five.

This is from a background of a drug availability survey MHEN conducted with parliamentary committee for health and population in 2004, four years after the formation of MHEN.
"The findings formed the basis for the network’s advocacy and campaign for the availability of drugs in public health facilities at a time when drug [shortage] was the order of the day," says Martha Kwataine, MHEN national coordinator.

The target of the advocacy supported Oxfam is to gain equitable and improved access to medicines by 2010. And MHEN is not doing this out of the blue.

"This access to medicines campaign relates to Millennium Development Goals, especially those relating to maternal mortality, infant mortality and reversing the spread of HIV, tuberculosis and malaria," says Kwataine. "In Malawi, Congoma leads the Malawi Coalition on the Millennium Development Goals. MHEN, which is also a member of the civil society taskforce on MGDs in Malawi, will work with Congoma in launching and taking forward the access to medicines campaign in Malawi."

The launch was done in October last year. Now, MHEN is implementing its plans to benefit especially people in rural corners of Malawi. Even those in urban areas because there are thousands who can’t afford private health facilities and end up at government health centres.

Tereza Ramusa of Namonde Village, T/A Nkalo in Chiradzulu, Southern Malawi, is an 82-year-old woman widowed when her husband was killed gruesomely last month. She is now hopeless, in a way, except for government which should provide her access to medicines, among other needs.

The nearest health facility for her is Chonde Health Centre in Mulanje. But in case of a big hospital, she has to travel to Nguludi which is a paying hospital—of course, being a mission hospital it is cheap but she cannot afford. Otherwise, she has to travel to Mulanje District Hospital because Chiraduzlu District Hospital is far away from her home.

She is old and in need of help. She is not the only one. There are thousands like her who need access to medicines. And this is not just availability of drugs at government hospitals and health centres, but even travel: how do poor people, especially the old, travel from home to hospital?

This is a big question that may appear simple in the comfort of sofas and televisions and cups of tea/coffee and biscuits. But for the poor, it remains crucial in terms of access to medicines.

But it is important to acknowledge that there has been success in access to Aids, TB and malaria treatment and support services aimed at attaining MDGs relating to health. This is so because of Indian generic medicines.

"The concern is that increasing resistance to first line ARVs, SP as first line drug for malaria and the emergency of the multi-drug resistant strains of TB poses serious challenges," says Kwataine. "This has the potential to upward spiral of the cost of managing these conditions of public health significance when second line-patented drugs have to be used. Whilst ARVs may be relatively available, simple drugs to treat opportunistic infections linked to HIV and Aids like cotrimoxazole are often not readily available in most facilities."

Beyond this, there have been reasonable attempts at prevention of malaria, for example. Treated mosquito nets have been distributed to hundreds of women. Their proper use is another story.

What does Malawi need to do now? One, build and spread success to all parts of Malawi, sharing benefits. Two, increase medicines budgetary allocation, demands MHEN. People, says MHEN, must realise that health rights are human rights and essential medicines are, therefore, human rights.

Perhaps after realising this, people of Usisya in the North will begin to demand their fair distribution of justice in the form of access to health facilities and medicines.

That will be a rare moment for Malawi and a meaningful story to share on World Day of Justice in the next years.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Artistic View of Justice

Edgar ndi Davis do not offer legal service at a fee always. They are also, knowingly or unknowingly, helping thousands with legal services through their songs.

Legal fees are expensive for a majority of Malawians whose priority is food and shelter or physical survival, not legal technicalities.

The cheapest rate as set by the chief justice is K7,000 per hour. This is the rate of beginners. It gets high and high as one moves the legal ladder, finally becoming senior counsels. These are hours of reading, representation in a court of law, consultation in the lawyer’s office.

And these men and women can read, and they are paid for reading. A senior counsel is even more expensive that to hire them is prohibitive for the majority poor. It is also important to note almost all lawyers offer free services sometimes. They volunteer to poor people and it is wrong to portray then as seekers of wealth all the time.

But two lawyers are offering free legal services, free legal advice and free legal lessons in style. They are Edgar ndi Davis, lawyers who are also musicians. Or are they musicians who are also lawyers? They have been in court for years and they have come to appreciate that law is, after all, unfair.

In their song Pakuopa, a persona accused of defilement fails to defend himself in a court of law for fear of stunning a court with obscenities which is uncultural.

Ndalephera kufotokoza
Pakuopa kulaula bwalo
Kuti sankayamwa chala

It seems there is a dilemma of age and ability or maturity. The girl is young, less than 13, and cannot make an informed consent to sex. But the girl, according to the man, has mastered the art of sex that she cannot be described as young. This is justice according to the man. But he cannot explain this in court for fear of offending cultural logic.

So, in a way the man has two choices: offend cultural logic and get his freedom or respect cultural norms of communication and language, lose and get convicted.

The suspect chose respect for culture and was sentenced. And he laments that he is in jail yet he is innocent. So, what is the free legal lesson and service being offered here?

It is that law is, by its nature, unfair. In their work, Edgar ndi Davis, as lawyers, have defended or attempted to defend hundreds and they have come to appreciate the unfairness of law. Their song also seems to advocate for a traditional system of justice to take care of some issues because such would understand that the girl was not young just by use of a proverb.

The question they are raising is: why should a person lose just he cannot explain things in public? At the end of the day, they are saying not all convicted suspects are guilty. Some are convicted for failure to explain their side out of cultural respect, a respect of communication rules which are not written.

The song raises a difficult question area. What is justice? Is justice an event? Or is it a report of an event? Perhaps justice is the extent to which reality can be constructed or reconstructed in a court of law, meaning to be free or unfree is a question of how much a person reconstructs reality, hence the personal laments:

Mlandu wanga
sunayende bwino.

But perhaps this is not what the two meant when they wrote the song. Perhaps they have a different meaning. Who owns meaning of a work of art?

Lucius Banda helps the search for an answer. He has experimented and been successful with new forms of music. One area he tried in recent years is hiding meaning.

In his song, Amayi Inu, he sings and reaches a point where he simply hums—"yeleleeeeeeeee, iiiiiiiii, eeeiiii, one, two, three"—and then says something that listeners cannot comprehend. What is it that Lucius was saying?

"That was a mistake in the studio," he said this week. "I wanted to hum and failed [to hum the way I wanted], so I was telling the producer that we retake the [part] of the song."

But at the end of the day, the South African producer used software to manipulate the mistake and made it into what is today: a work of art.

Listeners to the song do not regard it as a mistake. In fact, it is no longer a mistake because it is now a work of art. Now that listeners know the part of the song as art, who generates meaning from it?

"Perhaps listeners should help us [make meaning], says Lucius. He is right. The answer is listeners. People make meaning from humming; listeners can generate understanding according to their experience. The goodness with gaps, silence and humming in music and any other work of art is that an audience has room to think critically, to take part in making meaning.

The song, for listeners, means that there is something Lucuis could not sing in literal terms and, to put across the message, he just hummed, kind of leaving a blank space for everyone to fill with their experience of a spouse who is not faithful.

And it works because whenever the song is played listeners tend to compete by filling the blank space. It is a way of engaging listeners in a dialogue with a work of art which in this song Lucius got right although from an accident. Perhaps there is no accident in art.

So, Edgar ndi Davis have no authority to dictate the meaning of their song, Pakuopa; listeners have that responsibility.

And by singing such a song they have become ambassadors of the poor; the musicians have become critics of law and justice. They are offering free legal services via music. That is the beauty of art, after all.

Friday, February 13, 2009

It Takes One To Build a Nation

It was a speech for his country, the US. Yet it was also a speech for the world. What are the lessons?

The world was watching.

The moment had come on Tuesday, January 20. President Barack Obama placed one foot ahead of another, walked on, a step, another, seemed to check his posture, and took oath of office, becoming the 44th President of the United States of America.

Then 21 guns saluted the world’s newest president in a country that holds the illusion that its leader is the world’s most powerful man. Such a country’s chief justice messed a 35-word oath, and Obama corrected him with a smile.

It was a job well started. One of the first jobs of Obama is to correct the mistakes of George Bush whose presidency was not on reason and common sense, but fear and emotions. Just after the oath, a military aide stood near his commander-in-chief as he opened his heart, to speak to Americans and the world.

But before that, a poetess walked on and read forceful lines. It was refreshing. ‘Praise Song for the Day" was the title. It was not ‘Praise Song for Obama’. It was a praise song the day America did something great, a sense of collective work that was inspired by one person who never rose to claim credit because he realised he was standing on the shoulders of his fellow citizens.

Each day we go about our business,
Walking past each other,
Catching each others’ eyes or not,
About to speak or speaking.

This is typical American life: hard work, busy all time, hence people walk past each other, sometimes, in fact often, without noticing the presence of others. The way had been prepared by the poetess. The heart of the world audience was inspired and moved by the last lines

In today’s sharp sparkle,
this winter air,
anything can be made,
any sentence begun.
On the brink,
on the brim, on the cusp—
Praise song for
walking forward in that light.

This signalled hope, a point when America started anew. The podium had been prepared for Obama.

"My fellow citizens," he started. It was a fitting salutation. It showed the speech was meant for citizens of the US. Secondly, and most importantly, this salutation used by US presidents during inauguration and other state functions, confirms that the highest office in any country is that of a citizen, not a President, not a Prime Minister—but that of a citizen, the master who employs politicians to work for the betterment of a country.

The salutation indicates that at the citizen level, all are equal during state functions, hence no need to salute vice presidents, former presidents, cabinet secretaries.

This is different from Malawi where a President, upon inauguration, salutes positions, the honourables, starting with his vice, ministers, regional governors, and finally, after a long list, ladies and gentlemen—those that do not fall in any category of power, those that are ruled and don’t rule, those that are watched over by the powerful.

But this title of honourable kills the spirit of hard work and honesty because even thieves stealing public funds can be called honourable because they are holding an office that attracts such titles.

True honour does not come from the offices we hold. Honour comes from what we do for our country. This is a point we have missed and, as a result, we have diluted the real source of honour. Now it comes from political power when it should come from patriotism, hard work, honesty, and integrity.

"I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors," said Obama.

It was not a task before him, but "before us". He spoke of "we" throughout the speech, signalling that he was spearhearding the rebuilding of a nation bruised by a bitter campaign. Obama reached out to Republicans; he reached out to Democrats who opposed him vehemently and reached out to independents.

"Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms," he said.

He was true to the challenges facing the US today. But he did not talk in a hopeless way. He spoke as if challenging the economic crunch, that it is too small to dwarf American ideals.

"At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because we, the people, have remained faithful to the ideals of our [forefathers], and true to our founding documents," he said. "So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans."

There was an applause. America has carried on because of the people, not because of leaders? America has carried on because of its ideals. Leaders should not tell people what must be done. It is people that should write national manifestoes.

It is not President Bingu wa Mutharika who is constructing Masauko Chipembere Highway. It is the people of Malawi and the people of Japan. It is our development and noone should claim that his plan has been hijacked or not been followed because this belongs to all Malawians—green, blue, yellow, several mixtures or whatever.

The result is that Malawi has lost faith in itself. The population that labels anything Malawian as inferior is not declining as fast as it should have been 45 years after gaining independence.

Obama spoke of America as a child, saying "we remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things." It is time to leave childish thinking and reasoning—or lack of it—meaning, Malawi must grow up.

Political bickering is childish and must stop. Distributing subsidised fertiliser coupons to people of one party is childish and must stop. Overpraising Mutharika is childish and must come to an end. So too denying him any contribution to the development of this country. Police brutality is childish and must stop. Unnecessary opposition is childish and must stop. Evading tax is childish and must stop.

Littering is childish and must stop. Nepotism is childish and must go. Corruption is childish and must come to and an immediate end. Rape and defilement are childish and have to come and an end now.

Such vices come from childish thinking. Every child wants all to belong to itself, nothing for others. Tit for tat is a game of children, not for adults, not for leaders trusted with taking a country to greater heights in the new century.

This journey to prosperity is what Malawi has started and must continue. This is a season of work, time to devote long hours to real work that can develop this country. This idea goes well with Obama’s view of the world.

"And so, to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and we are ready to lead once more.

"To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds," said Obama.

The key word is work. America pledges to work with, not give aid to, poor nations. International relations is not new in the US. Foreign policy forms a great deal of their election campaign. Obama is not the first to talk in such terms.

Bush spoke in similar terms in 2004. The purpose of American foreign policy, said Bush, must be the expansion of liberty. It was not a new theme for an American president. Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan all spoke in similar tones and terms.

But Obama has spoken in terms of hope. In poetic construction, short and powerful sentences, some just lines, not full sentences, Obama brought hope to an otherwise hopeless world. Bush declared: "So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."

But the gap between talk and reality in the Bush administration was striking. Vladimir Putin presided over a reversal of freedoms across the globe, only to be praised by Bush as a soulmate. So scandalously, Bush sided with Putin in the interpretation of the Chechen war as a defensive action against terrorists.

Now there is hope for a difference: that Obama has brought a reality that portrays real challenges and hopes to work for real solution on a difficult, long journey.

That day, when Obama spoke, he finished with an event that characterised the America’s birth, an event that created a generation.

"In the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people: ‘Let it be told to the future world that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it,’" recalled Obama.

And, then, in a powerful conclusion he said:

"America, in the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words; with hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come; let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations."

"Thank you," he said. "God bless you." There was a deafening applause. "And God bless the United States of America," he finished.

The world watched. Malawi too. Now that we are about to witness a hot campaign, the choice is ours to elect a person who will build or destroy Malawi.