Wednesday, December 23, 2009

December 23, 2009, Blantyre

I was driving in Blantyre City Centre at about midday and hey! The town was loaded with people buying and selling for Christmas. No parking space, No walking space. No greetings. Everyone is busy.

Then, I drove to the Chichiri Shopping Mall. Here, too, there was no parking space. Cars are bashing one another during reverse and parking. I met people from Zomba. I am not sure what people are buying. There are long queues on all bank ATMs. Even in the banking halls. There are long queues. It is time to withdraw.

I am doing something different. I have been busy paying normal bills. I have been busy depositing money into my joint account with my love.

But it is all interesting. I will go round again tomorrow to see people in town.

Does Malawi Need Local Polls?

Perhaps this is not a valid question because human rights activists have been hitting hard at President Bingu wa Mutharika, saying he is not showing interest in holding local government polls. Now the news is that Malawi will have local polls next year.

It is a game gone now. We shall have polls in 2010. But the question remains relevant: Does Malawi need ward councilors?

The answer, according to our cultural governance structures, is that Malawi does not need local polls because we have leadership from extended family to paramount chiefs. This is the best local governance structure but blindness to the local—and non-stop gaze at the alien—has made us think we need local polls when we already have governance structures that work better than assemblies.

The reason activists are giving is that the polls are constitutional, so must be held. Some add that councilors, elected in local polls, help in development. So, having councilors is a human right.

On the surface, it appears true. But looking deeper, Malawi does not need councilors, and the reason is cultural, not legal; it is practical, not theoretical.

Our legal setting, as per our Constitution, starts at an individual. Every person, says the Constitution. The individual is the centre of our freedoms. (I need my individual freedoms, of course; to decide what I want to do with my life so, long I don’t injure other people’s freedoms.)

Our social/cultural setting does not necessarily start at the individual level. It starts at family level. We are known by family names. Whose son/daughter is this? A question often asked when we do good or bad. Our identity, culturally and socially, is by our family. Next it is the extended family, from which come villages, headed by village heads.

And our governments recognise village heads. One piece of evidence is that they are on government payroll. The village heads work, and they keep society on a journey.

They know almost all families in a village. The heads know almost all people coming into and getting out of the village. My headwoman, for example, knows where I live (Blantyre), she knows where I work (TVM), and she knows my marital status. She knows the needs of people of the village because she is with them as her own. She talks with them daily.

The talking is informal and, honestly, informal meetings are the ones running the world. Why should we, therefore, have councilors when we have village heads who know their areas better than elected leaders?

Councilors have a term. Village heads work for life. What is it that councilors do that village heads cannot do in development?

Our challenge is that we have not studied our governance structures to make democracy flow in them freely. We don’t need to copy everything Western. Our cultural and social settings are very fertile to democracy. It is a question of accepting our ways of life.

But this is difficult when we have NGOs that make noise. Some—and I say some—of the civil society groups are headed by not se educated people who cannot understand the need for cultural identity in our governance systems.

The West needs councilors because they do not have villages the way we do here. Why should we have councilors? This is the question. Any answers?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Oh I Am Growing Old

Years ago, I celebrated my birthdays with vigour. That is no longer the case. Now I have to face reality that I am growing old, turning 33 today, 22 December, 2009.

Childhood is a mystery. I wanted to grow up and old. I would say I will be 14 next year when people asked for my age. Now I refuse to calculate how old I am. Thirty three? It can be scaring. I begin to think of a PhD proposal. I begin to think about my future. I begin to think about my parents. I am lucky; both of them are living and I as a parent.

Life is more complicated than we think. I am thinking about what to do on this birthday anniversary. Two decades ago, I would have been jumping up and down. How life changes!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Dark Wednesday

Malawi was all good news not long ago: a growing economy (the world's second fastest growing after Qatar), peaceful elections in May, 2009.

What else? We had our own problems but we never anticipated anything like the fuel shortage that is with us now. Let alone now when the subsidised fertiliser for this year has been done in time, a couple of months before first rains. We all relaxed.

Then, suddenly, power interuptions became common. Mobile phone networks elusive. Fuel dissappeared. This is Wednesday, 2 December, and the fuel situation is just bad. Vehicles are parked. People have no clue how they will travel tonight. It is all unbelievable. Not long ago, we could buy petrol or diesel any time, any quantity, knowing we would find the gas any other time we want it.

No more. This Wednesday is dark. But as we say, the darkest hour, the nearer the dawn. Let's all hope we will have fuel in the country on Thursday as the Petroleum Importers official has said in the media today.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Law and National Interest

Law is unfair by its nature, Dr Ngeyi Kanyongolo of University of Malawi's Faculty of Law once told me.

Not just unfair. Law is blind to national needs of Malawi. Take the shortage of foreign exchange, for example. We have no forex to import essential commodities. We know some of the economic causes of this forex dry spell. And we know the economic solutions.

One of them is to close forex bureaux that are not doing what economics demands for the growth of our country.

The result was a dilemma of law versus national interest. Even President Dr Bingu wa Mutharika cannot understand law (or lawyers as he said in a recent one hour interview with TVM). Why is law not for national development?

Perhaps this is an unfair questions. Law is for development. This is the reason our government has a Ministry of Justice. It is part of national development. No doubt about that.

The challenge comes in when individuals have to take the whole country into prosperity or poverty with their verdicts as happened last year when the courts reversed government closure of some forex bureaux.

“Last year, I said we should close bureaux to save the money but somebody in the courts said no. They said I am interfering with the Judiciary. I am saying the Judiciary is interfering with me. It does not make sense. It makes me mad. It makes me angry. In future, I will put stringent measures. I don’t care who says what. I am fed up,” said President Dr Bingu wa Mutharika.

Can the Judiciary interfere with something else aprt from its own professional interference (checks and balances)? The Judiciary is assumed the arm of government that does not make mistakes; one that does not need presssure from any sector of the world population.

But law is not the ultimate. Different parts of development work together. Law should respect solutions from outside itself. Law should learn to listen to other disciplines.

Shortage of Everything

These are tough times. Everything—almost everything, indeed--seems to be going into the wrong direction.

Fuel is in acute shortage. Long queues as I have never seen in my life have become daily sight now. People just queue without knowing when fuel would be available. Call it faith—the belief in things unseen.

That is what I did today, sent a driver with a 180 litre prado to a service station where he spent the whole day and returned on an empty tank. No diesel has been delivered. A real crisis.

Power interruptions are order of the day—they are normal, actually. Mobile phone network is unreliable. Some cotton farmers still don’t know what to do with their crop. It has lost value and weight.

Foreign Exchange is not just there; no money to import essential commodities.

Tough times indeed! One wonders what is in second term for Mutharika. His first term in office was tough but a thorough analysis determines that the first term was tougher than this one. The challenges of the first term from 2004 to 2009 were local, and that is dangerous. Your own people are more dangerous than enemies from abroad. The problems now are international (although local to some understanding.)

The internal challenges needed internal solutions and that was tough. But the challenges facing Malawi now have got more to do with regional and international issues and one of them, least thought and which you might reject, is climate change.

What has climate change got to do with our challenges now? The first challenge Mutharika
inherited was food shortage, an acute one. We had erratic rains and hunger was part of life.

As a way forward, Mutharika introduced a subsidised fertilizer programme, hoping rains would come in time. Rains have generally been kind with us. Little did we think that erratic rains have more to do with climate change than anything else. So fertiliser depleted our hard earned forex and here we are without the scarce commodity.

Power interruptions can happen at three stages: at generation (hydro power stations), distribution and reception. Most of our interruptions are from low power generation, resulting into power rationing.

The main problem is with the water body that generates our electricity, the Shire River, which comes from Lake Malawi. (It is also important to know that 80 percent of rivers that feed Lake Malawi are from Mozambique and they are drying because of climate change.)

We have weeds that are a real nuisance to the Shire River. Once rains come and water washes weeds from Liwonde, down to Nkula, generation is hugely disturbed.

A thorough analysis can connect the weeds and unstable water levels to climate change. This is a weird theory, anyway, but climate change is responsible for the fast spread of HIV, the virus that can cause AIDS. It is up to you to read more. I just wanted to make a point.

We are all waiting for President Mutharika to address these issues. In the short term yes. But what about the long term? His conviction in managaing climate change is the answer. If the President can lead Malawi and the region in mitigating climate change, history shall remember him as someone who had a vision for this small yet beautiful country.