Sunday, March 14, 2010

Inside the Mind of Journalism

The 21st Century question is: What should we expect and get from the mind of excellent journalism that meets our challenges and answers our questions? Where should Malawi go in the new Century and what role should journalism play? Mzati Nkolokosa is a journalist, an academic (part-time lecturing in the University of Malawi) and a fine writer. In his 5 year career, he has done a lot more than some journalists have done in 20 years of practice. His voice has become respected and people look up to him for an interpretation of issues, events and ideas. Talinda Mmora-Litby caught up with Mzati Nkolokosa for a one engaging hour interview towards the end of 2008.
I put it to you Mzati that you are the greatest journalist that ever worked in Malawi.
No, no, Talinda. I am not great.

I prefer Linda.
Okay, Linda. I am not great. I am not rich. I am not a celebrity. I am not popular. But, above all, I have not written a book yet. How do you call a journalist who has not published a book great?

But I have heard comments from readers of your blog and newspapers in Malawi that you are great? That your writings are deep enough and well-researched to guide, provoke thoughts, and explain the complicated world of Malawi and the region.

I have heard those comments as well but sometimes I do think ‘well, I would like to see this particular Mzati they are over-praising, really it’s not me’. You see newspaper articles are not enough for me. After reporting for three years a journalist is supposed to publish a book on a topic to explain issues, events and ideas in detail. I have worked for five years and haven’t done that yet.

Well, not many journalists have done what you have done and that makes you great. Can you surely equate the success of a journalist to the measure of publishing a book only?
But why should I be satisfied with minimum achievements because the rest are not ambitious enough? Besides, writing a book means you have the intellectual muscles to digest and synthesise things at great length. It is like the final examination of a course, better still, like writing a defendable thesis for your doctorate studies. Above all, the daily newspaper is almost a passing voice because we easily throw away newspapers even in the name of keeping them. Writing a book means you are sowing your ideas in the endless fields of generations to come.

Endless fields of generations to come? Oh, you mean in the minds of generations.

You are reading my mind. That is exactly what I mean.

Ambitious enough? Is journalism in Malawi not that ambitious then?

That is too broad a question, Linda. Journalism has five functions: surveillance or information, linkage, entertainment, interpretation and transmission of values or socialisation. The first three are easy to satisfy. In fact, we do satisfy them. We inform, we entertain and we link people. But the last two which are the core of journalism are rarely satisfied in Malawi.

How is that?

Journalism is not about what happened only. People want to know how and why it happened. And what will happen next! This is the interpretation and socialisation function of journalism. Can I ask you a question?

Yes. As long as the interview doesn’t turn round.

When was the last time you saw an article that explained the whys in Malawi?

I have read that in your pieces but I understand you no longer write on Political Index. What happened?

I am no longer on the daily paper. I am now working on the Weekend Nation and I am doing more page-work than writing and, honestly, I hugely miss writing. But you can read my articles on my blog:

What is the problem with journalism that the two functions which are important should not be satisfied?
There are several factors. One, it is about our history. The education of the colonial days did not help us much. It did not develop critical thinkers. Then journalism was what the colonial masters said until nationalism gained momentum and journalism also became the fight for independence. During the Kamuzu era, journalism became what government said it was. There was no room for those called journalists to think critically and do the professional job.


Sadly, this definition of journalism, that it is what others have said, is still with us. Journalists, so goes the belief, cannot think, cannot use their senses, and cannot shape opinion. They are mere reporters, repeating what others have said. So we ask questions on everything. Most of us can’t assess, observe and analyse. It is a pity. We aren’t doing enough to tell our own stories and explain our country to our people, let alone the outside world. This is our work, not the work of civil society leaders or government officials or politicians or anyone else, because they, too, need information and clues to puzzles of life. They need answers from us, not just the questions. But if you explain issues, events and ideas, some generation of journalists will say ‘this is not journalism’ simply because they are not brilliant enough to do that work.

So, it is about a generational gap?

Not only that. It is also an educational gap. You see we are fighting for media freedom. What we need is not media freedom. We need media education because that gives us freedom to think and do what is right. Freedom does not come from laws. It comes from education, from the mind.

Is there one thing you miss a lot in Malawi’s journalism?


Is that one word all for your answer?

Yes, profiles. Journalism is about stories, stories of people, our stories and we are not telling our stories. Just to give you two examples: I asked my students at Chancellor College: Who is the wife of David Bekham? They all answered, Victoria. Then I asked: Who is the wife of Kinnah Phiri? No answer. I don’t have an answer as well. This speaks volumes that we don’t write about ourselves because by now we were supposed to have read several profiles of Kinnah Phiri.

We have so many powerful stories untold. One reason we don’t have celebrities is that the media has not created any. I am not sure why? But I can tell you, profiles are powerful. They help answer questions about life. We know if this happened to him or her and it is happening to me, I can overcome the situation.

We need to know about Nyemba Mbekeyani, Aleke Banda, William Kamkwamba, Ernest Mtawali, Lawrence Waya, Edge Kanyongolo, Ethel Kamwendo Banda, Rose Chibambo and many others. Think of Ceceilia Kadzamira. What is she? Think of so many men and women, boys and girls who have done tremendous things; they are silent heroes. We need to know these people. But maybe it is a larger problem because the culture of biographies is dormant among us. People like talking but they don’t want to write. They even don’t want to engage someone to write about them.

But our friends make good use of the culture of biographies. Yes?

I will tell you what? One reason Nelson Mandela remains great is his book, Long Walk to Freedom. But he worked with an excellent writer on that book. Richard Stengel is Managing Editor of Time Magazine, the man in-charge of producing the US edition of Time, the world’s highest circulating magazine, selling four million copies a week in the US. That is why it is a great book.

You sound sad that we are not writing about ourselves. Any dangers?

What do we know about Kamuzu? Little. Who is there to tell us? Cecilia Kadzamira, John Tembo, Aleke Banda. If these people and others don’t write, that will be the dead end of history. Now that is dangerous. We cannot understand the present without knowledge of the past. And we can’t plan for the future without understanding the present. One reason we seem to be easily frustrated is that we don’t know where we are coming from and where we want to go. To be optimistic, you must have a longer view of both the past and the future. But we look at the present only and think we are hopeless.


And these are the comments that followed the publication of the interview on Maziko Times, an online publication that is no longer being updated.

Readers' Comments


Feb 22, 2009 at 10:53:11

A very rare interview that shows a deeper understanding of issues affecting our society. When you are ready Mzati, take up the academic career on a full time basis so that you can directly contribute by developing future generations to understand that education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.

York, UK


Jan 6, 2009 at 15:24:38

I think I am also intelligent because I noted the gem in Mzati when he was writing on politics. Fools despise these great thinkers. He has powerful metaphors. "When comes such another Mzati?"

Zomba, Malawi


Nov 14, 2008 at 11:44:28

I have enjoyed the interview. It is so powerful and provocative. What Mzati is saying on profiles is true. There is need for editors in newspapers to think more about this: "Great minds talk about issues. Simple minds talk about people." Journalists need to be simple in their approach to stories. Profiles change one's way of thinking and life style. Reporting on current affairs is good, but it can not change the attitude of Malawians. Life is a great teacher. The young generation can borrow a leaf from the old timers. This can be achieved through profiles.

Kazembe Kayira
Balaka, Malawi


Oct 24, 2008 at 10:16:08

What an interview. I did not know journalists could be this intelligent. I thought they don't really think, they just repeat what people have said. Mzati is intelligent and I am not surprised but I never thought he is this intelligent.

Abel Kapalamula Gama


Thursday, March 11, 2010

Our Turn Now

It is Africa’s year. But more than that, it is turning out to be Africa’s century: that the continent will be the world’s greatest story after China, India, and Brazil and such other emerging economies.

This year’s African Cup of Nations was the most reported, with countries like Malawi sending reporters and the BBC camping there for months, doing special documentaries. Of course there was the shooting of the Togolese team in Cabinda, but that is not the only reason the tournament was widely reported.

Add to that, Fifa World Cup is being hosted in South Africa and the world’s attention is truly on Africa.

But football is not the sole reason the world is focusing on Africa. The world is realising that Africa is on course. No wonder TIME, Fortune and CNN will be hosting a three day global forum in Cape Town in June. The meeting, bringing together Fortune 500 CEOs, world leaders and members of TIME 100, is dubbed New Global Opportunity.

It is a double first: the first time Africa is hosting World Cup only, and the first time Africa is hosting the first-ever Fortune/TIME/CNN Global Forum. And the meeting’s theme is revealing: New Global Opportunity.

“This is the idea that global economic power is shifting to the developing world—to Africa and the Middle East, as well as to Asia—and that these markets are more than frontiers of growth; they are the sources of new ideas and models that can be applied everywhere,” says TIME Managing Editor, Richard Stengel, in his editorial of February 8.

Sources of new ideas that can be applied everywhere? TIME’s international editor Michael Elliott has the answer. “We have given the conference the title the New Global Opportunity because there’s a realization that we can’t go back to the old ways.”

The old ways were that ideas come from the West and Africa, for example, should listen. Now Africa is initiating projects like fertilizer subsidy and the West is looking with admiration. The old ways were that we were supposed to sell raw material. The new ways are that Africa should add value to its products. The old ways were that Africa should send its higher degree candidates to the West. The new way is that Africa is training its people up to PhDs. The old ways were that Africa should seek guidance from the West. The news way is that the West should learn from Africa, too.

This is not by accident. Most of Africa is democratic now or moving towards democratization. Still, there are civil wars and pockets of dictators, but that does not hide the rest of progress on the continent.

News about Africa’s economic growth is most tricky. How do we talk about growth when the majority of people are still living in poverty? Understandable. But every journey starts with the first step. We are moving but there is still a long way to go. We need to work hard to be there, at our destiny.

We need to make sure most people have food. We need to ensure our children go to school. We need to reward those who work hard and are exceptional. We need to prevent deaths of mothers and babies. We need to do so many things. So many things indeed, that the task seems impossible.

In this case, hope is an asset. Hope is free but not cheap. If we lose hope, we shall not move forward.

It is not this generation that shall enjoy the fruits of our hard work. If we really mean well for our children and their children, we need to sustain this growth and make true the observation that Africa is moving.

Let this be our century.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

An Example of Bad Writing

If you want to add your name to the list of bad writers in Malawi—and we have a long one, already—learn from Emily Mkamanga, a Nation on Sunday columnist.

She is a writer whose column proves that she lacks both substance and style; that she chanced over being recognised as a writer, not that she is one, for she does not write well nor does she perform the duties of a writer which are to entertain, educate, link people of similar or different ideas, interpret the world and socialise people or transmit values.

Beyond this, a writer analyses the present using the past and determines the future using the present—and, of course, the past.

Writing as Weaving

Every word, for me, is empty. Excellent writing is, therefore, a writer’s ability to arrange or, put creatively, weave into one long thread in a way that makes sense, in a way that makes meaning; meaning that makes sense across space and time. Emily Mkamanga’s pieces lack these basics of excellent writing skills.

First Sentence Matters

Emily Mkamanga’s language is largely poor, lacking in some of the basics an excellent writer should possess. Excellent writers mind the first sentence. Mkamanga often gets this wrong.
The first sentence matters because it is a reader’s entry into a body of ideas called an article. Take these first sentences by some people I think are excellent writers.

Tragedy has a way of visiting people who can bear it least.--Michael Elliott writing on the earthquake in Haiti.

He did it because he could.—Jon Meacham writing on Obama’s victory.

The pain of urban poverty is in its closeness to wealth.—Mzati Nkolokosa writing on poverty’s closeness to wealth in cities.

One common factor to these first sentences is that they are thought provoking and philosophical, leading a reader into the depth of our complicated world, not just the surface. Tragedy has a way of visiting people who can bear it least. It makes sense and compels the reader to ask, Why Haiti? Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. A country on its knees, as Michael Elliot says, was knocked down to its feet.

Or consider Meacham’s sentence (He did it because he could). He did it just because he could? Hey! Let me read on, one would say.

The last of our first sentences under consideration falls under this same type. The pain of urban poverty is in its closeness to wealth. Take the example of Zingwangwa and New Naperi, Mbayani and Nyambadwe, Ntopwa and Indian Quarters. At the end of the day, a reader is provoked into thought because the first sentence has opened a way into deeper thought, a place of questions and possible answers. Why are slums close to low density areas? It is a sociological question.

Now let us see Mkamanga’s first sentences. On Sunday, February 10, 2010 she wrote under the headline “Calling for Unity”. Her first sentence was: The importance of unity in a country cannot be overemphasized. True and obvious that this has become a cliché and excellent writers don’t think of clichés like a saint does hell.

Her first sentence on February 21 under the headline “Uncertain Future” was: There is an adage which says that when all else is lost the future still remains. This, in all fairness, is a powerful adage as she says. But her poor construction makes it weak. Who wants to be told that there is an adage that says this and that? All we care for is the adage itself. Excellent writing would have gone straight to the adage, and not spend time on weak construction like “There is an adage which says…” Really? This adage can be philosophised and problematised in a great first sentence.

On January 31, 2010, Mkamanga titled her column “Failing to Appreciate” and the first sentence was as follows: “It can be said without fear of contradiction that sycophancy is one of the behaviours that has (sic) been carried forward from the one party dictatorship.”

We can repeat what we have said about the first sentence of Sunday, February 10, 2010. But we can add that Mkamanga takes time before hitting the nail on the head and this is bad writing in all fairness.

Construction of Ideas

Excellent writers arrange words intelligently to produce brilliant articles. The arrangement of words results in great sentence construction and, for me, sentence construction is, essentially, construction of ideas.

Poor language use results into poor sentences and into poor construction of ideas. Mkamanga is poor at choosing words. As said above, words are empty in themselves. It is how a writer arranges them that matters. Mkamanga has a lot of what I call “passenger words” or “joy riders”: words that a sentence can do without to the extent that out of Mkamanga’s article of 800 words, an excellent writer can remove perhaps up to 150 words and make more sense than before.

An excellent writer uses short sentences, some with one word but also uses long, complex sentences, punctuated with commas, semi colons, colons and all other punctuation marks. An excellent writer is a master of punctuation. He or she, like a surgeon, tears apart a sentence, breaks it here and there, sometimes with a hyphen, yet remains in control of the beauty and sense of the sentence; words put together to load meaning in them.

MKamanga does not appreciate that a sentence should be active, that a sentence should have a subject, a verb and an object. Simple. Mkamanga does not enjoy variety of construction. She needs to go back to a Language Skills class.


There are words an excellent writer should avoid. Take this sentence from Mkamanga’s January 31, 2010, article.

For example, the government expects Malawians to be very excited about the eight percent growth that it has achieved as well as celebrate that the country received a debt relief from World Bank and IMF. In fact talking to the majority poor this can be an insult because the benefits from the debt relief and the economic growth are nowhere to be seen since people’s lives have not changed for the better. Some strong words here. Yet poor writing. Does the government expect people to be “very excited” with economic growth? Adverbs and adjectives can be tricky in writing. How do we determine that government expects people to be “very excited” with growth? Critics may easily conclude malice.

It seems Mkamanga is not just a poor writer, she is a dangerous writer too, whose ideas—or lack of them—can destroy a generation, making it hopeless.

She claims that for the majority poor “benefits from the debt relief and the economic growth are nowhere to be seen since people’s lives have not changed for the better”. She does not substantiate her claim. Therefore, it is empty. It is dangerous for a writer to use words like “nowhere”, because it is a writer’s duty to hunt for “somewhere”.

Benefits of debt relief are nowhere? No. They may not be everywhere, but they are everywhere as in where they are physically and socially. More HIV positive people are getting treatment and care. Government has allocated more money to the National AIDS Commission than before.

There are more roads: Ntchisi has a modern 30 km road constructed with money generated in Malawi, money that would have otherwise gone to paying back debt if it were not for the relief.

In early 1980s, I walked 10 km to and from school every day. Now my nephews and children walk 3 km to and from school because there is a primary school in my village constructed a couple of years ago. I crossed three streams to reach school. Those after me are not crossing any streams. Malawi has been able to feed itself partly because rains have been fair in past years, partly because of the subsidised fertiliser programme. An excellent writer runs away from this problem by use of words such as “some”, “perhaps”, “not much to show”, “either or….”

Now can Mkamanga claim benefits of debt relief are nowhere? I repeat: She is a dangerous writer whose thoughts can destroy a generation.


I want to say something on punctuation, not as an afterthought, but because it is a crucial element of writing, one that makes a difference between an excellent writer like Nancy Gibbs and a bad writer like Emily Mkamanga.

If you read Mkamanga’s column you find that the commonest punctuation is a full stop. She rarely uses commas even where it is obvious. Read again her sentence above: “In fact talking about…” After “in fact”, there is supposed to be a comma. But I suppose she is in a hurry when writing for she writes like a person shouting from an anthill and does not care about punctuation.


What is the role of a writer in our complicated world? It is to explain the world to people. The writer has to give hope where there is despair. The writer should research and know 10 times more than his or her readers. Mkamanga does not perform well on these areas. She does not research well.

This is my sixth year of teaching Features Writing at Chancellor College and the semester has just started. On the first meeting with my students on February 23, 2010, I started with the usual pleasantries. Then straight into business, this was the first sentence: If you want to add your name to the list of bad writers in Malawi—and we have a long one, already—learn from Emily Mkamanga, a Nation on Sunday columnist. It was nice.