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


1 comment:

Muza said...

If only they were more reporters like you. Stories are so powerful! Cultural and historical biographies as a way of preserving our history. Because "Until the prey has his or her own storyteller, the predator will always tell the story"