One morning at a school near Lake Chirwa in Zomba, Malawi, in 1972, pupils entering their Standard 8 classroom received the shock of their lives. The portrait of then Malawian leader, Life President Ngwazi Dr. H. Kamuzu Banda had been defaced. Someone had drawn into the portrait a pair of spectacles, and had written unsavory comments about the then president. The pupils informed the teacher, who informed the school's head. The head immediately convened a staff meeting. After lengthy deliberations, the school administration agreed on investigating to find out who did it. The Standard 8 teacher went back to the classroom and asked for the culprit to turn himself in. Nobody volunteered any information.
After further deliberations amongst the staff, a decision was reached. Mwandilakwila (not real name), a Standard 8 pupil, would be expelled from the school and reported to the then District Education Office (DEO). Mwandilakwila protested his innocence, but the school administration responded by saying since he was the one who sat directly underneath the president’s portrait, he was probably the pupil who did this. Mwandilakwila was ordered never to come back to the school, and his name was reported to the DEO’s office. Mwandilakwila was also told that he was effectively banned from attending school in the entire country.
That was thirty six years ago. Malawi has changed a great deal since then, especially in the last sixteen years. As we celebrate yet another independence anniversary, it is right and proper to ask what 44 years of independence has meant for us as a nation. This particular year I would like to ask this question from the perspective of a teacher as a way of reflecting on the role Malawian teachers play in building the nation and setting the country on a more peaceful and prosperous course.
For me, two things stand out as the most important for a future Malawi, and indeed the world, to have. First, I envision a future Malawi in which the ideals of uMunthu form the basis of our identity, and shape the form that all our endeavors take. Second, I envision a future Malawi that is blessed with peace and social justice and bestows on everyone equal chances of success and opportunities for the affirmation of everyone’s potential and talents. I see uMunthu as an ideal that pervades through these aspirations, knowing that the success of one person in a community is beneficial for, rather than a threat to, the whole community. Our Malawian elders were not wrong when they observed that Mwana wa mnzako ngwako yemwe, ukachenjera manja udya naye (your neighbor's child is your own, his/her success is your success too).
It wasn’t until 2004 that I first started thinking about uMunthu as a serious theme in envisioning the future of Malawi and the world. The day was Saturday, April 17th. The Catholic Diocese of Zomba ordained a new bishop on that day, Rt. Rev. Fr. Thomas Msusa, to take the place of Bishop Allan Chamgwera who had retired. I witnessed the beautifully choreographed and spiritually touching event at the grounds of Zomba Catholic Secondary School. In his speech, Bishop Msusa, who had left Nankhunda Seminary a few months before I set foot there in 1988, spoke of the problems Malawi was facing, and how we needed to “become as one.” He said those words had always been his guiding biblical wisdom from his seminary days. “The African worldview is about living as one family, belonging to God,” he said. “We say ‘I am because we are’, or in Chichewa kali kokha nkanyama, tili awiri ntiwanthu (when you are on your own you are as good as an animal of the wild; when there are two of you, you form a community).”
Listening to the newly ordained Bishop Msusa that afternoon harked my mind back to former Anglican Archbishop of the Diocese of Cape Town in South Africa, Desmond Tutu. A Nobel peace laureate, former Archbishop Desmond Tutu led his country, at the request of then President Nelson Mandela, in the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). In his memoirs narrating his reflections on how he experienced the TRC, No Future Without Forgiveness, Archbishop Tutu explains uBuntu as the philosophical essence that propelled the TRC. In the book the former Anglican archbishop offers a list of examples where uBuntu was the driving philosophy for many southern African countries who chose forgiveness over retaliation against white minority regimes upon attaining independence. Included on the list are Zimbabwe, Kenya and Namibia.
Some people point out that South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation process did not solve South Africa’s problems, and instead merely created new ones. While that may be true, with regard to what has been happening in South Africa especially in recent years and in particular this year, it is important not to blame the TRC for something it had no control over. South Africa’s problems are much more complex and difficult to understand than many of us are ready to accept. The failures of recent years belong into the broader global economic order which South Africa has been forced into by institutions with far more power than African governments can ever hope to wield. This is not to exculpate South African elites from blame, as part of the path the country has taken has been a matter of unprincipled choices in times of difficult global dilemmas. Our own country Malawi is caught up in similar influences that promote neoliberal economic competition and privatization, leaving many unable to participate, and therefore bitterly resentful. It is not always that we pause to ask ourselves the roots of the violent crime we witness in our everyday lives right here in Malawi.
Before 2004, I was not even aware that uMunthu had been the subject of serious academic and intellectual inquiry by leading Malawian and African philosophers, theologians, political scientists, and many others. Several Malawians have written entire books on the subject. They include Rev. Dr. Augustine Musopole who in 1994 published a book titled Being Human in Africa: Toward an African Christian Anthropology, Rev. Dr. Harvey Sindima who in 1995 published Africa’s Agenda: The Legacy of Liberalism and Colonialism in the Crisis of African Values, and Dr. Gerald Chigona, who in 2002 published a book titled uMunthu theology: Path of Integral Human Liberation Rooted in Jesus of Nazareth. In addition to the above books, University of Malawi scholars Richard Tambulasi and Happy Kayuni have published an article on uMunthu in Malawian politics during the one-party dictatorship and the first multiparty government. There have also been several newspaper and magazine articles on the topic, as well as performing arts groups and forums using the concept of uMunthu to describe their focus.
In my interviews with several Malawian primary school teachers since 2004, I have learned that uMunthu is a subject fit to be taught in our schools, from Standard 1 all the way to the university. This is especially important for teacher training colleges and other tertiary institutions. The teachers argued that many of Malawi’s problems of structural violence, inequality, exploitation and injustice spring from the absence of uMunthu ideals in the inculcation of values. The education system has a crucial role to play in promoting uMunthu in our society because the violence and injustice we see in our communities is in fact facilitated by the education system’s failure to offer a coherent value system that affirms our humanity and identity.
The presence of rigorously researched and analyzed treatises on the topic of uMunthu, amongst Malawians and other scholars elsewhere is an exhortation for us to make it central in our education system. In my work with Malawian primary teachers over the years, we have explored ways of teaching the values of uMunthu-based peace and social justice, even in learning areas as unlikely as Mathematics.
The consideration to make uMunthu and peace education central features of Malawian education at all levels involves rethinking the ways we train our primary school teachers also. Having been a primary school teacher myself, I have come to appreciate the need to enhance our teacher education process, to align it with the needs of present day Malawi. The two-year teacher training program has been helpful up to this point, but it has become outdated. Today’s and tomorrow’s Malawi needs teachers who are much more highly trained, who are provided the best of what our intellectual heritage has to offer. This requires making our universities an integral part of the training we give our primary school teachers. None of this can be done overnight, but that is no excuse to postpone important decisions and put them off to an unforeseeable future.
Young Malawians, as well as young people worldwide, are bustling with intellectual energies ready to meet any academic challenges thrown their way. That is what Mwandilakwira proved to those who expelled him and banished him from attaining further education in Malawi.
After staying at home for two years without going to school, Mwandilakwira changed his name and enrolled at another school several kilometers away. There he excelled, and was selected to one of the best secondary schools in Malawi. Today he is the head of an important primary school.
Equipping teachers with the best training we can afford will be part of the process to ensure the type of future we envision for our country. It will enable teachers to assume their important role in society, in ways that empower them to uplift young Malawians, rather than attempt to destroy their future, as was the case with Mwandilakwira in 1972. Let us use the occasion of our independence anniversary to ponder the kind of future, and the kind of peace, we want for Malawi, and how best to plan for them.