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Making Cultural Diversity Work for Malawi: A Triangulation of Culture and Education

Updated: Jan 15, 2020

Societies would rather persist alone, if only they had a choice.

Cultural subsistence feeds on the notion that a shared perspective is the common denominator for societal survival, and in some cases, the enactment of dominant ideologies and beliefs.

Darwinian and Malthusian thinking persuade us to believe that our innate instinct to survive would have us driving out any obstruction to our enjoyment of the limited resources on the planet, in a bid to survive and prolong our species. For thousands of years, cultures have been built to organize behavior within the paradigms of the diverse environments societies exist. Over time, this establishes the strong claim that societal groups would make to the different lands that allow their inhabitants’ procreation and progress.

It is not uncommon, then, that any mingling of tribes or cultures, which are the results of long naturalization processes, would be met with rigid antagonisms among peoples as the imposition of one culture is seen to cause menace to the survival patterns of another. Stories have been told the world over of how inhabitants have driven out, or succumbed to, intruders who may or may not have meant any harm in migration processes and the building of civilizations. Political leadership has, to a large extent, been shaped by the strength of leaders who ensure that their people enjoy this secure cultural tenure within the established boundaries of their political strength and socio-economic livelihoods. Legendary leaders through history, such as Napoleon Bonaparte, Julius Caesar, the Pharaohs of Egypt and others close to home as Shaka Zulu have left their mark of influence because they managed to superimpose their cultures on those they conquered, albeit through the exercise of violent force.

The curving of boundaries meant that several cultures would be sealed within the same perimeter of rules and regulations that would never fully align with a single culture. Where dominant cultures prevail, it is not uncommon that human rights abuse becomes the norm and that economically-oriented favoritisms perpetuated in the interest of complete assimilation or purging of other cultures by the dominant tribe find the space to unleash. Stories from across the world confirm this assertion, particularly those from South-East Asia, Africa and the Americas in present times. Where no cultures or tribes really dominate each other, continued separist ideologies spur sympathies towards fragmenting the nation state. And, following conflict theory, highly polarized cultural structures as the Belgian state are more likely to lead to a demarcation of the state that would put the perceived Flanders’ economic subsidization of Wallonia to a halt, much to the preference of the Flemish. The youngest country in the world, South Sudan, alongside others such as the Central African Republic, Spain (Catalonia's plea to move out) and the United Kingdom (with Scotland on the brink of exit), faces a similar polarization challenge in its future.

There is a sizeable discourse in Malawi about our tribal differences. So much name-calling and finger pointing in our seemingly unhurried sojourn to distant development. Yet, our situation has never been as dire as some polarized Western, Asian or African countries. We have at least 11 relatively large tribes that have co-inhabited the land since the Scramble for Africa demarcated our borders. Chitipa District, alone, is a repository of more tribes and languages than the rest of Malawi combined, and should have, by default, been the most volatile. This is a neutralizing factor that should place development above the differences we have. Yet, Malawians have perfected the art of in-house bickering about petty issues fueled by this branding of citizens by their tribal identities, in spite of taking full advantage of the preferred status quo of even diversity. Furthermore, leaders succumb to the imaginary threat of other tribes to their own enjoyment of the pleasures society generates by permuting complex combinations of who they would put in charge of key national responsibilities.

Malawi has elected this viewpoint at the expense of purpose and cost-effective positioning of the right people to perform more intricate and challenging errands. At this pace, chances of electing clowns into leadership will always be given a prominent position. And the resulting high cost to the nation of installing comics in power has never been at a more astonishing scale.

An important explanatory factor to the differences among the tribes in Malawi needs to be traced back to the patterns of missionary influence in the country from the 19th to the 20th centuries. Missionary influence in Malawi transcended teaching the Bible or Quran and brought with it education in the locations missions set up camp. Much of the Christian North and Southern tip of the country ended up receiving formal education while the Swahili Arabs imparted trade skills in the Eastern Region. Many parts of the Central Region were left untaught and unpenetrated for extended periods of time.

These differences bore a new social structure in the country by the time independence was attained in 1964. Malawians became more aware of what skills people from the four Regions were offering their new nation. Clearly, those that had an education would end up in the formal economy, while the rest had a lot of catching up to do. Our unfortunate reaction to this configuration was to overlook the opportunities that could have equalized the playing field by a robust education revolution. Instead, the post-independence leadership made the same mistake of installing clowns in the hope that some tribes would be appeased. No progress would be made for a long time. Instead of putting in place a school system and regulatory regime that was to ensure children from the Central, Eastern and upper Southern Regions were given as good an education as the rest, Malawians became consumed with the belief that education was the direct result of belonging to certain tribes.

A quota system for student selection into our university system was the inevitable consequence: first tested in the Kamuzu Banda regime and then established during the Bingu wa Mutharika era. It was to replace the unequitable Regional representation of college graduates in our workforce; to correct default by institutionalizing human subjectivity. Eventually, we have missed out over fifty years of investment in the would-have-been educated geniuses that are now good with the bottle and/or raise those mini empires of wealth called large African families, created out of a lack of anything else better to do. So, in half a century, this has left the country more unequal and polarized, using education as the standard of measurement.

We have another shot at putting the country back in lane. For education policy planners, it is important to make two considerations. The first is to establish a schooling system that will keep children in school full time to increase the chances of accomplishment. All schools in Malawi require the same attention in terms of equipping them with the right facilities that necessitate the proper imparting of education, while correcting the systemic cultural ills in different parts of the country. This will take some time to realize results. The second is to warrant an adequate pool of highly qualified workers by removing the quota system so the best students from all Regions can still have the opportunity to get educated and support the country.

It will take a minimum of sixteen years for the first cohort of properly-trained graduates to enter the skilled labor force, if we can ably avoid university strikes that have now become annual academic festivals. This comprises three political terms that require a coordinated effort of successive leadership that has one thing in common, which is the interest of the country. As an investment, it requires good public funding to the entire education chain if we are going to reap the right result. In another article, we make an argument for an ideal rehabilitation of the education sector, to which we refer our readers.

In addition to the formal arguments, we also need to cultivate the opportunity that intermarriages are offering the country. More children are born today without the pure identity of being Sena, Ngonde, Chewa or Tonga. The list goes on, in a rather definitive way. This breed will only identify broadly as Malawian, more than attaching themselves to the tribes their parents hail from, and will be most hurt by a quota system that will identify them through the association of their name with certain Regions.

A keener look at the various tribes and cultures in Malawi exposes the genius behind every one of them. The only lesson they all have to learn is one that upholds their co-existence in the collective effort to advance development of the country, because the development of Malawi will need all of them.


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