Updated: Apr 16
It’s worth saying that every hearsay and every whisper about the inner workings of our civil service had always seemed fictitious. Everything, ranging from the distribution of allowances, a fixation on field work and an unusually minimal workload. These characterizations would normally not ignite the fire to work for the government, but when one is deeply buried under the predicament of unemployed youths in Malawi, this meant I had little choice but to appear to be happily employed. So, while I applied to the Malawi Government Graduate Internship Program, I prepared myself for whatever may come.
“It will be great for experience,” many around me sounded their assurances when my name made the list of successful applicants. So, true to custom and self-acclaimed discipline, I prepared myself for the interview slated on the date the post commanded to show up.
But there was no interview. Nothing fell short of questioning the dodgy character of the recruitment process. In plain hindsight, though, the whole 2500 of us would have been a tall order for the handful of civil servants on the opposite side of the table to accomplish in such a short period of time. The morning wait became long and suspenseful, with nothing seemingly taking place nor any information of what awaited us being given. Unsurprisingly, we were eventually sent back home with a promise to find our placement letters ready for collection when we returned the next morning. Such was the beginning of what was to be an eye-opening experience for me in the 5 months that ensued as I took on the responsibilities of a Malawi Government (MG) intern.
From the outset, the distinct foul language that seemed to be the religion of choice for many in the civil service, save for a handful that still had the decency to not call you by the analogies of your full body anatomy. The laxity to swearing was the induction I was to be baptized by. But knowing my work day was usually less than eight hours, I could easily weather the bother it produced. Yet this was to be my office for months, so I had to somehow make myself deaf to its generous sharing if I was coy to join in on the fun. The reasonable soul I am, I opted the former.
The excitement to be a part of what is to be one of the busiest government offices fizzled as the months went by. The menu of duties usually had one daily item, wiping the dust off my workstation. Going to work became the routine of showing up at the designated 07:30 am, conducted with a flexible consideration for a little tardiness due to the morning traffic. Then we would wait for other offices to open…then the traditional tea beak…the wait to lunch time…the down time after lunchtime, and then we knock off at 4:30 give or take a few minutes depending on how you defined traffic.
But there were the meetings in which we were occasionally called to attend. The meetings had the participant list on which we added our signatures next to our names. The main job of the intern in those meetings we participated was painted by a divine responsibility to deliver the opening and closing prayer and of course take notes. The good news about note-taking was that you always had work waiting for you the next day, transcribing, cleaning up the language and sending them to the responsible officer.
Meetings were sometimes dynamic and opportunities to taking on board fresh ideas. But the culture of shutting down anything out of the norm was rife that the recycling of traditional ideas and materials takes precedence. Safe to say, I quickly acclimatized to the MG order where no novel idea had room for much consideration, unless in those select cases where my male counterparts presented them. While it causes uneasiness and arouses a debate, my experience of the divergent preferences based on gender occurred multiple times in the 5 months of my internship. A little more curiosity on the office gender dynamics, and I was appalled to see how the majority of heads of departments are male while a majority of secretaries and cleaners were female with exception of the Human resources department. Despite the desperate call for gender equality, the woman’s domain remains the home, where when she is impregnated and/or married, much of our society would be comfortable with it as a state of equal contentment. What’s worse is how segregation over decision-making was not just towards the female interns but most of the females in the building. So much for a gender-equal environment!
In addition to doing nothing during our internships, the government workplace often made for a discomforting interaction with males who saw no wrong to invade your personal space. When I interjected, identifying this as a problem among my colleagues, their response confirmed in a matter-of-factly way that ‘this is what happens’ and there is nothing wrong with being friendly.
Besides the habitual objectification, male domination and marginalization of females in government, the allowances and fieldwork I kept hearing about were never shared. Interns like me would be passed when account numbers were collected, a sign that meetings attended and fieldwork done (or not done) were not intended for the participants of the internship program. We guarded the offices as absences of entire units would run for days. If we ever added anything to our experience, it was perhaps through using these quieter periods to read some reports.
At the end of the program, the joke of the day was the assessment that even cared to imagine that we had learnt anything beyond glazing our eyes on offices running in business-as-usual mode. I filled one before I was clear of what I was to comprehend those 5 months of my life would mean to my career. The questions on the form assumed certain minimums about what I should have learned and the skills I should have acquired. I had more questions than answers as did my fellow interns. Although the program coordinators’ singular obligation was to report success, we instead opted to take enough time in order to ensure maximum candor. My mother did her part to encourage such bluntness.
At the same time, I understood the consequences of openness in an evaluation process conducted before the end date of the program. The handful of meetings and a field trip I managed to participate in would have been the end of my substantive engagement in my department. My name was already removed from the list of travelers for upcoming trips, which was a condemnation to my chair awaiting the last day of the program. My dilemma continued and I have not filled the form yet.
The program comes with almost certainty of employment into the civil service. The question I ask myself is whether this program is truly worth it. Youth make over 60% of the nation’s population and, being the largest pool of productive potential, are very crucial to our development. The Malawi Government Internship Program should have taken full advantage of this energetic resource by actively exposing them to technical and more substantive forms of engagements in the many areas we remain inadequate like technology, climate action, innovative hunger solutions, education, gender equality, etc.
Done well, the internship program would perform wonders for our country.