Go Konko: How Wasting time stole Malawi’s prosperity


[part 1 : Background]

If you do not know what kuwothera dzuwa is, you should probably question your Malawian “credentials”. If you’ve never gone to any gathering / meeting of any kind, be it to see Gule Wankulu, to view army helicopters take off and land at a barracks, to attend Dr Kamuzu Banda’s mass gatherings (which often involved filling a stadium or lining a road in a single file, under the watchful eyes of the Malawi Young pioneers (MYP) – and at the right moment, beginning to clap hands respectably as the Ngwazi convoy passed); if you didn’t attend Pope John Paul II’s pastoral crusade in Malawi, are not familiar with any evangelistic crusades of Reinhard Bonke, Ernst Angley et al, didn’t attend an entertainment extravaganza (Lucky Dube, Brenda Fassie, Kanda Bongo Man, Yvone Chaka chaka, M’bilia Bel and others) or after the introduction of multi-party democracy,  didn’t go to any election campaign gatherings (be it UDF, Aford and MCP ones), then you have some explaining to do.

Then there was the Nchape rush. This dear friends was the ultimate rush. An unknown jujuman mysteriously appeared in Liwonde / Salima claiming to have discovered a miraculous herbal hyssop which when drank as a solution would cause diarrhoea and thereby “Wash away” (kuchapa) AIDS / HIV and other illnesses. As fictitiously coocoo as that sounds, thousands bought the mantra.

In the unprecedented national excitement that followed, even whole government departments gave time off to thousands of civil servants, providing  some with transportation (in some cases truckloads of people were observed setting off on this herbal odyssey ) to go to the jujuman’s lair. People travelled from all corners of Malawi, from Nsanje to Chitipa, converging onto Liwonde, to drink from this mysterious drink that was said to have healing properties. It is estimated that tens of thousands (I think its probably hundreds of thousands) of Malawians from across the country went to Liwonde, leaving their jobs, their children and everything else behind, to queue in the heat and dust, and scoop and drink a red-like liquid dissolved in water and administered via cleaned out diesel drums, all with a hope that the hyssop would cure or “immunize” them against HIV.

In fact the popularity of the craze grew so pervasive that according to one reliable source, the Ministry of Health’s Regional Health Office in Blantyre sent in Health Inspectors to monitor and provide sanitation facilities.

If you didn’t attend any of these (or don’t know someone who did), you my friend should be quite worried. Because the chances are you missed on quite a lot, meaning the Malawi you know, or were raised in, probably does not at all resemble the archetypical one experienced by thousands others.

But despair not! because if you fall into this “minority” even if it’s for good reasons, I’ll take the pleasure to summarise what some of us in those days saw, heard or experienced:-

In addition to all of the above, which are true, we ate Sugarcane, Malambe and Bwemba and walked miles to get to the market to buy fresh fruit, fish (nothing beats usipa-ever!) and meat.

There were always rumours flying about, and you followed them, to some location 2 miles away to a stranger’s houses to glean fruit (among the exotic fruits I’ve eaten was one we called “glue”. The fruit – which was quite tasty- had a gluish substance inside it. In the whole of Chinyonga, there was only 1 tree growing outside this family’s house and all the youngsters knew this. People would come from over 2 miles away to have “glue”.) Then there was Mabulosi (berries) – again, like the glue fruit, only 2 or so houses in the whole location had a mature tree, and almost all the youngsters knew this. I even remember the first name of the boy whose parents house this tree was, who in such priviledged circumstances held an esteemed position in the youngsters society because you had to be nice to him, otherwise when their tree was in fruit, you would be denied access to pick berries in his tree.

When going about our adventures, we would pass groups of housewives in two’s or three’s, rarely in fours, as they chatted away in corners or by the side of the road, the scent of cooking lunches from their kitchens filling the air. In the evenings, as you walked the roads, you could smell the scents of Mandasi, Zitumbuwa or Atondido being fried in some of the houses. When it was windy we flew kites made from supermarket bags. We played with wire cars, kept pet birds, rabbits and dogs (your dog was your companion, you went almost everywhere with your dog), and once in a while your household worker or garden-boy would buy you Mahewu (a treat from the daily Sobo). If you were lucky, it would even be an exotic import – Mahewu from Zambia.

The older cousins, some of whom lazed about just as much as you did also spent their time kuwothera dzuwa, where they lay down the Mphasa, tambalalad and just chatted, maybe playing cards or drafts with their friends. If they were in the mood, they told you stories:- of studying with paraffin lamps during their examinations in their primary school days (in the village) and how you were lucky to have electricity in your parent’s house; of hunting game at Nyika Plateau using makeshift rifles, or fishing escapades at Vwaza Marsh – where they went to catch catfish, which was a big part of their diet. If they caught enough, they would even sell some- nature had its own gifts. Otherwise they spoke of their encounters with snakes and spotting exotic birds in the wild; setting rodent traps; The cat and mouse games with Zumbwe- a wild carnivorous catlike animal that preyed on their chickens; their part in the Vimbuza dances during the weekends (when they were still young , living in the village and before they came to Town) … all this icing was relayed to you on top of all the other Malawian fairly tales you were constantly fed.

Most of the times these casual stories would be told  in the evenings, while roasting Sweet potatoes on the mbawula, or just before you went off to catch Ngumbi. If you were not catching Ngumbi, it was Afulufute …caught seasonally, during the day time. Apparently they were supposed to be rich in nutrients , but you’d probably be pleased to know (if you’ve seen what a fulufute looks like) that I found them absolutely disgusting -even though they would be fried before being served.

In the cities, every so often, scores of MYP showed up during the daytime with orders to round-up and usher every living being to some road 2 or 3 miles away, to stand in a file and clap hands while the convoy of Mercedes, Landrovers and Limousines of the dictator Dr Hastings Banda and his cohorts passed by. If you resisted such orders, you could be clubbed or even arrested. It didn’t matter whether you were in the middle of cooking a meal or had Agogo or a sick relative in the house, you had to leave everything behind and go pay homage to the Ngwazi, often all this journey for just a few seconds glimpse of the Ngwazi. 2 or 3 minutes later, the whole thing was over and everyone treaked their several miles long ways back to their homes.

In Blantyre, once every so often a lion or other wild animal would escape from the Blantyre zoo, which gave you a day off if your school was near the zoo, but didn’t deter those whose schools were miles off.

Once a year you visited the Trade Fair grounds at Chichiri and got mildly amused by the offerings exhibited at the annual Trade Fair show. It was the first time I saw a python.

Every so often you heard of some preacher promising prosperity and the world – and because everybody went, it was go konko; if the attractant weren’t an evangelist, it would be something wacko like a rumour of a painting depicting the christ which was said to be weeping – the tears allegedly clearly seen flowing down the canvas; predictably, crowds in their hundreds would gather outside such a house, in Zingwangwa or someother location, hoping to catch a glimpse of the spiritual phenomena. We would walk past countless bottle stores where the gumba gumbas (actually they were just ordinary stereos) blasted kwasa kwasa (soukous) from Congo, the likes of Pepe Kalle. Outside, both learned and unlearned men sat on crates, laughing, immersed in banter – talking excitedly and drinking themselves silly.

If there was a white person somewhere, anywhere, a crowd that included a pack of kids would soon enough gather, doing nothing but staring and giggling…and saying “Azungu”. Here some youngsters who knew english would go and try and strike a conversation with the caucasian- with the sole purpose of trying to impress the mzungu with their english. As soon as the mzungu said your english was good, you felt chaffed – mission accomplished.

You would peep through the country club fences to spot people, mostly white people, playing tennis or golf. Sometimes we would walk the hour long journey to town for no purpose other than to loiter in Mount Soche’s green and well watered gardens. Surprisingly, we were actually allowed to do so.

There were no free after school educational activities anywhere, unless you consider time in a library as an after school activity. Here, the prized commodity were old and probably outdated books. It was here that I met Dickens and had my very first encounter with Darwin. In this unconducive, overcrowded, under-resourced, ill-equipped and smelly place, you were supposed to somehow gain inspiration. And knowledge.

The museums were not many, and not as interesting. There was very little in terms of self-development initiatives, mentoring / educational activities (not that any of such things matter to youths) no computing facilities for example for youngsters to get to grips with technology. Which was probably why young people just loitered about, jumping at each craze, playing basketball and football whenever they had free time. For some, perhaps those from slightly affluent families, they watched TV, played video games (Think Sega, Game Boy, Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64 and PS 1). And it wasn’t necessarily because Malawi was poor. Mind  you that at some point in the days of the Ngwazi, Air Malawi flew services to London and Amsterdam.

But putting aside ordinary childhood and while there may have been credible justifications (at least at the time) which compelled or at least influenced many (including parents, friends and neighbours) to visit every other gathering or craze, on a more serious note, what has been the cost of such liberal and unguarded use of time? Has it been beneficial? Has it borne fruit? Could such time have been used for better much more constructive purposes? Was it necessary for all those adults for example to grace every other evangelistic crusade?

“Malawian Time”

Perhaps related to the liberal attitude with time is the issue of punctuality that is called Malawian time.

Its the anti-thesis of punctuality. Always behind, be it at weddings, conferences, meetings and even important medical appointments, Malawian time typically runs 1 to 3 or more hours behind normal time – and gives the perfect excuse for being late over everything from Church attendance to weddings. Because apparently, everyone  else will be late, so why be early? No appointment begins at the pre-appointed time. In fact, under Malawian time, an appointment is not really one and if someone says “11 o’clock sharp”, what they actually mean is between 12 midday and 1pm. Malawian time is what explains why for example why certain civil servants who get into the office at 7.30 am, only start doing productive work at 11am, having played bawo, talked on the phone to all their friends, done the office chit-chat and everything else of second nature for 3.5 hrs. “Za boma izi” they’ll say.

But what effect does all this have on Malawi’s productivity? Suppose low performance (and the economic challenges we face) in Malawi as a nation are somewhat linked to this blasé attitude towards time (which as you have seen above, begins quite early on in life) is it still justifiable to continue on such a course?

And it’s not only in the cities, even in the villages everything is at snail’s pace (see a foreigner’s account here) with no sense of urgency.

Yet universally, there’s almost global consensus that wasting time is bad for productivity. That you cannot expect to excel and prosper if you waste time, or do not use your time doing the right things. Even the Bible says so: Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest. How long will you lie there, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man.” Proverbs 6: 6 -11 (see more here)

A US founding father: “You may delay, but time will not” declared Benjamin Franklin. More importantly he is the man who said “Time is money”

The implication is simple. Each moment we waste is a loss in time that could have been  better used to achieve something (whatever that something may be) beneficial that could earn us more resources, including money. That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be time for entertainment. Of course there should, but there must be a balance in which there’s sufficient productivity, for every minute of enjoyment.

Interestingly, the focussing point of this article was emphasized by an unlikely source; The Nigerian finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, speaking in 2007 at TED in Arusha Tanzania outlines a story in which she asks a Chinese Premier where Nigeria is getting it wrong, at which the premier responds “infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure” and “Discipline“.

I can’t help but think that it probably all boils down to discipline, and not necessarily a difference in culture / work ethic because it is possible to have work ethic, but not be disciplined. And most Malawians I know are definitely not lazy.

But discipline is the problem. For example is it really necessary for the whole cabinet to show up when the president is going on official engagements? What is the cost of such a full-house to the country? When do the ministers do their work if all they do is show up for events? And the engagements themselves, where do you draw the line as to whether an engagement is “high-level” enough to warrant presidential / ministerial time? Shouldn’t the president’s job be focusing on things that have a potential for overall national gain or thereabouts whereas the smaller engagements can be handled by a PS or lower. In particular, should the president go to funerals, other than say that of a serving MP? In other countries the prime minister doesn’t even go to these. Instead a government official is sent to such engagements.

Further, should the president go about the country, celebrating, donating maize and bicycles? Shouldn’t they be focussing on curbing corruption, on increasingly the country’s productivity, on tackling crime or negotiating international deals that will bring in developmental (as opposed to aid/ hand to mouth) Investment – which can spur Malawian owned industry? Shouldnt low-level appointments even at ministerial level be the job of junior civil servants, while ministers focus on shaping large-scale policy that can effect development?

In the words of another blogger here – (slightly different context but read the comments aswell) time-wasting goes to the very top.

“…How many times has parliamentary business been bottle necked by inconsequential arguments such as parliamentarian salaries to the detriment of issues that are fundamental to democracy such as constitutional reforms and bills that really help alleviate poverty and impact peoples lives positively. We entertain such time wasting debates because it is the “democratic thing to do”.

Even in death this attitude to time is visible with frequent mentions of  “Tikawonekele”, where the focus shifts from being genuine sorrow over the passing of a person, to a mere concern that you should ensure that you are visible to others.

In the past, Africa’s ways with time has been documented quite extensively. In the late 19 century, European writers, some being proxy-lobbyists with questionable intentions were scathing regarding discipline of Africans. To them, Africans were lazy, slothful, given to pleasure, of the mind of a child. And lacking work ethic. (However, as you will see in the next installment to this article, earlier accounts speak otherwise.)

What’s revealing is that when you draw contrasts with other countries, from India and China to Britain and Germany what you will find is that the desire to be efficient and productive was ever at the top of the agenda. For some it became an obsession, so much so that even movies which were meant to be entertaining hinted on this time-efficiency-productivity equation.

In one example at the peak of the industrial revolution, popular comedian Charlie Chaplin enacts a scene that reflected this time-effciency obsession (see Modern Times (1936) – YouTube clip here which although meant to illuminate the suffering of factory workers with a comic twist, clearly shows a scene in which a machine designed to save time by automatically feeding factory workers is marketed to a factory boss, and demonstrated next to an assembly line – with disastrous consequences!)

It wasn’t only comedians, even writers and playwright wrote in support of industrialisation and time-efficiencies of the industrial revolution, largely dismissing or ignoring the negative aspects in preference to its glories.

Useful Links:

1. Time Wasting Impedes Economic Growth – Insurer
2. Adverse Effects of a Bad Attitude in the Workplace

3. Time = Money
4. Making Time for Success: Time Management Skills

5. What The Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast

6. 10 effective time management tips for success


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