Press Reform: Time to create an independent media watchdog for Media Organisations in Malawi

projector-64149_1280Who regulates the Media in Malawi?

Who is it that will confront  the many dodgy online (and some who are not online) publications that have been known to create false stories against public figures out of no-where? What code of conduct do they subscribe to? Who is it that they are answerable to? Are their writers trained journalists conversant with established journalistic inquiry methods? What standards do they observe when they go about crafting their menace? When they concoct their heresies – who can chastise them? Who gets to rebuke those who push out false material into the unsuspecting public in an everything-goes fashion?

I’ve not suddenly become pro-establishment. I’ve not suddenly woken up today and dreamily decided to attack press freedoms.What I’m asking after a long contemplation of the news coming out of Malawi News portals in recent months is what exactly constitutes press freedoms? Can writing a story that one knows is false, that one knows didn’t happen, or that one suspects couldn’t be true, all in an attempt to create a stir, or appease a financier, does that qualify as ‘press freedoms’?

The questions above need to be carefully considered for a good number of reasons.

Firstly, as many Malawians who follow the news will know, we have been misled quite a number of times by the news agencies, and various publications, over issues from president Joyce Banda’s dealings in office, to  the current president’s sexuality. It’s simply not fair, or sustainable, or even professional for such kind of rubbish-pit chicanery to continue to splatter the media. Think false or twisted stories against some Malawians, including Jessie Kabwila, and much recently against Thoko Banda and many others.

Those who write these stories will obviously have justifications for creating them. Any fool can do that. It takes a real professional to independently verify a story before presenting it as ‘fact’. It takes a real professional to separate fact from allegation. What is also interesting, especially in online news portals, is that in regards to most such false stories, as soon as the authors are confronted, they quickly backtrack and delete these stories – issuing an apology. But only after thousands of readers have already accessed the fabrications. After the damage has already been done. Often than not, the story leaves behind a record, a trail which can be used to unfairly taint a character – many years later.

It’s simply not sustainable for Malawi’s media organisations to operate like this. There has to be some basic standards and fair reporting.

Secondly, some of the Media organisations are owned by politicians. Or by people with direct affiliations to political parties and politicians. So, what they publish is invariably going to favour their patrons. Which is not always good, especially if they begin to unfairly attack other politicians or groups opposed to their patrons. Further, there are some media organisations in Malawi, which in an attempt to bring down an opponent will publish material that is false, or will twist facts to present a sensationalist picture that is not entirely true. One that does injustice to the individual concerned. Obviously this is not right, and you can not use ‘freedom of speech’ to justify such behaviour.

‘What about MACRA (Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority)?’ I hear you say. Can’t they regulate this environment? Isn’t that their job? Well, they have been described as ‘poorly managed‘ by the 2006-2007 Media Sustainability Index Report. They have been accused of pro government bias. In my view, MACRA is overburdened by other things. Their organisation is already stretched in dealing with issues such as tax evasion by telecom companies, unauthorised broadcasting by the same, and other tedious issues. They are not ideally equipped to scrutinise as many media outfits in the land to ensure that what is published is, firstly true, and secondly in line with the type of code of conduct I hereby propose. Further, if MACRA went about demanding integrity and quashing rumour and propaganda in online publications, such behaviour is likely to come across as anti-democratic, and may even qualify as censorship, simply because MACRA is a government institution.

‘You are advocating press Censorship’ I hear another say.

And why would I do that? If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you’ll realise that I’m quite liberal in my thinking. I often publish material on accountability, fair and even distribution of wealth, anti-corruption and such themes. Why then would I suddenly become a chum of the powers that be, and advocate censorship? There’s a difference between on one hand propriety and abiding by professional standards that aim to preserve integrity and professionalism, and on the other hand censorship. Asking that publications must verify the truthfulness of a story before publishing it is not censorship. Instead, it is ensuring that fabricated rumour and other gooble-de-gook doesn’t pass-off as news. At its bare bones, I’m advocating a quality check.

I believe what the European Court of Human rights once said (Castells vs Spain): “Freedom of the press affords the public one of the best means of discovering and forming an opinion of the ideas and attitudes of their political leaders. In particular, it gives politicians the opportunity to reflect and comment on the preoccupations of public opinion; it thus enables everyone to participate in the free political debate which is at the very core of the concept of a democratic society”

Words which echoed Theodore Roosevelt, when he said ” Free Speech exercised both individually and through a free press, is a necessity in any country where people are themselves free.”

But this free political debate only works if the public opinion or the ‘free speech’ that is published is in fact true. It can’t work if the stories are false or fabricated with the intention of character assassination or otherwise.

What about the recent E-bill?

Well, it doesn’t go far enough, and critically it focusses the power in the hands of the government via MACRA, the regulator, which as I said above is restrictive. Like the current framework, it is not sufficient. What is needed instead is a framework run by an independent body with neither political nor neopatrimonial interests.

So what form will this new regulator take?

Well, assuming that we agree that the current state of play is not sustainable, we will probably also agree that self-regulation is not an option. Similarly, if  the likes of MACRA have been accused of interfering, or being pressured by the state to interfere with the media, then they are probably not the ones to front this.

Thus, taking a simplistic view, what I propose is a Malawi Media Monitoring Commission that will have a parliament sanctioned Professional Charter and Code of Conduct. Its role will be to uphold standards in the media and communications industry.

It’s not going to be that simple. Public Affairs Committee (PAC) will need to take an active role in formulating that code of conduct, and a public consultation will need to be launched, to ensure that views of ordinary Malawians are taken into account, and that the executive does not monopolise or influence the organisation.

Why all the hassle?

Because the role of a free press is to hold the government to account. It should not work the other way round. And you cannot have a free press if there are few or no standards being observed, or if the government attempts to stifle or gag the press via instruments such as the E-bill. Leaving the formulation of this important aspect of democracy to parliament alone can compromise its independence and thereby press freedoms.

The Commission will be led by a commissioner on a 2 year contract, appointed by a committee including members of PAC and some parliamentarians. In order to minimise costs, the office of the commissioner will have no more than 10 fully paid members of staff, whose duties will include advocating the merits of a free impartial and professional press, sensitizing the public about the code of conduct of the watchdog, running seminars for journalists and members of the media, investigating complaints, dealing with reports of false and fabricated stories, investigating false stories, imposing fines against unscrupulous media outlets, enforcement, and in particularly acute cases, proposing the prosecution of media organisations or their employees. It will operate separately from MACRA, although it will need to work with the police to ensure that the public’s faith in the regulatory structure is restored. Further, MACRA will be obliged to pass on any complaints of unfair reporting they receive to the new commission.

To me this sounds like a more functional and independent system with much better prospects of creating a media that is responsible, and that puts leaders to task, than the current framework. In any case, it prevents concentration of power in the arms of the executive or legislature.

Stocktaking: 24 pressing problems impeding Africa’s Economic Development

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It is an obvious fact that Africa’s problems are bigger for one country, government or corporation to tackle. That although much has been done over the years in way of addressing some of the problems Africans have to live with every day, including efforts (some of which involved pouring hundreds of millions of dollars of aid into governments, causes, charities and other concerns within Africa) by numerous individuals, leaders, companies and countries, the mantle of developing Africa  was always going to be heavier, the task rather gargantuan and complex, requiring a creative approach.

Neither the Gates Foundation, nor several other high-profile billionaires and millionaires, or for that matter anybody else who over the years has/had expressed strong desire and acted to help Africa, would be able to tackle African problems alone. Not without concerted and determined effort from Africans themselves. Which minimally probably shows that tackling the problems was never a linear equation: You couldn’t pour in loads of cash, then presto! –  a developed Africa comes out the other end.

Thankfully, most of these people and organisations working for the advancement of Africa are smart enough to acknowledge that. Knowing that the problems are deeper, often multi-faceted and complex, giving a challenge that is probably as tricky to resolve as it is inviting. Philanthropists are also practical enough to realise that while essentially it’s a ‘war’ against a long list of challenges, they may never win all the ‘battles’ in that war.

However, what is surprising is that few Africans realise the extent and level of effort that is required to transform their continent, and many take it for granted that civil wars, corruption, HIV/Aids and poverty are the main problems in Africa. In addition, it is disconcerting to note that some philanthropists continue on the same aid path or approach which hasn’t worked the last 50+ years.

There have been many books written about African development [1,  234 and 5 to name a few], many articles too [including 1,  23 and 4 ], numerous videos [like 1, 2, 3], speeches, all of which are informative and worthwhile their time and content. But even they seem to have received a coy reception, certainly have not been given the attention they deserve, their advice not widely embraced by most political leaders and other stake holders on the continent, which begs the question: If the techniques of the past haven’t worked, and the new one’s being suggested are not being adopted, or at least not tried out, why should the old tactics somehow produce different results this time around? Proponents of the old aid model argue that Africa is now at a different place, where factors such as improved telecommunications and transportation links have empowered local people, meaning the old methods of disbursement of aid have a better chance of being effective now than they previously did before – when the integers were absent. This to an extent is true.

But what does bringing development to Africa actually mean? Is increasing the numbers of people living on $2 or more a day development? Or is it eradicating Malaria, Tuberculosis, H.I.V, Cholera, typhoid and other health threats? Is supplying truckloads of pharmaceutical equipment a form of development? Or is building a pharmaceutical company to synthesize drugs within Africa a form of development? What about reducing unemployment and providing more opportunities for further education? Or achieving the kind of relative peacetime  prosperity seen in North America or Europe in recent times? As you can see, all these could be said to be tenets of Development.

What makes the task of ushering in economic development more complex is that not only are the many obstacles impeding the implementation of policies that could transform Africa inter-related, but some of those obstacles do not appear to be obvious to those who have the power to effect change. To put it figuratively, it’s difficult to fight a war, any war, unless all, or at least most of your generals AND soldiers clearly understand the enemy (and their tactics).

Thus, in my view, Africa’s 24 most pressing problems (in no particular order) include:

1 – Far too many imports from outside of Africa and not enough high value Exports to balance the trade deficits. Not only is there a reluctance to delve in to hi-tech industries with potentially large earnings, but it appears like African countries are content to import things from Asia, Europe and the US and few people are asking the questions of:-

(i) whether it is possible to make some of these products within Africa?

(ii) Whether there may be an alternative product on the continent, which can be used in place of a foreign product?

In contrast, most European countries have large volumes of inter-trade amongst themselves, and when the EU has  set carbon emission targets, there’s a growing trend in some countries that something is to be imported from afar only if it can’t be cost-effectively produced locally, if it can’t be shipped, or if it can’t be imported from a nearby country. This point is related to the next point:-

2 – There is not enough trade amongst African countries. Consider this statement:

“…These costs are most acute for landlocked countries, which are heavily reliant on neighbour states to reach international export markets. The World Bank has estimated that upgrading road linkages between the Central African Republic and the DRC could increase intra-African trade by between $10 billion and $30 billion a year.” and here “…At the moment, the vast majority of goods are being imported from abroad. So if anything, rather import those goods from South Africa, and lock in some of the revenue in the region, than import them from abroad.” (Africa’s grand free trade area and what it will mean for business, by Jaco Maritz, www.howwemadeitinafrica.com )

3 – Archaic agricultural practices in much need of efficiency vectors  (i.e. Trucks, ploughing, planting and harvesting machinery, pesticides, availability of cheap manure / fertilisers, modern Silos (not the thatched ones made from sticks, string and mud- which arguably results in loss of a high % of the harvest / yield through rotting and attack from pests [mice,termites, etc]), widespread adoption of irrigation  and such like,  all of which will have significant benefits to African agricultural capacity and the quality of yield–> potentially ending hunger/ food shortages within Africa) [New farming practices grow healthier children]

4 – Bad and underdeveloped infrastructure:

” Distances in Africa are usually great, with rivers seldom being navigable, making long railroads the most efficient alternative. However, many companies have had difficulty maintaining output on the limited system. Rio Tinto, the third largest mining company in the world, has recently demonstrated the effect a lack of infrastructure can have on mining operations. This month it was revealed that the company had to devaluate its coal exploiting operation in the Tete province of Mozambique by 3 Billion US$. All in all, Rio Tinto carried out write-downs amounting to 14 Billion US$, forcing its boss, Tom Albenese, to step down. An insufficient transport infrastructure has been mentioned several times as the central reason for the company’s losses. While Rio Tinto’s coal operations in that area have production capacities of about 10 million tons a year, the respective railway connection to the sea can only cope with between 3 and 4 million tons a year.” – Fabian Scherer, Political Analysis South Africa.

Africa needs bigger, longer, better Roads & Railway lines:- why isn’t Johannesburg connected to Nairobi by high speed rail? Or Addis Ababa to Kinshasa via Kampala by high speed rail? Who is going to create this infrastructure that could prove pivotal in transforming Africa’s fortunes, if not Africans themselves? Isn’t it obvious that creating transportation links [which would provide thousands of people with jobs] between the big cities of Africa will improve trade [opening up national markets to local traders, reduce turnaround times]  and reduce the cost of travel [thereby encouraging tourism and movement of ideas], all of which are positives for spurring economic development?

Africa needs 21st Century Airports [of the standard of King Shaka]  to allow travel between Africa and major international cities and give a positive first impression to international visitors. Not only airports, but modern hotels fit for the 21st century, upgrading the archaic and run-down buildings that define most African cities and constructing newer, more suitable buildings to attract business; we should put an end to unreliable power supply, water cuts and build business centres equipped with modern facilities as those found in western countries; Real investment into the Tourism industry – why should African tourism be expected to be mediocre? Below average and generally not up to scratch? A few years ago, a family friend who had visited Mozambique and Tanzania hinted of her displeasure when she found cockroaches and spiders in some of the rooms in the resorts she and her friend stayed in; the brown stains in the bathrooms, and scents in the rooms. This is even before we get to the aircon. Talk of ‘African standards’, which is really an excuse for not maintaining high standards.

We have to upgrade our infrastructure and facilities to a high standard, only then will we be confident to compete with cities in Asia and South America and other emerging business destinations which are fast becoming popular places of investment. In any case, just because we have been resigned to living with pot-holes, experiencing intermittent power cuts and working in buildings without air conditioning doesn’t mean that investors / visitors will tolerate the absence of such basic things, and return / recommend us to their friends.

5 – Under-educated, incompetent, power-hungry, corrupt and spineless leaders: Africa has too many leaders with no vision, who are extravagant, out of touch with the people and having no sense of urgency regarding the gravity of the problems their countries face and their far-reaching effects. It appears as though there is lack of understanding as to how economies develop within the leadership of some countries in Africa. The reasons for this may include stubbornness, and ignorance of the developmental histories of countries such as Russia, the US, Britain, Germany, China, Canada and Brazil. It may also be because of political pressure from donors, whose aid has strings attached, and arguably restricts the kind of sustainable development policies which are much in need.

Often it appears as though trying to remain in power and acquire wealth are much greater priorities than good governance, and there are few examples of cross-party inclusion in governments. Also, I doubt how many African politicians know the real meaning of good governance.

Unless Africans unite to put their leaders to task, so that they deliver what the continent needs, or else be shown the door out, development will struggle to come by. This point is also related to point 13 below–which is related to points 15 and 19.

This is because it is difficult for Africans to vote out their corrupt politicians when most people in the rural areas -who form the majority in most African countries – live in poverty, and are often ‘palm greased‘ with handouts (including free food [maize], livestock and money) in an attempt to seduce them into voting for the same corrupt officials the continent does not need.

6 – Security: If I can’t send a smartphone via ordinary post from Manchester to Lilongwe without it going missing, what does that say of our security? Irrespective of where in Africa it went off the radar, is that good enough for Africa? How come electronic products destined to the US (or coming from Asia) get to their destinations? Will that be good enough for investors? Doesn’t such influence postage prices to be high — which in itself pushes up the cost of doing business? Africa must improve its security on all levels to attract investment. From ensuring that visitors feel safe to safeguarding our borders against infiltration of terrorists and drugs, there are no two ways about this.

7 – Low self-confidence and lack of assertiveness. If it is true that the oil troubles in Nigeria are costing Nigeria over $1 billion each month,  and have much to do with opposition to foreign corporations, why doesn’t the Nigerian government task the local oil companies to join forces with the foreign corporations under joint ventures to collectively exploit Nigeria’s resources? And in the midst of such theft, why is the increased security to prevent and stop the wastage – and bring to book those who are responsible for theft  – not forthcoming?

8 – Ageism and under-investment in Young people

9 –Lack of sufficient Capital Investment for major projects with potentially large yields [Why Africa May Never Produce a Facebook Groupon Zynga or Google]

10 – Electoral processes that are not free and that are prone to abuse

11 – Media that is not free and that is not representative

12 – Poor Healthcare  and under-investment in Women’s Health: If investors are to invest in your continent/ country, do you have hospitals of a good standard for them to use if they, their families or their staff fall sick? Or are you expecting them to build their own hospitals??? Maybe their own schools and shops?? What is the general state of your country’s  maternity health? Do you have medicines and safe surgery facilities in your hospitals? Competent doctors and nurses?

How can economic development occur when the basic health facilities are not firmly in place?

13 – RegionalismRacism, Nepotism and ethnic discrimination.

14 –   Leaders obsessed with  luxury items

15 – Low standard of Education and low investment in high-quality Education. And it’s not just education for African children. If we send our children to learn in Europe, America, Asia, Russia, Japan and other places,  why couldn’t we create Universities and schools to attract ‘International’ students–those from outside of Africa? Maybe firstly partnerships or collaborations with European and US Universities (Univ of Nottingham in MalaysiaWeill Cornell Medical College in Qatar, Virginia Tech University-India, Technische Universität Berlin – Egypt ) could pave the way for speclialist learning institutions on African soil?  In any case, in an information age as we live in, employing and training teachers / lecturers from across the globe wouldn’t be an issue. Further, African born professors are teaching in some of the world’s top Universities across the world, why couldn’t we attract some of them, or at least use their services to train lecturers/ teachers of the same calibre, to provide educational instruction to African and non-African students, within Africa?

In addition, when webcasting technology is relatively cheap and accessible, surely there must be some lecturers around the world who for a set fee, would be open to providing an hour or two long lectures every week, in their subject of specialisation, during term time. This means it may be possible to run a University level course partly using ‘remote’ lecturers who are infact not physically present in the classroom, but are miles away, at MIT, Yale, Oxford or Cambridge, etc.

16 – Export Trade barriers (including protectionist measures by not only Western countries [who are buyers of African raw materials such as agricultural produce and precious metals] but also within regions in Africa). Unfortunately this factor is not entirely of our doing. Use of diplomatic channels or filing complaints at the WTO/ AU could go some way to resolve some of these obstructionist barriers to trade, but there are no guarantees that such would have any success, and essentially it boils down to diplomacy. However, bilateral treaties and widespread membership of organisations such as Fairtrade, including encouraging ‘supply chain ownership’ in certain industries may be viable alternatives. In addition, African companies should aim to have a presence in major cities such as London, New York, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taipei, Paris, Tokyo, Rome,  Berlin, Frankfurt, Madrid, and Moscow and aim to float on the stock markets. Another suggestion is the establishment of Trade and Industry organisations (like UKTI) whose sole aim would be to represent African companies in these cities, assisting them with finding markets, vetting of suppliers, etc.

17 – Weak and under-resourced civil society organisations. This point is related to point 19 below. [A practitioner’s view of the UK social investment market ]

18 – Low proliferation/ penetration of information technology including TV’s, Computers and Internet connected mobile phones. While a lot of progress has been made in this regard, there’s still a long way to go.

19 – Misdirected Aid: Instead of providing aid only to charities, or to buy food and medicines for governments, philanthropists must begin to invest comparable sums in sustainable projects across Africa. This factor is related to point 9 above. Entrepreneurs who have the ideas, but not the capital need to be sought and those with sustainable ideas that have a market must be financed. This factor has the added advantage in that you are supporting independent trade (not linked by political ties) and ensuring that if corruption does occur in government — which 9/10 times it will, entrepreneurs are sufficiently resourced to continue providing jobs and creating infrastructure, and are not being victimized on ethnic or political lines. The opposite of this, which is common in Africa, is skilled and experienced entreprenuers being sidelined for not supporting a particular political party, or for not being of the same ethnicity, or clan as the ruling elite.

20 – Jealousy and lack of patronage for home-grown brands: It’s not only hundreds of thousands of people living in Manchester who support Manchester United. Even thousands of those who live in Nottingham, support Nottingham County, or Nottingham Forest. Probably not a perfect example, but in Britain (and many parts of  the developed world), home-grown is considered good. The local pub –not the one in town, the one just around the corner — is often  the place to wind down and have a drink. Irrespective of whether a yorkshire man, or an Irish chap owns the place. It’s the local pub, so a considerable proportion of people who live local will frequent it every now and again. And it’s not just about nationalities. Even the local curry (which will most likely be owned by an Asian) or the local Chinese (owned by a Chinese) is embraced, and favorited,  it’s about buying local. If there are  more than one local Asian takeaway / Chinese, some people take turns to visit each one every so often, or will patronise the one or two who appeal to their culinary tastes. One effect of supporting home-gown is that money is circulated within the local economy.

Unfortunately, in some parts of Africa, especially Southern Africa, this is not always the case. It is more likely that if a lakeshore resort is owned by a European, it will attract more business from Africans than if it is owned by a fellow African. While the reasons for such may be a lot more complicated, its effects couldn’t possibly be positive for African industry. In my view, Africans need to change this mindset.

21 – African achievers are not as visible, even in the internet age. Few high-profile role-models have been resourced or are willing to carry the flag of Africa across Africa with a positive message not only about their achievements, but about Africa itself. Often it’s left to celebrities, a handful of activists, some aid organisations, European rock stars and the foreign media to portray Africa’s reformed image- which they rarely do.

If you need evidence for this, you don’t have to do much: Ask any sample of young people aged between  14 – 18 in any  Town or village across Africa who they have heard of on this list: Koffi Annan, Kanye West, Dambisa Moyo, Will Smith, Youssou N’dour, Didier Drogba, Mo Ibrahim, David Beckham, Bob Marley, Femi Kuti, Haile Gebrselassie, Samuel Eto’o, Alek Wek, Wole Soyinka, K’Naan, Chimamanda Adichie, Omar al-Bashir, and Aliko Dangote.

The answers you get will be revealing, but probably not entirely surprising. It is more likely than not that most young people would have heard of a politician, British celebrity,  American actor/ musician or sports personality than an African businessman who had established a business empire in Africa. So Samuel Eto’o, or al-Bashir would probably be much more well-known than Mo Ibrahim. Further, young people are more likely to listen to Kanye West, K’Naan and Bob Marley, but have probably never heard of Dangote. Which probably means few young Africans know of the achievements of fellow-African outside politics, sports, music or the film industries.

In my view this is not a desirable scenario because it gives a false impression of African success. That the only professions or fields in which an African can truly excel is in the world of Sports, Music or Acting. Also, it deprives young Africans of the story as to how people like Dangote and Mo Ibrahim made their wealth.

Ideally if African achievers spoke out more of their success, and the large media houses broadcasted more of such stories, frequently, there’s probably a higher possibility that such could have an effect on the career choices more Young Africans make later in life, a factor that could influence development on the continent.

22 – Declining work ethic and lack of discipline.

23 – Religious Fundamentalism: Why are Al-shabab and Boko Haram which are terrorist organisations passed off as ‘islamic’ militant groups? And what of the Lord’s Resistance Army, why the semi-religious veneer? Or to put it differently, is it surprising that Mali, Nigeria, Uganda and Somalia, countries who have notorious militant groups also share common denominators of ethnic or religious divisions and extreme poverty? [see here] African leaders must address religious fundamentalism. One solution may be to encourage education and have more educational endeavours in the villages / rural areas. Thus, this point is related to point 15 above, in that as more people in the rural areas become educated, it is likely that acts of religious fanaticsm will greatly reduce.

24. Foreign Corporations:

Dozens of Western multinationals have made millions of pounds in profits from exploiting African bio-resources taken from some of the poorest nations on earth, with not a penny offered in return.” declared Andrew Buncome in the Independent.

It’s impossible to overemphasize this point:- Foreign corporations do not come to Africa to develop the continent. They come to make a profit, and often a very large profit. Usually, this money does not remain in Africa, to be used for development purposes or suchlike, but instead it is wired out to be paid to their own investors and shareholders, eventually trickling into their own economies in Europe, the US, etc. Yet the resource that makes the profits possible is African, belonging to Africans. Why then don’t Africans benefit from it? Because foreign corporations -who have the  technology to exploit those natural resources – do not come to Africa to develop the continent. But to make themselves a Profit. Ask anyone with half a Brain about this sorry fact, and they’ll tell you the same thing.

Africans must learn this simple yet obvious fact. It must be ‘engraved on the palms of every African’

Just as the Chinese (the list is long and includes South Koreans, Brazil, Argentina and others) are now developing their own natural resources and those of other countries, using their own companies, and controversially in the case of China, their own labour, Africans have no option but to gain the much-needed confidence to exploit their own resources using African companies and African labour. There is no other way around this if economic development is to be effected, and you can return to this article in 20 years time, and this fact will most certainly not have changed.

Further, lack of expertise, equipment or experience are not excuses. Equipment can be bought, trainers with experience sought and hired to provide training, and experience obtained through practice in industries as diverse as Mining, Oil extraction and Bio-technology. To put it in a different way, what can African industry learn from National Iranian Oil Company which is run by Iranians, for the benefit of Iran?

Another similar view:

“Africa has lost significant revenue over the years through its failure to adequately capture proceeds from resource extraction on the continent.” – Annie Chikwanha, Resource Nationalism in Africa and Beyond, Africa Protal

And here:

The corporations use the labor and land, the people pay the price. It is absolutely modern day slavery. It is exploitation and makes you think about a 500 year history of exploitation of the African continent from its people during the days of slavery and now its resources”  – Emira Woods, director of Foreign Policy in Focus, Institute for Policy Studies.

What more can one say.

Yet if all of the above were addressed, it is not difficult to see how life on the continent could be significantly improved. But that’s not to say that all problems can be resolved overnight. Not at all, but when some of Africa’s problems have been around for over 50 years, surely if the right approach was being undertaken, it would have borne some kind of tangible fruit in all those years?

While an idyllic state of wealth, health and comfort is not achievable anywhere (even Europe has a fair share of ailing economies, let alone Eastern Europe), with even rich countries having sections of their population who languish in debt and poverty, but wouldn’t you say that if most of the above problems were addressed,  most African economies would have achieved some admirable form of economic development?

Similar links:

1. The BRICS and Africa’s growth dilemma

2. Lack Of Clean Water In Africa Documentary

3. Meet The 14-Year-Old Girl Who Developed A Low-Cost Water Purification System

Missionary or Mercenary [Part 2]: The circus of the Arab Slave Master

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David Livingstone famously proclaimed of the East African slave trade,“Satan has his Seat,”.

Here bubbled the sadistic orgy of the Sultans, Arab slave masters, tribal chief accomplices and other adventurers who carved a luxurious life created on the back of spices, fabrics and other commodities but whose main valuable commodity were slaves. Below is a map via filipspagnoli.wordpress.com that shows the main slave routes of the slave trade:-

slave_trade_map

It is said that the Arabs traded more slaves than the West ever did. That their notoriety transcended color, ethnicity, or religion and affected both Arabs and non-arabs. According to one source, Muslims in Uganda even went as far as forming a political party:

“…Henry Stanley [British explorer and Journalist] wrote a letter to Britain appealing for Christian missionaries to be sent to Buganda. This received an immediate response, with generous financial donations pouring into the coffers of the Anglican missionaries of the Church Missionary Society who arrived in Uganda in 1877 as the first group of Christian missionaries. Two years later they were followed by the Catholic White Fathers lead by Father Lourdel who was called by the Bagandans ‘mapera’. But the separate Protestant and Catholic missionary efforts sadly set the stage for some of the religious conflicts to come. … When Kabaka Mutesa died in 1884, his son Mwanga was a volatile head-strong teenager who took the throne just as the complex religious rivalries in Buganda were building to a climax. Things were getting out of control. The Muslims, Catholics and Protestants had turned themselves into incipient political parties and were competing for political influences around the royal family and the court noblemen. “

According to Bernard Lewis in Race and Slavery in the Middle East, chapter 1 of which is printed here by the Fordham University, when in 1757 a new sultan, Sidi Muhammad Ill, came to the throne in Morocco:-

He decided to disband the black troops and rely instead on Arabs. With a promise of royal favor, he induced the blacks to come to Larache with their families and worldly possessions. There he had them surrounded by Arab tribesmen, to whom he gave their possessions as booty and the black soldiers, their wives, and their children as slaves. “I make you a gift,” he said, “of these ‘abid, of their children, their horses, their weapons, and all they possess. Share them among you.”

Over a hundred years later, and when the reigning Sultan himself happened to be a slave master, different dynamics were at play:

“…The Moors were by no means indifferent spectators  of their Sultan’s friendship with Europeans. They saw that these foreign advisers were likely to do  much harm to himself and his country, and on that account he soon lost the confidence of the natives, who showed their wrath against the Christians by murdering a missionary, Mr. Cooper; …The natives did not object to Christians as such; what they objected to was to see around the Sultan adventurers who were more inclined  to ruin the country than to raise it from its present degradation…”

wrote Donald Mackenzie in THE KHALIFATE OF THE WEST. Mackenzie was the founder of the British Settlement at Cape Judy and Special Commissioner for the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society for Zanzibar, East Africa, and the Red Sea. The latter organisation sprang from efforts of the likes of William Wilberforce  and Thomas Buxton (who himself was a founding member)

In a report (Report on Special Mission to Zanzibar and Pemba) published in the Manchester Guardian on August 3, 1895, Donald Mackenzie chronicles his fact-finding journey across East Africa while on commission by the Anti-slavery Society:

1. He encounters numerous Arab owned prisons of heavily chained slaves at Chaki Chaki, in Pemba. At Shamba, while visiting a plantation belonging to a Mr Cotoni, a Frenchman who had died a few years ago, he finds 100 slaves who were part of a group of 150, 50 of whom have since died
2. At Kishi Kasha, Mr Mackenzie befriends Sheikh Mohamed ben Jema ben Ali who tells him that he owns 500 slaves. Mackenzie thinks the number is more like 1000. In a valley nearby, large numbers of slaves were working in the fields. The women ran away when they saw him coming…he says

we observed them in the distance peeping behind the trees. Probably they had not seen a white man before

The Arab slave owner tells him that some of the slaves live up to the age of 70 and that mortality rate was not high, unless an epidemic striked. He notes that some Slave masters sell their slaves to traders from the Congo who sell them off to the Americas.

3. In another part of the country, he is told that sometimes the slave masters beat the slaves to death to strike terror into the minds of the others [a tactic commonly used both in Australia and Jamaica] – that the punishment of the slaves was to the masters own discretion, with no check of any sort on the part of the authorities..“and as they are all slaveholders, from the authorities downwards, they would play within each others hands.”
4. On the island of Pemba he describes the aboriginals (Wa Pemba) as slave traders who like the Arabs sell slaves and are equally cruel. He suspects that the Arabs give a bad name to Pemba to discourage westerners going there. He concludes that the presence of an English Vice Consul would go some way to keep a check to the trade and the cruelty inflicted on the slaves by their masters.
5. Next, he describes the plight of women in Pemba :

“They mix mortar, carry loads of sand, stone, or any other material, and , if hired out, they have to pay all they receive to their Arab Masters who live luxuriously on the hard earnings of these poor women.”
6 In Zanzibar he met commissioner Johnston, of Nyasaland, who “expressed his horror of the whole business and his determination to use every means in his power to put it down within the sphere of influence.”

The most striking thing though is a statement made by a Mr Pigott, who is described as an administrator of I.B.E.A, who he meets in Mombasa. Mr Pigott tells Mr Mackenzie that he has liberated many slaves but the result was unsatisfactory as they would not work. Mackenzie writes that:

“He (Pigott) was opposed to the abolition of slavery, as the slaves seemed to be perfectly happy, and, in his opinion, they seemed only fit for bondage….Mr Pigott assured me that many missionaries were of his way of thinking, and from what I heard, some of his assertions were correct, as to their (the missionaries) opinion.”

So, it seems there were quite a considerable number of missionaries who thought the natives were only good for bondage. Which probably suggests that there was in fact a well documented unwillingness to work or ‘laziness’ amongst the natives??

7. He suggests that if former “treaties and decrees [I assume this means between Imperial subjects and the Arab slave traders or tribal chiefs] had been carried out slavery would not be found in Pemba or Zanzibar“. Mackenzie categorises the slaves into 3 main groups:

(i) domestic slaves

(ii) plantation or field slaves

(iii) labourers in port towns

“The various occupations of all these different kinds of slaves is called ‘free labour’ – quite a misleading name made to suit European ears, – the only difference being that all British subjects deal with slaves direct, and not with their master [the Arab Slave masters], or they may hire from a contractor [Gosh, there were even contractors!!!] who need not necessarily be a slave-holder, but who knows where to get them. Payment is made to the slaves direct, who in turn hand to their masters half the earnings; with the other half they have to buy their own food and clothes…they have to march 12 miles a day … these slave porters are the only means of transport for our government, for missionaries and merchants between the interior of Africa and the coast. If any of them are taken ill they are left by the pathside to die, their loads are distributed among the others, and the caravan proceeds on its march without any further notice being taken of those who drop by the way. The mortality amongst them was given to me on the very highest authority at 30 percent – a terrible loss of human life. One traveller went into the interior [of Africa] a few years ago with 450 men, and he came back with only 190..

8. On the importation of slaves he says : “I am of the opinion that some 6000 slaves are imported yearly into Zanzibar and Pemba from the mainland of Africa…” he notes that “according to the report of the Select Committee on the East African Slave Trade presented to Parliament  in 1871, the export from the main land into Zanzibar and the Arabian coast amounted to upwards of 20,000 slaves per annum….The sultan is the biggest slave owner with 30,000 slaves”

Among the trading partners of the Arabs were the Ajawa (Yawo/ Yao). So unscrupulous were they that at one time, it is said that they even attacked David Livingstone.

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According to this source by Shirley Madany ,

“many Africans may be unaware of the fact that Islamic traders carried on a steady slave trade from East African ports for many centuries.”

and that according to an early ninth century geographer Ibn Kurradadhbeh, there were Jewish merchants from the south of France ‘who speak Arabic, Persian, Greek, Frankish, Spanish, and Slavonic. They travel from west to east and east to west, by land and sea. From the west they bring eunuchs, slave girls and boys, brocade, beaver skins, sable and other furs, and swords’. However, more interestingly, she poses an interesting question: If the Arabs were active participants of the slave trade, why does the Arab world have no corresponding Black population as is found in the New World?:

‘One reason is obviously the high population of eunuchs among Black males entering the Islamic lands. Another is the high death rate and low birth rate among Black slaves in North Africa and the Middle East. In about 1810, Louis Frank observed in Tunisia that most Black children died in infancy and that infinitesimally few reached the age of manhood. A British observer in Egypt, some thirty years later, found conditions even worse. He said, ‘I have heard it estimated that five or six years are sufficient to carry off a generation of slaves, at the end of which time the whole has to be replenished’.

Looking at some of the materials I have been ruffling through, I can’t help thinking that in the late 19th century and early 20th century (which was hundreds of years into the Slave Trade – and by then the British public’s view on it had changed), actually it may be the case that Britain HAD to colonise Southern Africa to have any chance of freeing it from Slavery most perpetrated by the Arabs (and others) because even after the abolition of the Slave Trade in 1807 within the British Empire, slavery itself lingered in most parts of Africa. The British even went as far as appointing a Special Anti-Slavery Commissioner for East Africa.

This view is largely confirmed by Wallace G Mills, who in Christian Missions and their Impact writes about the situation in South Africa:

“.. many of the early missionaries were prepared to take political action on behalf of indigenous people they believed to be treated unjustly. This became a matter of debate among missionaries even in the same mission society as some felt that certain missionaries became too involved politically …on the first, they tried to remonstrate with and affect policies of the colonial government in Cape Town. When that failed, they took their appeals and activities to Britain, enlisting the so-called ‘philanthropic’ pressure groups (anti-slavery groups, aborigines protection societies and mission societies) on their side…on the second, they tried to reduce conflict and disunity within indigenous society as mediators and advisors; also, they assisted African leaders in negotiations with gov’t in Cape Town (especially to get the latter to restrain and control the whites who were pressing in search of new land)….later, after the Great Trek, missionaries began to switch in their goals. Threatened by trekboer pressures, missionaries felt that control by the imperial gov’t was the least evil option

What is more disturbing though are reports that Arab led slavery still persists up to this day. According to an article by Samuel Cotton titled “Silent Terror: A Journey into Contemporary African Slavery “:

…In the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, black Africans continue to be enslaved by their Arab-Berber masters. Although slavery was declared abolished three times since Mauritania’s independence in 1960, it persists. Slaves are given as wedding gifts, traded for camels, guns or trucks, and inherited. The children of slaves belong to the master and slaves who displease their masters or attempt escapes are tortured in the most brutal manner imaginable.

In Sudan, Africa’s largest country, the Islamic Republic of the Sudan, as a result of an Islamic-vs.-Christian civil war, black women and children (mostly Christian) are captured in raids on their villages and sold as chattel slaves, sometimes, according to the UN in “modern-day slave markets.”

He goes on to quote  an executive of American Anti-slavery Group who says:
“Black Africans in Mauritania were converted to Islam more than 100 years ago,”  [and]. . .”the Koran forbids the enslavement of fellow Muslims, but in this country race outranks religious doctrine. . . Though they are Muslims, these people are chattel: used for labor, sex and breeding.”

Obviously, exploring such a diverse and somewhat multi-faceted subject can be tricky without heading off in tangents in terms of providing a sober + concise summary from the haystack of references. But somehow, after browsing through all these sources, I’m beginning to realise why I’m not entirely surprised with what is currently happening in Mali.

Other references:

The Arab Muslim Slave Trade of Africans

 

A Terrible African Queen

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Queen Victoria had a formidable adversary in the impregnable mountains of what I can only guess to have either been the areas around Tanganyika (Modern Day Tanzania), or somewhere around the East coast of Africa (which could be as far as Kenya) or the North East of Nyasaland.

Queen Kabutu was a fierce monarch. She was rich and powerful and so terrible was her reputation that she was greatly feared far and wide and was never referred to by name but only as “That Woman Who Lives Over There” with a wave of hand towards the frowning hills. She had two sons, each of whom  ruled provinces under her, to the North and South Of East Africa.
According to this source (The Standard newspaper, Clarksville,  Texas, Thursday, June 28, 1888):

“She was particularly antagonistic to white men regarding them not only with abhorrence but with implacable hatred dubbing them as monsters, wizards and dealers in magic.”

The story states that no white man had dared to penetrate into her presence or, indeed desired to do so, because she always had them killed.

But Victoria’s Consul in Zanzibar decided he ought to interview this queen and set off with a strong guard and twenty interpreters. After a 4 day journey they reached the southern border of one of the Southern Prince’s territory. The Prince was a pacifist and out of curiosity agreed to receive the Consul, offering to put a good word to his mother.  The Consul was encouraged and proceeded on his way towards Kabutu’s heartland. A day later one of the Consul’s interpreter came to him in great fear, with news that they had received secret information from some friendly natives that Queen Kabutu  was building a dungeon with which to imprison and eventually kill the Consul. His servants and guards would be enslaved and tortured. On hearing this news, 32 of the consul’s guards deserted, preferring to flee into the thick trackless jungle than fall at the hands of Kabutu. The Consul was by then almost defenseless, but put up a brave face, and stubbornly decided to push forward. However, a messenger from the friendly Prince arrived and convinced him not to go any further, that his mother’s rage and fury at the white monster’s presumption knew no bounds and that she was already gloating over the varied forms of torture with which to punish him. The prince went as far as offering to risk his own crown to have the Consul transferred back to safety – with the journey to be undertaken at night. The Consul finally conceded and moved off the Prince’s neighbourhood. After miles of dense jungle he finally came out of Kabutu’s territory.

While it is surprising that there is no other readily available source on this heroine, the only other source I was able to find (that goes some way to prove that she did indeed exist) is this picture from the National Archives (UK) . Not even the other accounts of famous African Queens here or here (African Warrior Women)  mention her.

Which can probably mean one of a number of things:- Either that she was a violent isolationist who carved an image that repelled others from her territory, so remained relatively unknown, or she had another name (maybe was even the violent wife of an unknown King)? Else the name is mispelled. Otherwise it could have been merely all a legend, which is somewhat unlikely considering the picture of people supposedly in her land, the region being indicated as being in Malawi??

However, speculation aside, I’m resisting to consider that she may have been purposely omitted from history, so I’m more inclined to believe that her details exists in some archives somewhere (maybe in Tanzania, Malawi , Kenya or even Mozambique) but have not yet been digitized. What is also strange is that Malawi (near Mchinji), Zambia and DRC appear to all have towns named Kabutu??

The period in which she lives is likely to be around 1850 onwards, as the account above occurs in 1888 – when the article was written and about the time when Britian took over control of Zanzibar from the Germans.

Another unrelated source, Lyrics of Kabutu: Collection of African poems  provides a definition of the word Kabutu:

kabutu meaning

Verdict: More research required :-|.

Other Similar topics:

1. African Queen

2. Famous African Queens and Goddesses

3. Ana Nzinga Mbande – The Christian Warrior Queen.  & here

Go Konko: How Wasting time stole Malawi’s prosperity

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[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