Language, politics and development in Malawi

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Dec 7 14:03:27 UTC 2006

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Language, politics and development in Malawi

The Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) last week made an announcement that
should open the way to new ideas in not only determining what
qualifications prospective Members of Parliament (MP) in Malawi ought to
have, but also in how to revitalize Malawian languages for more widespread
development. The Commission announced that it has removed the requirement
that a prospective MP be in possession of the Malawi School Certificate of
Education (MSCE), the secondary school leaving certificate, or that they
sit for an English proficiency test, if they do not possess the MSCE. The
timing of this announcement coincides with the next National Language
Symposium, organized by the University of Malawis Center for Language
Studies, with the theme Literacy for Development: The role of the African
language. The twin issues of language and politics are extremely
important, and have consequences that affect the long-term development
plans of any society. At the heart of the matter is the question of the
production of the knowledge necessary for a society to better understand
itself, and to find new ways of solving its intractable problems.

As was to be expected, a few Malawians expressed disappointment and
bewilderment with the announcement, claiming that the legislature would
now be free for all. In other words, these Malawians feared that
parliament would now be open, in their view, even to uneducated and
illiterate Malawians. Some wonder how Malawian MPs can communicate with
each other if they are not obliged to use English, arguing that not every
Malawian can ably debate using Chichewa. "How does the MEC expect the
electrorate [sic] to be assures [sic] that their represantive [sic] will
contribute if they cannot speak English?" asks someone on Malawitalk. Such
views are common and widely held not only in Malawi but in many countries
as well, and they need to be addressed in a methodical, organized way.

To begin with, it was a huge blunder all along to equate school
certificates or English proficiency with what we may term the type of
intelligence or capability required to represent ones people. The reasons
why we have always made this blunder are understandable. First, it is the
only way we are familiar with of accounting for ones ability to be a
representative. Second, it is what we have always done, what was
bequeathed to us by the colonial administration, and we have been content
with carrying it on, without the need to change anything. Third, there
exists this very strange, widely held notion and totally mistaken view
that the best way of measuring any kind of intellectual capability for any
kind of occupation is English proficiency. This view is widely held not
only in Malawi but in most parts of the world, especially the formerly
colonized world. Not only is it a mistaken view, it is also a very
inefficient way of accounting for intelligence or capability. The numerous
boxing bouts in our political parties, the widespread political
prostitutions, lack of creative and critical thinking among our
politicians, etc, should be ample evidence of this inefficiency.

It is possible to devise a better, more efficient and accurate way of
ascertaining whether one is capable of being a leader or a representative,
but it needs a lot of effort, energy, time, creative and critical
thinking. It is certainly something no country, to the best of my
knowledge, has ever done before, at least not on a deliberate, elaborate
scale. And this fact need not daunt us at all.

One way could be to begin by studying past and present MPs. To do this, we
would need to come up with a widely agreed upon set of criteria as to what
are regarded as good characteristics of an MP or other types of
representatives. Who have been the best MPs Malawi has had since
independence? What were their backgrounds? Why were they elected by their
people? How did they do their campaigning? How did they do their work of
representing their people? And many more questions.

We could draw out detailed, lengthy auto/biographies of these MPs and
their time in parliament, views of the people they represented, their
records of performance in the august house, and their own perspectives of
how they about their duties (for those still alive). From this we could
chart out the most desirable qualities and qualifications for an MP.

Knowing that the current measures, and the previous ones, have not been
perfect, chances are the auto/biographies that would emerge from this
arduous, long-term process would not be perfect either, but that would be
no reason not to embark on the exercise. It might also be necessary to
draw out characteristics of other equally successful leaders and
representatives in other areas of Malawian life, not restricted by
electoral politics, nor these types of qualifications and English
proficiency tests.

The goals in such a process would be manifold. First and foremost, for us
to destroy the dangerous myth that intelligence = school certificates or
English proficiency, or vice versa. That way, we would be opening up the
arena to other equally deserving Malawians who have none of these alien
qualifications, but are sufficiently endowed with Malawian wisdom and a
deeper understanding of who we are as a nation, what our heritage is, and
what destiny we want. We have many Malawians who fit this description, but
we haven't taken the time to find out who they are (see this Daily Times
article on a form one drop out who has created electricity for his house
and his parents house

Another goal would be to promote ways of making the knowledge required to
represent people and run our nation widely available to every Malawian. So
far this knowledge is restricted to only those who have school
certificates and can read and write English, who are less than 10 percent
of the population. We can not go on running a nation in which over 90 % of
the population are in the dark as to how the country is or should be ran.
Related to this, we would also be constructing new knowledge for running
the nation. We would uncover lots of buried knowledge that has been kept
hidden because of the restrictions we have had in place up to now.

An obvious advantage with widening access to knowledge of running the
country would be that it would encourage more, better qualified, well
deserving Malawians to seek public office. More Malawians would also be
encouraged to seek out this type of knowledge, as it would be familiar,
available in a language they use and understand, and relevant. A lot of
the practices we follow in running our economy, education, judiciary,
sports, community services, politics, etc, are alien and irrelevant. This
is one of the reasons we have anger, frustration, despair, hopelessness
and even feelings of inadequacy among many Malawians.

It will be important for as many Malawians as possible to understand the
historical and political reasons behind the entrenchment of foreign,
colonial languages in most formerly colonized countries. Language plays
such a crucial role in the development and underdevelopment of any
society. In many formerly colonized countries, the failure to use local
languages in government systems has been at the heart of the
underdevelopment of these countries. One only needs to look at all those
countries that are considered more successful, and ask what languages they
use for government business, education, their economic systems, legal and
judiciary systems, and other important social institutions. They all use
their own languages, and not languages they inherited from foreigners. And
a quick look at all the poorest countries of the world will also show how
for government and other important business, most of them use the language
inherited from their former colonizer. Much of this has to do with
practical realities, but of the short-term. Language policy and planning
are long-term endeavors, and require leaders and researchers who have
long-term visions for their countries.

This is not an argument for the abolition of the English language from our
government and social institutions, far from it. It is true that English
is a language of global importance, and that knowing how to write and
speak it enhances ones social standing. And I am not oblivious to the
irony that I am writing this in English. But there is an ugly side to the
over-reliance of a foreign language for the most important business of any
country. This over-reliance creates obstacles in the creation and flow of
knowledge and information needed for development. When the most important
knowledge in education, health, the economy, governance and other
institutions is in a language other than one people are familiar with,
peoples access to knowledge and information is restricted. And this is
what leads to the underdevelopment we all love to complain about. It is
myopic of us not see the connection between the suppression of knowledge
production because of the choice of language, and the underdevelopment and
inequality that surrounds us. The many Malawian private schools that
prohibit the use of Malawian languages and institute English-only policies
are making this myopia worse, and the consequences for the country are
going to be dire. The right policy ought to be a healthy balance between
English and Chichewa, with Chichewa receiving the same amount of research
and intellectual attention as does English. It is suicidal for Malawians
to imagine that there's no need to conduct research and intellectual
inquiry in Chichewa and other Malawian languages. If we want to learn from
the developed countries, let us learn their respect and love for their
languages, which they continue researching, writing and publishing in.

To return to the argument about why the school certificate and English
proficiency requirements were both absurd and insane, the example of
Lucius Banda has been a striking one for me. I find it disturbing that I
have not met one Malawian who has ever questioned why Lucius felt the need
to forge an MSCE certificate in order to be eligible to run for a
parliamentary seat. Many people I have discussed the issue with have said
he deserved it, and they have offered various reasons. He did the crime,
he had to do the time. He became too important for his own sake. He was
fooled by other politicians who wanted him to do their dirty work. He was
playing with the government and the president. My next question has been
whether Lucius really needed an MSCE or an English proficiency test to
prove that he is an intelligent person and can represent his people. Here,
the vindictive attitude ceases, and a willingness to rethink the issue
sets in. He is very bright; He is very successful; His English is superb,
His music is some of the best Malawi has ever produced, He has wisdom, etc

It may be true that Lucius was originally sentenced for what the judge
felt was a breach of the law, but it is not enough to stop at that and
close the story. What he broke was a very poorly conceptualized,
intellectually vacuous law, one that did not even need to be there in the
first place. And most of us know many other Malawians who have broken this
law and have never been brought to book. It is also true that he was
singled out for punishment by the leadership, because of his role in
pushing the impeachment issue. This was a case of a loophole being used to
create another loophole. Are these really the kinds of laws we want
intelligent, successful Malawians to be held by? Is this really the kind
of Malawi we want to build?

I perfectly understand that the proposal Im making here is idealistic, and
would take a very long time, and a lot of resources, to be fully realized.
But the future we will be building is worth every drop of sweat, worth
every tambala we can invest. In the meantime, it would be important for
the MEC to articulate its reasoning and explain the significance of its
decision, so Malawians can begin debating the topic. It would also be
important for MEC to liaise with other organs of government and civil
society in Malawi to begin cataloguing the debate, and embark on a process
to map out strategies to ensure that their decision does not lead to
undesirable consequences. Ultimately, we will be laying a good foundation
for the future of the country by balancing our policies between global
practicalities and the dynamism of local access to knowledge and
information. The University of Malawis Center for Language Studies has
pioneered the research and deliberation needed to lay this foundation, and
the knowledge thus far produced needs to be made as widely available to
many Malawians as possible, in languages they understand and use.

The pivotal importance of the language issue in politics, education and
development makes it imperative that we argue from an informed,
well-researched position. As such, those interested might wish to consult
proceedings from the series of National Language Symposium meetings,
organized by the Center for Language Studies at the University of Malawi.
The most recent proceedings appear in _Implementing Multilingual
Education_, from the 2003 symposium. Next week is the aforementioned 2006
annual symposium, and I encourage everyone who can attend to please do so.
Other selected suggested readings include:

1. Brock-Utne, B. & Hopson, R.K., Eds. (2005) _Languages of Instruction
for African Emancipation: Focus on Postcolonial Contexts and
Considerations_, Mkuki na Nyota Publishers and Center for Advanced Studies
of African Societies (CASAS)

2. Mkandawire, T. (Ed., 2005) _African Intellectuals: Rethinking Politics,
Language, Gender and Development_ UNISA Press, CODESRIA & Zed Books (in
particular read B. S. Chumbow's chapter The language question and national
development in Africa, pp. 165-192)

3. wa Thiong'o, N. (1986) _Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language
in African Literature_, Curry & Heinemann.


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