5 July, 2016
We are having a telephone conversation when, suddenly, one of us is thrown into darkness. Lights out. It is an interruption that rearranges both conversation and life itself. Indeed, for most Malawians, life revolves around the availability of basic services such as water and electricity. These days, both are scarce. The bills, however, increase every month without sufficient justification from relevant authorities.
If you dare question these bills, as you are entitled to do as a consumer, you are likely to be met with scorn, if not ridicule. This is a culture that permeates the public service in Malawi, a segment of society that feels it is doing you a favour when serving you. This culture is probably state-sanctioned, for how else can you explain a government that allows those in the public service to act in the way they do?
Anyway, the conversation has to end. Bedtime. It is impossible to tell when the electricity will come back on, so from this moment on it is important to conserve as much battery power on the phone as possible to remain connected to the outside world. Contact with the rest of the world is one of the few things that keep you sane in the midst of all this insanity around you.
The food cooking on the stove? Oh, that will take care of itself; but make sure you switch off the stove before drifting off to sleep. Amazing, isn’t it, how such interruptions also result in interruptions in your diet? Inconsequential as it may seem, these electricity and water cuts have an impact on the wellbeing of citizens. We may think we have bigger things to worry about but one day, when we lose our health and are stuck in a hospital without proper facilities, we might just rue the day we did not connect the dots.
Donors, dictators and disenfranchisement
When we resume the conversation the following morning, it is the 6th of July. Ah, Independence Day. It has been 52 years of self-determination. Or has it?
Malawi, one can safely say, is the darling of international donors. Nothing, it seems, happens without invoking the almighty powers of donors. You want to build a road? There’s a donor for that. You want to drill a borehole? There’s a donor for that. You want to have a conversation about politics and the economy? There’s a donor for that. You want to adopt a starving, orphaned child? There’s a Madonna for that.
The new enemies have revealed themselves – corruption, lack of vision, lack of empathy and systematic disenfranchisement of citizens from development.
Interestingly, there was a time when you could separate the 33-year dictatorship of Hastings Kamuzu Banda from the democratic dispensation ushered in in 1994. Twenty-two years later, as memories of that painful era fade, the new enemies have revealed themselves – corruption, lack of vision, lack of empathy and systematic disenfranchisement of citizens from development. It is these enemies that many young people – the largest population – in Malawi are confronting, not Banda’s ghosts.
The post-dictatorship era is one that held the promise of a decisive break from the past. Yet somewhere within the euphoria, in Bakili Muluzi we ended up with a president who would later face corruption charges and a barrage of criticism over his attempts to manipulate the constitution so that he could extend his stay in power.
Having failed to achieve this, he would go on to manipulate internal processes within his party and appoint a successor of his choice, weakening the ruling party and setting a precedent that would plague other political parties, especially those that ended up in power.
Muluzi’s successor, Bingu wa Mutharika, presided over what can aptly be described as a schizophrenic presidency. It is also a presidency that came in the midst of much unrest and political violence, which would tragically claim the life of young Epiphania Bonjesi (9), killed by a stray bullet as she sat on the veranda at her house.
Life went on, and between 2009 and 2012 we watched in utter disbelief as Mutharika undid all the work he had done in his first term. Such work had given Malawians hope and had inspired electoral confidence that, in May 2009, translated into a landslide victory for him. It all ended with a farcical episode in which attempts were made to fly Mutharika, who had died of a heart attack, out of Malawi under a false name and the pretence that he was still alive.
Enter Joyce Banda, the first female president in Malawi and southern Africa at large. As vice president and as a victim of fierce intraparty contestations in Mutharika’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), she had public sympathy on her side. It didn’t help Mutharika that, leading up to his sudden death, he had presided over an economic meltdown, the closure of civic space and a catalogue of human-rights violations. We were relieved he had left the scene. Surely Joyce Banda would be different. Or so we thought.
In her, we ended up with a president who was more popular abroad than she was at home. Banda’s blitz presidency, during which she claimed awards and accolades and entered into questionable deals, would become known in Malawi as ‘Cashgate’ – the biggest theft of public resources ever recorded in the country. Malawians came to know about how big monies were systematically siphoned off government accounts through some creative bookkeeping and how lowly government employees built themselves mansions – some with aquariums suspended from the ceiling – while morgue refrigeration units at the capital’s largest referral hospital were not working.
The younger Mutharika, Peter, was the start of Joyce Banda’s problems before she became president. He was brought from the United States by his brother, awarded a ministerial post and effectively groomed for the presidency, in preparation for the 2014 vote. That plan, of course, was interrupted by Bingu’s sudden death in 2012. However, in 2014, the plan was put back on track as the DPP won elections, sending Banda into voluntary exile while catapulting Peter into State House.
We saw, among them, future leaders who will one day overcome their pain and transform Malawi into the dazzling beauty it has always promised to be.
Recently, in the midst of a hunger crisis, President Mutharika said Malawians complaining about hunger should consider eating mice and grasshoppers as part of an alternative diet. While he might have been hinting at the critical issues of food diversity and food sovereignty in Malawi, many Malawians took him seriously?
Past, present and future
This is where we find ourselves as a nation, 52 years into independence. As ordinary citizens, we have repeatedly watched as those who occupy the highest office in the land govern according to their own interests, unaccountable to anyone. It is a pattern that started in 1964, was refined in 1994 and has been constantly updated with every change of government, including the latest.
We both work in media. As we reflected on Malawi’s 52nd anniversary of its independence, we chose to revisit some of our work and extracted what we think are texts and images that best encapsulate Malawi in its current form.
In this reflection, we heard voices of women who, when they fall pregnant, plan for the worst possible outcome and not for the joy ahead. We saw the resilience of midwives who eventually deliver these babies under the most trying conditions. They have neither facilities nor equipment, but faithfully show up and deliver, literally.
We encountered boys and girls whose warm and beautiful smiles betray the poverty fate has marked for them. We could not fit into the shoes of other boys and girls, repeatedly raped and forced into early marriages with partners they have not chosen because, i) there are no shoes to literally speak of here and ii), the pain encountered by these young lives is simply unimaginable. Still, we saw, among them, future leaders who will one day overcome their pain and transform Malawi into the dazzling beauty it has always promised to be.
At the moment, this beauty lies in the ability of most Malawians to rise above their daily challenges and incessant provocations from the State and its institutions. They contribute something meaningful towards a better Malawi. This beauty lies in the woman selling groundnuts, honestly trying to navigate the tortured terrain of her country; the teacher whose patience endures all 60 demanding voices in his classroom; the young men and women turning their backs on a life of crime and choosing to become entrepreneurs, notwithstanding the fact that their government does nothing to support them in their cause.
Against this backdrop, the betrayal of the independence promise is not only palpable, it is infuriating. Zimbabwean writer and poet Dambudzo Marechera says it best when he screams:
Lynch those who hoard our national dream,
lining their pockets
with coins from the povo’s hymn.
The day is done, yet another reminder that the ripeness of independence produces no harvest for the starving masses except betrayal, death and decay.
Levi Kabwato and Thoko Chikondi are Malawian journalists.