Malawi jubilee without gold: Muckracking

“Necessity is the mother of invention.” ― Plato.

So today is our Golden Jubilee! Wow! A time to party and make merry indeed. It is not everyday that one clocks 50. In fact the United Nations Development Programme puts our national average life expectancy down to 36. So for all of us to collectively hit 50, it is something to jive about.

But, looking back, what has changed for our country half a Century later to celebrate about? Not much, I can hazard a guess it is the collective answer from most of the 15 million of us.

What is wrong with us that we seem to move around in circles while other countries are progressing?

President Mugabe and visiting Zimbabwe President Mugabe at Malawi@50 celebrations

President Mugabe and visiting Zimbabwe President Mugabe at [email protected] celebrations

My senior colleague, veteran historian and prolific columnist D.D. Phiri, likes reminding us of the so-called four Asian tigers – Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. The quartet has consistently maintained high levels of economic growth since the 1960s, fuelled by exports and rapid industrialisation, which catapulted them into the league of the world’s richest nations.

But do you know that by the time we were getting independent from 70 years as a British protectorate in 1964 our economy was at the same level with these Asian tigers – including even those of Mauritius, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia?

But here we are, 50 years later, salivating at these ‘tigers’ industrialisation.

What went wrong for us?

Today, as we celebrate 50 years of nationhood, let us agonise why we are still decades behind, why we are still tilling our land with back-breaking hoes, why we are still subsisting on hand-to-mouth, why we are still dwelling in mud-and-thatch hovels.

Before we blame our politicians, the usual – read real – suspects, let me recount a little personal experience.

Some time back, while attending school in Berlin, our class of 12 went on an educational visit around Germany. For the record, the dozen of us were all from the African continent.

In a small town, just outside the German capital, we visited a small house, no more than a hut, that has been preserved for posterity.

This house was constructed between the 9th and 12th centuries. What was unique about this house was neither its size nor its age. What was unique was that, after several centuries, it was still standing in almost the same shape it was during the medieval era.

Our tour guide told us that during winter whole populations would freeze to death because they could not keep themselves warm enough.

Of course, some people would still survive the winter, or – most probably – other races would take their place because during those days most tribes were nomadic any way.

Now to solve the perennial wiping of whole populations a group of people banged their heads together. This was during summer. “We cannot keep ourselves warm long enough during winter because soils are dump, wood is dump, we can’t keep a fire,” they argued. (The conversation is my making, but you get the drift!)

Then they agonised how they could come up with a hut that could not allow air to seep through its walls. After long hours, days, weeks and months of thinking and searching, they discovered some substance thicker than the common mud.

So they built huts with mud mixed with that substance. When winter came and whole populations locked themselves in such structures, of course with enough supplies of roast game meat, hurrah! they survived the harsh winter!

That was when and how the present-day cement was discovered. Since then, all dwelling structures were built with mud mixed with the fore-runner of the present-day cement.

And whole populations survived!

But look at our weather; we have the sun shinning for ten of the twelve months in a year. In fact during the two months we call winter, June and July – sometimes May can also be naughty, the lowest we can get is between ten and 15 °C (although Dedza and Mzuzu can notoriously hit zero to five °C, but that is very rare – and only for a few days.)

With such weather we can afford to stay in mud-and-thatch huts the whole year round without riskinghypothermia, death due to freezing. How then can we be motivated to burn bricks, buy cement and corrugated iron sheets with such kindly weather? In fact, in my village, the grass-and-thatch hut is idolised as an all-weather house – in summer it is cool, in winter it is warm. The science of this thinking has escaped my intelligence but that is a subject for another day.

Add to that, if you find a homeless guy in the streets of Europe or the US, be assured they are really homeless with no known relatives. My namesake, English songwriter and folk singer Ralph McTell, captured it all well in his seminal 1969 hit Streets of London where he admonishes people who whine endlessly when confronted with little disappointments like broken relationships.

You must be a hard man if, in the quietness of your room, these lines do not jerk tears from your inner eyes:“Have you seen the old girl/Who walks the streets of London/Dirt in her hair and her clothes in rags?/She’s no time for talking/She just keeps right on walking/Carrying her home in two carrier bags”

My point is, if you interrogate homeless people or beggars who litter our streets (forgive my crude words) they at least have ancestral lands somewhere in Nsanje or Karonga or Ntcheu from which they can eke out a living if they put their heart to it.

But, for our friends in the West, if you are homeless you are really destitute.

So, forgive me again if this reads like pun, I submit that 50 years of nationhood we are poor by choice.

By the way, I always had run-ins with Bingu – whom, for some reason, always used to address me as ‘my first son’ – whenever I described Malawi, in these pages, as a failed state.

But give me a country that, 50 years after weaning itself from Britain, still goes around with the begging bowl looking for K9 billion-worth of alms to finance construction of toilets of all things and I will give you a failed state. Show me a country that starts treason cases and allows the suspected treasonous people to contest an election and win, I will show you a failed state.

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