Where is the ‘holy anger’ over cashgate?

A wide section of the Malawian punditry has been arguing that there has not been enough anger expressed over cashgate. Some are going as far as suggesting that there has not been any anger at all. I sympathise with the argument. However I wish these pundits could take the lead and demonstrate exactly how they would like Malawians to express their anger over the scandal. It is very possible that they have specific ideas about how we ought to express the anger.

My own view has been that there has been enough anger expressed by those who have followed the scandal closely. But these are only a small fraction of the Malawian populace. These are Malawians who have regular access to the Internet and are on Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp and Nyasanet. They read Nyasa Times  and the other numerous online sources. These are Malawians who have access to the daily newspapers, listen to the radio regularly, and watch TV. In other words, these are Malawians with the means: a formal job, successful entrepreneurs, urban-based, educated up to secondary level and beyond.

Protestors in Malawi: Black Monday shortlived
Protestors in Malawi: Black Monday shortlived

The statistics tell us that the above-described Malawians are a minority, no more than 10 per cent of the population at most. And that’s being on the generous side because even for urban dwellers, a huge majority of them earn far too little to be able to afford the daily paper, a TV, and Internet access. Confounding this picture is the exclusive use of English as the dominant language of the daily newspapers, business, parliamentary deliberations and communication, higher education and research, and social media. This is made even more dire by our extreme donor dependency.

Out of a population of about 15 million people, the highest print run for our newspapers does not go beyond 50,000, and we are talking of the weekend papers, the most widely read. Even when you factor in themukawerenga-mupatse-ena effect where several people read the newspaper in a household, a workplace or an entertainment joint, the number of Malawians who have access to newspapers on a regular basis hardly goes beyond a quarter of a million people.

The radios reach far more people, and use far more Chichewa and other local languages than the newspapers. However MACRA’s attempts to quantify the figures go only as far as percentages of listeners per radio station without giving actual numbers for each station. According to the most recent available data from Internet World Stats, only 4.4 percent of Malawians (whose total population they estimated to be 16 million in 2012) have access to the Internet; the actual number being 716,400 as of 2010.

For Facebook, the number is much less, about 204,000, or 1.2 per cent of the population. The figures are clearly out-dated, but there has not been a major economic or technological transformation enough to bring about drastic changes. The business of numbers of ICT users is an area where MACRA’s initiative is conspicuously lacking.

The picture being presented by the estimates above points to a nation with inadequate information and intellectual infrastructure to muster nation-wide interest in national issues. The ‘holy’ anger summoned by Malawian civil society over cashgate has thus far been restricted to what is known as ‘clicktivism’; Internet activism by the mere click of a computer mouse. The few activists who have managed to galvanise action have only managed to reach the tiny population of newspaper reading, English-speaking and Internet-accessing urban-dwellers.

Even the term ‘cashgate’ is an English term; there has been no attempt to come up with a succinct, evocative local language term to capture the essence of the scandal. With the exception of the Catholic bishops’ pastoral letter and position on cashgate (which they later undermined with their response to the Peter Chinoko saga), there has been no attempt to provide a comprehensive local language explanation of what happened and what the effect of the scandal has been for the ordinary people. The hearings the Public Accounts Committee of parliament held recently were exclusively in English.

All these factors make it impossible to create a critical mass of outrage and ‘holy’ anger enough to make cashgate a turning point for Malawi. I am personally complicit in this failure; there is nothing I have written in a local language over the issue. Although I have a Chichewa name for my blog, I blog exclusively in English.  And I am writing this opinion piece in English.

The failure to generate a critical mass of national interest goes far beyond cashgate. It pervades the entire development edifice of the nation. Malawians are having very different conversations between urban and rural spaces. President Joyce Banda knows this, as did her predecessors and all politicians. They benefit from it, and therefore do everything in their power to perpetuate it. Unless this changes, it is difficult to imagine a significant transformation happening in Malawian politics and development anytime soon.

There are precedents of past mass movements to learn from. The independence struggle being one of them, and the transition to multiparty being another. It behooves the punditry, including myself, to go beyond the rhetoric and point to actionable methods of bringing this discussion to as many Malawians as possible.

To paraphrase the late Chinua Achebe some four decades ago, we have been given the English language, and we are going to use it. We cannot suddenly stop using English. But we need to invest more in multi-lingualism. We need to develop a greater capacity and expertise for translation between English and the local languages. This should be a two-way process. There is a lot of knowledge being created in local languages which remains unrecognised and unutilised because of our retrogressive language policies.

There are a few attempts at harnessing this new knowledge developed in local languages, through local language publications such as Fuko by Nation Publications Ltd, and Mkwaso, from Montfort Media. Some radio and TV programmes are also contributing to this new knowledge, but the effort is far less than the resources poured into maintaining the dominance of the English language.

For changes to happen, we must begin with our daily newspapers, parliament, higher education, research and publications, and social media. Only then can we begin to hope to bridge the chasms between the Malawi of the urban people and the Malawi of the rest; the Malawi of the rich and that of the poor.

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