Malawi: uMunthu, education and a global paradox

Published on Pambazuka News, bySteve Sharra, Sept. 21, 2011.

Plans for Malawian civil society protests on 21 September plunged the country into a state of anxiety on International Day of Peace, writes Steve Sharra. But with conflicts continuing elsewhere across the globe, Sharra argues that as long as we perpetuate educational policies that ignore larger ideals of uMunthu-peace, social well-being and the greater good, the world will continue the paradox of celebrating peace amidst war, violence and death … //  

… Kindness, a virtue that adds to a moral code for humanity’s collective wellbeing is considered ‘subversive of neo-liberal assumptions that place value on utility and cost above other human values,’ according to Sue Clegg and Stephen Rowland (2010) of Leeds Metropolitan University and the University of London, respectively. Writing in the British Journal of Sociology of Education, Clegg and Rowland observe that despite being an aspect easily recognised by students in a teacher, kindness is never considered in descriptions of ‘teaching excellence’, ‘student satisfaction’, nor ‘professional values.’ This is true of Malawian education and education in most parts of the world. The result is the violent and unjust world we live in, which makes the case for continued efforts by peace activists to raise global consciousness about the possibility of sustainable peace and social justice.

When I first heard that the date for the Malawi protests, in the form of vigils, had been shifted from 17 to 21 September, I initially thought it was to do with 21 September being International Day of Peace. But the reason was because 17 September was not ideal for most of the civil society leaders who had other commitments; 21 September was. The Twitter hashtag that has been used for the campaign since 20 July, #redarmy, reveals no intention of an appeal for peace. Apart from an announced press conference by the UNDP Malawi office, Malawi is not observing the International Day of Peace. Instead, we are observing what was going to be another day of street protests, in the form of vigils, turned into a mass stay-away at the last minute.

Security, and fears of a repeat of 20 July seem to have been the overriding concern in the decision to move from street protests to what civil society called ‘Plan B.’ While civil society leaders have been imagining the protests as peaceful demonstrations aimed at sending a message of concern to the Malawi leadership about the direction the country is taking, the reaction to the call for protests has betrayed a different understanding of what is being envisioned. A court injunction obtained by ‘concerned citizens’ after the aborted 17 August protests put a ban on any form of anti-government protests. Shop owners were barricading doors and windows, and people were out en masse shopping late on Tuesday. Most offices announced to employees not to show up for work on Wednesday 21 September, and to ensure their personal safety. Clearly, where civil society were envisioning peaceful protests, everyone else has been hearing violence, looting, property damage, and deaths.

That is quite an intrigue, something that comes out of events of 20 July. And it raises some troubling questions. Are Malawians hopelessly incapable of maintaining law and order whenever they decide to exercise a constitutionally-granted right to peaceful demonstrations? What explains the easiness with which peaceful protests turn into violent riots and mass killings? How do we explain the resentment that is clearly simmering just underneath the surface and readily finds an outlet in destroying property and taking lives? Is it impossible to envision a Malawi in which leaders, both in political parties and in civil society, think of the greater good and work to bridge the gaping inequality that is fast characterizing Malawi and the rest of the world?

As an educationist, I always turn to how and what we teach in the schools, for answers to questions like this. Educationists who espouse belief in the singular significance of peace have developed a field of study, called ‘peace education’ at the primary and secondary level, and ‘peace studies’ at the university level. Peace educationists argue that all education ought to be peace education. In my study of prospects for peace education in Malawian schools, since 2004, I have learned, from watching teachers, that it is entirely possible to approach the school curriculum, and day-to-day classroom content, into peace education. I have also learned how peace education and peace studies have been in existence for some decades now, but they are yet to become the staple of educational systems. It is not much wonder to peace educationists that school systems have always produced leaders who resort to war to resolve problems, and who care more about personal power and wealth than about the greater good.

Coincidentally, today, 21 September, is also Founder’s Day in Ghana, when they celebrate the birthday of Ghana’s founding president, the late Osagyefo Dr Kwame Nkrumah. Africa’s pursuits for peace and independence owe a lot to a vision first stipulated by Kwame Nkrumah, who argued that the independence of Ghana was meaningless unless it was tied to the independence of the rest of the continent. Dr Nkrumah argued more than 50 years ago that on their own, African countries were not economically viable and therefore needed to integrate their systems into a continental society. He also devoted his life to connecting continental Africa with the African Diaspora, and lived a life of testimony to that noble ideal. Subsequent generations of African leaders have been unable to appreciate Dr Nkrumah’s wisdom, and have colluded with forces of imperialism to impoverish ordinary Africans.

It is the disillusionment from that collusion between African leadership and forces of imperialism that lies at the heart of the protest movement in Malawi and elsewhere. As long as educational systems in Africa and around the world continue perpetuating educational policies that ignore larger ideals of uMunthu-peace, social well-being and the greater good, the world will continue the paradox of celebrating peace amidst war, violence and death. (full long text).

Links – uMunthu:

on Afrika aphukira;
on allAfrica;
on Religion-online;;
on YouTube as Umunthu’s channel;
as  Umunthu malawi microfinance on facebook …
on Berhane Tewolde’s Development Blog, as Teaching uMunthu for global peace;
or as Ubuntu (philosophy) … or “uMunthu” (Chichewa) … is an African ethic or humanist philosophy focusing on people’s allegiances and relations with each other. Ubuntu is seen as a classical African philosophy or worldview.[1] The word has its origin in the Bantu languages of southern Africa … with full long text and links on en.wikipedia.

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