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A walk into the past

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By Mankhokwe Namusanya:

Allow me to veer. Let this space, at least for the next few weeks, be a little provocative. And, thoughtful.

Through the period, it has been narratives. In their own right, they have been provoking thinking. Only, the explicit function was not for them to do that.

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This time around, let us work together and reimagine our societies. Learn from the past, observe the present and imagine the future.

There has been a trigger to all this. A discussion before everything.

The other day, I sat with a friend over a meal. He was an old friend, one of those things you get from your past then lose along the way; yet, when you find each other – as we did – it feels familiar.

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It was in discussing the past that all the ideas of remaining the future filtered through. A young boy, of about my size ten years ago, had passed. His gaiety had reminded us about ourselves.

“Youths, and vanity,” my friend must have remarked.

“We all were vain, and we are still,” I remarked to laughter.

Now, a brief story about the communities that raised me. The streets that saw me grow up in these three decades.

I like to say that I am a Blantyre person. Meaning: my life has mostly been about Blantyre. A few times, I have strayed from this city. Yet, at the end of those periods, I have still come back to the warmth and predictability of this city.

In Blantyre, I like to joke, I would close my eyes and still find way home. Not that I would necessarily find the way home but a few places, and locations, in this city might welcome me as one of its own. If not, then some friend from primary school might identify me by name. They might struggle to locate my face since the passing of years has pressured my physicality. But, the name, might ring a bell.

In Blantyre, as in every other city – and even districts now – there are always those two cities co-existing. Sometimes, it is even three cities.

One, is that city the top of the ladder lives. Second, it is where the middle of the ladder occupies. The third one is where our majority exist. If you want, the first can just be full of elites. In which case the first and second group in the previous analysis would exist. The second would just be for the bottom of the ladder.

These days, it is the case that physically the classes are bunched together. That is, you see opulence in the midst of poverty. In the same neighbourhood, one household goes to bed hungry because they have nothing to eat yet kilometres away another family – mostly a young couple of University graduates trying for their first child – goes to bed hungry because they want to maintain a body shape: banting.

Not that, for example, ten years ago this was not the case. No, as someone who grew up on the fringes of two social classes, I know how these twin cities have always rubbed shoulders. However, in recent years it has become more pronounced and well highlighted.

The opening wide of access to education at the dawn of multiparty democracy has created a bigger middle class. This one, in search of a home has been pushing itself into communities that were a preserve of farming.

Now, subsistence farmers – and generally the wretched of our society – are forced to live next to people whom they share little experience with.

For most of the middle class, and I roughly define it (thoughts of which I should be able to share in the coming weeks), this other class is hardly visible to them.

They, or we, relate with it yet our relationship is purely transactional. If you want your car washed, it is to them you go. You need a nanny, it is to them again. A manual labourer? It is to them.

All these dealings, sometimes misconstrued for friendship because they laugh at our bland jokes, does not necessarily mean that we are engaging with their experience.

When the children of the other class, let us say the deprived, are out of school because of ad hoc Covid restrictions or teachers’ strike, the middle class does not pay much attention to this. If anything, our political inclinations get to guide our reaction to such news.

If we ever choose to mobilise, then it is through half-hearted keyboard mobilisation that oftentimes deliver naught. The vigour with which we fight our class battles, even in matters of ‘national interest’ is not equal to the vigour with which we fight for the interests of the deprived.

Of course, the logic I am championing here appears warped. Because, firstly, it is human to watch out for one’s interests always. Secondly, why would I think that the deprived cannot speak for themselves?

Well, to start with the second one: they can, and some will, speak for themselves. Only, oftentimes when pressed people tend to speak for themselves, it is not through the best of avenues. It is not in the cohesion of the society – a society they already loathe. They speak in their best interest. And, their best interest is to pull apart that structure and society.

The onus, then, is on the beneficiaries of that society to protect its structure. Not that it should be protected in its exploitative fashion. Rather, it should be preserved in its working fashion.

If I could put these questions then: would one confidently say that our structure is working, would you say it is a structure you would want to see in the next 20 years?

Can this structure exist another 20 years? In thinking of the next 20 years, what do you imagine the future to be?

These are the questions I want us to deliberate on for the next three weeks.

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