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Insight: Malawian textbook writers discouraged

In The Nation newspaper of Tuesday 19 January, 2016 there is an article titled “Writers Block Hits Hard.” Towards the end of the article on the next page we read “currently Malawi’s system, colleges in particular, lack textbooks authored by local writers…what we get are imported textbooks that are written by foreigners, so as Malawian writers we really have a huge task to seal the gap.”

These observations stirred my pent up feelings of disappointment, I immediately decided that suffering in silence won’t help me or other people in the same predicament, facts must be stated starkly even if they irritate someone.

Since we gained independence, the government through the Ministry of Education has treated writers of non-fiction or fiction with apparent disdain compared with colonial days when in the Department of Education, there used to be the Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia Publications Bureau.

The bureau was staffed by men and women from Britain who were personally interested in writing and assisting budding writers. They saw to it that books of special merit were prescribed for school use.

If you wrote to the bureau seeking advice or information, you would get a reply at once either answering the question you have raised or saying that the matter is receiving attention and you will get a necessary response in due course. This is the manner British colonial officials handled approaches from members of the public. Not so Malawians officials in the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology and perhaps elsewhere also in the civil service.

In 1968 Evans Brothers, published my play titled The Chief’s Bride and sent a copy to the Ministry of Education. Soon after a firm of publishers in New York called Delacorte Press included my play in an anthology of ‘great’ modern plays titled The World is a Stage from all over the world to be used in schools in the USA, Canada and Philippines.

My play was the only one included from Africa. About the same time the play was prescribed for the West Africa School Certificate. From about 1998 to the year 2004, it was prescribed for the Junior Certificate by the Ministry of Education, Botswana.

Later I wrote a biography of John Chilembwe and then a play based on the biography and sent copies to the Ministry of Education.

More to the point with regard to textbooks the President of the Malawi Writers Union (Mawu), Mr. Mvona sent to the Ministry of Education copies of my History of Malawi in two volumes covering the period from the Stone Age or akafula (pygymys) to the first decade of the 21st century. To none of these communications did the Ministry of Education respond.

I did not know how foreign publishers got their books onto recommended list of readers and textbooks. One day Mvona brought to my attention an advertisement by the Malawi Institute of Education (MIE) inviting suppliers of textbooks to make bids for textbooks. In respect of the JCE and MSCE history books, I did.

Three or four months later my good and kind-hearted neighbour who represent several foreign publishers informed me, all his bids had been successful and asked about me.

I wrote the MIE. They told me my bid had been unsuccessful because its points were below 80 percent that there were gaps in it. They did not explain what those gaps were.

I mulled over the matter. As regards the JCE and MSCE history syllabuses there is no book in bookshops apart from mine which covers all periods from Akafula (Stone Age) to the first decade of the 21st century. If the Ministry of Education is not going to use my book for the teaching of Malawi history which book then will it be using?

Representatives of media in Malawi and abroad frequently approach me to enlighten them on the facts of Malawian history.

They introduce me to the public as a renowned historian. In the year 2009, the Mawu president asked four Malawian authors to despatch samples of their books to the Pan African Writers Association (Pawa) which wanted to draw a list of African’s greatest writers, I sent two plays and a history book. Later that year, I learned that my name had been included in a Club of 23 top African writers which included such names as Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and Kwame Nkrumah. This was in recognition of my merit by people whom I did not know and who did not know me.

I reflected on the fact that candidates for Maneb exams who are dissatisfied with the grade they have got on the best subjects, request Maneb to have their papers marked again by different persons, Maneb accedes to their request. I doubted if the committee that had handled my book on behalf of the MIE had given fair and transparent assessment. Was I then to leave matters lying there?

I recalled that within the public sector, there exists an organisation which receives petitions for redress from members of the public who have been unjustly treated by government officials.

I sent my petition to that organisation enclosing official history syllabuses and copies of my history book. I asked that body to appoint an independent committee to compare the contents of my books and those of official syllabuses and determine if indeed there are such gaps in my book that warrant its rejection by the Ministry. I pointed out that it is the official syllabus that had plenty of gaps to fill. For instance, it gives no credit to the role our chiefs and British friends played in our struggle against the federation and for independence.

Barely a month later, that organisation returned the documents saying it could not act on my request because it was outside the scope it deals with.

Not long after I received a telephone call from Nairobi, the director of a famous publishing company requested permission to publish my play The Chief ’s Bride for five years for the Kenya market. A month ago, a Malawian student at one of the most prestigious universities in South Africa informed me that the university had stocked copies of my book History of Malawi. These two factors testified foreigners continued interest in and reverence for my work.

About two years ago at a prize giving ceremony at Shire Highlands Hotel, Willie Zingani poet and novelist lamented that though his poems are being read in schools in Ethiopia and Ghana, they are not read in Malawian schools.

Writers like Zingani, D.D. Phiri and others who find themselves in the same predicament are not asking that the Ministry of Education to patronise anything they have written. They only ask that their works should not be treated with prejudice. They reason: if foreign educational authorities can find own books good enough to adopt in their schools, what justification have our own educational authorities for not accepting them for use in Malawi schools.

There are few textbooks written by Malawians because the government, through the Ministry of Education, is not committed to encouraging local talent and efforts.

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