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Of politics, culture and nationalism

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Culture has often been identified as a uniting factor in human societies. It is the glue that binds people together by teasing out values with which diverse people can identify. Knowing the importance of culture, colonialists made sure that they disrupted the cultural consciousness of those they colonised in order to dominate them. The project of conquering Africa, for example, became a success because it involved lying to people that their ways were backward and that it was only Western culture which was superior. But over time, most of us have come to realise the lies in colonial discourse and we want to reclaim our cultures. But this comes at a cost.

It is commendable to have events like Mulhako wa Alhomwe, Umhlangano wa Maseko Ngoni, Kulamba, and the like, which celebrate cultures of the multiple tribes that make Malawi. These become points of reflection and reignite a sense of belongingness in people. But in countries like ours, the risk is that the tribe can as well become a dividing factor since politicians often capitalise on tribes to push their selfish agendas. Like in most African countries, politics in Malawi is often conducted along tribal lines, and this is a disease that has been killing us slowly. The tribe is something we are yet to disassociate from political leanings.

In his masterpiece, The Wretched of the Earth, Algerian theorist Frantz Fanon talks about some of the problems that post-independence African countries would grapple with after winning the fight against colonisers. He identifies one of the problems as “the pitfalls of national consciousness”. On this, Fanon argues that while people of different tribes and cultures came together to reclaim their countries from colonial powers, their unity would not last long since, after attaining independence, they would realise that they have differences within themselves. Some of these differences are the tribes to which they belong under the illusion of one united nation. The moment each tribe tries to push its own interests, the spirit of nationalism disintegrates.

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We have experienced this malaise in our country and there seems to be no way out of it. Politics and tribes have been imagined as inseparable to the extent that cultural celebrations have also been politicised. The average person will tell you that Mulhako wa Alhomwe is associated with the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the Yao are often associated with the United Democratic Front, the Chewa are mostly believed to support Malawi Congress Party, and that most northerners rally behind Alliance for Democracy. While we may want to be intelligent about it and dismiss this as mere prejudice, reality tells us otherwise. The tribe is very influential in our politics and it is a threat to national unity.

The big question, then, is on what can be done in order to celebrate the diversity in tribes and cultures while maintaining a sense of national unity. This is an issue that cannot be addressed in simple terms, but perhaps, the Ministry of Civic Education and National Unity may come in handy. There is a need to sensitise our people so that they are aware of the importance of this fiction we call Malawi. Patriotism has to be a value we must hold dear if we, as a nation, are to make any strides. Divide and rule has never been used constructively – it is a tool employed by powers with selfish agendas to get what they want at the expense of the masses. And of late, politicians have used tribes and culture to divide this small nation which needs unity.

As we celebrate our tribal belonging, we must do so with the understanding that we are cherishing precarious identities that exist at a perpetual vanishing point. In this modern world, diversity is appreciated, but unity must be at the centre of our visions and aspirations. While we belong to different tribes and cultures, we must cultivate some sense of national consciousness that will see us talking more about Malawi and being Malawian than we cherish our belonging to a tribe, district or religion. We can only stand up against corruption, political manipulation and propaganda when we disregard our irrelevant differences and come together as a nation.

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