By Wanangwa Tembo:
Bam Jere is a regular at Luwerezi Trading Centre, some 100 kilometres (km) south-east of Mzimba Boma. He is always seen riding his aged tricycle given to him by Malawi Against Physical Disabilities (Map) in 1984 to ease mobility challenges.
“It is not that I stay here at the trading centre. It takes me some hours to get to this place. Usually, when you see me here, it means I am on duty. But sometimes I ride up to Jenda [30Km north] for personal activities. It takes me only three hours to get there. I am strong,” he says.
Born 48 years ago, Jere, father of three, is one of the 8,000 volunteers attached to voter and civic education provider, National Initiative for Civic Education (Nice) Public Trust.
“I joined Nice in 2001 as a Para-Civic Educator [PCE] here in Group Village Head (GVH) Daniel Jere’s area, Traditional Authority Mabulabo,” he tells his story, leaning back in the seat of his tricycle. “By that time, Nice was only two years old.”
Nice Trust started in 1999 as a European Union funded project established as a response to the knowledge gaps on electoral processes among the people in the then five-year-old democracy.
The advent of democracy and multiparty political dispensation in 1994 begged for the need for a re-education process for Malawians so that there was shared information and values on the requirements of the new political system that ended the 31 years of one-party rule.
In this endeavour, there was a vibrant civil society that emerged to provide civic education to Malawians.
However, a number of experiences quickly came to the fore in the exercise of providing this civic education.
First, it was observed that civic education was mostly theme-based and without the equal emphasis on corresponding duties and responsibilities.
Second, the geographical coverage by the civic educators was mostly limited to urban and peri-urban locations. At the same time, those that went into the interior of the country were not providing continuous civic education.
It was observed that most of the civic education was understood as political education which was being done in a top-down and non-participatory manner such that people’s reorientation towards the new democratic dispensation was missing.
The consequences of these observations became more apparent in the run-up to the second general elections in 1999, despite that the polls registered a higher voter turnout of 94 percent against 1994’s 79.9 percent. Thus, in 1999, Nice Trust was established to offset these challenges.
“I belong to the earliest group of volunteers to join the organisation. We were oriented on what was expected of us. And the journey started like that,” Jere recalls.
As part of the Nice Trust family, he was to contribute towards the strengthening of the democratic process and good governance by providing civic education in a participatory, non-partisan, professional and permanent manner.
Additionally, he was expected to help in providing civic education that would facilitate behavioural and attitude change and mobilise Malawians for participation in public, life including elections.
In a journey spanning 18 years, Jere has now risen to become an Area Civic Education Coordinator (Acecs) – the highest rank of Nice Trust volunteers.
According to the institution’s Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning Officer for the North Region, Prisca Mdziolera, Nice volunteers are ranked in three categories.
“At village level, we have Para-Civic Educators who are supervised by Zone Coordinators. Zone Coordinators are responsible for larger areas – sometimes up to three GVHs. Then there are Acecs, who supervise Zone Coordinators and man big areas known as blocks,” Mdziolera says.
She adds: “Acecs such as Jere coordinate all civic education activities at block level. In some instances, blocks can be as large as constituencies or even bigger. Acecs are the link between all volunteers within a block and the district office where we have District Civic Education Officers.”
She says volunteer work involves conducting civic education activities and filing reports about the same to their respective district officers.
“We do capacity assessment and provide necessary training. However, the frequency of the trainings depends on availability of funds. Nevertheless, they [volunteers] have done a lot towards the objectives of Nice Trust as an institution. We value their contribution,” she says.
Jere worked as a PCE from 2001 until 2008 when he was promoted to Zone Coordinator before being recognised again and made an Acec in 2010. He supervises volunteers in 43 GVHs – an area covering Mzimba Luwerezi and Khosolo constituencies.
“To be an Acec, your fellow volunteers are supposed to recommend you to the district office. My colleagues were impressed with my performance and unanimously recommended that I be promoted and the district office accepted my name,” says Jere.
He says the most challenging period in his work as volunteer is from 2012 when Nice metamorphosed into a Public Trust which coincidentally saw an up-scaling of its activities.
“Most of the areas in my block are hilly. During busy periods like during elections, I have to visit many places. With my tricycle, I have to set off as early as possible. One thing I don’t do is keeping people waiting for me. So, I make sure I start off in good time and arrive at the venue in good time as well.
“For those who see me, they might think that I am being troubled; far from that. I enjoy my work and I am proud of myself. I also thank Nice that it doesn’t discriminate and it also appreciates my contribution,” he says.
He also salutes his supportive wife Gloria Nkhoma whom he married in 2000: “She encourages me and mostly she helps me to prepare for my assignments. She says it is good to be punctual.”
According to Jere, working with different groups of people including politicians, faith leaders and chiefs makes him feel important.
“Sometimes we look down upon ourselves forgetting that there are important roles we can play towards the governing of the country. My 18 years as a volunteer have actually proved this,” he says.
But there are also some issues that worry Jere in his daily voluntary civic education errands.
“There are some people who always dream of getting allowances just for attending an activity whose beneficiaries are the communities themselves.
“Even some chiefs refuse to attend activities that we organise once they know that there will be no allowances. This culture is bad because no country can develop if people have such attitudes.
“Another challenge is that, while Nice emphasises that its volunteers should not be involved in partisan politics, there are scenarios where people will accuse you of being involved in partisan politics just because you greeted a politician,” he says.
Nevertheless, his work is largely satisfactory.
“In 2024, I want people to go and register on their own. They should know, understand and carry out their responsibility without being pushed. I will be happy to see that,” he says.
Nice Trust Civic Education Officer for Mzimba, Cosmas Longwe, hails Jere as a rare gem that defies conventional sense to contribute towards the development of the country.
“We appreciate his mobility challenges and we are trying to support him within our means. That notwithstanding, Jere is a person that will make you forget about his physical status. He is a good illustration of the saying that ‘disability is not inability’. We would be happy to see many patriotic citizens like him,” Longwe says.
Jere and his 7,999 colleagues are actually the link and animators of participatory development that Malawi needs on its long journey to prosperity amidst a culture of allowances. They are the unsung heroes in democratic Malawi.