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Talking Arts: Creating an illiterate nation

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The new edition of Timve and Tsala published by Dzuka reminds me of the old days. Whenever I see pictures of children learning under a tree, sitting on dusty floors, they remind me of myself.

In the late 80s, I had to go through the same experience at Area 30 in Lilongwe. There were several distractions while learning under the tree back then. I remember one experienced driver who drove past our under-the-tree classroom almost every lunch hour. He used to get off his lorry, have a little chat, then ran after the moving lorry, grab the wheel and off he went. He was called the Nganga driver. We used to cheer him on and the teachers would let us see the showtime before going back to class.

The other distraction was the Task Force officers doing their drills. The classrooms were not adequate to accommodate everyone yet the enthusiastic pupils would go to school every day. The following morning, our headmaster would expect everyone to be in their clean uniforms. I remember mama washing our pair of shorts every day. She was not too amused to find razorblades, marbles, stones and bottle tops in the pockets. How do I recount all that and tell it to the readers of this column several years later?

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Already, the technocrats have done much damage to our education system by disregarding the need to build proper schools, proper administration of national examinations and giving teachers incentives that must spur them on all the time. Already, teachers go through a lot of frustrations that would soon kill their spirit and the nation will be doomed forever.

Not long ago, there was a proposal that humanities’ subjects should not be compulsory but students should be free to choose. I found this to be another mistake that aimed at creating a nation of illiterates. This would be a nation that would not tell the history of the Yao, the Chewa, the Tumbuka or the Lhomwe.

The need to know one’s roots has been emphasised in history. The call to abolish slavery left a lot of people scrambling for knowledge to understand where they came from. Political activist Marcus Garvey who advocated for Africa for Africans, concluded that “a people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” The tree without its roots would not stand if there was a storm. Now do we question our children’s liking for foreign music and movies if we allow our education system to starve them of knowledge?

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But I would doubt if Marcus Garvey’s words mean anything to the officials in government who believe that humanities have only made us poor as a country. I am convinced that nine out of every 10 government officials who make such horrible decisions send their children to the UK or the US where they go through ‘proper’ education while an ordinary boy or girl has to endure the consequences of bad decisions.

Is the Ministry of Education not littered with individuals with PhDs who are supposed to advise the government on such issues? The shocking decisions that the officials make affect ordinary Malawians not their sons or daughters. It is immoral to make decisions that would doom this country forever yet their sons or daughters have never learned under a tree.

Educationists would emphasise the importance of humanities and our desperation – after 52 years of independence – to develop as a country must not drive us to destruction. Humanities include study of philosophy, music, literature, history, art, religion and other subjects from cultures across the world. These form the foundation of the creative industry today. The Ministry of Economic Planning and Development recognises the untapped opportunities for growth offered by the creative industries such as arts, crafts, audio visuals, books, design, films, news, visual and performing arts.

We might not like the Naija films but the contribution of the film industry there to the economy is quite huge. Surprisingly, more efforts are still on tobacco growing in Malawi yet we are well aware that the anti-smoking groups have influenced policies on the international market. We choose the hard way when arts or tourism would surely give us an easier path to development. But it is obvious that there are several officials within government that are ignorant of the path we need to follow to develop as a country.

Don’t make wrong decisions because your children would not be affected; that is immoral. If these technocrats truly believe in the quality of our education, let them not send their children to St Andrews High School or Kamuzu Academy. Let them experience what I went through growing up; learning under a tree. I remember all this because of that Nganga driver – may he continue resting in peace.

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