Saturday, June 08, 2013

About the Undertaking to Resume Studies in the University of Malawi

A couple of weeks ago, we witnessed the University of Malawi being closed down  indefinitely following disagreements between the students and the university administration. I have been following this case very carefully with keen interest because I love my university and my country. There have been a series of rebattle on the matter with both sides challenging its opponent in a court of law. 

I personally did not like the whole process. I do not think education has to move like that: being propelled by injunctions and living under the dictation of the judiciary. No wonder our university still ranks low on the Top 100 Universities and Colleges in Africa and even worse enough, at times it does not appear there at all.

Today, I stumbled upon a document, on the social network, that has been drafted to resolve the indefinite closure of the University of Malawi. I find this document very unrealistic. It does not address the issues that led to the closure of the university. The document tries to alienate the issue of paramount significance which is the whole reason why the university closed down. Instead, it tries to position the students in an awkward situation by pushing them to abide by undisclosed "same conditions" by appealing to their will.

Even if this document says that it is binding for an individual student to confirm his/her willingness to resume classes under same conditions as the ones "at the beginning of the current academic year", it does not rule out the freedom to demonstrate dissatisfaction over the fairness of the unfairness. The freedom to express one's views over any thought or realm of reason is something that Malawi embraced even before democracy came. As much as I would not agree with every reason that the students were demonstrating for (and that is my right not to agree with them), I do not believe this single statement overwrites the freedom we stand for.

I assume that I have better arguments for not asserting to the validity of students' grievances but this form has no better authority to silence them hereafter. The whole reason why students are in the university is to try and find unifying ideas among the diverse rational premises when arguments like these arise. I am glad that it is the same University of Malawi that came out and stood for Academic Freedom a few years ago. That voice sent a signal that while the Government of that time was of the contrary view, the academia on other side had the reason enough to stand for the freedom enshrined in the clauses of the Constitution of Malawi by providing contra-arguments over the action of the State and Government at any point in time.

The greatest search of all time has been the search for unity in diversity. The early Greek philosophers were looking for the same and they invented the "uni-versity" (the academy) to allow for rationalization of diverse thoughts. I believe that the educated cannot be silenced by any particular statements of this kind. Currently, there are opposing ideas between the students and the council, and even within each school of thought there are also contrasting views. In this case, we need an independent but unifying argument to sort this out, not just silencing the converse thought. My belief is that at this time when the university system looks to be heading for ruin, we are lacking a higher authority who can come and provide a unifying position.

As an observer who was once a student in the same university, and as a firm believer of freedom of expression, I still believe that this form has no substance! The university needs a higher authority, a chancellor, to address this case. Unfortunately, without taking a political stance on the matter, it looks like currently the university has no chancellor. The unfair part is our university system imposes a political being as a chancellor, so in the end when I talk like this someone will presume that I am against some political individual. I have only stated a rational idea looking at how things are crumbling down in the face of the most highly respected person in the university. The fact is, in the diversity of ideas we require a unifying objective rational argument from a person charged with such authority of a chancellor.

I am not backing the student's position on the matter, neither am I siding with the Council; but I see a very big gap between the two subsystems and only a higher authority can provide a neutral but unifying position.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Economic Influence of Indigenous Languages and Cultures

Recently, we had the first ever TEDx event in Malawi, TEDxLilongwe. I happened to be one of the speakers. It was a wonderful experience for me because I only hallucinated about speaking at a TED conference. Most importantly, to me the TEDx event came as a bonus: it coincided with my birthday. What a way to spend a birthday!

At TEDxLilongwe presented on my efforts toward development of localized software and computing-linguistic tools to facilitate and enhance usage of Malawi’s de facto national indigenous language, Chichewa. During the talk, I alluded to why I felt that indigenous languages are still very important apart from just being means of communication in the home. Today, I feel propelled to expound more on one of the areas that I focused on: indigenous economic systems.

Limbe Flea Market, Malawi (Photo by Philipp Hamedl)

Everyone has a primary language of communication. As we grew, we became fluent in that language. This is what we often referred to as the mother tongue since it is the language that our parents taught us from our childhood. However, due to globalization we later became obliged to provide some seamless interaction across the world through the use and adoption of languages of economic influence. Naturally or otherwise, some languages have emerged as languages of business; most of which are of Western origin, with exception of the Chinese language. Such languages have monopolized both the day to day business forums and the computer world.

One of the most significant factors that are facilitating globalization is commerce. People are using the internet to procure, purchase or sell items. There is too much business that is happening every minute of the day. As a result of this, we have almost abandoned our primary languages. Implicitly, globalization is becoming some re-invention of the tower of Babel as some languages are little by little being dumped in favor of a competing language of economic significance. However, the significance of indigenous languages in commerce is never emphasized much. While Western languages are influential in international trade, there are a lot more roles that indigenous languages play in traditional economic decisions. This is what is called ethnoeconomics. Indigenous economic systems from various places in the world differ greatly from the standardised western forms of economic organization.

Despite that supermarkets and chain stores came in Africa long time ago, there still exist sunshine boutiques in many of the African townships. Sunshine boutique is term that I am using to describe open space markets dedicated to selling second hand clothes and shoes. The concept of flea markets is refusing to die. The Africans are used to bulk selling and bargaining because they are no tight price tags on the goods and services. This can only happen in traditionally organized markets and not in formal stores. Even though such bulk selling and bargaining may happen in formal stores especially those which are run by locally based Asians, their structure differs vehemently from the traditional market organization.

Quiet tied to the concept of traditional marketing is the idea of the market day. Different traditional markets operate on different special days. During market days, sellers gather at central market areas where they set up temporary shops and open hawkering spaces. Markets may continue to run during non-market days, but the difference is that during those days there are only few items as most sellers shift to another nearby market whose market day falls on that day.

Barter trade is one of the concepts that are refusing to disappear. Barter is a trading system where goods or services are directly exchanged for other goods or services without using money, credit cards or similar media of exchange. Due to various government policies on informal market systems, barter trade generally occurs in an unstructured manner. Barter takes different forms but most popular form of barter is mobile hawkering. This is a system where hawkers move from one village to another exchanging their goods (often shoes and plates) for agricultural produce. But barter is even more subtle than that. In some cases, barter vendors choose to do a piece of work in exchange for some goods. Such pieces of work include constructing traditional toilets (often referred to as pit latrines), escorting a person (often a young one) over a long distance, building a khola (a livestock cage), constructing nkhokwe (storage silos) or even cultivating in a garden.

There are no formalized wages but often times the seller (who is offering the goods or services) and the consumer draw contractual agreements, often unwritten, on pricing. As usual, there is always some bargaining. In Africa, barter trade is very much tied to the philosophical category of umunthu/ubuntu. One of the Malawian philosophers, Steve Sharra, defines umunthu as humanness and not necessarily humanity. In the spirit of umunthu, there are special considerations for sellers or consumers, especially those that have been very compassionate. For instance, during construction, the worker may be offered food and water even though such services were part of the original contractual agreement.

But that is not all. An indigenous language constitutes a cultural identity. There are some traditions where dressing is very tightly confined to an ethnic group as an identity. For example, despite many Maasai now lead the sophisticated urban lifestyles with positions of influence in commerce and government, many still dress in traditionally designed clothes, a shuka (a colourful piece of cloth), cow hide sandals, and carry an orinka (a wooden club) as a sign of loyalty to their cultural identify. But these cultural and traditional customs continue to attract tourists; traditional dances, music, handicrafts, architectures. They are still the centre of tourism and studies around the world. In a way, indigenous languages and culture are playing a very big role in the sector of tourism.

In concluding my TEDx Talk, I posed a question: Does anyone need an indigenous language? Well, as we have seen, language offers a platform for interaction among people. In all these traditional economic systems, language is a necessity. One of the French revolutionists, Charles Maurice said that “Language was given to man to disguise his thoughts.” You kill an indigenous language, you kill the minds!