Several years ago, I was given the responsibility of recruiting engineers for the printing organisation which I worked for. As it turned out, all the engineers I picked were from the Northern Region. My bosses were puzzled over how I, a non-northerner, could have so â€˜favouredâ€™ people from the North.
The truth of the matter was that most of the applicants were northerners and when short-listing and final selection came, there was a higher probability of landing on a northerner than on a non-northerner. Simple.
Many people have wondered why people from the North have a near universal hunger for education.
I attribute the low school patronage in the Central and Southern regions of Malawi to absentee fathersâ€”fathers who are physically available to their children, but in terms of control and influence are absent. In huge chunks of these areas, a matrilineal system of family organisation is practised. Strictly speaking, a father has no real attachment to his children in such a system. They (the children) belong to and, therefore, are the responsibility of their maternal uncles. Every father consciously or sub-consciously knows that his children are the mbumba (the clan) of their maternal uncles. In the event of a divorce, for example, the motherâ€™s clan (not the fatherâ€™s) will have custody of the children under a strict matrilineal system.
And because they are so detached from the children, few fathers shoulder the responsibility to encourage their children to go to school. They may not even know if their children are attending school or not, and they would hardly be bothered about it. After all, these are somebody elseâ€™s mbumba. Of course, there are exceptions to this generalisation. I know of men who have defied the odds and have exerted a great deal of control on their children with the result that such children have successfully gone through secondary school and, in some cases, university. But such men are few and far between in the matrilineal societies.
The real tragedy is that the maternal uncles, whose responsibility the children are supposed to be, are, almost without exception, not attached to their mbumba closely enough to exert any meaningful control over them either. To begin with, the children and the uncles would hardly live in the same house or compound. These and other factors present numerous challenges in the execution of maternal unclesâ€™ responsibilities to faithfully mentor and guide their nephews and nieces. They simply do not have enough incentives to do so.
By contrast, in patrilineal societies of the North, a father has direct control over his offspring. They belong to him according to custom, and they naturally share the same name as him. He will do everything possible to encourage them to go to school, because he is aware of the negative consequences of failed children for him personally.
Why do mothers not exert the same influence over their children in matrilineal societies as fathers do in patrilineal societies? For sure, mothers can, if properly enabled, exert that kind of influence, but somehow society recognises that in family organisation it is a male figure who is the leader. It is for this reason that uncles, not mothers, are given responsibility over children in a matrilineal system. Moreover, even if a mother was enabled to be the leader and mentor of her family, it would require breaking an extensive cycle of educational quagmire for her influence to translate into sending children to school. Again this is a generalisation, and there are admittedly exceptions across the landscape, albeit few and isolated.
I hope I am not misunderstood. This is not a wholesome condemnation of the matrilineal practice. A matrilineal system exists for a very good reason.
However, the matrilineal practice poses challenges such as the ones indicated in the earlier part of this discussion. It needs to be panel beaten in order to surmount these challenges and be responsive to modern demands of society.
We need deliberate interventions from government to address this problem, interventions that are not perceived as discriminatory such as the quota selection methodology for higher education. I do not know exactly what shape or form these interventions would take, but in the extreme case, failure to send children to school could be criminalised. –The author is a printing service provider and a social commentator.