When my father went to school in the 1940s and the 1950s he did so because missionaries had established schools in this country. What was uppermost in the minds of the missionaries was that they should offer some education to the locals to prepare them to become teachers and, a few of them, pastors.
Indeed my father did become a teacher initially and later a pastor. Hardly any students that time would have ambitions beyond becoming a teacher one day. When my father sent me and my siblings to school, the expectation was that I would get employed perhaps in the private or the public sector, in that order of priority. The options were a good deal more for me than for my father but everything pointed towards employment.
It never crossed anybody’s mind in those days that being self employed was an option. I grew up thinking that an individual indigenous Malawian could not own a bank or a hotel.
It therefore came as a big surprise to me when I shared an apartment with two Kenyans in the United Kingdom to learn that their parents owned companies, and that they (the students) were on self sponsorship. One of them was called Wainaina Kairo. I quickly learnt that his father owned a hotel. The other one’s name was Ken Karume. I cannot remember what sort of business Ken’s parents owned but I do remember that he too was self-sponsored.
Malawians have not yet embraced the culture of owning decent businesses and creating employment. What they regard as more natural is to wait until some company or organisation employs them. Those that completed college in the 1970s often talk proudly of the myriad of opportunities that chased them even before they left college premises. That, to them, was the pinnacle of good fortune.
It is true that employment offers a great deal of financial security and, in some cases, excellent perks. A former college mate of mine has a car allowance that I can decently live on for months. It is obviously great to be in that kind of job. However, people must realize that to own and run a business is also an option. In Malawi, almost all businesses are owned by Asians. Apart from dwelling units, Malawians, with but a few exceptions, do not own property in our cities. A stranger in Limbe or Lilongwe or Zomba would be understood if they thought they were in a suburb of Mumbai or Islamabaad and not in Africa.
I have experienced both lives, namely one of being in employment as well as being on my own. Each time I have been employed, I have received a string of congratulations from colleagues. When I have been on my own, people have regarded it as queer and nobody has sent me any congratulations. We still think employment is the ultimate goal to be pursued. This derives, in good part, from the ”instant gratification” attitude that many Malawians have. Many Malawians would not have the patience to wait until a business grows, which may take anything up to five years or longer, before they can buy a car or be seen to be doing well.
A young man I have known very well was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in ICT a few years ago. Somebody asked me to relay some sentiments to him to the effect that ICT was not a career, saying there were hardly any CEOs with an ICT background. I did as requested. The young man took a pause, gazed into the sky for a while and said, “I do not want to be a CEO; I want to employ CEOs.” That, to me, was great ambition. What he was saying was “I do not want to be employed by anybody; I would rather employ people through creation of businesses.”
The only way this country will truly develop is if it is developed by indigenous Malawians. We must cease to be averse to taking risks and starting businesses. We must take the bull by the horns and aim to drive our economy by being major players in it. The surest way of doing that is to own businesses and become employers rather than employees.
We need to conduct an honest search within our education system and our culture to see if we are preparing our young people for the possibility of standing on their own and employing many others.