To most Malawians, the race to Malawi Young Pioneer (MYP) bases evokes memories of war-like scenes of December 1993 when Malawi Defence Forces unleashed their arsenal on the units of the one-time armed wing of founding president Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda’s one-party machinery. Code-named Operation Bwezani, the crackdown saw the soldiers disarming and dismantling the armed squad of Malawi Congress Party (MCP) which had usurped powers of both the police and army.
But in Chitipa, the case in point is a renewed scramble for ruins of the disarmament mission witnessed shortly after MYP ‘green-shirts’ killed a soldier in Masasa, Mzuzu, on December 1 1993.
“The country needed to do away with the MYP for a peaceful transition to multiparty politics from Kamuzu’s one-party regime, but there is need to refurbish the remains of the bases and put them to better use, especially to uplift the youth who are being ruined due to lack of skills,” says Raphael Mkumbwa.
Mkumbwa, who has been battling to lease the devastated base in the name of Paradox Institute for the Youth, which he opened last year, hoped to bring back the shelled campus to the original dream of youth empowerment as envisioned by Kamuzu when he founded MYP in the 1960s. In Mkumbwa’s reasoning, a nationwide project to train the youth in agriculture and other trades might have been hijacked by political militarism with the enthronement of Kamuzu as Life President in 1971.
But in the midst of limited access to university, democratic Malawi cries for more institutions to offer quality technical, vocational and entrepreneurial training to thousands of the district’s school leavers.
Paradox aims to solve the mysteries of unskilled youth in the district with no State-run training institution and he prefers his approach to training “learning by doing”.
However, the dream takeover of Chitipa MYP base went up in smoke two years ago when the then Minister of Youth and Sports Enoch Chihana stopped him from making renovations supposedly sanctioned by the district council.
“Four years ago, we started processing the leasing of Chitipa MYP base and Beit Trust offered us K3 million for renovations. However, the youth were the main loser when the minister, Chihana, unceremoniously halted the plans in 2013,” laments Mkumbwa.
Like most African countries, Malawi’s population, estimated at 16.3 million, is said to be mainly youthful with women, bearing nearly six children each. The 2010 Malawi Demographic Health Survey (DHS) indicated 57 in every 100 Malawians are below 18 and slightly over 74 have not reached their 30th birthday.
Population experts say this could be a time-bomb as government may pay an exorbitant price to cure ill effects of not investing in the youth—dependency on ageing breadwinners, soaring crime, worsening alcoholism and drugs abuse, seemingly endless loafing and many more.
In their talk, the country stands to gain economically if it invests in transforming the majority of the youth into working-class and enterprising citizens with the skills to uplift themselves as well as their families, ageing guardians, communities and country.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) calls the long-term economic benefit ‘the demographic dividend’.
As demographic dividend becomes a global buzzword, the country is mulling over a study on how it can harness its broad youthful population into truly ‘leaders of tomorrow’.
This calls for more than just political rhetoric, according to UNFPA population and development specialist Bill Chanza.
“The demographic dividend is about action in three Es—to empower, educate and employ the youth.
“This partly requires governments place the youth at the centre and explore ways to take advantage of their large population, through developing the right policies and making the right investments to unleash their potential to contribute to rapid and sustainable socio-economic development.”
To him, enhancing coverage and quality of skills development from secondary education to tertiary level is part of the new deal.
Actually, this was the reason the former minister of youth stopped the renewal of Chitipa MYP Base, pushing nearly a 100 boys and girls in need of skills for a better future into learning precariously in an incomplete lodge. Here, Mkumbwa is training 70 young Malawians out of nearly 300 who applied this year.
To Chihana, this was government land and it had to be reserved for grander plans to uplift the youth.
This was echoed by Minister of Labour, Youth and Manpower Development Henry Mussa who said: “MYP was a government agency and the remaining property is public property. We are determined to use the property lying idle all over the country to transform the futures of the youth.”
The majority of the sites for 11 community technical colleges President Peter Mutharika launched in March and the 17 yet to come are former MYP posts, said Mussa.
Technical, Entrepreneurial and Vocational Education Training Authority (Teveta), which promotes and regulates skills development in the country, sees the community colleges supplementing the few formal technical colleges—Mzuzu, Nasawa, Lilongwe, Soche, Salima and Namitete. According to Teveta head of training programmes Wilson Makulumiza-Nkhoma, the colleges take no more than 2 000 candidates a year.
“The unmet demand for skills is rising. We get over 10 thousand applications every year, but we can only offer places between 1 500 and 2 000 aspirants,” says Makulumiza Nkhoma.
To increase access to skills development, Chitipa MYP base was earmarked to be renovated among pioneer community-based technical colleges, but it was found wanting due to the battering it got during Operation Bwezani.
Opposite Chitipa customs office, we saw the monument of Operation Bwezani that is the 2.0 hectare with two buildings battered, looted and burnt. No windows. No doors. No roofs. No frames. No guard in sight. Overgrown bushes inside out.
A local, Alex Nyondo, fascinated by clicks of a camera, likened government and Mkumbwa to dogs fighting for a bare bone.
“It’s nothing much,” said Nyondo, 29. “The armed forces flattened the bases as if they were at war with another country and government does not know how they can use it to develop the county.”
So dilapidated is the base that Mussa confirmed they quickly discarded it in January because it would need more money to refurbish.
In between, the ministry flirted with shifting the community college to another MYP base at Kasama where government wants to put a transit camp for refugees.
Just when Chitipa residents say they cannot wait much more, Kasama has found itself at the centre of a tussle whereby the surrounding population is petitioning the district council for nodding to the plans for a camp.
‘Invest in schools and initiatives that empower our children’ was the catchword when the protestors marched to the DC office last month.
Such are the voices against doing business as usual as the youth multiply that both district officer Youngson Ngwira and his labour counterpart Mackinon Mogha are calling for greater investment to make young Malawians reliable leaders of sustainable development, not a burden