It is common knowledge that Malawians will blame anything but themselves for their unfortunate human condition, to use Andre Malraux’s coinage. Interview any prostitute, sorry, sex worker, and the blame is on poverty, societal conditions, and a father’s escape from his chikamwini responsibilities. Mothers’ are rarely blamed for their parenting failure. But when you put it to her or him that in Malawi over 80 percent of the people, particularly in rural areas, are extremely poor but they rarely opt for sex work or stealing, you will rarely get a convincing answer.
Sometime back, Malawi faced a seemingly organised spate of rape and defilement of girls and women. The men who raped and defiled the women and girls, respectively, blamed their libidinous actions on the victims, the women. They argued that the girls and women did not dress ‘properly’ as miniskirts and bare chests became too revealingly irresistible. However, then leader of the opposition in Parliament, John Z.U. Tembo, wondered why there was virtually no rape and defilement in areas where men and women share beaches.
John Tembo rightly said the problem did not lie within Malawian or African culture. Miniskirts were nothing new to Africa since for centuries African women wore simple miniskirts made from tree bark (nyanda). And walked bare-chested. Men simply strapped a bark-kerchief to hide the most essential part of maleness. This is still common among the San people of Botswana.
Anthropological studies reveal that the poor do not necessarily steal to survive and the revelation of human private parts does not necessarily lead to rapes and defilement. Why? In every society, rules, regulations and attendant sanctions keep people in check.
Recently, international media told the world that over 12 500 Malawian girls from four districts have fallen pregnant since schools were closed due to the enraging Covid-19 pandemic. When the underage pregnancies get tallied countrywide, Malawi will get into the Guinness Book of Records.
Strangely, these pregnancies are being blamed on Covid-19 and closure of schools. However, for the first time parents are acknowledging that they have lost control of their children; that all along the children were being raised for them by someone else. For the first time, the role of teachers in the round development of children is silently being recognised. This new realisation should galvanise us to question why Malawian teachers are the most undermined, denigrated, and mistreated lot.
When teachers go to their district education offices or national headquarters in Lilongwe to sort out some issues, they are treated like a piece of toilet paper. Even messengers and guards consider themselves bosses in district and national education offices.
For years, teachers have almost always been the last to be considered for promotions and career advancement. Sometimes teachers’ salaries are reportedly hijacked to pay for the president’s trips nationally and internationally. Those who cannot stomach the insults leave, even with less than five years to retirement.
But the long Covid-19 school break has taught us that in Malawi teachers are our children’s parents and nannies. If the boys and girls were in school, almost three quarters of the underage pregnancies could have been avoided.
On behalf of teachers, we ask Malawians to stand up for teachers’ welfare. In most schools, housing is in short supply. There is no power. Not even solar power. No potable water. Not even from a clean water well to draw from. In 2020?
In one school in Dowa, there are two teachers handling all the subjects at all school levels. The head teacher doubles as the librarian. His house, made of raw mud brick, grass thatch and raw mud floor (yozira), doubles as a school store where all learning and teaching materials are kept. During month ends the teachers take turns to leave the school and the students and cycle to Dowa District headquarters to access their salaries.
Which school is this one? Don’t worry. Just remember that teachers, the people who keep your children safe from pregnancies and other uncouth behaviours are treated like they are members of the lowest caste. The nannies of your children are badly treated by everyone in the system, including messengers and guards. Just remember this as you wait for schools to reopen.