A recent survey found that Mali was the poorest country in Africa. Trailing Mali in third position was Malawi. This news is hardly inspiring.
That Mali is leading the band of Africa’s poorest countries is particularly intriguing because the country produced the world’s richest person of all time, Mansa Musa. It shows that Mansa as an individual was indeed super-rich but his fellow Malians knew close to nothing about creating wealth. The culture of creating wealth did not rub on to them.
Individuals can have talent but unless it is embraced in a culture, that talent will not develop to its optimum level, or if it develops to some level, it will, at best, stay isolated and will have little impact on the community.
I have heard people lament the absence of even basic manufacturing in Malawi. We import things like cotton lint although we grow plenty of cotton here. It is so because manufacturing is not in our culture. Those that invent things or manufacture items do not do so by accident. Invention is usually a lengthy process, sometimes accompanied by a long series of trial and error attempts. Thomas Eddison failed numerous times before he finally succeeded in inventing the light bulb. Only a viable culture can sustain inventions and manufacturing.
What is important is that the prevailing culture must embrace activities that make inventions or manufacturing possible. Talent is not the issue. Culture is. There is an abundance of talent in Malawi but people lack the culture to transform such talent into something credible. In fact the Malawian culture does the opposite because anybody that begins to do something quickly becomes a suspect of witchcraft or satanism. William Kamkwamba of Kasungu is a case in point. When he hoisted his windmill on a tall wooden tower, locals began to spread rumours to the effect that it was a landing site for wizards.
What I mean by culture in this context is the involvement of the community in the developments that any member of that community may champion, so that where one individual stops another may take over and continue with the same development. All development that has taken place elsewhere in the world has come about in this manner. Karl Benz, for example, studied what his colleagues had done or were doing and incorporated the knowledge he gained thereby into his own invention to produce the first motor car. The combustion engine he used had been developed by Nicolas Otto, a fellow German.
I was privileged to attend the commemoration of Andrew Murray Msyamboza at Chibanzi in Dowa last year. Msyamboza was one of the most brilliant individuals that this country has ever produced. Without any assistance from extension workers (because they did not exist during his time), he went into full-scale irrigation and grew such crops as wheat and cashew nuts. He used to make his own bread from the wheat and the surplus he sold to white communities in this country and in Mozambique. From the oil that was extracted from the cashew nuts, he would make soap. Msyamboza died in 1926, which means much of his enterprise must have taken place in the latter part of the 19th century.
Sadly the Chibanzi of today bears no resemblance to the place that hosted an individual like Msyamboza. There is hardly any irrigation there now; wheat or cashew nuts are as alien to Chibanzi today as liquid water is to Mars. The Chibanzi culture did not embrace Msyamboza’s flashes of brilliance and when he died, so did his enterprise.
Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak are the brains behind Apple products. Perhaps the most well known of Apple products are the ipad and the iphone. In their youth, the two Steves spent many hours attending club meetings at Honeydew where the latest computer circuitry was under serious discussion. These meetings used to take place during night hours. They (the two Steves) did not spend their nights at Kamba discussing little nothings. They belonged to a different culture. It is that culture which pushed them to the cutting edge of modern technology.
As Malawians, we need a culture of continuity to ensure that developments by individuals do not stall when those individuals are no longer with us. So far this has not been the case and we have lost many initiatives that would have grown into big projects, as a result. We need to change our culture.
The author is a provider of printing services and a social commentator.