I was listening to a p r o g r a m m e c a l l e d Apaulendo on one of the local radios a few weeks ago. One person, a kabaza operator, was asked in an interview how far it was from Mponela to Ntchisi. Despite having travelled that distance numerous times, he could not come up with a figure, not even an estimate.
Numeracy is a problem in Malawi. Except in matters of money, we are not given to thinking in terms of numbers. I have stated it before that if you requested for haircutting services in Japan you would be asked to what height your hair should be shaven to. Not so in Malawi! The best you can do in Malawi is point to a shaving style displayed among many others on a wall poster.
Our domestic maid has never been to school. She is totally illiterate and innumerate but when she is dealing with money, she momentarily becomes so numerate that she will be able to pick up any discrepancy, especially i f such discrepancy d i s a d v a n t a g e s h e r. Somehow she is not able to display the same level of numeracy in other fields of life.
Numeracy is the foundation of doing things scientifically, which in turn results in advances in technology. For this country to develop, we must develop our technology and get to the level where we are able to add value to commodities, rather than sell them raw. For us to meaningfully add value to commodities we must embrace a culture of numeracy. I am not talking about rocket mathematics here, not the type of mathematics you would need to execute to send a spaceship to a receding target like Mars.
I f I r e q u e s t e d information on how thobwa is made from the average Malawian, I would get something like “muthire mbale ziwiri za ufa wa chimwera mpoto, ndiye muwiritse (add two plates of flour from fermented seeds to a pot of water and boil)”. This is not precise enough. How big are the plate and pot? How much heat should be supplied and for how long? A better answer would give the exact volumes, perhaps in litres, and the exact duration, in minutes or hours, for boiling the brew. If one wanted to get more scientific—and there will be merits in doing so—they would even give the moisture content, and the average particle size of the flour. That way, the consistent quality of the final product would be guaranteed.
Because our culture does not embrace numeracy, we often talk in general terms. As a result, we get general results from our efforts. Malawians are known for their hard work and this is commendable. But what we lack is the culture of working smart. We cannot work smart if we express in general terms things which should be expressed in precise terms.
Sometimes I buy local snacks from female vendors things like boiled groundnuts or fresh sorghum seeds (mapira). The measurement is always a general one. They would have two small plates, one bigger than the other. A measure taken from the smaller plate would cost K500 and that from the bigger plate K1 000. There is no guarantee that the quantities from either of the plates is consistently the same or indeed that the quantity from the bigger plate is twice that of the smaller one.
One of the contributing factors to our shunning numeracy is that our t r a d i t ion a l w a y of counting is cumbersome, to say the least. Not many people can instantly say the Chichewa word for seventeen, for example. It would be a nightmare to express fractions such as nine seventeenth (9/17) in Chichewa, or indeed in any other local language.
We need to quickly work on this if we are serious about transforming this country into a middle income one. Our reliance, nay over-reliance, on t o b a c c o and o t h e r agricultural commodities will not get us there. We need to develop our technology so that we are able to manufacture t h i n g s r a t h e r t h a n importing everything that is manufactured. Is it not a scandal that although we are able to grow plenty of cotton, yet we still import cotton lint?
Commodities are not a reliable trade item. Every year tobacco growers cry over low prices offered by the buyers. Tobacco buyers wield so much bargaining power in the trade because the switching costs are almost non-existent, meaning that they can easily and cheaply change suppliers.
No country in the world has developed because of tobacco and we need to conduct an honest search within our culture and do what it takes to improve our levels of numeracy, then we will wean ourselves from tobacco