Travel guides speak highly of the mesmeric greetings visitors get in the Warm Heart of Africa, but not every salutation radiates affection and courtesy.
With no national identity cards, security agents sometimes say “muli bwanji?” to figure out travellers’ nationality—and some Malawians end up being thrown out of buses when the greeting sounds Greek.
Muli bwanji? (How are you?)
It was 1.45pm at Hara Roadblock, nearly 100 km south of Karonga Town. The tarmac road splitting the border district is smooth, wide and straight. Immigration officers were on the lookout for illegal immigrants.
Dutifully, they greet nearly all passengers when they stop minibuses.
The random greetings to catch migrants with no valid documents can be more tedious in bigger buses, often restricted to a few pronounced features.
At Hara, an officer emerged from a tent, jumped in, gazed left and right and silently lurched to the end of the aisle. Going back to the front, he kept greeting people here and there, especially giants that are dark in complexion and slim frames with light skins.
The patrol squads associate the dark-skins with Burundians and Tanzanians just as the light complexion is related to Ethiopians, Eritreans and Somalis escaping the Horn of Africa, some insiders said.
“Muli bwanji?” he said.
Many passengers reply: “Tili bwino, kaya inu?”
As the officer moved on to the next client—often without complimenting favourable replies—the officer bumped into few who either did not respond or opted to reply in their varied mother tongues: Tumbuka, Tonga, Kyangonde, Chiyakyusa, Chidali, Chisukwa and Chilambia.
The country’s languages include Chisena, Chiyao, Chilhomwe and Chingoni.
Such is the multiplicity of tribes that State agents cannot rightly judge one’s citizen by either language or skin tone.
Adrian Mwandumbula, from Mwakaoko in Karonga North, responded in Kyangonde—asserting his mother tongue is inferior to no other.
“Is my language my nationality?” he asked when an immigration officer asked him for a passport. “Do I need to use a passport in my own country. Do I become a lesser Malawian because I speak Kyangonde?”
Chichewa has been taught in school for decades since September 1968 when Kamuzu Banda’s one-party regime made it a national language.
Its status was a sticky issues during the constitutional review muted almost 10 years ago.
Proponents spoke of national unity, likening Chichewa to English in England.
However, historian-cum-columnist Desmond Dudwa Phiri and other critics drew attention to cultural diversity, equality of Malawians regardless of tribes and their right to use mother tongues.
The debate over languages remains emotive and taking sides is never easy.
But United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) promotes the mother tongues.
“My language does not make me a second-class citizen. It cannot make foreigners Malawians either,” retorted Misuku resident Amon Mbukwa in Chisukwa.
The Immigration Department sometimes captures illegal immigrants stuttering to say: “Ndili bwino Kaya inu.”
However, its spokesperson Wellington Chiponde says no language can replace valid travel documents.
“We don’t necessarily rely on languages,” he said. “Some Malawians, born in Malawi and of Malawian parentage can fail to speak Chichewa because they grew up abroad. Similarly, a foreigner can be fluent. Language is not nationality,”
In the 1880s, colonial masters “shared Africa like a cake”, leaving some of the countries with tribal cousins in Zambia, Tanzani and Mozambique.
Call for national IDs
Chiponde reckoned probing the interviewees’ area of origin usually proves successful when the suspected migrants fail the test.
He stated: “The interrogations work, but we expect foreigners to carry their passports and other documents to enjoy freedom of movement. When the National Registration is over, Malawians will be expected to carry their national identity cards. This will enhance border security.”
National Registration Bureau (NRB) spokesperson Norman Fulatira was optimistic such incidents will finally be history following the start of compulsory registration this month.
“Truly, a foreigner can travel without necessary papers from Mchinji Border to Salima on the shores of Lake Malawi because they have mastered our language. The national registration system will offer a positive identification platform when completed and adopted by security agencies,” he said.
Government has been has been dillydallying to provide national IDs since 2003.
The bureau was established in 2005, with Parliament passing the National Registration Act in 2009.
The sluggish pace, underfunding and political inertia have left the country the only Southern African Development Community (Sadc) member State without a nationality cards—spectacularly overtaken by Mozambique which started much later.
After years of talk, workshops and tours, the registration process seems back on track having being touted as central to the ongoing Public Sector Reforms Programme being spearheaded by Vice-President Saulos Chilima.
Provision of the anticipated IDs to nearly 5 000 Malawians in selected districts got off to a smooth start on August 1, Fulatira said.
The district included Chitipa, Nkhata Bay and Mzimba in the Chitipa; Salima, Lilongwe, Dowa and Mchinji in the Centre; and Blantyre, Mangochi, Thyolo and Chikwawa in the South.
“The first phase is basically proof of concept. We identified 27 sites in these districts to test the procedure, logistics and equipment. It appears we are good to go to the next level of registering all civil servants. After that, we will kick-start a nationwide exercise to register all Malawians,” Fulatira said.
The mass registration will be bankrolled by government and donors to the tune of $50 million (almost K37.5 billion) .
The bankrollers envision registration improving child protection as well as bringing efficiency in ultilsation of state-sponsored services, including unburdening the health sector which serves foreigners, especially neighbours, free of charge.
It will also reduce social profiling.
That is what former president, the late Bingu wa Mutharika’s daughter, Duwa, termed the silent hurt Malawians suffer when authorities judge nationality by one’s tongue.
Having been admittedly made to wait on the roadside for minutes at Dedza Roadblock because law enforcers mistook her accent for a Zimbabwean. she stormed the newsroom of her Guardian newspaper saying growing up in Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and America does not make her a lesser Malawian.
Malawians are being subjected to unfair treatment based on their languages. Its social profiling. It’s discrimination?”
The discriminatory tendency by law enforcement officials of targeting people for suspicion of crime based on the individual’s race, ethnicity and origin is akin to State-sanctioned tribalism.
The national IDs will not only help Malawians of diverse backgrounds identify themselves without feeling superior or inferior to each other based on their mother tongue.