Youth, leadership and nonviolence – A global education imperative

Published on Pambazuka News, by Steve Sharra, Dec. 09, 2010.

Fearful of a return to the days when ‘party youths went wild beating up opposition politicians with impunity’, Steve Sharra asks what can be done to ‘tame’ and ‘redirect’ Malawi’s young people ‘toward peaceful, nonviolent expressions of their views and beliefs’. A discussion with a group of secondary school students provides him with some inspiration.

In the early hours of Tuesday 30 November 2010, a group of students at Viphya Private Secondary School in the city of Mzuzu in northern Malawi fought one another, and destroyed school property worth millions of kwacha. Police came to the scene just before dawn and arrested 54 students, 17 of them girls, according to Zodiak Broadcasting Station. It is not clear what caused the violence, but school authorities have dismissed suggestions that it stemmed from frustrations to do with poor sanitation, lack of entertainment, and poor diet, according to The Nation newspaper (1 December 2010). 

The violence that erupted at Viphya Private Secondary School on this night raises questions of the type of education offered to young people in Malawi, Africa and around the world. Of pertinence here is the concept of global education, celebrated around the world the week of Monday 15 November ending Friday 19 November. The theme for this year was ‘Peace and Nonviolence for the Children of the World’.

I spent one afternoon that week with students of Maghemo Secondary School, in the northern district of Karonga, near the Malawi-Tanzania border. Our discussion was guided by the question of what the term ‘global education’ meant, and why the theme, ‘peace and nonviolence’, was relevant to Malawi and to the world … //

… Malawians have been waiting for statements at party and government levels setting the record straight as to whether or not the kind of conduct displayed by the youths in full view of their leadership will be tolerated. Failure to set the record straight here would be interpreted by some as condoning political violence. Columnist Levi Kabwato mused in his Sunday Times column of 21 November that ‘the DPP is essentially the UDF (United Democratic Front), at least they share the same DNA.’ It is up to the respective parties to respond and correct that perception, or keep quiet and leave no one in doubt. The advice from Tenthani, in his ‘Muckraking’ column tellingly titled ‘Tame the rascals’, was timely: ‘if left untamed party youths can mar a leader’s otherwise clean legacy.’

Will it be enough to tame the youths and redirect them toward peaceful, nonviolent expressions of their views and beliefs? Or is there more that needs to be done before things revert to the dreaded past? What obtained during the era of UDF’s rule, when party youths went wild beating up opposition politicians with impunity, was not new. It was merely a perpetuation of what had obtained during the one-party regime. Youths were given the role of unthinking demagogues who guarded the ill reputation of their erstwhile masters and mistresses with reckless abandon. The airport ‘press rally’ incident tells us there is no guarantee that those days are irretrievably gone. They could come back.

One thing we might want to do as a nation to effectively curb this tendency is to go beyond proselytising about peace and nonviolence. We seem to know little, as a nation, about the psyche that makes this kind of conduct possible. It is imperative to analyse this phenomenon by studying it, and the perpetrators too, carefully. Rather than further demonise youths who seem not to know the difference between sycophancy and critical thinking, we need to engage them in a discussion on what it means to have a free press, and to advocate freedom of expression. These are lessons that seem to have fallen by the wayside since 1992 when the bishops opened our eyes.

This ought to be a broader, national discussion on what kind of leadership we envisage for Malawi’s future, as University of Malawi political scientist Dr Blessings Chinsinga suggested in his Sunday Times column of 14 November, one day before the airport incident. Dr Chinsinga’s call is worth repeating: ‘…there is an urgent need for a leadership revolution in all spheres of life. We need new leadership that is motivated by an ethos of trust, honour, integrity and service.’ Dr Chinsinga believes that this kind of leadership does not happen on its own accord; it needs to be propagated through proper training. He wrote that our university campuses were devoid of a ‘culture of critical engagement’, reduced to ‘welfarism’. The effect of this was being seen in youth wings of political parties, which Dr Chinsinga said ‘require an urgent reorientation of their role in politics.’ He went on to call upon youth wings to exercise autonomy so as to develop their leadership potential to the highest levels of their parties’ political structures.

What I saw at Maghemo Secondary School on 17 November gave me hope that whereas ‘critical engagement’ might indeed be dead on university campuses in Malawi, there are Malawian secondary school students ready and eager to seize the opportunity and claim their rightful place. But this will not happen on its own. It will need the support of discerning teachers, parents, the entire educational system, and the wider Malawian community. It will need learning lessons from Malawian, African and world events, with an emphasis on global social justice. The events at Viphya Private Secondary School on the morning of Tuesday 30 November happened two weeks after the commemoration of Global Education Week with its theme on peace and nonviolence for the young people of the world. Although one small isolated incident, the Viphya school violence might be instructive for schools in Malawi and elsewhere in discussing prospects for peace and nonviolence education.

While visiting India in early November, President Bingu wa Mutharika paid his respects at Mahatma Ghandi’s resting place. He was honoured with a bust of Gandhi, and was given copies of books written by Gandhi. This was a pivotal moment of the state visit, and should have a bearing on how Malawi can promote Gandhi’s ideals of peace and nonviolence. Gandhi’s genius was that nonviolence requires more courage and discipline than violence. Gandhi led a nonviolent revolution that drove the British out of India, and won independence for his country. Peace and nonviolence is also what Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, among others, have preached and practiced. It is what uMunthu teaches. The Chichewa proverb, ‘Nkhondo siimanga mudzi’ (war does not build a village) – offers a Malawian perspective on nonviolence. Global education is a good starting point for peace and nonviolence for the children of the world. (full long text).

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