Young, gifted and broken?

AS YET another conference confirmed what we already know about the state of young people in Malawi, yet another girl, aged below 16, was reportedly raped by her schoolteacher. In a normal society, a schoolteacher is a trusted citizen, a custodian of the values we seek to impart on our children and the embodiment of uprightness and integrity.

Children scavenge for maize floor at a maize mill in the hunger stricken southern district of Chikwawa.

Children scavenge for maize floor at a maize mill in the hunger stricken southern district of Chikwawa. What does the future hold for them? pic: Thoko Chikondi 

In Malawi, however, we have successfully normalised the abnormal. We are long past the stage at which, even in the midst of fierce contradictions, we can claim some semblance of normalcy. We are an abnormal country, with abnormal people, abnormal attitudes and quite frankly, abnormal citizenship.

In 2016, the rape of a minor is casually reported as normal occurrence. In the same year, the abnormality of public service delivery – unprecedented electricity and water cuts – is accepted without question, government excesses are cheered at and mediocrity (a national pastime and identity) is celebrated.

The said conference, on National Population and Development, ended on a very sobering note last Thursday in Lilongwe, exposing the extent to which we have normalised the abnormal. In short, unless something is done URGENTLY, the free-fall this country is in will take generations, if not centuries to arrest and centuries more to restore Malawi on a path of genuine progress. Restoration assumes, of course, that there has previously been a time in which Malawi was on the path of progress.

In 2014, I took a road trip between Blantyre and Mzuzu. Apart from the lush, captivating scenery along the way, I was fascinated at the number of people roadside as I drove. There is not some ten 10 kilometres that I drove without encountering a human being on either side of the road. And that is over a distance of close to 700km!

“Malawi’s population,” says a report launched at the conference, “increased from about 4 million in 1966 to about 13 million in 2008. The population is further projected to reach about 41.2 million by 2050, according to estimates from the United Nations Population Division.”

In a normal society, this is not an inherently bad thing. Ours, however, is an abnormal society. This means, therefore, that we have no plan for containing all these people who are going to be introduced into our population. Without a plan, we will have to share already meagre resources, which cannot even meet current needs and demands, with an even bigger population. What’s the worst that could happen?

“The Status Quo and Economic Emphasis scenarios (mapped in the report) would lead to a reduction of the current average birth rate from about 5 births per woman to 3.94 children per woman and the total population of 43 million people by 2054. The dependency burden on the working age group will marginally decrease from 0.99 in 2014 to 0.69 in 2054, and the country will continue to harbour a high child-dependency burden.”

If things remain the way they are, it will take us over thirty years to manage childbirths and only marginally reduce the dependency burden on those in work.

Is this not staggering? And, against all of this, are shocking statistics that see 46% of girls in Malawi getting married before they reach adulthood. That’s nearly half of Malawi’s girls! And, if these girls are forced – which is likely – into marriage, then it would appear as if their only duty is nothing else but to bear children. Children giving birth to children. Is there any bigger waste of dreams and potential? Why has this become so normalised that it does not anger many people and drive them into action?

If we can’t have these girls grow up in normal environments that can support their hopes, dreams and aspirations then we are failing our Future. If we sit by and tolerate the rape of school girls by their teachers then we are complicit in their violation and in depriving Malawi of benefits emanating from young people’s productive capacity.

We ought to be ashamed. Still, we must do one better and challenge the abnormalities that we have normalised. The said report offers insight into areas that need working on.

“Malawi’s aspirations to transform into a technologically driven upper middle-income country can massively benefit rom the demographic dividend, which is not guaranteed and it is time bound.”

It adds: “So the country must act quickly by concurrently prioritising policies and investments to accelerate fertility decline, improve human capital, accelerate economic growth and job creation for its rapidly growing working age population, and enhance good governance and accountability in service delivery and use of public resources.”

None of this is beyond us as a country. It’s not rocket science. Unfortunately, it is young Malawians who have to pay for the sins of their fathers and mothers who failed to envision a prosperous, developed and wealthy country for their children. Hence, in 2016, young Malawians are confronting issues that their peers elsewhere in the world do not have to contend with. This sets us back massively.

Fortunately, young people in Malawi are not easily broken…


This article has a second part, available here.


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