Whenever I think about the young people in Malawi, two incidents that mirror the state of Malawian youths come to mind. Both are not pretty. One is the killing of Epiphania Bonjesi and the other is how, during election periods, young people drench themselves in paint, to reflect their political choices.
In 2004, nine year-old Epiphania was killed by – so we are made to believe – a stray bullet during a police altercation with protesters following the announcement of election results. Over the years, the memory of this girl has been relegated to the dustbin, never to be remembered again.
Epiphania had a dream. She would have been twenty-one this year and only God knows what sort of girl she would have turned out to be and what sort of dreams she would have nurtured along the way. Yet, that dream went down with that bullet, violently shattering her hopes, dreams and aspirations. That this was caused by men and women who swore to protect and serve her is, perhaps, much more painful than the bullet itself.
More significantly, Epiphania would have had the opportunity to vote – for the very first time in her life – in the 2014 tripartite elections. To think of what opportunities have been lost to this girl, and to her family is heart-breaking. Hers is a death that could have been avoided, it’s a loss that was unnecessary and it is something that this country should be ashamed of having witnessed.
Fenison Kamwaza is a name that not many Malawians will remember. In 2009, this Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) supporter, hurled a stone that injured a ten year-old girl, missing the opposition supporters he was allegedly aiming at.
When she turns eighteen and is ready to vote for the first time in her life, this girl – now seventeen – who suffered injuries at the merciless hands of Kamwaza may not fully remember events dating back to the 2009. Like any other first-time voter, she will be excited at the prospect of finally having a recognizable and conscious say in the way this country is run.
Much unlike the story of any other first time voter, the stories of this child, and Epiphania’s, will forever be scarred by the terrible mark of senseless political violence in Malawi. Their live are the perfect metaphor for how youth in Malawi are abused, denied agency and discarded from national imagination in development processes.
That we have somehow allowed ourselves to move forward and move past the pain and anguish of the loss of Epiphania and other injuries that the young of this country have been subjected is something of a national tragedy. Hence, while many people are busy looking ahead to the next election, it may be necessary to revisit our past, dig deep and find meaning in some of the things that have harmed our national psyche. We owe it to the memory of a girl like Epiphania to realise that elections and other democratic processes in Malawi should not be treated as child’s play, literally.
Our collective youthful energy can be marshalled towards social and economic development as opposed to it being always abused during elections, with young people acquiescing themselves to domination and dehumanization as they clumsily paint themselves pink, brown, orange, purple, yellow or blue. There is more to being a youth than reducing oneself to a political agent of terror and violence.
What we need, therefore, is sincere leadership that can imagine beyond the electoral cycles and begin to see the need for substantial and radical alteration of our development trajectory. For this to be successful, it requires both clarity of vision and unshakable courage. There is no other constituency that possesses these critical ingredients in abundance than the youth of Malawi. And their time is now.
The National Population and Development conference, held recently in Lilongwe should force us to think on this. If it’s true that we have the potential to harness the power of the demographic dividend we have, how come this is not a matter of national concern and urgency? Are we waiting for the next elections to start speaking about young people?
The much-touted youth vote that was expected to influence the 2014 polls did not quite materialise. In my view, a lot of our young people only woke up to the reality of the elections and the whole electoral process only after they could no longer participate in it meaningfully. Many remained unregistered voters and hundreds others did not bother to verify their voter registration details, seek relevant transfers and so on. In short, a lot of the young people who would have wanted to participate in the election but did not disenfranchised themselves.
It is indicting testimony of the levels of political engagement by young people in this country. Beyond this, many of our youth are so displeased with living in Malawi so much that a lot of them are always looking for an opportunity to exit to Johannesburg, Manchester, Perth or Oklahoma. It is a trend that needs to be urgently arrested and reversed if this country is going to make the most of its demographic dividend.
When all is said and done, youths in Malawi must make it their vocation to make this country better. We need to own our processes and be in charge of our destiny.
PART 1 is available here