Steve Sharra, Ph.D. writes the amazing blog about Malawi called afrika-aphukira: "Midwiving the Afrikan rebirth. . .
Views of Afrika and the world, on the path to the renaissance, from a
social justice and an Afrikan epistemological perspective–uMunthu.
Includes specific commentary on Malawi and Sub-Saharan Africa.

He wrote an extremely kind piece on me and my work on his blog and in Malawi’s Sunday Daily Times last week:

Unleashing the Mind: William Kamkwamba, Malawian Genius, and the New Media
BY Steve Sharra, Ph.D.
The Sunday Times
08 July 2007

His is the most inspirational story I have read this year. In 2002, William Kamkwamba was unable to continue with his secondary school education, as his parents couldn’t afford the school fees. This was just after two terms in Form 1 (high school freshman), and he was 14 years old.

But his desire to keep reading and learning led him into a library at a nearby primary school in Kasungu, and to a book on how to make electricity. He went ahead and made a windmill just following the instructions in the book. The school library was donated as part of the Malawi Teacher Training Activity (MTTA), a Usaid teacher development project that started in September 2004, and has involved teachers in four districts in Malawi, namely Kasungu, Machinga, Mzimba South, and Phalombe. MTTA involves partners who include the American Institutes of Research (AIR), Miske Witt & Associates (MWAI), and the Malawi Institute of Education (MIE).

I show later in this posting that Kamkwamba’s story holds an important lesson for Malawi and other countries about educational beliefs and practices, and their potential to either facilitate or kill emergent talent and creativity. In addition to William’s story, I use two more examples to make the above point. I write about Andrews Nchessie, a primary school teacher also in Kasungu who is now a teacher educator, and whose own unique story shares similarly fascinating parallels with William. I also write about Nolence Mwangwego, a Malawian teacher of the French language who invented a writing script. I finish with two Malawian farmers who have made significant contributions to agricultural practices in Malawi by inventing new ways of irrigating farms: one is Friday Nikoloma of Thyolo, and the other is Dr. Chinkuntha of Dowa.

When the MTTA deputy chief of party, Dr. Hartford Mchazime heard of William’s windmill and its origins in the library donated by MTTA, he went to visit William. He brought with him journalists, and a story that appeared in The Daily Times (20 November 2006) was picked up by bloggers including Soyapi Mumba () and Mike McKay (). Early last month, the programme director of the Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) annual conference, Emeka Okafor, himself a prominent blogger who saw William’s story on the above Malawian blogs, invited Kamkwamba to attend and talk at TEDGlobal, one of the world’s largest technology conferences, held this year June 4-7 in Arusha, Tanzania.

Kamkwamba’s life has not been the same since. The 2007 TEDGlobal conference was also attended by the likes of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Larry Page (the guy who gave us Google), Phillipe Starck, Bono, and on previous occasions, Bill Clinton, and many other famous Who are Who’s in the world. About three weeks ago he touched a computer for the first time in his life, opened an email account, and two week ago he started his own blog. Comments and congratulations are coming in from around the world, and in the words of one of the organisers at TED, there is a "firestorm" of interest brewing for Kamkwamba.

Not long ago stories like these used to appear once in a generation,
but are now becoming more believable, thanks to the power of 21st
century innovations and technologies. The theme of the African
renaissance, expressed in the phrase Afrika Aphukira, gets full
expression in young people such as William and Andrews, Mwangwego, and
in farmers such as Nikoloma and Chinkuntha, in Malawi, Africa, and
around the world.

There is one major coincidence in Kamkwamba’s and Nchessie’s stories
that I can’t resist writing about. Some time in the mid-1990s, The
Nation published on its front page the story of a primary school
teacher in Kasungu (same district where Kamkwamba hails from) who had
invented an early flood warning system. Being in the 1990s, there were
no blogs at the time, and in Malawi the Internet was non-existent. Thus
the story did not go as far as Kamkwamba’s has. That teacher was
Andrews Nchessie, who became my best friend when I transferred to
Police Secondary School in 1988, from Nankhunda Seminary where I had
been expelled for not seeming to possess the priestly vocation.

Andrews Nchessie did not stop at the early flood warning system. He
went on to introduce fish farming, wind vanes, and other scientific
experiments with his primary school pupils at Kasungu Demonstration
Primary School, on the campus of Kasungu Teachers’ College where he
trained as a teacher. He even organised Open Days at the school,
inviting members of the public, including journalists, to come and see
what pupils at the school were doing. One time his class experimented
with goat urine as a cure for an outbreak of scabies at the school, in
a science unit that involved lab technicians at the Kasungu District
Hospital. This news also made the front page of The Nation.

A scientist and curriculum specialist at MIE, the late Harold
Gonthi, visited Nchessie at his school, and soon started inviting him
to national research conferences for educational researchers in Malawi.
Soon those invitations extended to international conferences in the
region and beyond, and led to an international award for his innovative
teaching. He visited universities and other educational institutions in
Zambia, Mocambique, South Africa, Ghana, Togo, Ethiopia, Ivory Coast,
and recently, Germany and Norway. After spending 13 months at various
universities in Norway in 2005-2006, Nchessie returned to Kasungu
Demonstration Primary School, and to his Standard 4 classroom. With him
he brought more than a dozen computers and networking equipment, which
he used to establish the first ever computer lab at Kasungu Teachers’
College. The administration recognised his efforts and promoted him
from being a primary school teacher to being a lecturer at the
teachers’ college.

There is one very important lesson that the stories of Kamkwamba,
Nchessie, Mwangwego, Nikoloma and Dr. Chinkuntha, which I talk about
later in this article, teach us in Malawi but also in Africa and
beyond. It is very tempting to conclude from the these stories that the
problems affecting our countries, which we like to couch in the
discourse of backwardness, originate in individuals not being committed
enough, not working hard enough. If only every one worked as hard as
William or Andrews, our countries would be very different today.

The problem with this perspective — and here is where the lesson
comes in — is that it attributes the causes of the problems we always
talk about to individuals, blaming them for not being diligent and hard
working enough. And that is where the perspective misses the point.
There is no denying that William and Nchessie are unique individuals
who are serious and thoughtful in their outlook on the world.

To get to where they are today, they have had to overcome
insurmountable problems which many others in their community and in
Malawi have failed to. While individual traits and character do play an
important part in propelling one to greater realisation of their
potential, we live in a world in which many people are never provided
opportunities through which their traits and character can blossom and
shine for the world to see.

There is a conundrum here that is easy to miss. On the one hand,
something is seriously wrong with a system in which somebody like
William is unable to proceed with school because of lack of money for
school fees, or, in Andrews’ case, unable to obtain university
education because he failed to make it to the super-selective
University of Malawi in 1990.

On the other hand, it is not possible to tell with definitiveness
whether William’s talents and hard work would have come out with such a
bang had he been able to continue in a conventional secondary school.
School systems can be places where individuals can indeed blossom and
take off, but they are also known all over the world as places which
can force one’s intellect into a conventional box and stifle one’s
creativity and genius. This is a conundrum which is not easy to resolve.

In Malawi, a huge factor of the limited opportunities for
enterprising individuals such as William and Andrews is the political
economy and its vicious cycle of poorly equipped schools, poorly
trained teachers, and very few opportunities for one to advance beyond
basic education. The political economy of Malawi is tied to that of the
rest of the world, and is affected by instabilities and fluctuations
originating elsewhere in the world.

To qualify for the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC), for
example, countries like Malawi are required to maintain a specific
ceiling on budgetary expenditure, which for some countries means
putting a freeze on hiring new teachers, nurses, and other key
personnel, and also on raising their salaries.

But historical factors also play a role, in how modern education
came to Malawi and what that meant for endogenous ways of producing and
disseminating new knowledge. All these factors have resulted in the
adoption of a system that thrives on beliefs about knowledge and
individual ability that label the majority of people as lacking,
deficient, and undeserving of opportunities for advanced education.

We should be grateful for stories such as William’s, Andrews’,
Nolence’s, Friday’s and Chinkuntha’s, which from time to time renew our
faith in our humanity and in our potential to contribute to the
understanding of our own problems and the pursuit of solutions. They
are young people who show us rare examples of what an excellent teacher
looks like, and how an exceptional student needs the support of the
broader global community in order to realise his or her potential.

These stories should help us rethink how we can better restructure
our economies and political systems so they can benefit more people
rather than only a minority, elite few. More such stories might
hopefully help us better understand how to also rethink not only our
educational practices but also the beliefs that drive those practices
and policies.

Therein lies the exponential potential of new media technologies, a
point made astutely by Mike McKay in an email yesterday. An article
appearing on The Daily Times website was easy to pass on and blog
about, with links. The news spread from one blog to another, until it
reached the eyes of somebody with enough influence to make things
happen. It would be naïve to promise that everyone else who has a
remarkable story to tell will end up being recognised for it, but it is
also true that without these new technologies, it is difficult to say
how far the innovative hard work and achievements of William would have

There are a few other stories of innovations and creativity, in
addition to William and Andrews that unfortunately have not received
wider attention. Recently, an article in The Nation by Kondwani
Kamiyala described how exactly ten years ago this year Nolence
Mwangwego, a teacher of the French language, launched his unique style
of writing called the Mangwego script. The then Minister of Youth,
Sport and Culture Kamangadazi Chambalo lauded the invention, and
expressed that government was going to show interest. Although one
would have hoped that the minister himself would consider his presence
at the launch as government interest, and take the lead in promoting
the invention, very little has come out of that interest.

In April this year I was told, by Bright Malopa, about a farmer in
Thyolo who invented an irrigation system that propels water from a
river and pushes it upland and irrigates his farm. Levi Zeleza Manda
tells me that this farmer’s name is Friday Nikoloma, and he works with
a team of four other farmers. No Malawian needs convincing about the
vital importance of irrigation in Malawi, given the erratic rains we
get from time to time which in recent years have caused severe food
shortages. We are uniquely blessed with a huge lake, and a big river,
which we have so far been unable to utilise for agricultural and food
security purposes.

Another Malawian farmer who has also beaten the odds and sidestepped
a stifling conventional educational system is Dr. Chinkuntha, of Dowa,
said to have devised a farming system that also defies erratic
rainfall. Dr. Chinkuntha never went to university, but his farming
system is frequented by university researchers and students who come
from beyond Malawi and the Africa region to marvel at his genius. The
University of Malawi has recognised his achievements by awarding him an
honorary doctorate.

I am sure there would be more stories of such type if one looked
hard enough. Not all of them will receive the recognition they deserve,
but without the opportunities new media technologies make possible, it
would be even harder to know about these inspiring stories and learn
from them. In taking advantage of the new possibilities unleashed by
technology, a laudable goal will be to work hard at bridging the
so-called digital divide. This entails bringing down costs and making
it less expensive for more ordinary people to afford them.

Such a goal needs the participation of not only government and its
parastatals, but also institutions and individuals with a selfless
spirit and a desire to encourage and promote less privileged Malawians,
who are in the majority, and always working very hard. Thus the change
we envisage in beliefs about educational practices needs to be embraced
by us all in the way we understand our communities and what it means to
use the spirit of uMunthu and appreciate how the success of one is the
success of us all.

[In addition to William Kamkwamba’s own blog
http://williamkamkwamba.typepad.com/williamkamkwamba/, and many others
that have picked up his story, the blog African Path
http://www.africanpath.com/p_blog.cfm?blogID=91 is presenting current
developments in his life as they unfold.]