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Malawi innovator holds ‘important lesson’ about educational beliefs, practices -intellectuals

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Published: October 7, 2009


william-1Malawi’s genius, Willam Kamkwamba, 22 who at the age of 14 built an electricity-producing windmill from spare parts and scrap when he dropped out of school due to poverty, hold an important lesson for Malawi and other countries about education beliefs and practices, according to intellectuals.

Kamkwamba’s invention attracted international attention, and he is currently in America on a book tour after the release of his autobiography, ‘The boy who harnessed the wind’.

“The discovery of Mr. Kamkwamba is a blessing to the nation as it reminds policymakers of the effects that less robust development policies can have on schooling. Mr. Kamkwamba has done what most of us, and most degree holders in engineering have not done,” Dr Greenwell Matchaya, DPhil (Economics) told Nyasa Times.

“We know he is not alone, but that there are many more like him waiting for our support in the rural areas of Malawi and perhaps the debate about equity must further aim to address the structural causes of low school enrolment (that denied him of formal education) both at the primary schools level all the way to tertiary levels,” added Matchaya.

He recommended that the innovator who attended the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa should be given an honorary degree.

“For Mr. Kamkwamba’s name to continue inspiring Malawi’s youth of today and tomorrow, I wouldn’t mind hearing that he is accorded an Honorary degree in innovation or electrical engineering, and that he is sometimes accorded airtime on TVM and MBC to talk about his invention,” said Matchaya.

Dr Mathews Mtumbuka of Malswitch recently told the Society of Accountant in Malawi (SOCAM) Lakeshore Conference that Malawi without oil reserves, with limited mineral and with small land, its future lies in developing and exporting technology.

A visiting Assistant Professor of Peace and Justice Studies in the Department of Philosophy at Michigan State University, Dr Steve Sharra told Nyasa Times that it is inspiring to watch the excitement accompanying Mr. Kamkwamba’s achievements and the newly released book, co-authored by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer.

“Several people have pointed out that this inspiring story serves as an antidote to the paralyzing and debilitating portrayal of Africa as a place of perpetual hopelessness and powerlessness. As a matter of fact some reviewers have fallen into the same stereotype of Africa, celebrating Mr. Kamkwamba’s phenomenal accomplishments but in the process failing to resist the temptation to paint Malawi as a 21st century ‘Heart of darkness’ where everyone is diseased, starved, hopeless, jealous and superstitious,” said Dr Sharra.

He pointed out that Kamkwamba’s story helps Malawians to better understand some of the unintended consequences of the educational system the country has adopted.

“On the one hand, we are appalled by a society whose educational system fails to provide for a talented young person like Mr. Kamkwamba, forcing him out of school because of lack of money for school fees. On the other hand, we are faced with the question as to whether Mr. Kamkwamba would have had the intellectual and technical space and freedom to pursue his experiments with home-made electricity, had he been afforded the opportunity to continue with his secondary school education,” said Sharra.

“School systems, whether in Africa, Asia, Latin America or indeed in the West can of course facilitate one’s intellect and talents to blossom. However schools are also known as places where one is forced to follow strict stipulations about what to learn and what not to learn, with a teacher guiding one’s academic program. Many bright and intelligent young people see their intellects stifled and boxed into conventional thinking, repressing their creativity and genius. This is a conundrum which we have to acknowledge,” he pointed out.

According to Sharra, Kamkwamba’s innovation has the political economy factor.  He said in countries such as Malawi, a huge factor of the limited opportunities for enterprising individuals such as Kamkwamba 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 global political economy dictates the ups and downs of other economies, with instabilities and fluctuations affecting other countries, as the ongoing economic crisis demonstrate. The Brettonwoods Institutions stipulate conditions on developing countries, requiring them to remove crucial subsidies and reduce social spending. This in turn translates into governments of developing countries being forced to stop hiring new teachers, nurses, and other key personnel, and also on raising their salaries,” he said

He said the problem of inefficiency and corruption also plays a role, but there are other equally consequential external factors.

“The story of Mr. Kamkwamba and how he was able to beat the odds therefore ought to make us focus on the problems that underlie the conditions that leave so many talented people unspotted and unsupported. It ought to make us focus on our educational systems, and the global political economy, among other areas requiring scrutiny.

“Above all, it exhorts us to broaden our analysis beyond the tired, narrow stereotypes of corruption and ineffective leadership,” said Sharra.

Sharra said Kamkwamba’s story gives the southern African nation a chance to celebrate many other unique Malawians who have also made breakthroughs with innovative thinking.

“One such person, in addition to Mr. Kamkwamba, is primary school teacher, teacher educator and scientist Andrews Nchessie, who invented a flood warning system, and led his Standard 4 students at Kasungu TTC Demonstration School in various scientific experiments researching fish farming, indigenous cures for infectious diseases such as scabies, among others,” he pointed out.

 Another Malawian also worth celebrating, Sharra noted, is Mr. Friday Nikoloma, a Thyolo farmer who invented an irrigation system that propels water from low lying sources to irrigate farms upland.

“Mr. Nikoloma’s work ought to be discussed in the same breath as the achievements of the late Dr. Chinkuntha, who also initiated an irrigation system that brought researchers and scientists from elsewhere in Africa and beyond to come and study his farm,” said Sharra.

 The academic also highlighted a secondary school teacher of French, Nolence Mangwego, who invented a unique style of writing called the Mangwego script.

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