For some students at The Polytechnic, a constituent college of the University of Malawi, the institution has lost its vibrancy: Student politics and activism is dead, they say. Could the death of Robert Chasowa, the son of the college, explain some of Polyâ€™s lost touch? Bright Mhango tries to figure it out.
Every generation thinks it invented sex, it is said. Elders too always boast that the modern times are less exciting than the days of old.
For University of Malawi alumni, the feeling is the same: university life today is not fun. The only problem with the last assertion is that it might actually be true.
It is 2012: It is lunch time at The Polytechnic. Naturally, say in 1997, the corridors to the cafeteria would be thronged with students rushing to grab their meals. The path to the cafeteria would be lined with street children begging for morsels.
That was in 1997. In 2012, corridors are always deserted during meal times and chefs at the cafeteria stand waiting for students who usually never come.
â€œI have never been to the cafeteria for breakfast myself â€“ almost everyone has eliminated breakfast from their day,â€ said Moses Chitsulo, former spokesperson of the Malawi Polytechnic Studentâ€™s Union (PSU)
Again, it is 2008: At six in the evening, the Polytechnicâ€™s front lawns would be thronged with first year students waiting to board a bus to go to their hostels, situated next to Chichiri Secondary School.
Sophomores and senior students would jump onto the bus to teach the first years how to swear at pedestrians and to ask out some naive girls by using the seniority influence.
In 2012, however, no bus ferries anyone. Each student simply walks to the hostels and homes. Students now can come from homes and private hostels scattered in areas around Chichiri.
Some even stay as far as Zingwangwa and Ndirande, a thing that was unheard of in, say, 1999.
The bus rides to football matches in Thyolo, Mulanje and Chikhwawa are long gone. The university outsourced most of the non-core services, the student population has been increased and is likely to continue going up since the university aims to have about 15 000 students by 2016.
All new students are now taken as non-residential. Students now get money from government to buy their own food. All the university does, one can say, is focus on their academic part of life.
Chitsulo noted that this has had a major impact on university life as it has removed the togetherness among students.
â€œWe used to interact a lot as students, but now there is a big gap between students,â€ said Chitsulo.
â€œNon-residential students are not in the library from 7 to 10pm because they have to travel home before it gets too late â€“ they not only fail to access short loan books, but also lose out on interaction.
â€œSocialisation has gone down as people donâ€™t eat together in the cafeteria anymore. In a bid to save their money students shun the cafeteria where meals go at K350 and instead opt for a bottle of Fanta and cheap chips elsewhere.â€
Consequently, shacks have sprung up around the college and it is in these shacks where students flock to buy their meals.
One lady, Mayi a Thoko, who plies her trade near Chichiri Secondary School, says business is good.
â€œChicken pieces start at K50 up to K250 and a plate of potato chips is at K70 and K100 â€“ so students buy a K50 piece of chicken and K70 chips and down it with a bottle of Fanta,â€ she said.
Students can be seen coming as far as Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital for some cheap meals.
Chitsulo said some business people have resorted to bringing food in cars to sell to students. At Chichiri, where most first year students reside, women from Ndirande sell food to the students in buckets and pre-packed containers.
Asked if the change will lower concentration and subsequently the education input, Chitsulo said as much as it is inconveniencing at times, there is no evidence of lowered educational standards yet.
University students used to influence public policy: they have demonstrated when maize prices were raised and following the death of reggae singer Evison Matafale during the Bakili Muluzi era.
Students were also used to force Parliament to pass the budget when Mutharika was facing opposition.
Student clubs were up and down visiting secondary schools doing career guidance and mentoring.
All that is either gone or going down. These days, it is each to his own business and students focus more on their iPods, ipads and all kind of modern paraphernalia than they care about being active citizens.
â€œMost of the students are very young and immature. Politics doesnâ€™t excite them, plus they look like they are not ready and willing to broaden their horizons apart from academics,â€ said Chitsulo
Back in the days, one would be safe to swear that the average age in the university was 20. Nowadays, there are 16-year-olds in college pityingly pottering about with books bigger than their heads.
Chitsulo said this year he has not heard of any PP or DPP wing having a meeting on campus
â€œI have not heard of the anti-corruption groups, HIV groups and social clubs organising something this year,â€ said Chitsulo.
Enter Robert Chasowa
The murder of Robert Chasowa did not just nip one precious life away, it also killed a whole college, and unless there is some kind of therapy, generations are going to feel the Chasowa effect.
During the Bingu wa Mutharika era, students could sometimes make more noise than the DPP cadets at rallies.
Gerald Kanyama, the current PSU secretary general, invoked the theory of post-Chasowa university life which postulates that the death of Chasowa has and will inspire a terrified and withdrawn generation of graduates.
Kanyama said students now no longer debate politics and current affairs as if every parent has warned their child against it.
â€œMany things have changed in terms of campus politics and Chasowa is always the reference point. There was one student who was barred by his parents not to contest in the PSU elections. Imagine!
â€œPeople are still afraid, people avoid the place where Chasowaâ€™s body was found,â€ said Kanyama.
Anyone trying to rally the students is viewed with suspicion and students accuse them of being agents of politicians.
Most students believe Chasowa was killed courtesy of a politician.
Kanyama noted that a lot of beer is being consumed at the campus and sports participation has also increased.
University life has changed indeed and if it is not due to time or Chasowa, then it is Mutharikaâ€™s iron fist.
â€œWe no longer move like fish. There is no cohesion. I think itâ€™s because of the â€˜Mukhito Holiday.â€™ The university getting indefinitely closed in April last year has caused divisions.
â€œFor example, we have a lot of issues to speak out but senior year students say they will personally deal with anyone daring to demonstrate because they say they cannot afford to have the university closed again,â€ said Kanyama.
Kanyama, however, said the dormancy does not mean the students are dead. They still have issues pent up inside them.
That is why when something happens, say a lorry hitting a student, they react with intensity.
He cited issues of an impending fees hike, the â€˜meagreâ€™ allowances and security as some of the most pertinent among the student community today.
â€œPoly will rise, torture or no torture, politics or no politics because you know that when I speak, I speak for a mother in Nthalire who cannot speak, and when I speak people respect what I say,â€ said Kanyama.