When I was a boy, living at Nkhoma Mission, I was inquisitive about how a light bulb worked. The house we were living in, like almost all the houses at the Mission, had wire gauzes fitted to the windows to prevent mosquitoes getting in.
One day, my brother and I became a little mischievous. We removed some strands of the thin wire that made up the wire gauze, then we coiled them into filaments that were held between two large wires inserted into a bottle and protruding through a cork.
This way, we had made our own bulbs, albeit clumsy ones. By means of insulated wires plugged into the mains socket, we applied electrical power to these clumsy bulbs. They gave a nice white glow but burned up almost immediately. We realised that we had not quite succeeded in making light bulbs. I told my brother that our filaments burnt up probably because we did not exclude air from the bottles.
I had not even heard of Thomas Edison then, but unlike him, we gave up. The culture did not exist for us to continue with these kinds of experiments. In the first place, it was unfortunate that we had to resort to mischief to get wire that was deemed thin enough for bulb filaments.
There was not one foundry around us—not even in the nearby urban area of Lilongwe, from where we could get what we wanted. Indeed, there was nobody who we could have contacted to help us remove air from the bottles, to check if my theory was right about the filaments burning up because of the presence of air.
In short, the culture around us was nowhere near helping experimenters proceed with their ambitious experiments. If you ask me now why Malawi has not produced great inventors, my simple answer is that the culture has not allowed it.
I had a good friend, Chimwemwe Chikusa, who later became the proprietor of MC Studios, but is sadly deceased now. He, too, was an avid experimenter. He once shaped some soft wood into an item that could hold wire windings.
He then wound a very long strand of copper wire around it, placed it between magnets, then on application of dc current from batteries the home-made gadget span like you could not believe it. It was pure delight to watch this home-made motor buzz with life. Later, he experimented with microphones and loud speakers, making them from paper, magnets and some wire windings.
None of the older folk supported us in these experiments. They were in fact upset that we were spending so much time on “trivial” things, which time we could have used to do house chores or to study so that we pass our examinations and become employable. The culture simply did not allow us to get any further with our experimentation.
Another aspect of Malawian culture that betrayed us was the tendency not to document anything. Yes, we had great fun, we discussed our experiments among ourselves, but we did not document anything. If we had done, perhaps somebody else would have come across our records and would have continued where we stopped.
Malawi is deeply steeped in oral culture. Several years ago, I tried to introduce the tradition of printed announcements at St Michael and All Angels Church in an attempt to reduce announcements time. On several Sundays, we printed the announcements and distributed them to everyone attending the English service. So many complaints followed.
People missed important meetings, for example, because they had not heard the announcements about them. Despite informing the congregation that the announcements were on the sheets of paper that had been distributed, very few people took the trouble to read them. The printed announcements were abandoned, but later reintroduced. They still have to be read to the congregation.
The problem with oral means of recording or transmitting information is that fine details of the information are easily lost. Sometimes the details are altered knowingly or unknowingly by those transmitting the information. A colleague once told me that his church was doing very well financially. It had been announced, he claimed, that the previous Sunday’s collection had been K3 million. I took it upon myself to cross check this figure, only to find out that the collection had been K300 thousand. There is always the risk of information perishing on the waves of sound with oral transmission.
These are some of the aspects of our culture that we need to change if we are to make any progress in inventing or manufacturing things on a large scale.