The Malawi genus

Last week, Thoko from Bangwe shared with us his views about the ongoing national identity (ID) registration exercise. He highlights the benefits of a national ID scheme; at the top of the benefits being the possibility of an efficient public service delivery system. By and large, Thoko also highlights the challenges that a national ID scheme may bring; disenfranchisement and the excesses of a nanny State, among others.

The national ID registration exercise has also revealed a rather unfortunate scenario. Those who consider themselves Malawians— born, bred and walk the soil —and yet they are not ‘black’ or indeed speak ChiChewa/ChiNyanja with an ‘accent’ have had their claims to what I call the Malawi genus questioned or outright thrown into the trash can. These sad stories are awash in both social and print media.

The revelations point to a deep-seated narrative of what constitutes the Malawi genus— species—of us the human beings who for one reason or the other call this potato-shaped territory of this Earth home. This deep-seated narrative relates to the conception of ‘identity’. The conception of ‘identity’ has exercised academics, legal and policymakers over the years. The limitations of space here are such that I cannot fully espouse the conception of ‘identity’ in the cultural identity school in the academy or its configuration at law and policy. Suffice it to say, for present purposes I will seek to share some thoughts on ‘identity’ based on a ‘Belonging’ / ‘Othering’ dichotomy.

There are aspects of ‘identity’ that are based on categories such as ethnicity, race, language, religion, a (national) culture, gender, orientation or citizenship. The way we identify ourselves depends, in large measure, on how we feel about, or value, that which we consider as the dominant influence of our being. The feeling (the psyche) or the value-system we attribute to ourselves will inform the dominant weight on that which defines our sense of belonging. In this way, there are some of us who place more weight on one category more than the other in the process of identifying ourselves. In this way, a person may place weight on ethnicity, race, language, religion, a (national) culture or citizenship to differing degrees to identify themselves.

Othering in relation to ‘identity’ is oppositional. Othering involves a process where oneself conjures an ‘identity’ of difference; of denying. The ‘self’ that is othered is often denigrated as lacking the state of ‘same-ness’. So, we learn that Greeks called—others —all non-Greeks as barbarians. Barbarians did not have the same-ness of Greeks. Barbarians were different. Barbarians were denied the characteristics of reason, dignity or nobility that defined human-being-ness according to the Greeks. In modern society, the Other may be a race, a religion, gender or nation-state. In other words, the process of othering is almost always underwritten by a sense of superiority.

Indeed, othering has been a result of clash of civilisations. This is pervasive in history: The voyages of discovery and the scramble for Africa are some examples. Othering has also been a result of the Freudian ‘narcissism of minor differences’ whereby group A others group B because group B is seen as a threat to the identity and pride of group A. This Freudian dimension has led to the Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide and the Bosnian Genocide.

[A rider: the categories of ‘identity’ may at once be empowering and subjugating. History and context will matter.]

So; what is the Malawi genus? Who is in the Malawi genus? The Malawi genus is primarily defined by citizenship. Who becomes a Malawian citizen is down to, generally, the circumstances of one’s birth, the process of naturaliaation or even as a result of marital relations. Broadly described, our citizenship law allows a child born in the country to acquire Malawian citizenship; a person acquires Malawian citizenship through naturalisation on account of long-term residence; and a person acquires Malawian citizenship on account of marriage.

The episodes, therefore, of those Malawians who are ‘not-black’ or speak ChiChewa/ChiNyanja with an ‘accent’ and had their claim to u-Nzika questioned or denied are most unfortunate and deplorable. We need some robust reflection in this country. We must realise that the Malawi genus is not composed of a unified and (easily) determined ‘identity’. The Malawi genus is a mosaic of ‘sub-identities’ which—to use the language of Cultural Identity scholarship—is often contradictory or unresolved identities. Hence, in the exercise of State authority, a public officer—at whatever level— must not be clouded by the lenses of skin colour or lingua. We must move from m’Tumbuka, m’Chewa, m’Chawa, m’Nguru, m’Mwenye, m’Kaladi yada-yada. There are robust ways of verifying one’s Malawi-ness. And one of those ways is not the colour of the skin or (purity of) accent. The othering must end.

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