I grew up with one brother and four sisters. When I was five years old, a new member was added to the family. It was my cousin, who had been brought from the village. She grew up with us as if she were our sister. We were then living at Kongwe Mission in Dowa District. Later we moved to Lilongwe then to Nkhoma and eventually to Blantyre.
This girl had left behind a twin sister who grew up in the village. Many years later, anyone looking at the twin sisters would have noticed that they were as different from each other as water is from oil. They could as well have been from two different planets.
The one that grew up in the village never went to school and her children have never gone beyond primary school. The other one, now deceased, managed to attain secondary education. She is survived by three daughters. All of them have had secondary education and one has emigrated to the United States.
More than heredity, the environment makes us what we are. From the environment, we pick up norms, beliefs, values, arts and acceptable conduct. The collective expression of these things by a society is called culture. Culture is a powerful ingredient in the development of a society or a country.
Heredity may give us latent capacity. How that latent capacity will develop is very much dependent on the culture an individual grows up in. People that craft gule wamkulu regalia have certain latent capacity in design. Such people might have developed into architects or engineers had they grown up in a different environment.
Many Malawians may have the latent capacity to run businesses. However, the culture they grow up in does not develop that capacity. In the 1970s Dr Banda ordered all Asians to relocate from the rural areas to Lilongwe, Mzuzu, Blantyre and Zomba. The expectation was that Malawians would take over the retail businesses that the Asians had been running in the rural areas. It never turned out that way because the capacity of Malawians to run businesses had not developed to the same level as their Asian counterparts.
Asians have had a culture of running businesses since they first appeared in this country in the 19th century. The indigenous population has had a culture of living on subsistence farming or seeking education for the purpose of being employed.
Some of the beliefs in our indigenous cultures run counter to development. A colleague of mine recently told me a story about her mother, who had to be retrieved from her village because all the villagers had ganged up against her. They did not like her because she was getting bumper yields from her farming activity and had managed to send all her children to school. They accused her of employing an evil supernatural agency for her to achieve this. This, at any rate, is a common belief in Malawi. Many Malawians have been discouraged from running businesses because of beliefs of this nature.
I am of the view that if Wilbur and Orville Wright had lived in Malawi, they would have been accused of being master wizards, who had gone beyond flying in the night and wanted to practise their magic even during the day. They probably would have discontinued their aviation experiments and would not have invented the airplane.
The good thing about culture is that it is not cast in stone. It has a lot of flexibility and fluidity. Culture can change. Its negative aspects can be dropped and its positive ones retained. We need some serious cultural re-engineering in Malawi for this to happen.
Africa in general has not had a manufacturing culture, but that is changing now. Our African colleagues elsewhere on the continent are getting very serious about manufacturing. In Ghana, a man of God, Apostle Dr. Kwadwo Safo Kantanka is assembling motor vehicles branded “Kantanka”. Dr. Kantanka, popularly known as the “Star of Africa” is regarded as one of the greatest inventors of all time. He has a number of highly innovative products to his credit. These range from medicinal products, through television sets and computers to aircraft.
Dr Kantanka is the epitome of cultural change (from African culture to global manufacturing culture). Perhaps more significantly, he effectively broke loose from the commonly held view by believers that science and religion are mutually exclusive to each other. Kantanka champions science and technology big time. That is what cultural change can do.
—The author is a provider of printing services and a social commentator.