Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Self-reliance or 'learned helplessness'? Turning down the chance to be a goddess

I turned down the chance to be a goddess last week.

An unfortunate combination of circumstances, not to be rehearsed here, had led to the promising young athlete, Gervazio Mpani, being left out of  Malawi's squad for the Commonwealth Games at the very last minute.


Gervazio's problems might have been solved if someone had paid his airfare. Although the Commonwealth Games fund has paid Malawi thousands of pounds for the training and transport of athletes, there seem to have been some hiccups at the last minute. The newspapers in Malawi have been reporting the fact that the Malawi Olympic Committee has had to borrow money to send the team to Scotland because of the country's financial problems. Strangely, no article that I have seen has reported the large amount of money the country has already received to support its athletes.


However, the impact of Malawi's idiosyncratic financial affairs on its athletics team is not the subject of this blog. No, the point of this post is that for two whole days at the end of last week I was consumed by the urge to pay Gervazio's airfare.  The Commonwealth Games represented his big chance. It was a chance he well deserved.

So why is he so deserving?

Without doubt, because of his qualities of quiet self-reliance and determination.

Gervazio is the boy who in his mid-teens burst into the national stadium during an athletics meeting and pleaded with the trainer to let him take part in a race. He had never been trained as a runner or competed in a proper race before. The trainer, intrigued, did let him run in the race that day, just as he was, in his everyday long trousers and bare feet. He came a respectable third. Since then Gervazio has consistently run better in the 5000 metres than anyone else in the country and has competed successfully in international competitions. All this despite the fact that he has not benefited from the kind of training regime which British athletes take for granted, nor indeed from their diet.

Like most poor Malawians Gervazio exists on a diet of beans and nsima (looks like mashed potato but is solidified maize flour). No chicken or beef for him. He has no running shoes. He is twenty years old and has not managed to achieve even the most basic school certification because he drops in and out of school depending on how much money is available. The Athletics Association has paid for his minimal secondary education, and his coach has also contributed. However, the government has axed its grant to the AA and his coach is now out of work. Gervazio dropped out of school again and could not sit his examinations.

Why does education matter so much for a Malawian athlete? Because the only place where Gervazio can get the training and support he needs is in the army. To get into the army you need a school certificate. Competing in the Commonwealth Games really mattered to Gervazio. It might have brought him to the attention of potential sponsors.

So why didn't I pay his airfare? After all, I would have earned his eternal gratitude.

Precisely for that reason.

It is so easy for us westerners to swan in to a place like Malawi, never having experienced obstacles like those which young people like Gervazio have faced. Like a goddess from the clouds, dea ex machina, I could have swooped down and solved all his problems.

Except I wouldn't have. Having been rescued once, there would be another time and another time. And instead of demonstrating self-reliance and determination, Gervazio could have become a beggar. Sometimes our actions as benefactors unwittingly destroy the very qualities we admire.

I recently visited a primary school which was the second one that week where we found a feeding programme which had been abandoned. [Feeding programmes usually provide a mug of maize porridge at the beginning of the day for hungry children from poor families, in order to encourage them to attend school.] Good grief, you might think, cannot these parents even put a mug of porridge in front of their children?

Actually, the story is a bit different from what you might expect. In this school in a very poor part of the country, parents had been growing between 20 and 30 bags of maize  in the school garden to feed pupils and had also contributed small amounts of money to buy sugar to go with it.

This feeding programme stopped because a well-known British charity moved into the school and set up its own feeding programme. A year or so later, it closed the programme down. The result was that the parents, once so independent, were now refusing to go back to the school garden as it was now the azungu's job to provide for their children.

I have heard the phrase 'learned helplessness' used to describe people who are not willing to make even simple improvements to their lives, thinking that that responsibility lay with others. I don't like the phrase. To me it appears somewhat judgemental and patronising, particularly coming from those of us who have lived very privileged lives. The parents in the school I visited were anything but helpless. They had shown their self-reliance in many ways, as the Chair of the School Management Committee (SMC) pointed out.


When the Clinton-Hunter Foundation (as in Bill, Hillary and Tom) erected some well-built brick classrooms, the parents were concerned that there was no provision for a headteacher's office. So they built one - with their bare hands. Here it is.


And that wasn’t all. The parents had also built a temporary staff room.










They'd worked hard and had already begun to gather resources for their next project: building a permanent structure for the school office, made from baked brick and corrugated iron. Under the leadership of the village headman, parents had already baked 24,000 bricks and piled them up in a corner of the compound.

However, the SMC did more than just improve infrastructure, important though that is. From a fund accumulated from regular miniscule payments from parents (kw50, too small an amount to compare with £sterling), they provided school uniform two or three times a year for the poorest children, based on their academic performance. The SMC, teachers and pupils met separately and compared notes about deserving potential recipients. Then they decided who would receive new clothes. 

The SMC held meetings every month, as expected under government legislation. It met teachers, students and parents. It listened to complaints and endeavoured to arbitrate. For example, parents might tell the SMC chair that their child had been beaten. The SMC would then take action.

Every quarter the SMC held a parents’ meeting to report on how the school was doing and to gather the community's views.  It reported to parents on school performance and on that of individual children, speaking to specific parents whose children were falling behind or missing school. The SMC checked on absences and discipline records. That was why they had originally embarked on the school garden: to support children’s nutrition.

It wasn't just social welfare issues parents were interested in. Members of the SMC observed lessons, making unannounced visits. This may be one of the reasons why the children at this school performed so well in the Primary Leaving Certificate. Indeed, school performance had risen over the last few years. The SMC had also worked with the Mothers' Group and the NGO CAMFED, the Campaign for Female Education, to reduce the incidence of early marriage and to retain girls in school.

The SMC has been successful in involving all parents, making decisions about the level and type of commitment expected from each family. Those with no money contributed in other ways, for example by baking bricks.

In Malawi, the district does not pay for school maintenance and renovation. That is the role of the community. The School Improvement Grant which the district sends to the schools is used for capital projects. The SMC at this school was planning to install solar power and mend the desks. Their activities have to be matched to the School Improvement Plan.  The SMC reports periodically to the District Education Manager.

Now, you may think I have spent a long time talking about the SMC. I accept that the example of self-reliance which I have given here is, of course, a particularly good one. The chair was well educated yet sent his children to the village school. He was a good leader. Nevertheless,  I have met several other effective SMC chairs who have a detailed knowledge of their school and work energetically and actively to improve it.

So, on the spectrum from self-reliance to ‘learned helplessness’, I would ask you where this school sits - this school where the feeding programme collapsed?

Not all schools are like this, of course. On Friday The Nation carried a letter from a Major Harry Soko of Zomba who was shocked that the fabric of a nearby primary school, recently built by donors, had deteriorated significantly. He wondered why the SMC had done nothing, noting that door hinges cost very little. He wrote:

‘If our mentality is that such infrastructure that benefits our community is government property, then no matter how good a president we have, we will not develop. We must be patriotic and take the property put up for us by donors as our own.’

It is not just institutions, of course, that demonstrate a presence or absence of self reliance.  Every so often the newspapers give example of individuals who have battled against considerable odds to achieve their goals. Here is one example from the Malawi News Supplement of June 7-13. The headline is Meet, a girl child with passion for education. (Ignore the random punctuation. You get used to that here.) 

The article recounts the story of one Adraida Maulidi, aged 18. Adraida walks 16 kilometres every day to attend school. Her mother died in 2005 and she does not receive any help from her father. She lives with a grandmother whose health has declined to the extent that she can no longer support Adraida. Adriada's sister is pregnant. 

The Community Day Secondary School (CDSS) which Adraida  attends runs sessions from 2.00 to 5.00 pm to enable young people like Adraida to attend. Adraida made the decision to become a ‘self boarder’ a couple of years ago. Although there are officially no boarding hostels at the CDSSs, the distances learners may have to travel – like Adraida here – means that some make the decision to rent a room, part of a room or, most likely, a space where they can put their sleeping mat, in someone's hut. Renting costs money but students have more time for studying. Adriada’s rent was Kw500 per month – about 75 pence. At that time her grandmother was selling charcoal to support her two granddaughters. In the end Adriada decided to stop self boarding when her grandmother could no longer work, as every kwacha was precious. Adriada would, however, prefer to self board as a protection from the hazards which girls face, both in the village and en route to and from school.

In the morning, Adraida supports herself and her family by cultivating other people’s gardens, fetching firewood and carrying water from the borehole. In 2011, she also used this money to pay for her Junior Certificate Examination. She gets home from school at about eight o clock in the evening, a couple of hours after dark.

It is tough but I have to face it to be a happy person in future,’ she said. ‘The better I stay in the village than indulge in prostitution. [A common way for female secondary school students to support themselves.] Life will be better one day.

Adriada wants to be a nurse. I am sure that with this determination she will achieve her aim.

My final example of self-reliance comes from Malawi's new national government. You may be aware that following the Cashgate scandal during which billions went missing from the country's coffers, international donors withdrew all budget support, the best part of 50% of Malawi's national budget. Civil service departments have been crippled and there is no money for anything. It is not that donors have withdrawn all financial support; they are just going to support smaller-scale projects, often delivered by NGOs, rather than putting their money directly into a government which they do not trust to use it for the purposes it was intended. They do, after all, have their own taxpayers to consider.

The new Minister of Finance is Goodall Gondwe, 78 years old and with an impressive track record as President of the African Development Bank and Director of the IMF for Africa. His is not an enviable task, in the circumstances.

It was interesting therefore to read the following headline in The Daily Times of 10 June: Goodall prioritises self-reliance. The article included these words from Mr Gondwe after he had been sworn in.

'As Malawians first and foremost, we should look at how we will do the job ourselves, rather than looking at how others will support us. I will help His Excellency, the president to ensure that we, Malawians, do operate the economy to the best ability we can. If the donors, because of that wish to support us, they will support us, but if they want to continue to abstain then we have to work even harder....I think as Malawians, we have to think twice before we think that we will survive because of other people's kindness. Let's look at ourselves first: What can we do for ourselves? How can the economy work by our own efforts? No question of handouts, no question of thinking that other people will give us something to sustain ourselves.'

Admirable sentiments indeed.

Well, when I left Malawi on Saturday, there was still a chink of hope for Gervazio. His ex-primary school headteacher was trying to find a local business which would buy his air ticket. I have no idea whether or not he has been successful.

However, at the end of the day, Gervazio is a Malawian. It is for his own country to decide whether or not to support him, not me. There is something essentially corrupting in being given the power to bestow great riches, great fame or - in Gervazio's case - great opportunities. Yet, all these gifts can transform people's lives.

I am in the middle of the novel Americanah by the Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This is what Adichie says about charitable giving.

'There was a certain luxury to charity that she [the heroine Ifemelu] could not identify with and did not have. To take charity for granted, to revel in this charity towards people whom one did not know - perhaps it came from having had yesterday and having today and expecting to have tomorrow. She envied them this.'

When all is said and done, I would rather not be a goddess.



[A quick note for those unfamiliar with Malawi’s secondary education system. Secondary education is selective and students are ranked according to their performance in the Primary School Leaving Certificate at the end of Standard 8. The highest performing go to one of the government-funded elite establishments, often mission foundations. The next tranche go to the government secondary schools, all of which have boarding hostels. Other learners who don't do quite so well go to a Community Day Secondary School (CDSS), where boarding is not supposed to be necessary. Most primary pupils don't get as far as even sitting the examination as they drop out long before Standard 8. Overall, about 25% of young people receive a secondary education.]


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