Our turn to eat

Reflections on Malawi’s recent election rerun, false starts and the hope that public representatives in Africa become accountable to their electorates’ aspirations.

Chileka Road in Blantyre, Malawi (Nchenga, via Flickr CC).

Malawi finds itself in the midst of a profound transformation that calls for a change in the way that we do business. This paradigm shift is a development imperative in today’s world, where the need for leaders to listen to the voice of the people has been clearly established. Since Government is asking the people to make sacrifices, there must be a fair and equal burden-sharing.

– “Consolidating Our Bold Steps Toward a Better Future for Malawi: 2001/2002 Budget Statement,” by Professor Mathews A.P. Chikaonda, Minister of Finance and Economic Planning, June 22, 2001

On Father’s Day this year, I started reading a book called It’s Our Turn to Eat. It is the explosive story, by talented writer and journalist Michela Wrong, of a whistleblower working in President Mwai Kibaki’s new government in Kenya in 2002. She chronicles how, over several years of anti-corruption work, this whistleblower—a government bureaucrat and later academic named John Githongo—eventually found himself on the wrong side of not only President Kibaki, but the majority of the new government and, critically, the Kikuyus: his own ethnic group, of which Kibaki himself was a member and from whom Kibaki had appointed most of his cabinet. My father had recommended the book to me in the last year of his life, almost two years ago in 2018: he thought that the entrenched problems Wrong chronicled were profoundly illustrative of not just one particular country’s quagmire of governance issues, but indeed representative of most of Africa’s, with Malawi being no exception. Since his death, I try to do something to bring me close to him on important anniversary dates, and so though I had had the book on my shelf for several months, Father’s Day was the day I chose to finally brave opening it. I’m glad I did, especially in the context of the election re-run in Malawi later that week.

Githongo, the protagonist of Our Turn to Eat, had been tasked by President Kibaki with rooting out the corruption left behind from departing leader Daniel Arap Moi’s preceding administration. He was to identify all the ways corruption had happened before, and then ensure it would never be replicated under Kibaki. What soon came to light, however, was that not only was the corruption so deeply embedded in the entire country’s way of life that it was impossible to ever fully eliminate it: it became evident that Kibaki himself was in on it, and had never meant for Githongo’s office to be more than appearance. After much effort for which he was at first mocked and later endangered, precious little ends up having changed in Kenya: the same politicians remained in power; the same money continued to disappear behind questionably awarded government contracts and mysteriously formed companies with no office or staff; and the rich and poor remained entrenched as ever in their societal and economic standings.

Thus the book does not end on a fully hopeful note, at least not beyond the arguably positive fact that Githongo was still alive at the time of writing, rather than having ended up in a suspiciously convenient car accident. And I think this was what my father appreciated so much about the book—it aligned with his beliefs, at the end of his life, that most of Africa’s governance problems were intractable, and that any effort to change the way we did things would inevitably prove itself to be futile. The problems simply ran too deep, he believed, and one’s peace of life and mind was ultimately worth more than the stress, and even danger, caused by trying to do more good than both system and society allowed. Sometimes I wondered if he was also suggesting that his efforts hadn’t been worth what he lost as a result, his greatest losses being his health and, eventually, his life, to cancer. But Dad had never believed in regret prior to his cancer diagnosis, and I didn’t want to now ask him about such things in a moment when he did not have the power to reverse his fate.

I finished It’s Our Turn to Eat one day before the results of Malawi’s historical election re-run were ratified, and Lazarus McCarthy Chakwera—the candidate representing the opposition coalition’s Tonse Alliance—was confirmed as being Malawi’s newly elected President. It was a unique intersection of experience: to have finished reading a book about failed election promises just as Malawi’s re-run elections were being celebrated, to feel a profound disappointment in the story of a neighboring country’s electoral and governance failures just as the continent was celebrating my home country as a shining example of democracy in action. I was of two minds in that moment—both wishing I were at home celebrating in the streets with everyone else who felt they had finally wrested control of the country’s direction back into the people’s hands, and, at the same time, feeling an unstoppable and overwhelming cynicism. I wondered how long the jubilance would last before the same-old, same-old would settle in, and the new leaders would find new places to conceal the spoils of power.

One day back in February this year I was searching the library catalogue of the university I have worked at for the last eight years, the University of Pennsylvania, to see if there were any papers in there authored by my father. Prior to our return to Malawi he had been a well-regarded academic in Canada, and that work had been the basis of the job offer he later received that brought our family back home to Malawi. One of the stranger compulsions of grief is the search for the lost loved one seemingly everywhere, but especially in places one had never thought to look before, and I had never until this year thought to look for his work in our libraries. While Penn did not have any of his papers in their catalogue, I discovered that Columbia University had a copy of his sole budget statement to the Malawi Parliament in 2001, “Consolidating Our Bold Steps Toward a Better Future for Malawi”—delivered a little over a year after he had been named Minister of Finance and Economic Planning—and excitedly ordered it through our inter-library loan system.

I did not get to see this speech delivered; I was away from Malawi at the time, at the University of Rhode Island on a pre-college summer program. But 19 years later I now desperately wish that I had, if only to have been in that room in which Dad gave one of his rare public shows of optimism and hope. His brilliance—as caustic as it was compassionate—radiates from the pages of this statement, as does his real belief in Malawi’s promise and desire to turn the country’s course away from insistent impoverishment and victimhood to the thriving self-reliance he always insisted we had the resources for and were capable of. I now wonder how many late nights he spent at his office on Capital Hill putting this statement together, trying to strike the perfect balance between stroking the egos of his listeners in Parliament so they would be willing to hear him, and motivating them toward wanting to do better than they were, refining night by night Malawi’s economic course.

While I was in university, I would submit monthly expense reports to my father, documenting how I was spending the money he sent me off to Philadelphia with each term. It was a vague annoyance but I understood how he worked, and knew he wouldn’t continue to send money without proof that I was being reasonable with it. Dad was nothing if not a consistent man, and he was exactly that same person in his professional capacities; in government, however, this indiscriminate scrutiny turned out not to be an asset but a liability, as it meant that every kwacha and tambala spent came under his questioning eye. That level attention to the specific details of a person or division’s expenditure was no way to make friends in most governments anywhere—let alone the governments of so many countries south of the Sahara, where looking in the opposite direction to discovered indiscretions is often an expected professional courtesy. Barely six months after he delivered his address to Parliament he was summarily removed from his position, even as he had been appointed to the role at least in part to symbolize the then-President’s commitment to national economic and financial discipline.

As Malawi writes a new chapter for its future I have been reflecting on the identical lessons of It’s Our Turn to Eat and “Consolidating Our Bold Steps Toward a Better Future for Malawi”. How hope can be so bright that it potentially blinds us to the hopeless reality in front of us; how long the arc of change actually stretches in time. Most of all, though—how impossible it is for a single man to carry the entirety of those hopes, whether the newly elected leader of a nation’s reprised democratic experiment, or the solitary industrious academic burning the midnight oil in his cramped office, stubbornly acting upon the commission to end corruption’s necrotic legacy. The shared word between both texts’ titles is “our,” and this captures the truth of what sustainable progress in any context, African or not, looks like—not “I” but “we,” not a sole man but a critical mass, not munthu, but anthu. The opposition coalition that is now setting up shop in Malawi’s houses of government called itself, in a genius move, the Tonse Alliance—literally, the All of Us Alliance. Let us hope, against Malawi’s repetitive curse of demolished electoral and governance hopes, that this time the future really stands a chance of benefitting all of us—at last allowing an entire nation to finally eat.

Further Reading