By Richard Chirombo
There is a battle going on, started- like many before- by the machinations of Western governments. It all started as an unofficial report, over 13 years ago, to the effect that Western governments wanted to depose one of Africa’s market ‘leaders’: ‘Sir’ tobacco.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) then confirmed the reports, saying the ‘culprit’ was a dictator out to kill ‘his’ own subjects with a barrage of health complications that were causing preventable deaths among people who called his name from the shelves willingly, and inhaled him leisurely.
It has turned into a battle because WHO and most Western governments have stood their ground. Canada has, for instance, become the lead soldier in throwing a dagger at Africa’s, and therefore Malawi’s, economy by declaring a ban on barley imports. Tobacco is Malawi’s top forex earner.
This battle is truly on because affected countries such as Malawi and Zimbabwe have stood their ground by not relenting on ‘Sir’ Tobacco’s production levels. Every year, more tones of tobacco continue to grace the Auction Flours.
However, nobody doubts that, when all this confusion comes to an end, Malawi’s Africa will lose. This sense of imminent defeat is sufficient to send tongues wagging, with experts talking in different tongues- a day of Pentecost for crop strategists.
Their new language in face of defeat has no verbs, adverbs, conjunctions, or pronouns; it is comprised of nouns: cotton, tea, coffee, sugar, soya beans, macadamia nuts, ground nuts, pigeon peas, paprika, and cassava.
The Malawi Confederation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry, Mzuzu Coffee Planters Association, Thyolo/Mulanje Smallholder Tea Growers Association and Farmers Union of Malawi will always pick their favourite noun from the list. Each of them chooses a different noun from the other. Only one point draws them into a unity of convenience, though: none mentions culture!
Is culture so difficult a commodity to sell?
Symon Vuwa-Kaunda, Minister responsible for Youth Development, Sports and Culture says culture can be tooled to contribute towards Malawi’s socio-economic development.
Kaunda adds that other African countries have invested in promoting their culture that, today, tourists travel across the vast oceans just to appreciate some African cultures.
“I don’t think that culture is not marketable. We already have countries that have capitalized on their unique cultures to influence the world. Culture, if well marketed, can help generate income for a country,” says Kaunda.
The minister adds that Malawi is more advantaged because every human activity seems to have some attachment to one or two traditional practices.
“We are one people with a diversity of cultures. You talk of dances, practices, events, and countless other interesting features. The potential is great,” says Kaunda.
Kaunda added that even the State President, Bingu wa Mutharika, realizes the effect of culture in shaping lives, hence his continued support towards the Ministry of Youth Development, Sports and Culture.
“You can appreciate this when you attend any international conference held here in Malawi. Delegates are always mesmerized by our colourful dances,” Vuwa-Kaunda adds.
His sentiments are echoed by Mike Gondwe, Education Coordinator for the Museums of Malawi.
Gondwe says culture- as expressed through dances, cooking, dressing, eating and pottery methods- has the potential to put Malawi on the map, and even generate foreign exchange.
“But the problem is that we do not take advantage of existing opportunities. A good example is that of the Five-Star International Hotel in Lilongwe. Are we going to have a section where local artwork, traditional implements, dances, and our history will be displayed for tourists’ sampling and appreciation? Very often, we miss opportunities like these,” observes Gondwe.
Gondwe says Malawi’s culture is marketable, adding, however, that the country has missed out on this goldmine because of too much obsession with foreign concepts.
“I find it sad that our places of tourists’ attraction have no sections where our cultural endowments are displayed. In countries like Kenya, you will find hotels running cultural sections. Tourists patronize these places and pay United States Dollars, Euros and British Pounds. Tourism destinations are making millions in foreign exchange, thereby fostering socio-economic development,” notes Gondwe.
Financial constraints, he says, should not be the excuse sold by tourism industry players.
Francis Mbilizi, executive director for the National Lotteries Board (NLB) - the body mandated to licence lottery operators in the country- says culture plays a crucial role in the development of any nation.
Mbilizi says this is the reason NLB has, through the National Lottery Distribution Fund (found in Section 34 of the Lotteries Act) disbursed part of generated funds towards sports, environment and culture, among other areas.
“We have supported cultural activities a number of times, and we continue to support culture. This is why NLB has in the past channeled part of its revenue to cultural efforts,” says Mbilizi.
NLB falls under the ambit of the Ministry of Tourism.
The section in question (34) reads:”The Minister, in consultation with the Board, shall prescribe the amount of money and the manner in which the money in the Fund shall be allocated to different sectors, and other good causes for the welfare of the general public and contribution to the national economy.”
Tourism Minister, Daniel Liwimbi, says Malawi is exploring all possible ways of raising the contribution of tourism towards Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and that culture could be one of these.
“At the moment, tourism is only contributing between 10 percent and 11 percent of GDP. We can do better than this,” says Liwimbi.
But Traditional Authority Chekucheku of Mwanza warns that “careless commercialization” of culture could lead to a decay of cultural values.
“What will happen when these (foreign) tourists demand that we change this, or that, practice? We should be careful and avoid what happened to Gule wamkulu. Missionaries said it was evil, and most of our people abandoned it,” says Chekucheku.
It is an inevitable question.