I was educated under the Cambridge English system in Malawi, and I believed it was the finest education on earth for giving one an understanding of the arts, sciences, history, or economics. Now the experience of another Maliwian, Ajibu Jonas—who excelled in both the Cambridge English system and in an Islamic madrassa education—makes me wonder if the Western education that I received was really the be all and end all that I assumed it was.
After all, in Malawi there’s a deep unquestioned fascination with everything British. Our first president, Mr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, was a surgeon trained in Scotland. Prior to Malawi’s founding, in 1964, he led a medical practice in Newcastle, England. Our current president, Mr. Lazarus Chakwera, is famous for not really doing any credible work in office, but strutting around and delivering speeches in a nonsense English accent. Even the city where I live, Blyntre City, Malawi, was named after a much smaller town in Scotland. So, it was given that I grew up admiring anything to do with England.
Recently, when speaking with my countryman, Ajibu Jonas, I realized that my so-called “English education” was not the only way to get an education. Ajibu and I have known each other quite a while, and recently I joined him for a stroll through our hometown of Blyntre City. Chatting with Ajibu, he told me of the day in 1998, when his parents asked him to start attending elementary madrassa schooling in Balaka, 70 miles from Blyntre City, an instruction contrary to that of most other parents, including mine, who still hyped Malawi’s British-Anglican education system.
At seven Ajibu began to juggle Islamic madrassa education in the morning with the popular British-Cambridge-modeled schooling in the afternoons. He found that the madrassas, with no tuition fees, offered a more productive student experience than did the overcrowded English public schools (with their ratio of 1 teacher to 130 students). Later, Ajibu had a double triumph. He excelled in both systems—Malawi-British-model schooling and the Islamic madrassa education—so that in 2012 he was offered a scholarship to study economics in Khartoum, Sudan. The scholarship opened doors. In Malawi´s English-learning universities, fees are so expensive that for every 10,000 students who qualify only 2000 can afford to go.
Landing in Arab Sudan, from the former British protectorate of Malawi, he had an agonizing experience at first. His grasp of Arabic was substandard. “Yes, I studied Arabic in madrassa, here in Malawi, but my Arabic was below par. The reason was, in Malawi in the evening I would return home to family and friends who could not speak Arabic, and I’d switch to Chewa and English,” the now 31-year-old tells me.
Ajibu is sensitive to the conflicted history of an Islamic public in once-British-protected Malawi, but he is nevertheless proud of the Islamic madrassa schooling that he received. “I credit madrassa for giving me the good fortune of an education and an income,” he tells me.
Arabic Islam has an uneasy history in Malawi, which emerged from the colony that had been called British Central Africa. Gulf Arab and Swahili traders began to land in eastern and northern Malawi in the 15th century, exchanging gold and ivory and spreading Islam, and later picking up Black slaves. The re-emergence of Muslim pride in Malawi in the 1980s led to hostility from some sectors of the predominantly Christian population. The then-Christian government of autocrat, Kamuzu Banda, responded by banning travel to Islamic countries—anywhere that he feared might export revolution to Malawi. Banda cut off diplomatic relations with Muslim Dubai, Libya, Kuwait, and Malaysia. The impact inside the country was severe. Islamic districts of Malawi have high illiteracy levels. Some commentators claim this is due to shunning of British Western education by some Muslims, in favor of madrassa education. Hence madrassas in certain parts of Malawi are viewed unfavorably.
Like Ajibu before him, Bakili Chipoya is another of a growing number of Malawian youths who embraced madrassa as an opportunity ahead of the legacy British Anglican education. He studies Islamic Law (Shariah) at the Islamic University of Madina in Saudi Arabia. After completing a British-style education in Malawi, Bakili connected with the Islamic Zakat Fund, a charitable arm that assists deserving needy students, and he says that upon graduating from Saudi Arabia he is keen to serve secular and Muslim Malawians in court, by dabbling in both secular English Common law and Sharia—navigating the two worlds that have shaped post-colonial Malawi. Bakili dismisses what he calls propaganda which claims madrassa centers are used to groom religious radicals. “This is not true. They are purely academic institutions like Oxford, but with Arabic as a teaching language,” Bakili tells me.
Talking to these two Malawians, Ajibu and Bakili, I’m left deconstructing the Western education that I enjoyed. I ask myself: Is the European history of World War I that I learned in school all there is to “history?” Is Western Mathematics stolen from Egyptian “algebra?” Is the Western geography I studied—reciting stuff like the Yellowstone National Park in the US—a ploy to make sure that I don’t notice the obvious geography of Malawi’s fine tea and coffee farms, which the British annexed at the start of the century?
Listening to the stories of these two gentlemen, I begin to see that what we called “Western education” was a colonial project to shape the African in me to become who I am today: a man who loves all things British. Hearing the stories of these two gentlemen who took a hybrid approach—English education and Islamic education—I have started looking more deeply into my Anglican faith.
I grew up Anglican, as is normal in many countries where the British were colonial masters, as in my Malawi. I was taught in school (and I believed) that the purpose of Anglican training was to “prepare my soul for heaven,” and that “this earth is not ours, as Malawians,” and our reward will be found in “paradise.” Now that I’m grown up and looking back I get annoyed seeing how the British grabbed the most fertile tobacco and coffee farmland in Malawi, while we Malawians were taught in school that, “our prize is in heaven.” Looking back I realize that—once it was out of the British colonial grip—my country, Malawi, became one of the biggest tobacco growers in the world. I recently said to my father, “so, the English Anglican education hammered us about this notion of heaven while it was profiting from Malawi’s tobacco?” He never convincingly answered me, he himself a product of the Anglican-English education/church structure.
I’m now a father, and I don’t want my child to forsake entirely the English education system in Malawi. At the same time, I don’t want my child to shun entirely Malawi’s Muslim madrassa studies. So I take my child occasionally to visit the mosque and remind her that it’s fine to take both the English education and the Islamic education, and not totally drown in either.
My encounter with Ajibu and Bakili initiated the uneducation of me, rolling back my British-style education with its pre-conceived notions, so that I could consider the Islamic education that my fellow Malawians have enjoyed, without getting submerged by both.
27 October, 2022