UNPACKING THE HIDDEN IMPLICATIONS OF THE CALL TO INTRODUCE PORTUGUESE AND SWAHILI TO MALAWI’S EDUCATION SYSTEM

The Education Hub with Benedicto Kondowe

Providing education in Malawi is, to put it one way, assembling a house of cards. Intent, policy, and action are stacked on top of each other precariously — easily shaken by the winds of change.

Covid, for instance, was an unexpected gust that toppled the deck, forcing the country to adjust how learners received their education. Now, as Malawi reassembles that perilous deck, President Lazarus Chakwera advocates adding a new card — the introduction of languages like Portuguese and Swahili in school curriculums.

President Chakwera’s proposal came shortly after his State visit to Mozambique in April of this year, following which he intimated that the inclusion of the new languages would foster and strengthen greater trade and economic connections as well as social ties between Malawi and other African countries.

There is grounded precedence for the President’s proposal, as seen through similar developments which have arisen in recent years, such as the AU’s adoption of Swahili as an official working language just this past February 2022 and the recognition of Swahili by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) as an official language in 2019. Not to mention the introduction of the language in South African and Botswanian classrooms and Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa University.

Promoting the languages, President Chakwera stated, would give Malawians the communicative ability to make full use of trade, employment and travel opportunities, which he argued they lose out on due to a lack of capacity.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

The merits of this argument can hardly be disputed. President Chakwera’s instinct for producing learners who are more linguistically skilled is prescient. Over 49% of the nation’s population is under the age of eighteen, and the future that awaits them is one of a greater interdependence between and among Africa’s major Regional Economic Communities (RECs) i.e. the aforementioned SADC, The East African Community (EAC); Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS); Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA); Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD); Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD); and the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU).

If the 2021 African Integration Report is any indication RECs are demonstrating progressive efforts toward integration, with all but three RECs exceeding 0.6 in a rating range between 0 and 1. Just some of the more compelling justifications for why the inclusion of languages may be advantageous to the betterment of the nation, especially as some linguists predict that Swahili’s reach in Africa will only continue to expand.

Certainly, these perceived positive outcomes are enticing; however, the context of the education sector in Malawi is such that these outcomes may be easier hoped for than done. Thus, the president’s proposal needs robust public discourse.

The taxpayer, experts, and all stakeholders must scrutinize and weigh the supposed value new languages will add against the cost and implications such a wind would have on the precarious house of cards.

If the government is to commit to the inclusion of new languages then a consultative approach is required to address the myriad of potential roadblocks that await this extent of curriculum change.

Indeed shared languages are a de facto touchstone for Regional Integration efforts, but what will be the burden on the taxpayer for such an initiative? Adopting new languages will require either the importation or production of books, as well as hiring and (re)training teachers in schools — all strains on the taxpayer.

For that matter, what are the realities of adopting new languages in terms of the scope and duration of implementation? Is this an agenda that can be set by and fulfilled by Chakwera’s government, regardless of what length his term ends up being?

What strains will this particular curriculum change have on the education budget which is currently weighed by the widely accepted need for education to “go digital” to acclimate to the new digital era and to avoid devastating shocks to the provision of education as seen through the closure of schools from March 2020 to October 2020 and February 2021 to March 2022 due to the pandemic — a blow to the house of cards that left 7.7 million school-aged affected.

What’s more — what justification is there to introduce new languages to a curriculum that as yet cannot be delivered to ALL who need it due to the problem of poverty, the challenge of gender inequity and the disadvantage of disability?

There is also a matter of perverse incentives for learners. The President predicts that new languages would equip individuals for a wider job market; however the greater the opportunity for multilingual jobseekers to pursue foreign opportunities, the greater the possibility of brain drain — the loss of capable and skilled individuals to other countries when their labour and expertise could be utilised on home soil.

These non-exhaustive concerns and potential obstacles are a clear indication of the complexity surrounding the expansion of the school curriculum to include languages like Swahili, Portuguese and other commonly spoken dialects in Africa. Therefore, it is imperative that this potential undertaking is approached with stakeholders’ interests and reservations in mind.

Open discourse is essential to gauge expert analysis on the feasibility of implementation; the taxpayer needs to understand the cost burden; and the government needs to consider whether, given all the variables, adopting the change is truly a pragmatic means of bettering the learner’s education and future.

Put another way, every hand assembling the education house of cards must reach a consensus on what cards can be stacked, and what cards will collapse the deck.

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