For me—apart from the change of date—the first day of 2013 was barely distinguishable from the last day of 2012. I know some people stayed up all night to usher in the New Year as one way of exorcising the demons of 2012. The past year hadn't been kind to them so you have to understand their desire to move on to new things.
But I am curious to find out what free things this government is going to deliver to the people in 2013, apart from the bags of maize. Perhaps they will surprise us all and finally deliver jobs to the unemployed? Or maybe there will be deliveries of truckloads of bags of free money at every PP rally. I know many people would appreciate bags of free meat, especially since sirloin steak is now so expensive it's virtually unaffordable in the shops.
For all the good intentions of Joyce Banda's distribution of free bags of maize, it means nothing in the long run because it is the functional equivalent of giving a hungry man a loaf of bread today know¬ing he will be hungry again tomorrow and will come back to you to beg. So where is the dignity in that, to both the giver and the beggar, but especially to the giver?
While the argument can be made that there is hunger in parts of Malawi and that handouts of Joyce Banda-branded maize bags are helping to feed the hungry, the unintended consequences of this culture of handouts is that whenever poor people hit the dry patch, they will wait for JB to come with manna from heaven.
I don't know whose brilliant idea it was to want to create another cycle of state dependants, as there are in the Lower Shire, who are in no hurry to escape the floods each year because they know government will scramble helicopters with food and blankets and medicines and all manner of supplies for them.
Governments should not be applauded for dishing out free things. This is not Saudi Arabia. The government of Malawi should be challenged to do what is necessary to provide real life-changing opportunities for the poor to make meaningful lives for themselves. If government were really serious about doing something, they would start schemes with longevity for people to be able to sustain themselves in the long run.
These programmes would better include simple economics-education to help point out to the people that there is no such thing as free things in life, unless, of course, you live in Ri¬yadh where oil is bursting out of your country's ears and your government has no idea what to do with the excess petro-dollars. But anywhere else, money and food and livelihoods have to be worked hard for and earned. That is the only way most people are able to survive in this world.
But then you get the feeling that if the people of Malawi were able to get jobs and feed themselves and look after their families, the government would be greatly unhappy. This is because it would no longer have that desperate pool of poor people to go to with bags of maize in exchange for votes each time there was an election.
Instead of bragging about giving out free bags of maize; how about investing in education for a change? For a country whose education system has been as sickly as its health system for a while now, you would expect that education reform was going to be near the top of the agenda, but nope...
While some steadfastly refuse to acknowledge that Malawi's education system is in shambles all round, the fact is it is. Unless, of course, your family can afford one of these expensively-priced private schools costing a million kwacha a term, then you don't have to worry about it.
What is urgently needed is a serious re-think. For example, the system is overloaded with unmotivated and uninterested, uninspired and uninspiring, overworked and underpaid, underqualified and irregularly recruited teachers.
What this has done to Malawi—especially in the public schools and the majority of these so-called private schools run out of people's backyards—is that it has dropped basic education standards and the next thing is that universi¬ties are forced to compromise their standards to admit obviously unsuitable students.
So let's assume this is what has happened over the years, it means that Malawi's universities are no longer the pride institutions of higher learning that they used to be but places that make a whole lot of people feel good about going to university.
Even more, public universities now have to admit students on the 'parallel system' students who didn't qualify to be admitted through the front door but somehow have to pay a premium in fees to be admitted through the window. But they are very welcome into the system because the money they pay is needed to run the poorly-funded universities. With that in mind, it's then possible to design courses that are vir¬tually impossible for these parallel programme kids to fail while also allowing them time to be drunk and disorderly, to demonstrate and smash up windows on campus, to fight with the police and do all those great things that make life so memorable at university.
But soon problems will arise. These students who have been caused into thinking they got a real degree now have to go out into the work¬place with those bits of paper and compete with other job seekers. But since commercial enterprises have to make profits, they are unlikely to be quite as accommodating to mediocre minds as universities that are dependent on government funding.
Within a very short space of time, the weaknesses of such a flawed education system will be revealed because it's impossible to fool all the people all the time in the business and corporate world.
If we expect Malawi to matter in the community of emerging and developing nations, we need to go back to the drawing table and revisit what is being done to the education sector. The best and brightest brains available in this country have to be harnessed, but right now the system is leaking like a sieve.
The new university at Ndata is an imposing structure that is needed as soon as yesterday, but listening to President Banda casually talk about how it won't open anytime soon because there is no one to donate desks and chairs tells you how nonchalantly this issue is being taken right at the very top.
Forty-nine years after independence, Malawi should be fiercely competing in telecommunications, engineering, commerce, science, manufacturing and various sectors but that can¬not happen if education standards continue to drop below that of other nations. In fact, if we continue on this path, we are dealing our young people a double whammy. They won't be employable here and they certainly won't be em¬ployable anywhere else in the world.
Sometimes you get the feeling this country is run by people who are secret members of the Mayan Doomsday Cult, which believed that the world was going to end on Dec 21, so there was no point to bother with such things as the country's future. Their attitude to education would certainly suggest so.