Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Mysterious friends

Of all the teachers I work with at MCV, Zamizan was probably the one in the situation most similar to my own (Jes excluded of course). He was new to MCV, having just graduated from college in Blantyre. He had not studied to be a teacher but, for some reason or another, found himself far from home teaching at Gracious Secondary School (the MCV school). During school breaks he would endure the segmented 20 hour bus ride to his home village in the northern hills of Malawi. Aside from these infrequent excursions he lived on MCV grounds, isolated, except for Jes, myself, and the boarding students. As an unattached bachelor, he quickly became the boarding master; a job to which he devoted himself entirely. He dutifully arrived at school each morning long before other teachers to unlock classrooms. After dinner, Zamizan would return to school so that boarding students could use the electric lights to study. Often I would hear him leading students back to the dorms at eight or nine o’clock at night.

At school his quiet assiduity stood out. While other teachers engaged in animated debates in the teachers’ room, Zamizan would busy himself grading papers or helping students. His taciturn manor often gave him an air of composure and contemplation I didn’t commonly see in Malawians. I always secretly wondered about Zamizan’s past since he was so different from other teachers. The mystery thickened when Zamizan showed up at school with a Toyota Corolla. For a man that lived in a 200 square foot cement room without electricity or running water, a car seemed an unexpected extravagance. The car also hinted at an undisclosed past, since such purchases are far beyond the means of a Malawian teacher’s salary.

Several weeks ago the secret came out. It started in the teacher’s room as hushed whispers. “Did you hear about Zamizan?” “Yes, how long does he have before he has to leave?” “He is the big man now.” It turned out that Zamizan’s father, who recently passed away (and left Zamizan the car), had been a paramount chief of the Ngoni tribe. The Ngoni is the largest tribe in Malawi and although his father was not the head chief, he still presided over an area of more than 50,000 people. The Malawian government embraces tribal sovereignty and gives chiefs an official position in the government, an office staff, along with a house and a generous salary. In return the chiefs are responsible for governing their district and mitigating local disputes. According to Zamizan, there are also numerous social obligations. You could think of a chief as a bit like a mayor except that they, instead of being elected, are chosen by heredity. Zamizan, as luck would have it, was the eldest born and had thus been groomed his entire life for chiefdom. He had found himself at MCV through a family connection and I suspect he was biding his time until the inevitable moment his tribal responsibilities arrived. Even at MCV it was common knowledge that his father was ill, and Zamizan must have known his tenure as a teacher would be short.

Still, I got the impression Zamizan was reluctant to take the post for which he was born. I remember Zamizan once admitting that his childhood dream was to become a mechanic, but that his father had pressured him to attend college and major in business administration. Although Zamizan certainly had the ability to be chief, I don’t think he would have chosen such a life for himself if given the chance. Chiefdom would require an extroverted persona very uncommon for Zamizan. A timely marriage would also be required and I gathered from Zamizam's expressions that this was not something he wanted just yet. His father's death also meant an abrupt end to Zamizan's life at MCV. Zamizan enjoyed teaching and he lamented leaving his students before their exams.

Zamizan’s situation contrasted so sharply with a democratic system that it made me appreciate a drawback of electing leaders. Take the common example of presidential or gubernatorial elections in the United States. Such high stakes offices are so difficult to obtain that only very ambitious individuals, doing whatever it takes, are likely to win. Quality candidates who are unwilling to cut shady deals or sell out to big business are usually unlikely to rise. With an inherited system, being power hungry is not a prerequisite for office. Zamizan is humble, honest, and a good listener, characteristics that are important for leadership yet so often lacking in modern American politicians. Zamizan may turn out to be a good leader precisely because he is not the type of person who would normally pursue public office. Of course the reverse is also possible, and it is for this and many other reasons that I remain sour to the idea of pushing people like Zamizan into positions for which they may not be ready and may not be interested.

1 comment:

  1. I really, really enjoy your blog. Thanks for telling stories of people like Zamizan--who I will only ever get to meet virtually.