As William Kamkwamba was last week winding down his extraordinary, high profile US book tour to promote the publication of his newly released autobiography, co-authored with Bryan Mealer, a story bearing striking semblances to Kamkwamba's genius was heating up in Malawi. Only this time, the story was uncovered because of an arrest and a jail sentence that ended up reflecting rather poorly on Malawi's otherwise well-regarded judicial system and communications regulatory authority body.
On October 14th the Malawi Police Service arrested 21 year-old Gabriel Kondesi for owning and operating a radio station in Soza Village in the southern district of Mulanje, without a licence from the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA). On Friday October 16th Mulanje Second Grade Magistrate Aristotle Lameck Mkwapatira ordered Kondesi to pay a MK50,000 fine ($357), or serve a 10-month imprisonment sentence, according to an October 20th story by journalist Lucas Bottoman in the print edition of The Daily Times. Unable to pay the fine, Kondesi was sent to jail, and a media frenzy erupted.
The story stunned Malawians both online and offline, who expressed their shock and anger on blogs, listservs, chat forums and other social media forums such as facebook. By Monday October 19th Kondesi was released after his family and well-wishers in his village raised the money and paid the fine. His family sold their television set, a DVD Player, bags of cement, and also borrowed money from other members of the community, according to Nyasatimes, The Nation and The Sunday Times. Details about the story have since been emerging, and a facebook group has been created, by Daud Suleman, to express support for Kondesi, and raise awareness about “what African youths can achieve through applicable necessary technologies.” The group had 380 members as of Friday (Oct. 30).
Thus far it has emerged that Kondesi dropped out of school in the 7th grade, and has since been operating his Pachikweza Radio Station, made out of crude gadgets that included “an old cassette player, a Nokia 1110, capacitors, two aerials and transistors,” according to Clifton Kawanga in The Sunday Times. Kawanga writes that Kondesi was employing up to ten other young people, whom he paid whenever he had the money. Listeners in the community were paying MK20 (approx. $0.007) to have letters read, and MK50 (approx. $0.003) for letters advertising business. Kawanga adds that MACRA charge $150 for community radio licences.
Malawian papers differ on which frequency Pachikweza was broadcasting, with one paper saying it was on 98.5FM, and another paper saying it was on 105.1FM. The radio station could be heard well beyond his village, crossing the national border into Mozambican territory.
It has also transpired that Kondesi did visit the offices of MACRA in 2007, but no one there helped him. “I travelled to Blantyre two years ago and the people at Macra said they would communicate with me through the Mulanje District Commissioner but I have got nothing up to now,” The Nation quoted him as saying.
This guy is a genius! Why condemn him to prison when he did not know that what he was doing was wrong? A suspended sentence would have been better.
I, therefore, would like to call for his immediate release from prison. These are the kind of guys whom we should sponsor to ensure that their spirit of innovation is well nurtured for the good of the country and the world at large.
I'm glad to learn that well-wishers and his family have managed to pay the 50-thousand Kwacha fine imposed by a court for the unlicensed radio. I appeal to the broadcasting community and business fraternity to help this young man achieve his dream of operating a radio station. Who knows what innovation Gabriel will come up with next given proper resources.
Other Malawians have expressed their support in various ways, including Gospel Kazako, Managing Director of Zodiak Broadcasting Station, who contributed money to reimburse the family for the loss they incurred in trying to find the money to pay Kondesi's fine. Kazako was quoted by Nyasatimes as saying: “As broadcasters, we need to support fellow broadcasters whenever they are in trouble. I don’t actually understand when courts should grant suspended sentences but, as a radio man, I am here to appreciate that this boy is a genius.”
And according to the facebook group “in support of Pachikweza Radio Station“, more support from other Malawians has been pouring in already, with several people drawing inspiration from the success story of William Kamkwamba, who also had to drop out of school before his genius could unleash itself. Eddie Mombera has written on the group's page that Kaphuka Private Secondary School, one of Malawi's elite private secondary schools, has offered Kondesi “a scholarship for all his secondary education,” promising to support him through to the University of Malawi's Polytechnic, Malawi's premier engineering school. An article by Lucas Bottoman in The Daily Times of Friday October 30th quotes both Kondesi's father, Jonas Kondesi, and the Managing Director of Kaphuka Private Schools, Mr. Jackson Kaphuka, as confirming the scholarship.
Mombera later added on the facebook page:
There is a small grouping of people running SMEs accross the country which i belong to. We had a summit in Btown this week and we were so moved by the boys arrest such that we contributed over a Mk100,000 [approx. $714] for his release but when we heard that he was… out, we decided to run a fund for him so that he can go back to school.
On Wednesday October 28 Caroline Kandiero reported in The Daily Times that MACRA had since given Kondesi a free licence, and had also promised to fund the radio station for up to MK10 million (approx. $71,500) in equipment and infrastructure. The article quotes MACRA's Acting Director General Mike Kuntiya as saying, “We do not expect to spend more than K10 million, but we also need to visit the place and conduct surveys to see what will be needed.” And on the facebook page started to support Kondesi, McDevis Kamende, who once taught secondary school mathematics and geography, and now works as a micro-finance banker, has offered to help Kondesi with school lessons to enable him study toward Malawi's secondary school exit examinations: “I will donate 40 hours of part time education -Maths & Geography to Gabriel so that he sits for MSCE in three years time.”