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Malawi: Meet Global Voices Author Steve Sharra

Linda Annan talks to Malawian Global Voices Author Steve Sharra. Sharra is a blogger, freelance journalist, lecturer and educational editor. He blogs at Afrika Aphukira. He has published poetry and fiction, radio plays (Malawi Broadcasting Corporation) and a radio short story (BBC); and authored a children's book, Fleeing the War, which won the 1995 British Council Write a Story competition. In 1997 he became Honorary Fellow of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa (USA), after Prof. Emeritus Steve Chimombo (1983), and the late Edison Mpina (1984) and in 1998 he was writer-in-residence at the University of Iowa (USA).

In this interview, Steve Sharra talks about the Malawian social media space, his professional background and his interest in education, teaching and writing.

Linda Annan (LA): Can you briefly tell us about yourself?

Steve Sharra (SS): I was born in a place called Bawi, in Ntcheu district, Malawi. At the time my father was attending a police training college, so my mother went to live with her parents. My grandfather, a reverend, was teaching at Bawi Primary School. We moved to Zomba Police Camp when I was about a year old. That’s where I grew up. Zomba was the capital of Malawi going back to the colonial days in the 1890s, until 1975 when Malawi’s first president, Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, moved it to Lilongwe. I attended Police Primary School, St Stanislaus Prep School, Nankhunda Seminary, and Police Secondary School. After secondary school I went to Lilongwe Teachers’ College, from 1990 to 1993, where I qualified as a primary school teacher. In 1994 I left teaching at became an editorial assistant of educational materials at Malawi’s national curriculum centre, the Malawi Institute of Education. In 1998 I went to graduate school, first the University of Iowa, and later Michigan State University, both in the United States. At Iowa I studied English Education, while at Michigan State I studied Teacher Education, and wrote my dissertation on curriculum aspects of peace studies in education. My doctoral thesis argued for the adoption of a concept in the school curriculum which I termed uMunthu-peace, a type of social justice based on African definitions of being human, and our interdependence as human beings. I returned to Malawi in May 2010, after spending three years as a visiting assistant professor of peace and justice studies in the Department of Philosophy at Michigan State.

Malawian blogger and Global Voices Author Steve Sharra. Photo courtesy of Noelin Zawazawa.

LA: What’s the meaning of your blog name Afrika Aphukira? Is there a particular reason why you chose that name?

SS: Literally “Afrika Aphukira” translates as “Africa will be reborn.” I chose that Chichewa name for my blog as my way of expressing optimism for Africa; optimism for an African Renaissance.

LA: What is the state of Malawian blogosphere?

SS: I think the Malawi blogosphere, in the narrower sense of just blogs, is lagging behind the larger Malawi social media sphere. I wonder if that’s exclusive to Malawi alone. On a number of times a Malawian blogger has broken big impact news, for example Boniface Dulani who was the first person to write about the University of Malawi academic freedom struggle just hours after it broke. That was February 12th, 2011, when the Malawi Police Inspector General, Peter Mukhito, summoned a university lecturer, Dr. Blessings Chinsinga, to question him about a lecture in which he had used the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt as an example to illustrate a point. More recently, Mabvuto Jobani has been blogging breaking news about police involvement in the murder of University of Malawi Polytechnic student, Robert Chasowa, on September 24th. Otherwise, it’s facebook mostly, and twitter to a lesser extent, that’s the most thriving form of new media in Malawi.

Steve Sharra dancing at a wedding. Photo courtesy of Mpatso Chabwera.

LA: You seem to be a big advocate of Malawi. Besides the fact that you’re Malawian, what else could be the reason?

SS: That’s an interesting question, Linda. We have a Chichewa proverb that says “Nankununkha saadzimva.” It means something like one doesn’t detect one’s own smell. But I think my conspicuous advocating for Malawi comes from a particular personal history and identity politics. A number of my early classes in graduate school, 1998-1999, required us to do serious intellectual self-reflection. Once I started looking back to where I was coming from, I started noticing a number of very peculiar aspects of what it meant to be a Malawian and an African. I had never had occasion to do so when I lived in Malawi. I guess leaving your country and going outside your continent seems to do that to a number of us. That’s when being of Malawian and African identity started taking on a big significance. It made me very conscious and sensitive to any suggestions of identity deficiency and racial denigration. I think it was tied to being a black person, and an African. That’s when I also began reading Pan-Africanist theory, so it all started coming together. I have come to see it as part of my responsibility, as a Malawian, a black person, and an African, to promote and advocate for a more complex understanding of Africa. Paul Tiyambe Zeleza calls it the imperative of every African intellectual. I see much of what ails Africa today as originating in the image that has been constructed for the continent in the 500 years that Europe has enjoyed global supremacy.

LA: Why do you choose to approach your musings from an “African epistemological perspective” as your blog suggests?

SS: Somewhere along my studies, I read about ways of knowing, knowledge systems that mediate the process of producing knowledge. It dawned on me that what was categorized as school knowledge was a product of a particular way of knowing, a European epistemology. Much knowledge is human knowledge, but Europe has developed a way of producing and consuming knowledge that privileges European heritage and civilisation. This would not be a problem, were it not for the manner in which that privileging process undermines and denigrates other societies’ ways of knowing. In my doctoral research I read Malawian philosophers such as Harvey Sindima, Augustine Musopole, and Gerard Chigona, who have worked on uMunthu as an African epistemology, and political scientists such as Richard Tambulasi and Happy Kayuni who have argued for uMunthu as an African political ideology. I learned from these scholars that what ails Africa is a direct consequence of being at the receiving end of Eurocentric epistemology. In order to address that problem, I think we need to learn African epistemologies, so as to understand the world from an African perspective. It’s what Mahmood Mamdani calls “dealing with the global from the perspective of the local.” Right now we are doing it the other way round, and Africa is suffering terrible consequences. But things are looking up now, I think. I see more and more people realising why Africa must develop self-confidence and deal with Europe, America and Asia from the vantage point of Africa. But it will take a lot of intellectual effort and political will; a radical change in the leadership.

LA: Tell me about “Fleeing the War.” I know it was a children’s book but what was it about and what inspired it?

SS: Fleeing the War was a children’s story I wrote in 1995. It is about a group of Malawian adolescents who are hunting along the Malawi-Mocambique border, which is where their village is located. They are surprised to meet two little children, a boy and a girl, who are apparently lost. They have been fleeing from Mocambique’s civil war. They set off in the night, with their parents, but soon they get lost. The parents go one way, and the children go another. The Malawian children take the Mocambican children home, and make them comfortable. After six months of searching, the children’s parents make their way to the Malawian village, and find their long lost children. The story was inspired by true events. There was civil war in Mocambique between 1976 and 1991. A million Mocambicans fled into Malawi and settled down. Many of them spoke Chichewa already, a common language along the border between the two countries. Many of them returned after the war, but many also stayed behind and became Malawian citizens. The first school where I taught in Ntcheu district served as a rationing centre. UNHCR officials came and delivered supplies to the refugees. They came from far, and on their way to the rationing centre they would sit down to rest under a huge tree next to my uncle’s grocery store in the village. I would sit down and talk with them about their experiences. I crafted the story from those encounters.

LA: You are involved with the Malawi Teacher Professional Development Support (MTPDS) project aren’t you? What is it and how did you get involved?

SS: It is a project of the Malawi Government, through its Ministry of Education, Science and Technology. We are establishing a teacher professional development system for primary school teachers, most of whom have no such opportunity once they graduate from teachers’ college. I got involved through my participation in a prior, related project.

Steve Sharra at work. Photo courtesy of Speaker Nkhonjera.

LA: Why the interest in education and teaching? Why not something else?

SS: The teaching came rather by accident. I failed to make it to the University of Malawi, the only university operating in Malawi at the time. About 36,000 students sat the secondary school leaving certificate examination in those days, but there were 700 spaces in the University. My father suggested teaching. I was away vacationing in my my father’s home village when the government advertised for a teacher training programme. He mailed me the advert, and I applied. I realized I had a passion for teaching. It gave my life meaning. I particularly enjoyed being in control of the process of learning new things, and helping children learn. Since then, I look at the world through the eyes of a teacher.

LA: It’s obvious that you’re drawn to academia. Why is that?

SS: I was initially drawn to creative writing; that was my first intellectual calling. One of the earliest lessons I learned, in secondary school, was that literature provided powerful ways of making sense of complex realities. I learned this from Malawian poets Jack Mapanje, Anthony Nazombe, Garton Kamchedzera, Frank Chipasula and Steve Chimombo, among others, and their influence rubbed off on me. They all wrote poetry, but being literary scholars, their writings, both the poetry and the scholarship, opened a window through which I saw Malawi quite differently. Particularly, it was the political oppression, social injustice and inequality that made me realize that a better Malawi was possible. All of this happened as I transitioned from being a secondary school student to being a student-teacher. I became a teacher, and together with the passion for writing, academia became a compelling interest.

LA: What do you do now as a profession and where are you currently based?

SS: I am a teacher educator and educational researcher. I’m based in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital.

LA: If you had an empty schedule one Saturday, what would Steve Sharra be doing?

SS: Ha ha. Saturdays don’t come empty anymore, as they used to. I would probably be reading some really good fiction, or creative non-fiction, which I haven’t done in years. Or I would be playing chess with my kids.

LA: Did you get accepted into the Shuttleworth Fellowship? What did you wish to accomplish with that?

SS: I was very disappointed when I didn’t get accepted for the 2011 Shuttleworth Fellowship. It’s such a unique fellowship where somebody asks you to describe what you think is wrong with the world, or at least in your society, and then gives you as much money as you require to go about addressing that problem. I was hoping to design a project whose sole aim would be teacher empowerment in Sub-Saharan Africa, through global dialogue with teachers elsewhere, and through teacher-led intellectual production. I still hope to get funding to do this one day.

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