Monday, 21 December 2009

Silent Night...But Busy Night for the Inn Keeper

Once upon a time, two thousand years ago, a certain business tycoon and his wife decided to turn their humble home into an Inn. Perhaps they wanted to make a few pennies or maybe they realised it was time they made use of empty space left behind by their absent and older children. Unfortunately, business was poor and the long-awaited full occupancy of their inn would keep them waiting just a little longer.

One day, this all changed very suddenly with the Government’s call for an immediate census. It seemed luck was finally on their side! Together, the eagerly anticipated the mass influx of guests who would soon travel hundreds of miles to get themselves registered in their hometown. What the Inn-keeper and his wife had not anticipated, however, was the exceptionally bitter cold and harsh winter that year which had left many desperate for a room, even if it meant sharing.

On one particularly cold and busy day, the Inn-Keeper and his wife would experience a very late night indeed. The pub was full and orders for drinks kept coming. Residents, as well as travelling passers-by trying to down one more beer for the road, kept the Inn-Keeper’s wife occupied until late into the night. Desperate to lock up and end their prolonged shift, the couple eventually managed to push out the last drunkard and finally went to bed.

However, this would not be the end of their hectic day. The travellers, all eager to find a warm, cosy bed, continued to pour in with their donkeys and their children and their luggage. Slightly overwhelmed with his flourishing business, the inn-keeper got to work on a sign which read ‘FULL. NO ROOM IN THE INN’ and returned to his own warm, cosy bed. Just as their eyes were shutting and their sleep deepening, the couple heard loud and desperate knocks on their door. The inn-keeper instinctively ignored the banging and waited for it to stop. However, the knocking became louder and louder to the point where the inn-keeper could ignore it no more.
Afraid that this unwanted visitor would wake the guests up, he briskly ran down the stairs and upon opening the door witnessed an unexpected sight. He ran his eyes up and down the bulky-looking man named Joseph and immediately decided that this man, whoever he was, certainly needed a shave. A dim lamp in the frosty, dark background revealed that this man also had a donkey and that on this donkey lay a visibly tired, but heavily pregnant lady.

With a large lump beginning to form in his throat, the inn-keeper hesitantly pointed at his well-decorated sign hanging at a slightly odd angle but nevertheless clearly visible to all. But as he lifted his finger, he noticed Joseph’s frantic gaze towards the sign and back down to his wife, Mary, who was now breathing very heavily. She looked into the inn-keeper’s eyes and his heart melted on that cold, wintry night. He knew he had to help these people. Suddenly feeling ashamed, he decided that he could not turn them away. However, the inn-keeper soon realised that this decision would bring many more questions and no clear solutions. With no spare rooms, where would he put this couple? What would he feed their donkey? How would he explain this to his wife? In that moment, as if instinctively, the donkey led Mary and Joseph into the barn having smelt fresh hay. Well, it was warmer in there, even if it was a bit smelly, thought the inn-keeper. He was sure the stable would provide some shelter that was comfortable enough for Mary and Joseph.

The warm glow on Joseph’s face was enough to show the Inn Keeper his gratitude. Upon discovering that Mary’s waters had broken, the inn-keeper ran down the paved street, bringing back with him the local village midwife. After shaking hands with Joseph once more, the inn-keeper finally returned to his snoring wife and went back to sleep in a lighter mood. Just as his eyes were shutting and his sleep deepening, the inn-keeper heard a louder and even more desperate knock on the door. The inn-keeper instinctively ignored the banging and waited for it to stop. However, the knocking became louder and louder to the point where the inn-keeper could ignore it no more.

Reluctantly but fearful that the other guests would surely wake up this time, he got out of bed and opened the front door to find shepherds. He ran his eyes up and down the group, deciding that this lot certainly needed a shower. As the inn-keeper furiously lifted a finger towards the sign on the door, the Shepherds stopped him before he could speak. The leading shepherd explained how a host of angels had appeared and told them the good news about the baby Jesus who could be found inside that very inn. The Inn Keeper scratched his head briefly before remembering the unshaven husband, his pregnant wife and their donkey. He led the shepherds to the barn where they all saw that indeed Mary had a baby boy named Jesus in her arms. Bowing down, the Shepherds praised and worshipped God for the baby. Watching them were the proud parents, Mary and Joseph, the inn-keeper and his wife who had now appeared on to the scene. The leading shepherd took the baby in his arms and standing still, took in the moment. He leaned in to kiss the baby and was suddenly interrupted by the inn-keeper’s wife who, now wide awake, protested in the fear of any potential infection of the baby Jesus.

During the early hours of the morning the inn-keeper and his wife finally returned to bed in a much lighter mood. Just as his eyes were shutting and his sleep deepening, the inn-keeper’s wife began to nudge her husband desperately. He instinctively ignored this additional disturbance to his sleep and waited patiently, hoping it would stop. However, the nudging became even more persistent to the point where he could ignore his wife no more. What was it now, he wondered?
“That little boy looks nothing like his father. Do you think that woman cheated on her husband”? Before Joseph had thought of a response, a bright light appeared and shone right into their bedroom window. Half afraid of the guests complaining and half wondering where the light was coming from, the inn-keeper and his wife got out of bed again. Upon opening the front door, they found three strange-looking men conspicuously dressed in eastern attire. As the inn-keeper, now aggravated, furiously called out to them and began to lift a finger towards the sign on the door, the three men stopped him before he could speak. They recalled how they had been following a star from the East. A star that they believed was a symbol of birth of Christ. Looking up into the dark, winter sky, the inn-keeper’s wife let out a gasp when they discovered that the bright light hung directly above their barn. The inn-keeper and his wife led the men to the barn and watched in wonder and in awe as the three men lay expensive gifts by the baby before leaving in the same dignified manner that they had appeared.

Returning to their bedroom more puzzled than ever, the couple made a conscious effort to fall asleep. However, they eyes would not shut and their sleep would not deepen. A series of questions ran through their minds. Who was this baby? Could he really be the messiah? How was it possible that none of the lodgers in the inn had been disturbed by the endless knocking, running up and down the stairs and the sounds of the three men’s camels? Left, with many more questions than answers, the inn-keeper and his wife instinctively got out of bed again early in the morning to resume business as normal.

This is the Christmas story. It tells us of the humbleness of God and that he appears to us in very extraordinary circumstances. Who would have thought that Jesus Christ, the son of God, would be born in a manger inside a village barn, surrounded by animals and located behind a local pub in an Inn? On that cold, wintry night, the inn-keeper and his wife not only received a record amount of guests but they received and hosted the son of God.

As we celebrate the birth of Christ, let us remember and pray for our brothers and sisters in Karonga, Malawi who are in dire need of assistance as a result of two massive earthquakes during the month of December. Let us pray that they should not forget that it is Christmas.

Merry Christmas from Mkandawires in Watford, UK
Watipaso, Francisca, Mopani, Vinjeru, Watipaso Jnr and Sambiro

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Throwing the Baby out with the Bath Water:

Throwing the Baby out with the Bath Water:
Malawi School Closure

Come December 7 2009, there might be chaos and panic amongst thousands of Malawian families. The day marks the opening of new school calendar year and some parents have found out that their children have no school. What is the reason? The Ministry of Education closed down a number of private schools in Malawi that had been found as not in shape to operate as private schools. The blame game starts. Is it Bingu? Is it Bakili? Is it Kamuzu? Is it Mzuzu Corner? Is it Diaspora rhetoric? Well, I would blame Malawi and Malawians and let us all stand and be counted to resolve the challenge.

Well, let us start from why private schools mushroomed. First with population growth, more schools were needed. Second, with free primary education introduced in 1994, even more schools and teachers were needed. The 1994 policy of free education produced a wonderful opportunity for new line of business. Never before had an opportunity arisen to commercialise education. Business in many parts of the world including Malawi is copy-cat. Thus private education movement was born. Former night clubs and taverns, Crop warehouses, private homes and shops overnight became schools in urban and semi urban areas. Those audacious enough built new structures.

Perhaps what was not questioned was the capacity available to run and manage these schools, the health and safety of the structures and the education standards. 15 years later, Government decides that the cancer has to be stopped from spreading and rightly so. Perhaps many of our young persons who joined education stream in mid 1990s have had their future destroyed because of poor education foundation. Perhaps most private school owners paid more attention to their rightful need for profit and neglected the services being provided. Conceivably the regulatory regime was not ready to manage the new industry. The cancer therefore has to be stopped from spreading.

Stopping the cancer from spreading is not easy as we all know. If Doctors decided that the best way to relieve cancer patients is just to take away their lives, everyone will scream, Murderers! I believe there is a better way of stopping the cancer from spreading. Here are a few thoughts. The first step is to set minimum standards of what an education facility should have, which I believe the Ministry has done. This should set standards for facilities, qualification of teachers, curriculum, pupil-teacher ratio, health and safety etc. The second step is to benchmark all education facilities against these standards. The third step is to decide which of the education facilities could be improved with owners’ investment, which ones could be improved with Government intervention and which ones are beyond redemption.

For the facilities that require investment (either public or private), a discussion/negotiations should be held with owners. The Government should negotiate for credit facilities (soft loans) to support the investment requirements and Government should be party to the loan agreement to ensure the resources are used for the intended purpose. The Government could also introduce mobile training for the unqualified teachers and school managers.

For those that are beyond redemption a further thought should be taken regarding what should happen to the students when the facility is closed. This is important as education is a right and to have thousands of children out of school and no one is fending for them is inhuman and criminal. A similar consideration should be given to the other two categories. It is most likely that the existing Government education facilities cannot take over all the pupils and students that are out of schools as a result of closure.

If such consideration had been given, perhaps some schools could have been saved through a public-private sector or private-private partnerships and quick investment could have been made.

What is clear is that in throwing out the dirty bath water, the Government has thrown out the baby as well and innocent children will in the next months be denied the right to education.

For transparency and as way forward, The Ministry of Education should publish the School Closure Report so that parents, students and interested public may know the reasons for closure of each facility and what recommendations have been made for the owners to redress. Perhaps certain schools could be redeemed by communities that have been affected.