Malawian MP and former Cabinet minister Ibrahim Matola is a man of many talents. Matola, leader of the country’s official opposition in the densely-populated tiny African country, whose background is steeped in religious matters received his education in Malawi and Saudi Arabia, where he earned his degree. That marked the beginning of his teaching career in the region. During this period he worked in Palm Ridge and in Polokwane, where he taught at the Northern Muslim School. Next up, he joined Namibia’s Windhoek Islamic Centre and served there for four years.
With Malawi’s dictatorship being in some distant past, and calls for social justice and development growing by the day, Matola entered politics. That was in 2004, he told Sabahul Khair during his visit to Johannesburg. In his decade-long political career, this man, who is on a mission to raise funds to help flood victim, has since risen through the ranks and held many top positions before returning to the opposition benches in Lilongwe.
“First I won as an independent candidate, then after that it’s when I joined the party which was led by the former president, Dr Bakili Muluzi, who was the first democratically-elected president,” Matola explained during his interview with Cii. Muluzi, a Muslim, as this MP pointed out, succeeded United States- and British-trained Hastings Kamuzu Banda – a darling of the West and Malawi’s self-styled ‘president for life’ (whose dictatorship spanned 30 years, ending just 40 months before his death).
In 2009, when Malawi went to the polls, Matola won on the ticket of the United Democratic Front (UDF) and went on to become leader of opposition for that party. The demise of Bingu wa Mutharika, the incumbent president, just three years later paved the way for hitherto vice president Joyce Banda, Matola’s comrade in the UDF (which had been renamed People’s Party), to assume the hot seat. The Saudi-trained and well-rounded MP was named deputy minister of environment and climate change management. His work ethic saw him appointed minister of energy just six months later. He held this post until last year’s general elections.
“Unfortunately, we were kicked out of the government. Now, we are in opposition and I’m holding a position as the secretary-general, for the People’s Party – that’s the party for the former president, Dr Joyce Banda,” Matola said.
Relating how Islam made it to Malawi and how it was Christians, despite their numerical insignificance, who ended up in positions of power, the People’s Party leader told Cii listeners that when Muslims arrived in his ancestral land, they came in as traders but didn’t do much to help the locals advance beyond the understanding of religious matters. Christian missionaries, on the other hand, linked religion to the developmental agenda. “When they came in (they did) three things: education, they were building a school, besides a school there was a clinic then a church,” he said. “They were doing those three things while Muslim missionaries or traders were only focusing on trade and religion – practicing Islam in their dealings of business. It attracted many people that they embraced Islam, or converted to Islam, because of that way of doing their daily life in the Islamic perspective.”
From this angle, the MP observed, Malawi’s Muslim Umma fell behind their neighbours and kinsmen who followed Christianity. He ascribed a degree of what he called illiteracy to that element. For years, the only form of education available to Muslims, he said, received was Madressah.
Tackling the official statistics, pegging Muslims at just 26% of the population, he said the census done in 2012 was “so biased” that it understated the number of Malawians who practice Islam because they are maintaining Banda declared that Malawi was a Christian state. “Frankly speaking, we are above 50%. We are closer to 60%. That one I can challenge because if you take the most highly-populated areas or districts, they are predominantly Muslim,” he said and cited highly-populated districts such as Blantyre, Mangochi, Nkhotankhota, Salima and Zomba.
For one, Mangochi is home to 800,000 people and the majority were Muslim, the MP said, noting that of importance was to grow Islam. Malawi is home to 16 million people of which more than a million are in Blantyre. Mirroring colonial times, notwithstanding that Islamic schools exist now, Muslims don’t have a university of their own.
Malawi is one up in terms of religious holidays. Since 1999, Eid ul-Fitr was declared a public holiday in Malawi. Also, Matola told Cii listeners, the number of Muslims in public service, even at the top (including parliament) is low but looking up.
As for dire poverty, Matola felt the economic scenario was scripted decades ago. Colonist England treated Malawi, and the region, as its backyard. “Zimbabwe was like (the colonial masters’) capital,” he said. “Zambia was (seen as a mine), and Malawi was mainly based on agriculture – and cash crop as tea – and also for luxury or holiday resort when they wanted to come and relax, they, the colonial masters, came to Malawi because of Lake Malawi.”
Things have deteriorated in healthcare delivery. The shortage of drugs and unpatriotic health workers, who sell these to private hospitals or other countries, worsens an already bad picture, the learned Matola lamented. Governments, no less that of Malawi, aren’t bolstering the sector. Critically, he noted, even children have had to bear the brunt. “In a ward where you’re supposed to have maybe five critically ill children, you have 20 children, plus guardians, then it becomes chaos,” he said, adding it was not uncommon for patients to sleep on the floor or for shelves to lie empty.
Matola paid homage to Muslim organisations, based in SA, for offering help in various ways. “We would like to encourage more Muslims, organisations and even doctors, and skilled physicians, to visit the way our colleagues do with the mobile clinics and eye clinics because these are the issues that affect the remote people and they cannot get such assistance from the government,” he said of the situation in a country with a rather lowly 54 life expectancy. Water-borne diseases, like cholera and others, can only thrive in environments like this.
On that note, he lauded South African individuals and organisations for their support in the wake of the recent floods, triggered by the threat in the form of climate change. More than a million people were affected by the floods that rocked most parts of Malawi last month. Goats and sheep were washed away and so were houses. To this day, noted the MP, there are some areas that are cut out from the rest of the country and can only be accessed by air.