Electoral College of One: the Case of Malawi

A mail-in ballot has arrived at our address here in Durham, North Carolina.  It came with little fanfare: the clack of our mailbox lid as the postman made a noontime delivery.  I am aware that the ether is stormy now with quarreling about the transaction it represents.  And heavy clouds forewarn of what is yet in store.

It puts me in mind of the elections that have followed us around the world: grudging lines of voters in Brussels; the exuberance of the young in the Congo bedecked in brilliant yellow and green, dancing in procession to the polls under surveillance of armed police; jeeps with blaring speakers in Indian bazaars urging all to do their civic duty; throngs from the townships who swept the ANC to power as apartheid cracked and fell.  There is drama when the governed make their choice.

The year 1994 left a benchmark in the electoral life of southern Africa.  Nelson Mandela had earlier been ushered from confinement to a Cape Town balcony as thousands roared their joy.  Four years later, a constitution in place, they flocked to the polls whose result carried him to power.  On the day of his inauguration in Pretoria, flags fluttering as the crowd chanted, he invited his erstwhile jailors to occupy front row seats, not in bitterness, but as a sign of the reconciled society he hoped might follow.

In that same year, a 30-year dictatorship was brought mercifully to a close by Malawi’s first truly free election.  It was the setting for a remarkable moment in the conduct of polling in Africa.  The BBC reported the story of a young woman in the back country who had gathered from neighborhood chatter that a momentous day was approaching.  People explained that sacred papers inscribed with names would be placed in a box from which the future would be shaped.

A Malawian woman casts her ballot in a recent national election, the dignity of the moment captured by her demeanor.  The aspiration implicit in her act of voting is a sign of Africa’s determination to shake off the burdens of its past for a new day.  As women across Africa find their voice and assert themselves, their societies make strides in accessible education, in improved health care and governance – all critical to peace-building in societies as poor as Malawi’s.   Photo credit: abovewhispers.com

She went home to consider what papers she possessed that might be worthy of such a high occasion.  Then it dawned on her that there was just such a paper in her safety box. She took it with her on the appointed day and stood in line with the many others who turned out in their 

Sunday best to participate.  When her turn came, she strode past the poll workers straight to the ballot box and deposited the paper she had brought.  ‘Wait’, they called to her, ‘you must first fill out your ballot.  What have you deposited in the box?’

When the box was opened to remove the errant paper, they discovered that she had deposited the most important paper she possessed: her birth certificate.  It featured the names most precious to her: her parents and her own.  Perhaps, she had thought, these might be equal to what the occasion demanded.

Who can withstand the hearing of this story, and the nameless woman it honors?  She schools us in how to regard such moments: she is a kind of electoral college of one, as it were.  The approach of an election, she seems to say, might best be marked not by raucous quarrels and rancor in the market place, by insults, blind rivalry and ill-will, but by earnest self-searching: to bring to that moment the best of who we are.  That voting from enmity or contempt – whatever the choice – could hardly produce a country at peace with itself.  To consider rather what we possess that has the air of honor, the whiff of nobility.  This just might contain the seed of a future worth living.

With her in mind, I turn to my ballot. 

14 thoughts on “Electoral College of One: the Case of Malawi

  1. And may the people vote – despite cynicism and polarization. We were living in South Africa during the days of the vote for Mandela and for his inauguration.


    1. Hello, Steve! Good of you to chime in! Beyond the duty/privilege of voting is the need for some balm to ease our inflamed condition. It seems to me that that must be more than personal contentment or acceptance. We will need citizens of conscience, compassion and courage in the dangerous confrontations that may follow the polls. Like the people of faith in NY who stepped between the police and the wronged and the hotheads to avert bloodshed (and who must go on to foster the difficult, yet necessary dialogue/search for change which follows). Give it some forethought for your community! Gracias!


  2. Greetings Jonathan:

    Thanks for this great post on Malawi and southern Africa. We remember 1994 well. As we travelled through Europe and Asia on my sabbatical that year we met many people with whom we had lived/worked in Malawi (1964-7, 1970-3) and Swaziland and southern Africa (1978-81) and we rejoiced at the results of those elections. Since I read the Malawi news daily on the web I remember reports that Dr. Banda was so surprised that he didn’t win! Recently Malawi went through a presidential re-run election (a year after the last election) and Lazarus Chakwera won over the incumbent. Chakwera is a former Pentecostal preacher and bible school teacher so it will be interesting to see how things go.

    Blessings to you, Mary Kay and your tribe.



  3. Thank you for this lovely story and stirring reminder of what a privilege it is vote. I will stop my squawking and put on my Sunday best when casting my ballot.


    1. Hey, Joy! I wouldn’t want you to think that I am completely beyond ‘squawking’! (A perfect term for our disarray.) I am known to do my share. But I don’t want to lose entirely my ‘better angel’ in the messy bargain. It is the power of story to keep us hanging on to that for dear life.


  4. In 1970 we used up the balance of our NY to Capetown ticket to fly from Kenya to Malawi to visit TAPers. While there we went along with the school children who were compelled to line the road at the bottom of the slope to the Zomba plateau to wave on President Banda. His speech was not very inspiring as he was quelling the anger arising from party hacks confiscating livestock. “If anybody steals your chickens, if anybody steals your cows, you report them to the Congress Party in Blantyre.” That was pretty much it. He jumped back into his car and road on to the next stop. A sad chapter in newly independent Malawi.


    1. Hey, Larry! Your gritty encounter with Banda’s era reminds me of Paul Theroux’s commentary (Dark Star Safari) on his return visit to post-Independence Malawi. As you say, much of that story had to do not with ‘who’s ox was gored?’ but with ‘who’s ox was, well, requisitioned’? Thank God that’s not the whole story now. The reason, I think, it’s not widely reported/recognized is that it is a no-name movement. (though, check out Bobi Wine Ssentamu in Uganda.). For that reason, I am interested in what’s bubbling up from below – the nameless woman in the above story. Thanks for what you contribute to that dynamic!


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