Rodney Likaku aims to change the landscape of Malawian society by focusing on the quality of young people’s ideas and not what it costs to pursue them. Starting with addressing our cultural attitudes to money. He theorises that overcoming poverty-phobia begins with how we practice our languages.
At the center of his mission is enhancing the quality of education young people receive in his home country. “I think that most of Malawian primary and secondary school education is an exercise in futility. Standards have dwindled from around 1994 to the present. This forces parents to send their children to private schools for a good education, that few Malawians can afford,” he laments. His position as an English literature lecturer at the University of Malawi enables him to reach out to the next generation and shape their attitudes, not only to their money but to their culture as well.
He says the current education system has led to Malawian children “with schizophrenic accents, who can conjugate verbs in Latin but cannot read Chichewa or even sing their national anthem”. Clearly he sees a gap in how Malawians view themselves, and his medium to prove this point is his TED talk, on how Malawian cultures’ treatment of money keeps the nation poor.
Rather than just complain and point out these problems, Likaku addressed them as part of a team that designed the only creative youth leadership programme in Malawi, Students with Dreams at Art and Global Health Center Africa. This initiative encourages young people to demystify their relationship with money, and focus on achieving their goals regardless of the cost. What has followed is the surprising revelation that seemingly million dollar dreams cost only a fraction of that to achieve. Some of the projects he’s undertaken with young Malawians include “the refurbishing of dilapidated infrastructures in schools, teaching art to orphans as a form of therapy and teaching secondary school pupils how to make jewellery so they can pay their way through school”. The circle of poverty is something the nation has developed an unwanted reputation for, and Likaku sees change as beginning only when the idea of poverty changes from being considered in only material terms. “Malawians are tired and I try to reach those who think there are more ways out of this circle.”
He sees value in young people’s thoughts and has a strong belief that re-designing how they see their country and themselves is central to Malawi’s future success. That’s certainly an idea other African nations can follow, but not without fixing existing problems. Likaku ends off by warning that great ideas are not enough to change our circumstances.“Poverty is a demon that lives in people’s homes. If you close your eyes you can imagine the stories people tell their children about what to study in order to be rich, or see them laugh about government officials stealing taxpayer’s money.” He believes these realities have to change too. “When an entire nation, at whatever level, is poor in this way, how do we even begin to talk about ideas?”