A Pioneer Remembered

Malawian culture is distinguished by its strong sense of community and egalitarianism. This can be a formidable strength as people are wired to support one another – something that has been much in evidence in the response to the suffering inflicted by last month’s Cyclone Freddy.  However, there can also be a downside in a reluctance to allow anyone to be recognised for outstanding achievement – no one wants to be seen to be “getting above themself.”

One expression of this is that Malawi has very few named lectureships of the kind that often feature in academic life elsewhere. It was therefore quite an event last Thursday when Zomba Theological University and the University of Pretoria inaugurated the Hara Lectureship – designed to be an annual event to honour the memory of Handwell Hara, a minister and scholar who died in 2018.

Hara was a remarkable man in many ways, not least his many struggles to achieve a high education. He had a very difficult start to his life when his mother died while he was very small and soon afterwards his father committed suicide. Normally this would be the end of any educational aspirations, but Hara defied the odds to progress, as he put it in the title of his autobiography, “from herdboy to university lecturer.”

Part of this journey involved becoming the first black student to graduate with a PhD from the University of Pretoria, at a time when it was a bastion of white supremacy. This was during the 1980s when the struggle against apartheid was reaching its height so that his academic achievement carried powerful significance not only for himself but for the entire society in South Africa.

For this reason, the University of Pretoria is highly motivated to co-sponsor the Hara Lectureship and sent Maake Masango, their first black Professor, to deliver the first lecture in Zomba. As well as saluting Hara’s academic achievements, Masango highlighted his lifelong commitment to supporting those with the least chance in life, especially those who are orphaned as he himself was. He devoted his last years to the work of the Home of Hope at Mchinji, an initiative to provide support for orphans. This commitment will shape the lectureship, sustaining the legacy of an inspirational pioneer.

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