One evening, as I was sitting enjoying a pint or two with some English friends in a busy London pub, I saw a man push his way through the crowd to the bar. I could hear him shout to the landlord above the hubbub:
“The toilet’s blocked again, Jacko. You’ll have to call the gong-farmers.”
Puzzled, I asked the others around the table, “What’s a gong-farmer?”
Antonio, who knows everything, waited to see if anyone could answer me before he replied: “A dung-digger, basically. In London, four hundred years ago, there were no sewage pipes, so people were employed to empty toilets and dispose of the excrement. These people were called ‘gong-farmers’. Their job was dangerous and disgusting. Much of their time was spent on their knees, scraping filth from the sides of holding-tanks. Sometimes, they would find themselves up to their necks in it.”
As usual, Antonio had told us more than we needed to know. Glances were exchanged around the table, and the subject was dropped.
While I was flying back to Lilongwe, I remembered what Antonio had said. “Who are the modern gong-farmers?” I asked myself. I wondered if we might apply the term to members of the Anti-Corruption Bureau. After all, its their job to remove the filth from the public domain, and we should be clear about this: people who steal from the public purse and thus deprive our children of a decent education, and our grand-parents of effective health facilities, are filth.
Just as the early gong-farmers had to do a dangerous and unpleasant job, the same applies to our modern ACB gong-farmers.
However, there is an important difference: seventeenth century gong-farmers needed a strong back. Today’s gong-farmers need strength of character. When you work with filth, it’s difficult not to be tainted by it.
When our gong-farmers fail in their duties, there are no overflowing public conveniences to highlight their shortcomings; there is no stench to assail our nostrils. The indicators are more subtle, but the consequences are infinitely more catastrophic for us all: poverty, dependence, unemployment, substandard education, inadequate health provision, crumbling infrastructure, deteriorating supplies of electricity, fuel and water, and the corrupt appointment of incompetent employees.
It takes a special kind of person to be a modern gong-farmer. It’s not a job for time-serving seat-warmers. The ACB gong-farmer must be driven by a clear vision of what a corruption-free nation would be like.
Theirs is one of the most important vocations in the nation. They must understand their own importance. They must respect – and be respected for – their eminence. The achievement of our MW2063 objectives is dependent upon their success. Those who try to frustrate their work are enemies of the state and the people, and should be treated as such. These Augean Stables of ours need Herculean dung-diggers! The extent of their powers, the breadth of their functions, and size of their salaries should reflect this.
So, to answer the question implied in the title: gong-farming in Malawi is much more than an agricultural initiative. It’s a major component of the process of keeping politics and economics clean. No wonder it has so many enemies!
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