Spirit of Dedza – Leaving no one behind

Mussa Illinga at work registering Malawian citizens.
Mussa Illinga at work registering Malawian citizens.

After two weeks of registering hundreds of residents daily in the village of Kachere, Herbert Saini and his fellow registration officers (ROs), knew they were ahead of schedule. They would meet their target in a matter of days, and could then leave Dedza district and collect their salary for the next district much earlier. But now they were faced with a dilemma. It was not as straightforward as Saini and the others had expected. Herbert, 66 years old, from Blantyre, explained how they were awakened each morning by residents arriving in the middle of the night to register.

“It was supposed to start at 7am, but because of the turnout of the people, the applicants, they were coming at about 4am. We were moved by this, also because it was very cold there. So, we said no, let’s start as early as possible.  Many were very old people, and there were mothers who come early in the morning with their kids. They were complaining, and they would tell us that the children were crying because they had no food. So, we now started to receive applicants early. Old people, those with babies, those who were pregnant we registered first,” said Saini.

The routine of waking to the noise of villagers arriving became a ritual of registration officers, beginning as early as 5:30am, with the day ending between 7pm and 8pm.  By day 22, the ROs had already registered more than 4,000 people, exceeding a target of 90% set by Malawi’s National Registration Bureau (NRB) for all centres in the mass registration exercise. The team was even approaching a 100% level, based on names listed in the village registers. But the registration at Thete Trading Centre in Kachere had become a magnet for those living in other villages, like Kachipo and Mtendere, whose registration centres had closed.

Saini and his fellow ROs did not know each other until their arrival in Kachere. Mussa Illinga, who is 31, from Blantyre, explained how they met in the evening on Day 22, to decide what to do next as they had now reached their target. They weighed the matter as though they had been lifelong friends with shared values as Malawians. “We said no, we can’t go home when other people are still coming, even if they aren’t assigned to us. We said no, we should continue,” Mussa explained.

After two hours of discussion, they decided to stay on, knowing they would also delay their salary for work in the next phase. They stayed an additional nine days, registering those from villages not assigned to them. The decision to end registration at a centre rests with the ADR (assistant district registrar, the local NRB officer) and the local chiefs. The team told the village headman, Kachule, that they were willing to register those from other villages. The team finally left on July 19, after 31 days, registering 6,800 people, according to data from the Consolidation Centre – nearly 3,000 additional people in that nine day period.

Dedza is one of four districts in Phase 2 of Malawi’s mass registration of its citizens. The exercise consists of five phases and it began in May, ending with the final phase in December. The Kachere team is only one of many hundreds of teams, that make up the 4,000 registration officers who carry out the mass registration across the country. They are trained to operate the 2,000 bio-metric registration kits (BRKs) that are used to register and collect the data of the population of Malawi, more than 17 million people. Those who can prove that they are Malawian citizens are given a legal identity. Nine million persons of 16 years of age and above are being registered for a national ID card that will contain their bio-metric data. Those under 16 are registered for a unique ID number, so that they will have a birth certificate and be eligible for an ID card at the age of 16.

This is a massive undertaking logistically. The national ID card is embedded with a chip filled with bio-metric data of a person’s attributes, such as fingerprints and a photo. This will give Malawi the most sophisticated ID card in sub-Saharan Africa. The card will be used to link with multiple public services, such as social cash transfers, health and education. It also provides security in incidences of accidents or if a person becomes victim of a crime. The identification system is also a necessary initiative for the country’s development agenda.

The conditions experienced by registration teams, like the one in Kachere, also highlight some of Malawi’s acute development needs. The team chose to continue work in the face of challenges that may have been daunting obstacles elsewhere and even curtailed registration—excessive crowd turnouts, poor accommodations, recurring needs for power to charge the BRK kits and high rates of illiteracy. The team had to change registration sites multiple times as the original site, at Thete Trading Market, attracted those from other villages. When they tried to set up at a school, that effort was short-lived because classes were still being held.

A chronic concern was the need for sufficient power to charge the BRK kits. Seventy percent of Malawi is dark, as this part of the country is off the national grid and lacks electricity.

Saini explained, “From time to time we were being helped by the local officials. But to conserve power, the team used solar panels on a regular basis.”

While the ROs had new technical skills to operate the high-tech BRK kits, the process was hampered by the scale and absence of a basic attribute – literacy.

“Illiteracy was very high. More than 70 percent of the persons that we registered were illiterate. You wouldn’t believe it,” exclaimed Herbert. “You’d maybe appreciate an elderly person who can’t write, but also younger people failed to write, among them even business people in their 20s, and many persons 16 years of age and above.”

Overall, Mussa estimated that 75 percent of those registering had no documents or proof of identity, relying instead on verification by village heads, like Kachule, or on community witnesses.

For the residents of Kachere, the national ID system will be a lifeline because of the multiple benefits that they can legally claim once they get their biometric ID cards. And for Malawi itself this is a ladder to continue the climb out of poverty that has marked the country. For the Kachere ROs, their work in the exercise could also open doors to new careers. There will be continuous registration in 2018, when the mass registration ends in December. BRK kits will still be left in all the districts. Then government agencies will begin to adapt using bio-metric data.

Saini wants to be a part of this effort. His colleague Mussa wants to use this experience to complete his degree work in IT.  “It would be better if we could get a job in this field. We understand that it’s an ongoing process. It’s not going to stop,“ he said.

When Herbert and Mussa returned to Lilongwe with the rest of the team, they deposited their BRK kits at the Consolidation Centre, which is a giant warehouse. It has become the nerve-centre of the exercise. Data from the BRK kits is uploaded and consolidated onto a government server, and there registration teams also can tend to basic needs, such as banking, before they are deployed to another assignment. On this occasion the team from Dedza was welcomed by the supervisors from PricewaterhouseCoopers, the firm which is responsible for the recruitment and training of registration officers.

Treza Saliji, one of the PwC administrators commended the registration officers in Kachere. “I wanted to find out why they were still there, what was their motivation. I encouraged them, saying that this is the spirit we’re looking for. Even when they have done all their stipulated days but people are still coming in, they should not chase them away, they should continue until they’re done registering everyone,” Saliji said.

As Herbert Saini and his new friends boarded the bus headed for another deployment, they took with them lessons from Dedza to use in the next district, which was Nsanje. “We’ll meet with the chiefs first. We didn’t have time to do this in Dedza. They can tell us which villages are in the area where we have to register people.”

None of the members of the Kachere team will be working together this time as they will join other teams, but they will bring to those teams the spirit of Dedza, that ensures no one is left behind.


The NRIS (National Registration and Identification System Project) is a partnership of the NRB (Malawi National Registration Bureau) and UNDP Malawi with support of Development Partners.

By Karl Bostic