Women as Religious and Political Praise Singers within African Institutions: The Case of the CCAP Blantyre Synod and Political Parties in Malawi

Article excerpt

THIS COLLABORATION BETWEEN THE FOLKlorist Lisa Gilman and the ethnomusicologist Clara Henderson explores the roles played by women in two types of institutions in Malawi: on the one hand, political parties, and on the other, Blantyre Synod of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP), a member of the largest protestant denomination in the country. Both the three dominant political parties and the Presbyterian churches have women's wings whose activities include the singing of praise songs and dancing at all-female as well as public events, a custom rooted in community cultural practices that contribute to an Africanization or localization of these Western-style institutions. Most formal institutions in Malawi, be they governmental or political, church or educational, are based on European models--a legacy of colonialism and a result of the globalization of cultural and political systems that has marked the last century and continues into the new one. From the time of colonialism to the present, men have integrated more readily into emergent Western structures, whereas the majority of women have tended to remain more rooted in traditional cultural practices (Johnson-Odim and Strobel 1999, xxxv; Martin 1994, 413, 419). In both real and symbolic ways, women are frequently relied upon to sustain the country's connection to and groundedness in what is often labeled "African" or "traditional" ways of doing things, while men have been expected to Westernize and move the country into the new "modern" or "Western" world.

The social and political situation in contemporary Malawi is one in which participation and identification with the "West" or the "modern" is generally linked with success, power, and prestige. Within formal church and political institutions, for example, those people who wield the most power come from the country's social, economic, and political elite and thus usually have high levels of education, speak English, live in urban areas, have access to "company" cars, and so on. Conversely, the majority of the population in Malawi (approximately 88 percent) is more closely linked in their activities and in public discourse to the "traditional" or "African" ways of life; they tend to have little formal schooling, and they struggle to sustain themselves at very low economic levels, relying mostly on subsistence-based agriculture (Lwanda 1996, 19; Mvula and Kakhongwa 1997). (1) The association of women in church and political institutions with African or local ways of doing things therefore implicitly places women at least symbolically in gendered roles in which they have less access to resources and positions of power.

This article grows out of our interest in detailing the similarities of women's performances in these distinct institutions, both of which are central to social, political, and religious life in Malawi. We begin by comparing and contrasting some of the features (dress, movement, and singing) of women's performances in each type of institution in order to demonstrate the gendering that occurs within both. We then examine the organizational structures through which women perform and explore some functions that these performances play both in individuals' lives and in the furthering of the organizations' goals. Our analysis reveals that though women performers play central roles in both types of institutions, they (as well as the specific activity of their singing and dancing) are frequently placed in peripheral roles within their organizations, and women who perform often have fewer opportunities than do their male counterparts to participate in the decision-making bodies and power structures of these institutions.

Research Methods

Lisa Gilman's interest in Malawi began in 1994, shortly after the country, went through a transition from a single-party state under the authoritarian rule of Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda to a multiparty system of government. After preliminary research during the summers of 1995 and 1996, she returned to Malawi and lived in the Nkhata Bay district, in northern Malawi, from August 1998 to May 1999. …