The End of Chidyerano. A History of Food and Everyday Life in Malawi, 1860-2004

By Messer, Ellen | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

The End of Chidyerano. A History of Food and Everyday Life in Malawi, 1860-2004


Messer, Ellen, The International Journal of African Historical Studies


The End of Chidyerano. A History of Food and Everyday Life in Malawi, 1860-2004. By Elias C. Mandate. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 2004. Pp. xiv, 346. $139.95 cloth, $29.95 paper.

This well-documented historical and thorough ethnographic account of food and culture in Malawi's Tchiri Valley argues that the inhabitants of this region have always lived on the edge of subsistence; experiencing oases of plenty with deserts of famine. Whereas seasonal hunger (njala) is expected and occurs yearly, famine (chaola, which translates to "rotten hunger") has occurred just twice, because people spread their risks, by planting and harvesting foods from different environmental zones and sharing non-staple foods selectively. Previous analysts, for their own ideological purposes, have hypothesized either (deterioration from) a pre-capitalist "golden age" or relentless "crisis." Both miss the true historical dynamics, which combine "time's cycle" (seasonal oscillations) with "time's arrow"1 (cumulative and irreversible change). As a native-speaker who was able to interview surviving generations in their own idiom, and as a Western-trained historian, the author finds no "end of chidyerano" (sharing the "communal meal"); only never-ending oases of plenty coexistent with deserts of famine.

Supporting his case are exhaustive citations from archival literature, travelers' and political accounts, previous historical analyses, and his own recent ethnographic observations, interviews, and surveys. Part I reconstructs the very different political circumstances surrounding the famines of 1862-63 and 192223, and in the process critically assesses historical research methods. Part II is an agricultural treasure, specifying what cropping and additional livelihood strategies farmers have used, under varying ecological and political circumstances, to balance their needs and desires for food security and cash. Part III provides an instructive case history of cotton, rationalizing why it never became a more dominant export crop; not only were its chemical inputs costly, but its labor demands interfered with food production. The last two chapters-which consider "The Logic of the Peasant Garden" in all its diversity and "The Daily Meal" with its extensive seasonal, geographic, and personal variants-each stand on their own, and could serve as readings for courses in African history, society, culture, or food studies. The dietary chapter, in particular, demonstrates how consumption strategies of food sharing complement diverse production strategies, and what discretion women have over household food resources.

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