Peasant Production and Limits to Labour: Thyolo and Mzimba Districts in Malawi, Mid-1930s to Late-1970s

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

Peasant Production and Limits to Labour: Thyolo and Mzimba Districts in Malawi, Mid-1930s to Late-1970s


Davison, Jean, The International Journal of African Historical Studies


Peasant Production and Limits to Labour: Thyolo and Mzimba Districts in Malawi, Mid-1930s to Late-1970s. By Erik Green. Stockholm, Sweden: Lund University, 2005. Pp. xii, 218. SEK 295 paper.

The major concern of this book is the dilemma of the "poorly performing peasant sector" in Malawi and the historical conditions that contributed to its on-going low productivity (p. 187). Green's study targets two "ideal type" socioeconomic settings-one in the fecund, estate-dominated, heavily populated south (Thyolo district) and the other in the sparsely populated north (Mzimba district) where topsoil is thin and labor is scarce due to male out-migration. The author limits his investigation to the peak colonial period (1930s-1963) and the decade after Malawi's independence in 1964. The key issues examined in these periods are structural shifts in existing peasant farming systems and the institutional environment in which peasants operated and how it changed over time.

Green's primary argument is that despite environmental, ethnic, and economic differences between these two "typical" districts, similarities exist related to labor limitations and institutional obstacles to accumulating wealth. An underlying assumption of the study is that in order to improve their livelihoods, peasants must continuously expand production, a neo-liberal economic perspective. Green approaches the "agrarian question" (lack of growth in the peasant sector) by looking at how local socioeconomic factors interact with exogenous institutional constraints to prevent increased peasant production per capita.

Green moves between empirical cases and theoretical explanations. He posits an analytical framework that encompasses a typology of peasant farms, from preindustrial, self-sufficient hoe horticulture to partially market-integrated family farms ever more dependent on a global capitalist economy. In some cases, peasants began in the 1930s to sell their own labor, especially to estates owned by British companies that produced export crops in Thyolo. In Mzimba, males emigrated, working as miners in South Africa and the Rhodesias. In some cases, peasants with a surplus drew on the paid labor of others. Yet, even in the late colonial period, peasants continued to produce food and an increasing number of cash crops (cotton, tobacco, groundnuts, maize) on family farms, largely without the aid of technologies that might improve production. They did so by intensifying family labor, a pattern that persisted into the 1970s.

In his fieldwork, Green depends on data gleaned from archival research: the reports and correspondence of British colonial administrators, agricultural agents, and district commissioners, along with census data. A secondary method tapped oral sources. Green's intent was to interview older peasants in both Thyolo and Mzimba to learn about shifts over time in their historical farming systems and how institutional changes undertaken by the colonial government affected these systems. Two issues that have a direct bearing on the author's findings are linked to the collection of the oral sources, one related to gender of the sample and the other to the context in which the group interviews were held.

Green's informants included eighty-eight peasants interviewed in groups of five to eight, in total thirty-five in Thyolo and fifty-three in Mzimba. In addition to the greater number in Mzimba there were far more male than female farmers in the sample. In all, fifty-six men (63 percent) participated in the group interviews whereas only thirty-two women (36.4 percent) were in attendance. This presents a dilemma in a country that is predominantly matrilineal and uxorilocal, especially in the heavily populated south.

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