Animals and Ancestors: An Ethnography

Animals and Ancestors: An Ethnography

Animals and Ancestors: An Ethnography

Animals and Ancestors: An Ethnography


Ever since the emergence of human culture, people and animals have co-existed in close proximity. Humans have always recognized both their kinship with animals and their fundamental differences, as animals have always been a threat to humans' well-being. The relationship, therefore, has been complex, intimate, reciprocal, personal, and -- crucially -- ambivalent. It is hardly surprising that animals evoke strong emotions in humans, both positive and negative.This companion volume to Morris' important earlier work, The Power of Animals, is a sustained investigation of the Malawi people's sacramental attitude to animals, particularly the role that animals play in life-cycle rituals, their relationship to the divinity and to spirits of the dead. How people relate to and use animals speaks volumes about their culture and beliefs. This book overturns the ingrained prejudice within much ethnographic work, which has often dismissed the pivotal role animals play in culture, and shows that personhood, religion, and a wide range of rituals are informed by, and even dependent upon, human-animal relations.


I first came to Malawi in February 1958, sitting with my rucksack on the back of a pick-up truck as it passed through the Fort Manning (Mchinji) customs post. I had spent the previous four months hitch-hiking around south and central Africa, mostly sleeping rough. During that time I encountered no other hitch-hiker, and very few tarred roads, and the only place I met tourists was at the Victoria Falls. I was, however, so attracted to Malawi and its people, that I decided to give up my nomadic existence. I was fortunate to find a job working as a tea planter for Blantyre and East Africa Ltd, an old company founded by Hynde and Stark around the turn of the century. I spent over seven years as a tea planter working in the Thyolo (Zoa) and Mulanje (Limbuli) districts, spending much of my spare time engaged in natural history pursuits–my primary interests being small mammals (especially mice) and epiphytic orchids. The first article I ever published was based on my spare-time activities in Zoa, where I spent many hours with local people digging up mice. It was entitled Denizen of the Evergreen Forest (1962), and recorded the ecology and behaviour of the rather rare pouched mouse–Beamys hindei.

Since those days I have regularly returned to Malawi to undertake ethnobiological studies. I thus have a life-long interest in Malawi–in its history, in the culture of its people, and in its fauna and flora. Some of my most memorable life experiences have been in Malawi, and many of my closest and cherished friendships have been with Malawians, or with ‘expatriates’ who have spent their lives in Malawi.

Altogether I have spent over ten years of my life in Malawi, and apart from Chitipa and Karonga, I have visited and spent time in every part of the country, having climbed or explored almost every hill or mountain – usually with a Malawian as a companion, and looking for birds, mammals, medicines, epiphytic orchids or fungi, whichever was my current interest.

The present study, like my earlier study The Power of Animals, is specifically based on ethno-zoological researches undertaken in 1990–1, which were supported with a grant from the Nuffield Foundation. For this support I am grateful.

I should also like to thank, with respect to this present study, many friends and colleagues who have given me valuable data, encouragement . . .

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