Academic journal article Africa

The Self in Self-Interest: Land, Labour and Temporalities in Malawi's Agrarian Change

Academic journal article Africa

The Self in Self-Interest: Land, Labour and Temporalities in Malawi's Agrarian Change

Article excerpt

In the southern margin of Dedza District in Malawi's Central Region (see map opposite), the site of over two years of fieldwork in 1992-93 and 1996-97, communal work parties appear to be on the decline. In contrast, smaller-scale labour contracts, known as `piecework' (ganyu in Chichewa) and invariably entailing a reward in cash or in kind, are the most common means by which `extra-domestic' assistance is recruited in agriculture. The main queries of this study are twofold. On the one hand, is this reliance on small-scale labour contracts an index of agrarian change? On the other, what can the study of personhood contribute to our understanding of agrarian change?

These queries arise from an unsettling fact, already noted by Pottier (1988) in his study of a former labour-migrant community in Zambia. Pottier described a decline in customary work parties and a definite turn to paid agricultural work (1988: 84-6). However, `the bulk of the labour ... [was] still borne by small groups of women who [were] related through kinship or affinity' (1988: 85). A somewhat similar observation about kinship and affinity in paid agricultural work can be made of Chewa and Ngoni villagers in Dedza District. By highlighting this observation I attempt to go beyond Pottier's conclusion that social relations have become `dyadic' (1988: 83) contractual and individualised.

The responses to the above queries cannot sustain a notion of unequivocal `change' in local agriculture and sociality. There are several different temporalities which constitute the social and economic world of Dedza villagers. The challenge is to understand their variable dynamics and interplay, and to resist the facile juxtaposition of `change' and `continuity', including the unhelpful composite `change-and-continuity'.

I argue that big work parties have long been an exceptional mode of labour recruitment, arising from very specific needs, and that the labour performed by the relatively small household units represents an institution of the longue duree. I show how, under such particularism, the ganyu labour arrangements are integral to the constitution of economic actors as moral persons.

The argument is somewhat counter-intuitive, because the use of money comes deceptively close to the `commodification' of labour. But, if money is taken to be an index of change, analysis may merely indicate a peculiarly `Western' habit of imputing definite moral qualities to it (cf. Parry and Bloch, 1989; Guyer, 1995). According to such a viewpoint, monetary transactions are `disembedded' from the fabric of social obligations and privileges.

Among some students of agricultural labour contracts, such a tacit assumption has led to a teleological view of agrarian change. Scott, for example, has claimed that wealthy South East Asian peasants are `in an ideological vacuum' (1985: 184). Their quest for accumulation appears to make customary obligations obsolete. However, the continuing need for casual labour means that they are `not yet able to dispense entirely with the precapitalist normative context of village life' (1985: 185, emphasis added).

A teleological view of agrarian change represents an `ideological vacuum' as a liminal condition on the path towards complete disembeddedness. Social and economic change is, in such a perspective, a shift from one system of values to another. In the study of labour contracts, this shift is disclosed by juxtaposing an `old' style of labour recruitment with a `new' style, and by calling the discrepancy between the styles `change', often associated with gender or generational conflicts (see e.g. den Ouden, 1995).

The analytical procedure bypasses several issues of both theoretical and political import. It assumes a coherence of value which must be probed. It identifies change with globalised forms, such as monetary transactions, and fails to appreciate the variable historical conditions under which `change' occurs. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.