Academic journal article Wagadu: a Journal of Transnational Women's and Gender Studies

Gender and Ethnicity in Banda's Malawi

Academic journal article Wagadu: a Journal of Transnational Women's and Gender Studies

Gender and Ethnicity in Banda's Malawi

Article excerpt


During his thirty year reign in Malawi Kamuzu Banda built a state mythology and ideology of development based on constructions of gender and ethnicity that promised no future and little economic change for the majority of the population. The social structures that were established created patterns and processes that continue, a decade after Banda's death, to organize social and cultural life.

Malawi's first republic came to an end in 1992-94 with the peaceful, electorally based deposition of Kamuzu Banda as president. Banda lived long enough to see his title, "President for Life," fade into irrelevancy. My contention here is that the sociocultural structures established in Banda's 30 year reign brought patterns and processes into being that continue, at least in part, to organize social and cultural life a decade after his death. I also contend, though I do not explore it in this paper, that understanding a relatively non-urban, nonindustrialized state such as Malawi leads inevitably to an insight into the more generalized post colonial situation of many Africa nations. In order to be able to grasp the realities of contemporary Malawi it is necessary to subject Banda's Malawi to some scrutiny.

Two major foci of Banda's regime and its policies were gender and ethnicity, seen as crucial elements to control in order to create and accelerate economic development. This approach shifted attention away from growing disparities in wealth and access to resources and toward the need to modernize traditional culture (almost never spoken of in Banda's Malawi in the plural). This rhetorical sleight of hand hid attention to the historic changes in social locations of those who were the supposed recipients of development efforts. Since this process developed and continued throughout Banda's three decades, realities that were not, were created.

In Malawi the national mythology being created placed a version of Chewa culture and its matrilineal institutions at the center. The result was that women occupied the heart of national concerns, which was (and is) a place utterly without either power or autonomy. The case can be made that placement in this central position constitutes a devolution or degradation of the historically traditional position of women. At the same time ethnic groups, especially in the Northern Region, not sharing cultural commonality with the Chewa were either suppressed or largely ignored as parts of this national structuring.

Social locations are central to macro level discussions of domestic policy priorities. These are some of the steps in the national value hierarchy. They constitute the normative background against which distributive decisions are made. Social locations can be conceptualized as the relative positions created by the intersection of various polar pairs of acquired and ascribed characteristics, for example rural-urban, agricultural-industrial, formal sector-informal sector, male-female, traditional-modern, Ngoni-Chewa. My goal here is to focus on these issues in one country in southern Africa. My emphasis is on what David Bidney (1967) might have called meta-policy, that is, policy about policy, or perhaps simply the ideological paradigm within which policy formation takes place.

For almost all of the countries of Africa their existence as national entities is a product of colonialism and its retreat. With a recent independent history of no more than 40 years, a central concern revolves around creating national unity from the materials of social, cultural and political pluralisms created by arbitrary colonial boundaries. At the same time, these countries are in the process of developing policies and orientations toward their pressing immediate concerns.

One source of data for these policy orientations is the private statements of government officials to researchers. Another is in the officially sanctioned public statements about development and its place in national life. …

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