Things the US could learn from Malawi, part 1: Matrilocality

Writing about Jina Moore’s view on negative stories about Africa got me thinking about what I say here about Malawi, or about other parts of Africa. The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced she’s wrong to call out Africa coverage in particular: all news coverage is overwhelmingly focused on bad stuff, because good stuff is uninteresting. “Everything is fine in Iowa” isn’t an article I’d read any more than “everything is fine in Botswana.” One of her commenters made the trenchant point that her idea of writing an article about an oboist from Kinshasa is only interesting as a contrast to all the bad news out of there. There are oboists in major US cities, too, probably great ones, but most people generally don’t care. This is probably even more true of international coverage – maybe you’re interested in hearing about olympians in obscure sports from your hometown, or the local fair, or the Costco opening, but the further away such stuff gets the less you want to hear about it. Here’s an example I picked arbitrarily: I can’t figure out how to perma-link to it, but as of when I checked The Economist’s Europe page currently lists 6 main stories, 5 of them entirely negative. The 6th is about how Italy’s judiciary is such a disaster that the country’s government has finally been forced to overhaul it. While there’s no violence for them to focus on, they’re certainly ignoring all the positive things going on in that region of 740 million people.

I’m nonetheless now thinking more about what I say here, and how I present Malawi, with an eye toward highlighting some of the interesting positives here. The first one is really cool, and I’ve never seen it anywhere else: at least in the region where I’m doing my research, and probably throughout most of the country, societies are matrilocal, and, at least historically, matrilineal as well. Matrilocality means that when a couple gets married, the husband moves to the wife’s village rather than vice versa. Interestingly, I don’t see any of Malawi’s ethnic groups where I’m aware of the practice on Wikipedia’s list of matrilocal and matrilineal societies. (I’m not enough of an expert to fix this myself, and the hardliners at Wikipedia are unlikely to accept “I saw it while driving my enumerators around in a minibus” as a valid source.) Many things are also matrilineal here as well – in cases of intermarriage, people tend to describe themselves using their mother’s ethnic group, for example, and the order of succession for village headmen and traditional authorities often flows down female bloodines, albeit commonly to males. In the past, I’ve learned, family names also went down the mother’s lines.

This hasn’t produced the beautiful equality of the sexes (let alone female dominance) that I’d been led to expect; Malawi is still fairly patriarchical. However, in my view, shared by everyone I’ve talked to about this so far, matrilocality probably still enhances the status and empowerment of Malawian women relative to the alternative. This is for ideational reasons – a greater value placed on females due to their social and political importance – as well as practical ones – women are allowed to stay at home and benefit from their existing local knowledge and support networks. I’m not hesitant to judge cultures, piece by piece, good and bad, and this is a case where I think Malawi’s system (or at least the system in the places I’ve visited here) works better than what we do in the US, especial the matrilineal aspects of their marriage system.

4 thoughts on “Things the US could learn from Malawi, part 1: Matrilocality”

  1. The Yao should definitely be included on WIkipedia’s list. Here’s a relevant paper by Pauline Peters (have you met her? Her field site is in ZA):

    And here is a more recent piece of hers that also ties in land tenure:

    Perhaps also useful to your own work is George Reniers’ 2003 paper on divorce and remarriage in the context of HIV and matriliny:

  2. Kim may remember that I wrote about matrilineal/matrilocal kinship structures in Malawi for my final paper in her UCLA seminar class. Some articles that I looked at were:

    p.s. keep in mind that these were sources from my undergrad years and I haven’t reviewed them in a while…

    Sear, Rebecca. “Kin and child survival in rural Malawi: are matrilineal kin beneficial in a matrilineal society?” Human Nature 19, no. 3 (September 2008): 277-293.

    Phiri, Kings M. “Some Changes in the Matrilineal Family System among the Chewa of Malawi since the Nineteenth Century.” The Journal of African History 24, no. 2 (1983): 257-274.

    Mtika, Mike Mathambo, and Henry Victor Doctor. “Matriliny, Patriliny, and Wealth Flows in Rural Malawi.” African Sociological Review 6 (2002): 71-97.

    Takane, Tsutomu. “Tobacco and Smallholders in Malawi:Village Case Studies in the Mchinji and Mangochi Districts.” In Agricultural and Rural Development in Malawi: Macro and Micro, by Tsutomu Takane, 93-118. Chiba: Institute of Developing Economies, 2005.

    1. Lynn – I almost forgot that! And this is great because I have an idea and some data for a project that will need to draw on matriliny and patrilny — meaning I need to give these a good read. Thanks for sharing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *