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How The Atlantic Can Do Better, Starting with Malawi

26 January 2014
by

An edited version of this post originally appeared on Africa is a Country.

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Confronting a Sexual Rite of Passage in Malawi”, published by The Atlantic on Monday, is misleading and continues a long tradition of ethnocentric, sensationalist reporting on Africa. The article tells the tale of a 14-year-old girl, Grace Mwase, of Chiradzulu District, saying that she defied a tradition of sleeping with an older man after she went through an initiation ceremony at the age of 10. I am not an expert on culture and customs in Malawi, but in this essay I argue one doesn’t have to be to get the story straight on customs and their impact on a community.

You might ask (especially if you’re unfamiliar with Malawi), what’s wrong with The Atlantic’s story? A lot. But I’ll limit myself to the errors and shortcomings I think are most egregious and have simple solutions for eradication. Below I select passages, point out errors of fact or representation, and then suggest a solution for fixing the system so such an error is not repeated.

“In many villages across Malawi…custom dictates that both boys and girls as young as eight attend a rite of passage known as ‘initiation’.”

This is an error of misrepresentation. A nationally representative survey of adolescents conducted in 2004 in Malawi estimated only 43% of adolescent girls participated in an initiation ceremony. There is variation within Malawi, with only 26% of girls in the Central Region reporting to have participated in an initiation ceremony, compared to 57% of girls in the Southern Region. Adherence to the custom also varies by ethnic group, with only 20% of Sena girls reporting to have participated in initiation, compared to 75% of Yao girls. Note, however, that there is no group or region of residence where every girl reports having gone through initiation. Even in places where initiation is popular, children are certainly not “dictated” to participate. When the writer uses words like “many” and “across,” it creates a mischaracterization that all Malawian groups are strong adherents to the custom.

Editors when reviewing submissions can look for words like “many” and “across” and ask for corroborating evidence (how common is the practice? is it practiced in all regions of the country?), or if unavailable or if deemed to be misrepresentative during the editing process, the editor can advise the writer to be more specific and avoid misleading their readership.

“In fact, girls in Malawi are often told that if they don’t have sex upon concluding initiation, their skin will become dry and brittle. This will mark them for life, and they will be ostracized if they don’t complete the custom as their mothers and grandmothers did before them. These guardians often force their daughters to go through with the ritual for fear of breaking with tradition.”

This is plain false. In my eight years studying Malawi, I have read and heard a lot of rumors, gossip, and old wives’ tales about sex (it used to be my job!), and I have never heard this. Though initiation in Malawi is practiced somewhat differently dependent on the cultural group to which one ascribes,[i] and it is true that during initiation there are discussions about sex, it is not the custom in any group with which I am familiar that parents force their young daughters to have sex following initiation ceremonies. There are many ethnographies on initiation rites in Malawi and her neighbors, so I leave readers to delve into the works done by experts to learn more about what these ceremonies often entail and what they mean for the societies in which they are celebrated. Initiation ceremonies have actually been regarded (by two prominent, Malawian social science and public health researchers – in an open-access article analyzing survey data and in-depth interviews of Malawian adolescents) as a great opportunity to prepare young people for responsible sexual and reproductive behavior, since the topic of sex is already being broached, and initiation is specifically tasked with transmitting knowledge.

If the story in The Atlantic was right to ring the alarm bells on the vulnerability of young girls in Chiradzulu because of this harmful cultural practice, then we might see certain patterns in population-level data. The 2010 Malawi Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) found the median age of sexual debut among girls in Chiradzulu District is 16.8. That age is much higher than Grace Mwase’s reported age at initiation: 10. Age at sexual debut among girls in the Southern Region generally was 16.8, and it was 17.4 in Malawi overall.[ii] If there is some sort of epidemic of young girls being forced to have sex after initiation ceremonies, we should see – in fact – girls living in this place to have sex at much earlier ages. To put this in perspective, in a representative sample of American high school students (aged 12-18), 54% of female students reported to have never had sexual intercourse. In Malawi’s DHS, 71% of never-married women aged 15-24 reported never having had sexual intercourse; the figure was 65% in both Chiradzulu District and in the greater Southern Region of Malawi. Why does the article on Malawi not provide this kind of relative perspective?

The claim above accuses a people of acting inhumanly – of “forc[ing] their daughters” to “have sex upon concluding initiation,” which could be when girls are as young as 10, as Grace Mwase was when she was initiated. Such an indictment requires careful consideration by an editor. If true, there could be some normative value in reporting on the practice, in hopes of raising awareness and action. If false, however, The Atlantic is actively participating in the defamation of the character of a people, who are already struggling – as the article points out – “in a country where nearly three-fourths of the population lives below the poverty line.” Before making such an inflammatory accusation of a people, how could a writer (or an editor) familiarize herself with initiation in Malawi? I found the public-access article mentioned above by simply going to Google Scholar and typing “initiation” and “Malawi” in the search box. And, to examine patterns in the population more broadly, the Malawi DHS can be referenced.[iii] The DHS is a widely used data source available publicly online in an accessible (non-jargonized) format. Even if a writer has no data analysis skills, so long as they can read a table in a PDF, they could have learned for themselves everything I’ve written in the preceding paragraph. The editorial team at The Atlantic should have a series of reliable, country-specific resources such as the DHS so that when writers submit stories like these, someone can fact-check against patterns in the population, or at least encourage the writer to do so.

“We speak over dinner beside the glittering but parasite-ridden Lake Malawi.”

I’ll just share what Malawian commenter Peter Nkosi wrote about this terrible, terrible line: “There may be bilharzia in a few parts of the lake, but it is journalistic hyperbole to call it parasite-ridden. Anyway what is the relevance of the alleged parasites to the story?” Exactly. I want to blame the author, but what editor let that get through?

Perhaps the hardest part for me to stomach about the article was that it links to a few of the resources I’ve pointed to in this post. How could it be that the writer and I can be reading the same works and coming to entirely different conclusions on initiation ceremonies? The writer even managed to find and cite a report prepared by the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) on how cultural practices impact human rights, particularly the rights of women and children.[iv] Whereas I read these things in their entirety, the writer of the article in The Atlantic cherry-picks from the MHRC report, the Rasing book on girls’ initiation in Zambia, and the Munthali and Zulu paper primarily those details that support a negative perception of initiation ceremonies. On this, I have no advice for The Atlantic. Perhaps readers with more journalism expertise can offer suggestions for how an editor can identify a writer who has been selective with evidence, only to include that which supports her argument/narrative.

Finally, The Atlantic aren’t the only ones to have picked up Grace Mwase’s story. It was also published (by different writers) in The Star [Toronto], Huffington Post, and in the online Malawi news agency, Nyasa Times (those versions, however, left out the “parasite-ridden lake”). Why are we seeing this same story of this Grace Mwase across multiple outlets? Because it was an NGO set-up. The NGO brings a girl with a sensational story, invites reporters to come and hear the story, and then these reporters who know little to nothing about the context take as truth what’s being told to them and essentially write a press release for an organization competing to win a $10,000 prize. The writer’s bonus: one more stamp in the passport, one more country she can say she’s reported from. The Atlantic and other agencies should be careful of accepting stories that have been generated by the NGO-seeking-funding machine. In my mind, the real story is in the making of this story. Who is Grace Mwase really? And what of this NGO in Malawi that has been parading her in front of foreign journalists to try and tell a sensational narrative in exchange for attention and potentially cash? And what do ordinary Malawians think of this story being told of their people? I doubt anyone is inviting reporters on junkets to do that kind of reporting, though. (But this guy managed to keep a critical perspective.)

Through this look at one bad article in The Atlantic, I have offered here some resources specific to Malawi. But the strategy of finding reliable, publicly available information can be applied to other places with which a writer or editor is not terribly familiar. It is imperative that The Atlantic and others reporting stories from far-away places be careful in representing others. In Grace Mwase’s own words: “You’re like a visitor so you don’t know anything.”


[i] It is unclear which group The Atlantic’s article is accusing of forcing young girls to have sex following initiation, because the article only refers to Grace Mwase as coming from Chiradzulu District, but does not identify the cultural group in which she was initiated. Based on location, the girl is likely from either the Yao or Lomwe group, though there is sufficient diversity in Chiradzulu District it is also possible she is from the Nyanja or Ngoni group.

[ii] There are other relevant indicators that are inconsistent with the story in The Atlantic. For example, among girls aged 15-19 in the Malawi DHS, 0 in Chiradzulu reported ever having sex with a man who was 10+ years older (0.1% in Southern Region; 0.6% in Malawi overall).

[iii] Demographic and Health Surveys are collected regularly in multiple developing countries around the world, not just in Malawi.

[iv] It should be noted the MHRC report draws on a non-representative sample – which doesn’t even include respondents from Chiradzulu District, where Grace Mwase is from, and upon whom The Atlantic article largely rests.

on the challenges of international research for mothers

28 October 2013

This summer I wrote a popular post on taking children to an African country while you conduct research. After a conversation with (and a blog post comment by) Aili Tripp, I learned a political scientist had actually weighed in on this issue previously. Though Tripp’s article [gated] was published more than ten years ago, I found myself nodding in agreement throughout. Here’s just one bit:

Even for those who manage to arrange such research trips, one still has to contend with the fact that generally no one—not one’s colleagues, not even one’s best friends—is going to be terribly supportive or encouraging, mostly because they do not really understand what such an endeavor entails. They also might have a hard time visualizing the country and conditions under which one will be living and therefore cannot imagine the difficulties one might encounter, let alone with children. Except for three academic mothers in my two departments who did international research (I have a joint appointment in political science and women’s studies), I have the impression that most colleagues in my two departments did not have any idea how difficult this was to arrange and pull off. No one asked, and I had little opportunity to explain. It certainly never featured in any way in my annual departmental reviews as an assistant professor even though the life skills it took to arrange something such as this were considerable. Moreover, most of my friends thought I was nuts, and my family was not thrilled with my plans. The moral of the story is that one should not expect any special support from the people around one, even those who love and care about one deeply.

A more recent piece [gated, ungated here] published in PS: Political Science and Politics citing Tripp’s article, “Embodied Researchers: Gendered Bodies, Research Activity, and Pregnancy in the Field,” shares experiences and insights of two women in political science who have conducted research abroad. From the introduction:

Drawing largely from our experiences from dissertation-stage fieldwork in Spain (Candice Ortbals, CO) and Poland (Meg Rincker, MR), we explain how women’s bodies do not always easily fit the requirements of fieldwork. We first discuss practical physical and appearance-related concerns having to do with women’s bodies, and in doing so, run the risk of de-glamorizing the research process by discussing the mundane: building strong biceps, choosing the proper attire, and eating healthy food. Second, we debate the gendered appearance and representation of motherhood in the field from the perspectives of the expectant mother and mother-daughter relationships. In both discussions, we examine what it means to be a young woman conducting research abroad, arguing that interviewees often do not expect researchers to be young women, especially not young pregnant women. While our arguments pertain initially more to young women, we pose suggestions for field researchers regardless of gender, race, age, sexual orientation, and disability.

I appreciated in particular this sentence in the conclusion:

Professors, students, and funding agencies alike should consider the connectedness of scholars, and consider financial support to bring family members, children, or caretakers into the field.

Both pieces have helpful strategies for moms (and dads) navigating the challenges of conducting research away from home. If haba na haba readers know of other articles that would be useful, please post cites and/or links in the comments!

at least one religious leader on the side of LGBT rights in Uganda

27 October 2013

“Do not be discouraged. God created you. God is on your side.”

That was said by Bishop Christopher Senyonjo at the funeral of Ugandan LGBT activist David Kato in 2011.

I saw this in the film Call me Kuchu, a documentary on the struggle for LGBTI rights in Uganda. The trailer is below; the film is available in a number of formats — I streamed it on Netflix.

The Bishop’s remarks stand in stark contrast to the typical religious leader’s attitudes toward sexual minorities, particularly in Africa. Perhaps I’m optimistic that Bishop Senyonjo will be a trailblazer that other religious leaders in Africa will follow.

Just last week, Malawi’s major daily newspaper, The Nation, ran an article reporting a Muslim Sheikh who had attended a workshop on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights saying in an interview:

“As religious leaders, we are saying nowhere in the Bible or the Koran is it written that homosexuality is supposed to be there or promoted. On the other hand, what we are saying is that people who are practising this are supposed to be served on three things: They are supposed to be given love, they are supposed to get protection and also we have to look after them because they are human beings and are totally entitled to all human rights.”

It’s not wholesale acceptance, but it’s a start. Maybe my optimism isn’t naive. Inshallah.

Until attitudes toward LGBTI change, however, it is important films like Call Me Kuchu and the new film God Loves Uganda (disclaimer: I’ve only seen the trailer for the latter) that can shed some light on the challenges LGBTI people face.

Some of the Call Me Kuchu trailer (and film) might be familiar to haba na haba readers. I wrote an earlier post that linked to an excerpt made by Call Me Kuchu’s filmmakers featured in the New York Times in 2012 commemorating a year after David Kato’s death.

For discussion of both films, see Brett Davidson’s review at Africa is a Country.

Women Authors on African Politics Syllabi

25 October 2013

syllabiHow many women authors are included in syllabi for courses on African Politics? The short answer is: very few.

I decided a few weeks ago to write a new syllabus for an undergraduate course on Contemporary African Politics. As I did the first time I designed a syllabus, I went online to look at those written by colleagues at other colleges and universities. It just so happens that this exploration coincided with a symposium on the gender gap at The Monkey Cage blog, which featured posts on the [lack of] citation of works by female scholars in the academic literature, with a mention about works by female scholars [not] making it onto graduate course reading lists. So, I was paying close attention to the female scholars on the African Politics syllabi I read.

I found so few women authors on the syllabi I came across that I decided to begin compiling a list of all the articles/chapters/etc. assigned in African Politics courses as represented in the syllabi I could find online. I wanted to identify the few women authors and scholars who were being included to help me with my syllabus, and also to share with others. I was also curious if there were any patterns in who included female authors on their syllabi. Were female scholars more likely to do so? Were newer faculty more likely to do so?

I have only reviewed 10 syllabi, and the professors who wrote those syllabi are not representative of the universe of African Politics instructors (see the paragraph on methods below). This is a first crack at the limited information I have thus far, and I hope to collect more information and answer the questions I posed above. With that caveat, here is what I found:

The average proportion of assigned readings on African Politics Syllabi by women authors was 11.6%. One syllabus didn’t have a single reading that was authored solely by a woman or women. One syllabus’s proportion of women writers was as low as 2% (it had only one reading), and the highest proportion of readings written by women was 35%.

The syllabus with 35% readings written by women was sufficiently remarkable (half of the syllabi were in the single digits) that I reached out to the instructor to get some insights. Aili Tripp is Professor of Political Science and Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has been teaching African Politics for over twenty years. Over the phone earlier this week, I told her about what I had learned thus far from the syllabi collected and asked her about her approach to syllabus design and whether including women writers was a conscious decision from the outset.

Tripp said that she updates her syllabus each time she teaches the course, to include new pieces. (Given the growing number of women scholars writing on African Politics, this seems like one good way to increase the proportion of women writers in course readings). Tripp said she wasn’t that conscious about the proportions of writers by gender, but that she’s always looked to include women’s voices when teaching her class and that most important to her has been to include African perspectives. She includes on her syllabus not only scholarship by African women, but also memoirs, articles in the press, and video clips of African women thinkers (i.e., Nigerian economist, current Finance Minister of Nigeria and former World Bank Managing Director Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala) on her syllabus. Particularly if we are interested in the voices of African women, who represent a small but growing sector of published scholarship on African politics, it will be important to consider multiple ways of bringing their insights into the classroom.

Here are the “methods” or rules I followed in coming up with the numbers you see above: The non-representative sample of African Politics undergraduate course syllabi includes those designed by: Clark Gibson (UCSD), Guy Grossman (UPenn), Nahomi Ichino (Harvard), Carl Levan (American University), Staffan Lindberg (U-Florida), John McCauley (U-Maryland), Daniel Posner (UCLA), Andrew Reynolds (UNC), Alex Scacco (NYU), and Aili Tripp (UW-Madison). All syllabi were for courses taught in the last five years (2008-2013). Each syllabus entry counted as one assigned reading, regardless of length. For example, if a professor wrote “Herbst, Chapters 1 & 2”, that would count as one assigned reading; if a professor wrote for the next day of class “Herbst, Chapter 3”, that would count as a separate assigned reading. Articles without bylines – often, this included readings from The Economist – were not included in the count. When an author’s gender wasn’t obvious to me, I looked online for more information about the author. Co-authored papers by both female and male authors were assigned a fraction where the number of women authors was divided by the total number of authors. For example, the article by Victor Azarya and Naomi Chazan, “Disengagement from the State in Africa: Reflections on the Experience of Ghana and Guinea,” counted as “half” of an article in the number of readings written by women. In calculating the ratio of women authors featured on syllabi, the total number of readings was the denominator and the numerator was the sum of readings written by women. Assigned readings were not limited to academic articles or textbooks written by scholars but also included works written by non-scholars; often, these were chapters from books by journalists formerly posted in Africa or from memoirs.

For those of you looking for articles and book chapters written by women to include on your syllabus, here are readings that appeared on more than one syllabus:

  • Boone, Catherine. 1998. “The Making of a Rentier Class: Wealth Accumulation and Political Control in Senegal.”
  • Chazan, Naomi. 1999. “The Diversity of African Politics: Trends and Approaches.”
  • Manning, Carrie. 2005. “Assessing African Party Systems after the Third Wave.”
  • Schmidt, Elizabeth. 2005. “Top Down or Bottom Up? Nationalist Mobilization Reconsidered, with Special Reference to Guinea (French West Africa).”
  • Widner. Jennifer. 1994. “Political Reform in Anglophone and Francophone African Countries.”

There are newer pieces written by women scholars that I think will catch on, but one problem is a lag. Though there is an increasing number of women studying African politics (judged by the increasing number of women I see in the room at related meetings, see more below), our research takes time to get published, time to get read by others, and then others have to take the time to update their syllabi, and whenever we add something new, we invariably have to take something old off – no simple task.

Although Aili Tripp sees some improvement from an earlier survey she did of a similar nature about 8 years ago for a Politics & Gender article, it is remarkable to me after having attended the most recent meeting of the African Politics Conference Group (APCG) at the American Political Science Association annual meeting that there is such a strong disconnect between what I saw in the room (APCG is chaired by a woman, its newly elected officers are all women, and all of this year’s APCG article and dissertation awards went to women) and what I am reading on our syllabi.

I am going to cast a wider net, so please, forward me your syllabi or those of others teaching African Politics (or feel free to post links in the comments). I also plan to use the same information to look at the proportion of readings assigned that were written by African authors. In addition to my curiosity of whether there are patterns in assigning readings by African authors, I wonder if doing so also relates to the number of women authors on a syllabus. For example: is there a substitution effect whereby assigning more African authors means assigning fewer readings by women authors since so many African authors assigned in African Politics courses are men?

how to tell statistics from damned lies

22 October 2013

Betsey Stephenson and Justin Wolfers (two prominent economists at the University of Michigan) wrote a list of six things that can help the non-expert decide whether empirical research is useful or not. This one I particularly liked:

3. Be wary of scholars using high-powered statistical techniques as a bludgeon to silence critics who are not specialists. If the author can’t explain what they’re doing in terms you can understand, then you shouldn’t be convinced. You wouldn’t be convinced by an analysis just because it was written in ancient Latin, so why be impressed by an abundance of Greek letters? Sophisticated statistical methods can be helpful, but they can also hide more than they reveal.

See the full list here. HT Michael Clemens.

a foreigner’s take from inside the Malawi budget office

19 October 2013

There wasn’t much for me to do when I first joined the Budget Division of Malawi’s Ministry of Finance back in 2006… One of the very first things I worked on was an attempt to reconcile the difference between expenditure ceilings set by my department and actual reports of expenditure from the Accountant General’s department.

“paying for gas in Malawi” by skuarua, shared with cc license via Flickr

That’s the start of a blog post by Matt Collin, currently a Research Officer at Oxford’s Centre for the Study of African Economies and formerly (2006-2008) an ODI Fellow working as a Budget Officer in Malawi’s Ministry of Finance. Matt reflects on his experience with Malawi’s Integrated Financial Management Information System (IFMIS), the software platform used to transfer funds from the Ministry of Finance to other ministries, who in turn use the platform to make payments:

I quickly noticed that IFMIS-generated reports seriously deviated from what was being approved by the Budget Division, sometimes even showing expenditure which was above and beyond what had been mandated by our department.

At my director’s prompting, I visited the relevant department at the Account General’s to request more detailed reports from IFMIS. The likely culprit was some of data problem, and I was curious to get to the bottom of it, seeing the whole exercise as a problem with some sort of technical solution. While the civil servants I spoke to at the AG were friendly enough and agreed to send me reports, upon my return to the Ministry of Finance it was later made clear to me that the AG wasn’t too fond of this unknown fresh-faced mzungu making random requests. Not long after, more pressing work diverted my attention, and this particular issue faded into the background.

Matt writes these reflections in the wake of Malawi’s Cashgate scandal, where evidence continues to mount on the great theft of public funds through the IFMIS.

There is one excerpt in particular from Matt’s blog post that stuck with me:

…when finance systems don’t work properly, it’s very difficult to tell the difference between corruption and incompetence.

That bit underscores an important challenge in investigating financial discrepancies: do you accuse someone of being clever (and stealing) or stupid (and not equipped to do a job)? Either way, you’re insulting someone. That’s not an easy situation to be in when you’re a foreigner — and that’s one reason why the fact that forensic auditors are being flown in from Britain sits a bit uneasy with me. I try to think about how governments of developed countries deal with financial irregularities — I can’t remember a recent scandal where forensic auditors from another country were flown in. I recognize that pervasive cases might require external (non-governmental) auditors, but how “external”? Does it require auditors from outside the country (international auditing firms have branches in Malawi)? If so, would a group of Zambian auditors not be far enough removed? Why does corruption in Malawi require British oversight in the postcolonial period?

when your research population organizes against you, NYC sex worker edition

15 October 2013

We wondered about veracity of Venkatesh['s] “findings”—he said he had “followed” 270 sex worker subjects in NYC but none of our membership had ever been contacted by him nor knew of anyone who had been—so we carefully examined the investigations he said he had done with sex workers over a ten year period. We found that his “research history” simply did not add up. Claims in articles online, in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, and on the Freakonomics blog regarding the dates, locations and numbers of people in his research were wildly inconsistent. His conclusions, for example about large numbers sex workers advertising on Facebook, were easily shown by other researchers and commentators to be incorrect. Other conclusions such as the fiction that “there’s usually a 25% surcharge” to have sex without a condom not only bore no relationship to reality but also endangered sex workers and public health programs working with them.

We were so concerned by what we uncovered that in October 2011 we wrote a letter to the Columbia IRB to the Columbia University Institutional Review Board (IRB) and to the Sociology Department asking for some clarity about Sudhir Venkatesh’s research. Specifically, we asked for the research project titles, dates of research, and IRB approval numbers for each of the years he claimed to have conducted research while at Columbia University. We also wished to make Columbia University’s IRB and the Sociology Department aware of that the research appeared to create additional harms and risks for sex workers in the New York area. Our action is an example of the degree to which communities of sex workers have organized and the degree to which we will question research that we find harmful. We are no longer a “gift that keeps on giving” for Venkatesh, we are a community that speaks for itself.

Sudhir Venkatesh is a professor of sociology at Columbia University. The quote above is from a post on the The Sex Worker’s Outreach Project NYC (SWOP-NYC) blog. SWOP-NYC challenges claims made by Venkatesh about NYC sex workers in his published research, on the Freakonomics blog, and in Wired magazine. In a follow-up post, SWOP-NYC goes on to dismiss participant observation as “a bizarre form of research” that is “a holdover from a previous era”. Ouch.

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