The British High Commissioner to Malawi today issued a statement about a forensic audit funded by the UK to investigate allegations of corruption in Malawi’s public finances, dubbed the Cashgate scandal. I draw your attention to one part of his statement:
As the forensic audit report makes clear, the auditors and other investigators have not completed their work. Investigations are still in progress and continuing. The aim is to identify the full extent of the scandal, identify all the beneficiaries and attempt to recover lost funds. Releasing names now would be premature and may jeapordise [sic] the evidence trails. As the independent auditors stated in their report, releasing names may also prejudice any current or future legal action.
The excerpt above is directed to civil society activists and citizens vocal about wanting to bring to justice those who stole from government accounts. Just yesterday, roughly 100 Malawians took to the streets of Blantyre to protest the handling of the Cashgate scandal. Some protesters’ placards specifically targeted their messages to President Joyce Banda. The AFP reports one of the demands made by the protesters was that the government name all suspects involved in the Cashgate scandal.
Though the official forensic audit report released last week details the process of investigating the financial mismanagement, it does not name any names. The auditors’ reasoning, from the report:
To limit the risk of prejudicing any current or future legal action, this report does not comment on specific transactions, names or companies. Where we believe fraud, theft or unethical actions have taken place, these have been and / or will be referred to the relevant Law Enforcement Office of the Police and Anti-Corruption Bureau through the Office of the Auditor General.
Yesterday, the Public Accounts Committee in Malawi’s parliament voted to reject the forensic audit report as incomplete, and the committee also called for a more detailed audit that named names. This move in parliament is not surprising given the committee is run by politicians of parties in the opposition (Banda’s party is a minority party in parliament).
Should the Malawi government name names? Though civil society organizations (and some citizens) and opposition party politiicans are demanding they do, the signal from one of Malawi’s major donors is that they don’t have to. Given the weak turnout for Thursday’s protest and the reasonable excuse that exposing names could hamper investigations, a self-interested government would avoid naming names prematurely. The potentially worse outcome for government than having public funds stolen on its watch is not being able to successfully prosecute those who stole public funds.
Nonetheless, there are some findings in the forensic audit report that civil society organizations could use in the campaign to improve economic governance. One point to pressure government about is declarations of conflicts of interest. From the forensic audit report:
Neither the [National Audit Office] nor the [Government of Malawi] Ministries we visited maintained a schedule of business ownership showing which businesses or political parties (where relevant) the principal secretaries and senior management figures owned or were members of. This would have aided the identification of any related party transactions and potential conflicts of interest. These records should be maintained going forward and annual updates should, be required. Importantly, during our work no conflict of interest registers were located.
In an earlier Cashgate post, I wrote about calls from civil society for the president to publicly declare her assets, which she has not yet done (nor did her predecessor, Mutharika, when faced with the same demands). The Public Officers Bill (sometimes referred to in the Malawi press as the “assets bill”), passed in Parliament and then signed into law by Banda in late 2013 that established the Office of the Director of Public Officers Declarations, has yet to make any progress on Malawian politicians actually declaring their personal wealth.
Section 15 of the Public Officers Bill stipulates what must be disclosed, including assets owned by the politician or his immediate family, income, bank accounts, debts/liabilities, and ownership (even if only partial) of a company. Perhaps of greater significance to civil society leaders is Section 17 of the Public Officers Bill, which requires that declarations made by public officers be treated as public information. The Director of Public Officers Declarations only has 14 days to respond to requests for information.
Civil society leaders should be pressuring the president to appoint a Director of the Office of Public Officers Declarations and should be submitting requests for information about the president and all other officials whom they suspect of mismanaging or misusing public funds. Pushing for names of Cashgate scandal suspects will be fruitless whereas asking for public declaration of assets owned by public officials is in accordance with the law — one President Banda herself signed.
I don’t want a little girl in Ghana, or Sri Lanka, or Indonesia to think of me when she wakes up each morning. I don’t want her to thank me for her education or medical care or new clothes. Even if I am providing the funds to get the ball rolling, I want her to think about her teacher, community leader, or mother. I want her to have a hero who she can relate to – who looks like her, is part of her culture, speaks her language, and who she might bump into on the way to school one morning.
After my first trip to the Dominican Republic, I pledged to myself that we would, one day, have a camp run and executed by Dominicans. Now, about seven years later, the camp director, program leaders and all but a handful of counselors are Dominican. Each year we bring in a few Peace Corps Volunteers and highly-skilled volunteers from the USA who add value to our program, but they are not the ones in charge. I think we’re finally doing aid right, and I’m not there.
Before you sign up for a volunteer trip anywhere in the world this summer, consider whether you possess the skill set necessary for that trip to be successful. If yes, awesome. If not, it might be a good idea to reconsider your trip. Sadly, taking part in international aid where you aren’t particularly helpful is not benign. It’s detrimental. It slows down positive growth and perpetuates the “white savior” complex that, for hundreds of years, has haunted both the countries we are trying to ‘save’ and our (more recently) own psyches. Be smart about traveling and strive to be informed and culturally aware. It’s only through an understanding of the problems communities are facing, and the continued development of skills within that community, that long-term solutions will be created.
HT Laura Seay.
Possible answers to that question include ‘because he is abnormal,’ ‘because he is a sinner, ‘because he chose the lifestyle.’ But the truest answer is ‘We don’t know.’ There is humility and humanity in accepting that there are things we simply don’t know. At the age of 8, Sochukwuma was obviously different. It was not about sex, because it could not possibly have been – his hormones were of course not yet fully formed – but it was an awareness of himself, and other children’s awareness of him, as different. He could not have ‘chosen the lifestyle’ because he was too young to do so. And why would he – or anybody – choose to be homosexual in a world that makes life so difficult for homosexuals?
The new law that criminalizes homosexuality is popular among Nigerians. But it shows a failure of our democracy, because the mark of a true democracy is not in the rule of its majority but in the protection of its minority – otherwise mob justice would be considered democratic. The law is also unconstitutional, ambiguous, and a strange priority in a country with so many real problems. Above all else, however, it is unjust. Even if this was not a country of abysmal electricity supply where university graduates are barely literate and people die of easily-treatable causes and Boko Haram commits casual mass murders, this law would still be unjust. We cannot be a just society unless we are able to accommodate benign difference, accept benign difference, live and let live. We may not understand homosexuality, we may find it personally abhorrent but our response cannot be to criminalize it.
A crime is a crime for a reason. A crime has victims. A crime harms society. On what basis is homosexuality a crime? Adults do no harm to society in how they love and whom they love. This is a law that will not prevent crime, but will, instead, lead to crimes of violence: there are already, in different parts of Nigeria, attacks on people ‘suspected’ of being gay. Ours is a society where men are openly affectionate with one another. Men hold hands. Men hug each other. Shall we now arrest friends who share a hotel room, or who walk side by side? How do we determine the clunky expressions in the law – ‘mutually beneficial,’ ‘directly or indirectly?’
That is an excerpt of Chimamanda Adichie’s very well-written and argued “Why can’t he just be like everyone else?” in The Scoop.
A lot of media feature the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa, and it can be daunting to determine which of these would accurately and appropriately convey the lived experience of ordinary Africans navigating the AIDS epidemic, as well as governmental and non-governmental responses to HIV. In this brief note, I share a few of the films that I have used in my classes on African Politics and Comparative Responses to AIDS in Africa, with some explanation as to why I screen them.
The films listed below are all documentaries, though there is also a feature-length film in isiZulu (with English subtitles) that could also be used. With the exception of the first and last film listed, the films stream online for free. I have seen more films on HIV than the average moviegoer, but I have not seen them all. If you have a recommendation you don’t see on my short list, please post links in the comments or email me.
State of Denial (2003, South Africa, 83 min.) is a documentary that follows HIV-positive South Africans trying to access AIDS treatment in the period before the South African government approved the use of anti-AIDS drugs. In addition to capturing the rich stories of people living with HIV, the film documents the government’s denial that HIV caused AIDS and the social movement that demanded that treatment be made available to pregnant mothers specifically and to the public more generally.
The Troubles in Zolokere (2006, Malawi, 23 min.) documents the work of an American Peace Corps volunteer in the northern Malawian village where he has been posted. The filmmaker (a former Peace Corps volunteer himself) talks to people who are affected by HIV while capturing everyday life in the village. During the course of the film, you witness the filmmaker learn firsthand about the impact of HIV and the role of gender inequality in HIV’s spread. The film is an innocent treatment of a curious American trying to understand a complicated health and social problem in a context very different from his own; his perspective is very similar to that of an average American college student.
Hans Rosling: HIV – new facts and stunning data visuals (2009, Global/Africa, 10 min.) is a TED talk in which Swedish academic Hans Rosling uses UNAIDS data on HIV prevalence around the world to provide some nuance in understanding the relative problem across countries and within countries. The brief video provides a great introduction to UNAIDS statistics and HIV trends over time. This talk (like others by Rosling) can be particularly useful when trying to convey to students how to analyze and present data in a comparative way and by complementing data analyses with relevant substantive context.
The Lazarus Effect (2010, Zambia, 32 min.) is an HBO documentary that follows people sick with AIDS before and after they receive anti-AIDS drugs. The transformations are incredible and demonstrate the value of providing greater access to treatment in resource-poor countries. The Lazarus Effect was co-produced by Product(RED) and could spark an interesting conversation about global awareness campaigns for AIDS, how these campaigns are funded and implemented, and the goals and motivations of international agencies in contributing to the production of such films.
The Carrier (2010, Zambia, 88 min.) follows the story of a polygamous family in a rural area of Zambia as they deal with HIV’s spread within the family and with family members falling ill. A particular virtue of The Carrier compared to the other films on this list is its focus on local responses to AIDS. The film captures clinic visits, the challenges of rural farming, and discussions about responding to AIDS among the local area’s traditional leaders. Because of its only recent release online, I have not yet screened this film in a class; however, I think this film conveys better than most the everyday lives of people living with HIV and the people with whom they often come into contact when seeking care or assistance.
 The film is “Yesterday” (2004), a 96-minute drama filmed in South Africa and selected to the Venice Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival. My only hesitation in recommending the film is its rather stereotypical (and sometimes inaccurate and unrepresentative) portrayals of the lives of black women in rural South Africa. If screened for a course, instructors might consider a discussion before/after about the somewhat simplistic narrative and its reality in contemporary South Africa.
Malawi has relied heavily on foreign aid since independence. Aid came with stronger conditions for economic and democratic governance following multiparty reform in 1994 and donors have multiple times since shown a willingness to withdraw aid when these conditions are unmet. In the wake of the recent Cashgate scandal, many foreign donors have suspended aid to Malawi. Donors under the Common Approach to Budget Support (CABS) announced after its review meeting in November that it was going to delay aid to Malawi; the decision followed similar announcements from the European Union, the UK’s DfID, and Norway. In total, it is estimated that because of Cashgate, $150 million in aid that was committed to Malawi is not being disbursed.
For background on the Cashgate scandal, the Wikipedia entry is fairly comprehensive (if somewhat politically biased). But in brief: Cashgate refers to a corruption scandal in Malawi where government funds have been siphoned through fraudulent payments and loopholes via the country’s Integrated Financial Management Information System (IFMIS) payment platform. Malawians dubbed the scandal Cashgate because the first arrests made were of low-level bureaucrats found with stockpiles of cash in their homes and vehicles. The scandal has been sensational from the start – prior to the first Cashgate arrests, Malawi’s Budget Director Paul Mphwiyo was shot on September 13, after having received numerous death threats in connection with his cracking down on fraudulent government contracts and embezzling loopholes. To date, 81 people have been arrested and 35 bank accounts have been frozen. Estimates of funds siphoned during Cashgate range from $20 million to $100 million (and one report even went so high as $250 million).
The financial system through which the funds were stolen, IFMIS, has been heralded as an anti-corruption solution. There hasn’t been systematic assessment of the impact of IFMIS on corruption, but it was expected to deter corruption by increasing risks of detection. IFMIS is one example of a technical solution to a problem in developing countries.
But the problem with government spending and budgeting in Malawi was not technical – it was political. In 2004, political scientist Lise Rakner and colleagues identified four primary political obstacles to public finance management in Malawi:
- Incentives facing the key stakeholders from civil service, the executive branch, politicians (MPs), as well as private sector appear to undermine the formal processes and institutions at each stage of the budget process.
- Accountability institutions are not effective, because they are undermined through subversion, under funding and political patronage.
- There is at present insufficient demand for economic accountability from civil society in Malawi.
- Donor conditionality linked to economic accountability produces unintended consequences.
The Rakner et al. report predates the institution of IFMIS in Malawi and in it there is no mention of technical problems in managing Malawi’s public finances. If a technical solution were sufficient in improving public finance management, the IFMIS should not have taken eight years since implementation to find graft (unless the theft of government funds is new, which no one is claiming). For the IFMIS to have any impact on government corruption, it would require some political change. The four political obstacles Rakner et al. identified in 2004 are largely still problematic in Malawi today, with one important exception.
Pressure from civil society
A major shift in the ten years since Rakner et al.’s report has been the increased engagement of Malawian civil society organizations on issues related to economic governance. During Banda’s tenure in office, civil society leaders have been vocal in the media, for example, the recent pressure on government to not delay in publishing the forensic audit report for Cashgate. (The forensic audit report was scheduled to be released this past Friday, but a government spokesperson has said the report will not be available until February 14th.)
There have also been calls from civil society for the president to publicly declare her assets, which she has not yet done (nor did her predecessor, Mutharika, when faced with the same demands). There was a bill passed in Parliament and then signed into law by Banda in late 2013 that established the Office of the Director of Public Officers Declarations, but there’s been no progress to date on Malawian politicians actually declaring their personal wealth.
Civil society organizations have even gone so far as to take their demands for better economic governance to the streets. Chief among the list of demands from protesters who took to the streets on July 20, 2011 (in which 19 demonstrators were killed by police) was for better economic governance. In October 2013, Consumer Association of Malawi (CAMA), a civil society group, organized a demonstration in Malawi’s capital as the Cashgate scandal was unfolding, calling for presidential candidates to declare their assets before the upcoming May 2014 elections and warning Malawian voters “not to elect a president with a record of mismanagement of government coffers.”
Precedent for corruption and donor withdrawal
Though Cashgate has drawn a lot of attention domestically and around the world, theft of public finances is not a new phenomenon in Malawi. For example, a scholar of foreign aid and governance, Ryan Briggs, closely examined foreign aid projects in Malawi during the Muluzi presidency (1994-2004). One example he shares is of an $11.8 million World Bank school construction project that managed to only produce one-third of its expected outputs despite having spent its entire budget. Project evaluation documents point to a lack of oversight and overcompensation of contractors. Later investigations by Malawi’s Anti-Corruption Bureau found that money from the project went to then-ruling party politicians.
Relatedly, donor withdrawal of aid in response to government corruption in Malawi is also not new. In a paper I have with co-authors on aid allocation and effectiveness, we write:
Malawian presidents have struggled with donor pressures. Fiscal indiscipline during the Muluzi (1994-2004) and Mutharika (2005-2012) presidencies prompted the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to suspend lending in 2001 and 2011, respectively (Resnick, 2012). Both IMF lending suspensions occurred during the presidents’ respective second (and constitutionally final) term in office.
Political impacts of Cashgate and donor withdrawal
Cashgate is different from earlier donor withdrawals in Malawi in that it has occurred during Joyce Banda’s first term in office. She is running for the presidency in Malawi’s tripartite elections scheduled for May 20, 2014 and the scandal poses serious challenges for Banda’s presidential election campaign. First, Cashgate has eroded public confidence in Banda’s ability to lead the country. Civil society leaders have even claimed to have evidence that the president was involved in the corruption.
Second, donor withdrawal of budgetary support obviously cripples Banda’s ability to manage the needs of the country, as roughly 37% of Malawi’s budget comes from foreign support. Already, civil servants have experienced pay-day delays. The government is short on cash, and has had to drastically cut ministry budgets. The last time donors pulled budgetary support (following Mutharika’s autocratic turn in 2011), it crippled local foreign currency reserves and made even more dramatic the economic decline Malawi was experiencing. As I wrote in an article with Malawian political scientist Boniface Dulani:
Medical supplies, including life-saving antiretroviral treatment for HIV patients, were often out of stock, prompting Malawi’s international partners to intervene by directly importing medicines into the country. Just before Mutharika’s death, Malawians were queuing for sugar, a crop grown and refined in Malawi.
Relatedly, in the wake of the scandal and the subsequent donor withdrawal, the Malawi government implemented austerity measures to control government spending. For example, there is a moratorium on internal and external travel of government officials, including the president. Travel is now limited to “critical” engagements or those not funded by the government. Critics of President Banda refer to her “globetrotting” as tantamount to defying the government ban on travel; the pressure from civil society leaders is sufficient such that Banda made sure to include in her departing remarks on a recent trip to Nigeria that her invitation there came with full funding. She has had no answer, however, to critics of her local travel to promote chiefs, a mostly ceremonial duty that could be seen as largely driven by electoral motives.
Finally, some have even pointed to the potential that her political opponents have gained financially in the scandal, and they are poised to use the siphoned funds to unseat her. There is no publicly available, reliable poll data to estimate how the scandal has affected Banda’s chances of winning the election in May, though one non-representative poll conducted by a major daily newspaper in Malawi in September showed Banda polling fourth in a tight race.
Donors have pulled out precisely when Banda needs things to go well in order to win the upcoming election and it is unclear whether it is fair to pin the problem on Banda. As I suggest above, IFMIS is a technical solution that has the ability to increase transparency, but it requires political will to investigate the financial discrepancies that come to light. Whereas many of corruption prosecutions in the past in Malawi have focused on political opponents, the current scandal has implicated high-level officials in Banda’s government and her party. Banda may actually deserve the credit she is claiming for exposing the corruption of public finances. (There are multiple other interpretations, but her argument isn’t completely baseless.)
What can be learned from donor withdrawal?
The suspended aid to Malawi (estimated at $150 million) will not resume until there is “clear assurance, independently verified that [donor] resources are all being used for their intended purpose,” said Sarah Sanyahumbi, a DfID official in Malawi that chairs CABS. This is one challenge of providing aid as budgetary support rather than program support . Aid to support government budgets takes control over how money is spent from the donors and vests it in the government. When public finance problems arise, it seems budget-supporting donors are somewhat limited with an “all-or-nothing” option – and in the wake of Cashgate, these donors chose “nothing” by withholding support. In contrast, the US, which has also been vocal about Cashgate, has not suspended aid in the wake of the scandal. The US provides all of its aid via program support. Direct program support allows donors to have more control over how funds are spent and thus be more flexible when responding to allegations of misuse of funds.
Furthermore, the adoption of the Aid Management Platform by Malawi’s Ministry of Finance has increased transparency of where project aid is going – literally, on a map. However, as I’ve noted above, a technical solution is only one step towards action. Technical fixes to development problems also need political will. Ground-truthing project aid disbursements is possible, but have any civil society organizations in Malawi or other interested parties used the publicly available Aid Management Platform to identify aid project locations and investigate the status of projects?
Malawi’s experience could be instructive to others – particularly its neighbor, Mozambique. Mozambique’s budget also relies heavily on foreign aid and currently risks suspension of a third of the $400 million it is expected to receive in budget support from major donors because of poor democratic and economic governance (Norway has already frozen aid to Mozambique). Mozambique is also having elections this year, but not until October. The later elections give Mozambique’s political leaders an opportunity to see how events unfold in Malawi to help inform them of the actions necessary to maintain power.
Analysts often point to civil society as weak in the African context, but the current political situation in Malawi has largely been influenced by the actions of those outside of government. Perhaps it is because the nature of the scandal – where government funds have been siphoned by the politically connected – sufficiently makes suspect anyone within government. Only after the audit report is made public will we have a better understanding of how Cashgate happened, and which parts of government (and what amounts of aid) were most affected. IFMIS may, in the end, prove very helpful in identifying public finance misuse. Donors’ withdrawal and threats of withdrawal have certainly incentivized the government to move swiftly in prosecuting offenders. However, the Cashgate scandal may be introducing the rest of the world to a promising democratic development in Malawi: a more vocal and active civil society, empowered by a public willing to take to the streets to have its demands heard. It’s unclear whether foreign aid has had any hand in that development, which should raise bigger questions about how much democratic development can come from outside Malawi, and how much of the heavy lifting is done by Malawians themselves.
 I hesitate to say “re-election” here because Joyce Banda came to be president not as a result of having won the previous election but following the sudden death of former President Bingu wa Mutharika in April 2012.
 This is not to suggest I support Banda’s bid in the upcoming presidential election.
An abbreviated, edited version of this post is running as a two-part series on the AidData blog, The First Tranche.
An edited version of this post originally appeared on Africa is a Country.
“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).
[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.
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!