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Headmen and Research in Malawi

24 August 2011

Paul, a research assistant who also happens to be a village headman in Malawi

A chapter of my book manuscript focuses on the role of village headmen in the global fight against AIDS in Africa. In it, I argue that more attention should be paid to the local agents actually implementing interventions on the ground in our analysis of the success and failure of interventions to improve the human condition. My experience gathering that data in 2008 (as well as watching and learning from experienced Malawians field researchers) largely informs my approach to research in Malawi — not just in rural villages, but also in lower income urban areas.

Before starting research in an area (even before listing/sampling), we go to the village head’s compound to seek his permission. However, even before that step, we usually seek permission from the Traditional Authority (a few levels above the village head) presiding over the larger geographical area in which the village is part. In both meetings, we usually request an escort (it’s protocol to be introduced by someone who is part of the chief’s council). We introduce ourselves, the objectives of our study, the nature of the work we plan to do, and present a formal letter of introduction (printed on letterhead, and if possible, with a stamp from a local government official denoting clearance). After getting permission but before starting the research, we present the chief with a small gift of appreciation, usually some household goods like soap and sugar.

Getting permission from the headman can also be accompanied with a local escort who can convey to potential study participants that we’ve been vetted by a higher authority (and thus aren’t spies or bloodsuckers). Headmen and/or their guides can also be helpful in demarcating where the village ends — census maps stil have a ways to go on this front.

One concern, however, might be that being escorted by a headman or one of his agents might unduly coerce participation. Because my research projects still manage to find participant refusals, I haven’t worried much about this issue.

This is not to say the approach is fail proof. For example, on more than one occasion in the field, I’ve been faced with the problem of multiple chiefs claiming authority over the same area. Chieftaincy disputes are common and cut across levels of governance. In my most recent study in rural Zomba district, we introduced our study to a village headwoman, saying the Traditional Authority had already granted us permission to work in the area. Her reply was that there was no TA in the area. Apparently, we had stumbled into an area where the TA’s power was being challenged. Nonetheless, we managed to get permission from the headwoman to conduct the study in her village.

Local leadership in urban settings is more challenging to locate. Urban areas do not have a strong tradition of chieftaincy and are more densely populated with a more heterogeneous population, creating a challenging context for a traditional governance structure.

In our recent protest study, where we surveyed Malawians in high-density neighborhoods in Lilongwe, Blantyre, and Zomba, we always started with seeking chiefs’ permission, but would sometimes find that as we got futher along in our sampling that we inadvertently arrived in an area under the jurisdiction of another “town chief,” requiring us to go through the permission process again.

My only other experience seeking a chief’s permission for researching in his area was in a rural area of the Greater Accra Region in Ghana. Though protocol specifics were different there than in Malawi (i.e., the expected gift is liquor, not soap and sugar), the approach is remarkably similar.

I would be curious to hear other researchers’ experiences with gaining local permission/acceptance, especially in other countries/contexts.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 24 August 2011 3:55 pm

    As you might imagine, DRC is another game altogether. Because of the breakdown in governance, it’s very spotty on whether you need permission/a signature/a stamp from place to place. Sometimes, simply stating that you have permission is sufficient. Other times, you need the whole shebang, although gifts are not as expected with the people I deal with (These are not traditional authorities – I interview mostly local government bureaucrats and civil society leaders. Traditional authorities’ power is so broken down that I have never had a single person ask if I had permission from the local chieftancies.). However, it’s good form to buy a round of sodas for the group.

    With religious authorities, I’ve found that the further north in the Kivus/Ituri you go, the more they want you to have permission. I got a letter of permission from the archdiocese of Butembo which was absolutely necessary to get work done in far North Kivu, and it helped me gain entree to the diocese in Bunia and its component parts. The Catholic fathers and mothers have an elaborate system of stamping and signing the letter when it comes across their desk; it’s really quite something.

    Regardless of local authorities’ requirements, as in most Francophone African countries, having an Ordre de Mission typed out on the letterhead of your home institution, signed with a flourish by a supervisor (I get my chair, dean, or the provost to do it), and stamped with a date is essential. I usually write my own, outlining the basics of the project and what I need to do. I bought a custom-made stamp with my institution and department name on it to make things look extra-official. 🙂


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