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How The Atlantic Can Do Better, Starting with Malawi

26 January 2014

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).

[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.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. 26 January 2014 4:43 am

    Wait, so your problem with this ‘ceremony’ is that only half of Malawi’s children are forced to go through with it?
    You really think a ten year-old child can surmount non-physical forms of pressure, which is exactly what the ideology of ‘initiation’ is founded on, the psychological burden of being generationally ‘left behind’?
    If there’s anything worse than egojournalism, it’s moral relativism.
    Sadly your analysis bears signs of both, as does the original article.
    ‘In any group with which I am familiar’ suggests you either know a lot or a little, and I’m veering towards the latter.
    Precisely because you give more attention to percentages than Grace Mwase.
    So here we have it: your comparative fulcrum. “Oh no, the Atlantic participated in the defamation of the character of a people” vs “Oh no, a child was raped (that’s what this is, please reserve the word sex for consentual acts) because communities are able to pull upon the concept of tradition to camouflage what it is they are really doing, enabling them to create yet another gendered hierarchy.” People get over defamation. They don’t get over rape.

    In fact it is our nonchalance towards the abuse of girls which will perpetuate this people’s ‘struggle’ as you termed it, because it is an economic coping strategy founded upon a misconceived link between social security, and the control of natality, even among girls.
    You chose the wrong line of empathy, in a bid to highlight problems with misreporting/papers capitalising on sensationalism. The latter is not pesky, but not tragic. What is tragic is that you missed the tragic part.
    Travel should humanize us, not desensitize us.

    • 26 January 2014 4:55 am

      I’ve been to initiation celebrations before. Your reading of what initiation is in Malawi suggests they have no chance of being a positive force in the life of young girls. My post actively questions the veracity of the story of Grace Mwase, particularly because the NGO parading her in front of foreign journalists is trying to win a $10,000 prize. I’ve never met young Grace Mwase myself, and don’t know if in fact she was being forced to have sex with an older man (if she was, as I say above, this story would be an important avenue for awareness and action). Rather, I point to data to show how very unlikely her story is.

      As for what I know, I was trying to be careful to act like I’m some sort of expert on all things Malawi. I am quite familiar with traditions among the Lomwe and Yao, who predominate in the Chiradzulu District, where Grace Mwase is from. I do not, however, know very much about the Lakeshore Tonga (who are nowhere near Chiradzulu).

      As for my own humanity, there’s enough real tragedy in the world that I don’t have to fall for sensational stories that may not be true. As a survivor, I take sexual violence very seriously. Don’t presume you know who I am personally because I wrote a post defending a place and a custom from ethnocentric fly-by-night reporters.

      • 26 January 2014 9:32 am

        Growing up in Africa, I came to the conclusion that there are two kinds of Western/American reporters who grace us with their insidiously unbearable presence. Both may I add, are products of the imperial imagination.

        The first is the Atlantic type, strategic empathy, a neverending supply of condescension, essentially follow-the-money egojournalism.

        The second type is structured by the first, a response to it, and as deeply problematic. This is the category to which you and your (lack of)logic belong, because you don’t think outside of the reactionary left-right batting around of these topics, and never escape the ethnicentrism.

        You haven’t tried to lend meaning to this story, its layers and truth-linked anti-truths, precisely because your entire objective from start to finish was to replace the other reporter as the better ‘white saviour.’ There is something deeply colonial and reminiscent of the Afrikanistik scholars re: your attitude not only towards Grace, but your defense of a community which is not yours. Therefore not yours to defend, reform, retain, or intellectually hegemonise.

        Community cannot be learned. It is a lived experience which you clearly gazed at from beyond a pseudo-intellectual microscope.

        This only serves to remind me that ‘Western’ women are not our allies, and never can be, because they don’t want to understand. Educated, financially enabled, well-travelled, well-read. All the tools are there. Their lack of understanding doesn’t come from lack of local/grassroots experience in our communities. It comes from a conscious decision not to understand. This is a decision you have made, between cosmopolitan and anti-cosmopolitan readings of a culture so complex you couldn’t understand, and diluted into a conflict you perceived to be on your own doorstep. Because it’s all about you, and your quasi-Genevan right to take offense at things you haven’t even experienced. It has to be all about you, because you have positioned yourself against another ‘you’, the Atlantic writer who empathisizes to serve their own sense of civilizational superiority.

        Guess what. At the bottom of your microscope are girls, and women. And they will grow up, and challenge your right to speak for them, to deny their experiences, and most shockingly of all, to support a narrative, you even tried to deny the existence of the girl. To be reduced to nonexistence, a metaphor, or a fable, all to serve your conclusion. Which is exactly what you accused the other writer of doing, and without even attempting to verify or substantiate. So don’t expect to wander into the danger zone, and then have us take pity on you, when we reveal you for exactly what you are. The Janus face of the academic empire. Because to deny one form of ethnocentricity, you must serve another narrative, and enforce a silence on the real issue at hand. Grace.
        How tiresome it must be to be somebody’s reactionary antithesis, rather than a thoughtful intellectual.

        Denying the existence of the woman to defend the custom is exactly what I would have expected to emanate from your category. Because her existence serves no purpose to you, and the entire debate is subordinately functional to your own esteem.
        Some day one of you is going to turn around and surprise me. But it clearly won’t be soon, because you are still convinced your intentions in writing this piece were ‘honourable’.

        There is no honour in condescension to serve your esteem, and create a diversion from the anthropological question to your own reductionist politics and antipathy to your media. Centric is exactly how I would describe you, because you are convinced your processing of surface experiences constitutes primary knowledge, and the right to usurp the voice of women, who, according to you don’t exist, so it doesn’t matter anyway.

  2. 26 January 2014 10:35 am

    If you think thusly of me, why do you read my blog?

  3. 26 January 2014 11:00 am

    Wow, animalizard, it’s nice that you’re saying such lovely things behind the veil of anonymity. Would you say the same face to face with Kim? Especially given that she is one of America’s foremost experts on Malawi? The issues you raise are exactly what she’s pointing out here – that when a clueless Westerner who hasn’t bothered to learn a region’s languages, live in the culture, or become immersed in its norms writes about a sensitive subject like initiation rituals, she can get a lot wrong. It’s not Kim who’s in the wrong here; it’s the author of the Atlantic piece. But since you’re too cowardly to post under your own name, I don’t think any of us should bother engaging with you further.

  4. Kate permalink
    27 January 2014 4:41 am

    Thanks for the great article, Kim! This whole debate reminds me of discussions I’ve had based on Horace Miner’s “The Body Ritual of the Nacirema,” which I would recommend anyone writing about Africa read.

  5. 29 January 2014 4:53 am

    I’m contributing a bit late to this but, wow, animalizard’s unfair, unkind, and yet not entirely misplaced, and even eloquent venom has got me typing.

    First the atlantic piece was obviously dumb.

    Your response was reasonable,justified, and needed.

    Animalizards response is over-the-top, but under all that uneccesary venom is a worthy point I think. Namely she is disappointed and angry that we Westerners are so concerned with and busy debating our own portrayals of Africa (the atlantics vs. yours in this instance) that we fail to take an actual stand on the actual issue, in this case, was Grace indeed raped or not and if so what should be done about it. It’s easier to talk in general about intiations in such and such districts amongst such and such tribes, than about the real people undergoing them. While as an academic-in-training (thank you for the advice awhile back btw, I went with UCT in the end and am very happy with it so far) I can really understand why we are this way and should be hesitant to take strong stands on cultural issues I can also see how that can be very frustrating to people living within those cultures who are looking for help in fighting (what they themselves perceive to be) immoral practices.

    @Laura It doesn’t matter who animallizard is. Unless you are comfortable calling her an outright liar, we know from her comments that she is an African (or at least grew up in Africa) woman. That is enough.

    @Kim Certainly that was some pretty stinging venom from Animallizard but surely you want people who disagree with you, hell even dislike you, reading your blog. It keeps things interesting.

    @Animalizard. Calm the fuck down. Your judgements are way too hasty and really you should be reaching out to people like Kim and understanding of our reluctance to make moral pronouncements. I get your frustration, literally, everyday here in Malawi with the people I work with I get it and understand it, but hey at the end of the day, as you know, Westerners are actually not very good at helping you guys with your perceived cultural issues, our interventions are usually cock-ups so maybe its best just to figure these things out amongst yourselves. If there is really something that you think we can do, and do well, I’m personally all ears. Ideally I think we academics should be getting our hands more dirty, but we are just so bad at it for reasons that are not entirely our own fault.

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