Q&A WITH A CHIEF
I know many people are curious about what exactly it is that I am doing here in Malawi, so I wanted to write this post to highlight some of my recent work. One of the things I am doing while in Malawi is interviewing traditional authorities (TAs), aka "Chiefs", about their role in promoting political and cultural reform. When I say "Chiefs", I am using this as an umbrella term to refer to a TA in Malawi. In reality, there is a detailed hierarchical structure for TAs, beginning at the single village level and moving all the way up to the district, regional, and national levels.
This weekend, I had the pleasure of interviewing a Village Headman (VH), Mr. Edward Chingani. VHs operate at the level of a single village. Working in coordination with the Village Development Committee (VDC), the local Councillor, and Members of Parliament (MPs), VHs are responsible for all the people in their village. They must serve in the role of judge, social worker, policeman, teacher, parent, advisor, friend, and neighbor simultaneously (most of them have day jobs too!!). Here is an excerpt of our conversation:
NAME: Edward Chingani
TITLE: *Acting Village Headman
TRADITIONAL AUTHORITY: Mwambo
OCCUPATION: Secondary School Teacher
This interview took place at African Heritage, a coffee shop in Zomba. I was accompanied by my good friend, Idana Silika (pictured above, left), who introduced me to Edward. Idana lives in Edward's home village, so Edward is Idana's chief!
NOTE: My questions are in BOLD, while his comments are in normal font. My comments on the interview are provided in italics. This transcript is *almost* verbatim our conversation, but where it helps with reading clarity, I’ve changed a few minor words, and in two places I reordered the questions, again for clarity. Overall content is preserved. I have the express permission of Edward to use this interview as I see fit.
How long have you been a village headman (VH)?
15 years. My mother is the chief. I am the acting chief for my mother.
What does that mean, “acting chief”?
I perform her duties. She is the chief. I am like her assistant. I act as the chief for her. In the Southern Region, in our culture, we inherit from our mother. [If] the mother has a child, [that] child cannot inherit that position, it’s the son of that child that can inherit the position. It’s our culture. In [the] Northern Region, they can inherit the position from their father. I am a father. I’ve got a child. My first child is the one to inherit that position.
So, you fulfill all the duties of a chief for your mother, but she technically holds the title?
How large is your village? How many families?
It is large. Maybe 100 families? Our records would say for sure, but I think it is around 100 families, yes. **this is indeed a large village, as a typical family in Malawi might have five children, even up to nine, even eleven (Idana has 10 brothers and sisters!). So at the low end, it is a village of at least 500 people, high end is over 1,100; that's just nuclear families, there are extended families too that would come in and out frequently.
Describe what a typical week looks like for you. What powers do you have?
If someone breaks the law, we need to sit down with both sides. If [one] is found guilty, he can be given a punishment, even a chicken, even a goat, money.
And you decide the punishment?
Yes. We decide with the Councillor the punishment.
When there [are] conflicts, you can propose a day for resolving the conflict. If there is a funeral, people will not work in the village unless you bury the dead person. If someone passed away today, before even crying, [the family] needs to come to the chief with a certain coin, and tell the chief that he or she has died and only the chief can give them authority to start crying. The chief will then tell the Councillor to announce that someone has died and the burial will take place tomorrow. If someone is living in our village, they need to let the chief know about a wedding. The chief needs to be aware. They need to give something during that day. In the morning of the wedding, they need to bring a gift to the chief: rice, a chicken. I also serve as a witness and write letters for people to travel, to find work.
What about now with the ongoing national registration process? Are you involved in that?
Yes, we must provide a stamp for each person to say, yes, that person is living in my village.
So, they bring their paperwork to you, you stamp it, and then they take it to the District Office to get their national ID?
Do you feel like you are a valued part of the political process?
Yes, [we] act like a bridge. Even the head of the state cannot know all the areas in Malawi, but the village heads are like bridges. We’ve got Councillors and MPs, other organizations, they cannot do any development in our village but they need to tell the chief to take part in development activities in our village.
Let’s say I am working with Save the Children, I would come to you and…. what?
You would come to me and tell me about the program you wish to do. We will listen and say, “Ok, let us deliberate and you come back tomorrow for an answer.” If it is a good program, we will let you go ahead and do this program in the village.
Have you ever said no to an organization?
Yes. It depends on the program and if it is a good program.
What if I came into the village without asking your permission to work there? What if I just went straight to a school and started working?
You would be chased away. You are like an intruder. You are not welcome.
**we both start laughing**
Who would chase me? You would chase me away? Or you would send someone else to chase me away? Would Idana chase me?
**we all laugh**
I would send Idana.
What are the three most important issues facing your village?
Number one is early marriages.
Why is that such a problem in your area?
It’s due to poverty. Most Malawians are poor so they think they can find their basic needs met in the marriage.
Have you noticed any changes to the rates of child marriage? For example, the national average right now in Malawi is 1 in 2 girls marrying before age 18. Is this your experience?
Because we are living in an urban area, the number has been decreased. But in rural areas the number is high.
What is causing the change?
There’s a great change due to civic education. The organizations and schools as well as the village heads are telling people about the disadvantages of early marriage. We are targeting both girls and their families.
Do you think people in Malawi care about stopping child marriage?
Yes, but it will take time. It will take time because, you know Malawi, our country is poor, so due to lack of basic needs, the majority are trying to engage in early marriages. If the government takes part, even organizations, by giving people loans to start small businesses, I think early marriage will end.
Do you think people understand the marriage laws?
Yeah…. some know it already. [At] this time, people are knowing because of YONECO (NOTE: this is Youth Net and Counselling, an NGO that focuses on using the radio to teach youths and families about their rights; they also do work in the villages directly through counseling). YONECO is now doing a good job, the radio, they’ve even got people going to the village, meeting chiefs. YONECO is telling people that if you marry a girl of 16, you will go to jail. I can tell YONECO about [a possible case of child marriage] and they can divorce that marriage.
But you have that power too, right? If you know of a girl in your village who is 12 and she marries a man of 30, you can end that marriage?
Yes, I can. I can counsel the families. I will bring both sides together. We will work on this issue together.
How many times have you broken apart a marriage?
Maybe 5. A good example is a certain girl in our village. With her parents, we sat down and tried to advise. We took that child to YONECO.
So, she was already married, or you stepped in before she was married?
No, before. We heard. We knew there was an idea she might be married and we met with the family.
As a TA, why do you care about stopping child marriage?
We take these children as leaders for tomorrow. It’s about protecting the future leaders of tomorrow. If you stop this practice, you have educated people in your village and developed villages because they are the ones who develop the village. If one has gone back to school, they are the one to develop the village.
Are there any risks to being involved as a TA?
It is only intimidation. They say bad things, even the girls or the boys, even the parents.
But you are not afraid for your safety?
No. I am not afraid.
Have you ever received any official training as a TA for promoting child protection?
No, not as a chief. Sometimes we will send a representative. I have never had training.
Some people have suggested that chiefs in Malawi should take the national laws and remake them into village by-laws. In this way, people will listen more and respect the laws. What do you think?
Yes, this is good. People listen to the chief. It’s like a father or a mother in that village. People are like children; a child believes his or her mother.
Speaking of mothers, your mother is the chief. From what I understand, this is very rare in Malawi. Less than 10% of chiefs are women, correct? Do you think there is a difference between male and female chiefs, in the way they lead?
Women chiefs are better at caring for others. They have empathy. If someone has a problem, she takes it and makes it her problem. In Malawi we say, amakhala ndi chisoni. **In English, this directly translates to “they feel sad”, but the implication is for it to mean that they are empathetic.
Ok, so earlier I asked for THREE problems facing your village. We’ve only talked about one: early marriages. What are two more problems you see?
Environmental degradation, like cutting down trees and poor farming methods.
That’s a HUGE issue here! Poor farming methods. It breaks our heart. We see from our house the fires burning day and night. It is so bad for the soil!
Yes, environmental degradation is a problem.
Poverty is really the root, isn’t it? It’s the root of all the problems in Malawi. Sometimes it feels like you can’t address any of these problems without first addressing poverty, but addressing these problems is addressing poverty. It’s so complicated.
Yes, it is.
Final question. A friend of mine, a Malawian, said something very interesting recently. He said: “We don’t need laws in this country. We need education. Laws won’t protect our people. Only education will do that.” Your job as chief is to enforce the laws, but you are also an educator. How do you respond to this idea?
I understand, I see. We need laws. Of course, we need laws. As a chief, we need children to go to school. It’s the law. If someone is found not doing this, they will be punished. Education is also important. This time around, we are trained to impart skills and knowledge so that children can use it in everyday life. If one has the skills and the knowledge, they will not engage in risky behaviors. They know how to cope with negative peer pressure. Religious leaders are important too. They tell parents to guide their children and sometimes if a chief has observed a lack of parental care, they can see that the religious leader takes part in addressing that care.