It is generally accepted that, in Malawi, the arrival of Christianity and colonialism altered the gender relations and sociocultural makeup of its people. These changes are most evident in the way the male gender (or ideas governing what it means to be a man), in both matrilineal and patrilineal societies, came to be understood.
Masculinity (the plural form masculinities) and its concomitant femininity can be defined as social constructs of behaviours that qualify someone either as a man or a woman respectively. For instance, common masculine identity scripts that male children are taught include: a man is fearless, a man is aggressive, a man has uncontrollable lust, a man takes risks, the colour blue is for boys, boys do not play with dolls, boys don’t cry and dolo ndi dolo mamuna sauzidwa what to do next, to mention just a few.
While the scripts for females might include: a girl has to be submissive, a girl must wear pink, a girl does not fight and a girl does not drink beer (‘Green’), among others. So as children grow, they begin to identify these social scripts with being a man or a woman.
Traditionally, in Malawi, the entry into manhood for boys is marked by undergoing a rite of passage — although, today due to the influence of religion and social class many families have abandoned traditional rites or found alternative forms — after which the boy is socially accepted as a man. Through this process, a boy is instructed on the rights and responsibilities of an adult man (both as a sexually mature male and future husband). Later on, his next steps involve finding a suitable partner, proposing and getting wed.
In matrilineal unions, marriage is contracted by the groom carrying out bride-service (chikamwini) or the payment of a marriage token (chitengwa), if he wishes to take his bride to his home village, whilst in patrilineal unions, marriage is sealed by the payment oflobola. In pre-colonial Malawian society, men who were not in possession of cattle for lobola or were unable to perform chikamwini could not claim this next stage of this masculine identity. With the introduction of waged employment, in colonial Malawi, these men were now able to use cash in lieu of chikwamwini or lobola. In this way, they were able claim this version of socially accepted masculine identity.
The imposition of hut taxes on men and women, as a mechanism for revenue generation for the colonial administration in 1891, also compelled men to find employment in European estates in the Shire Highlands and beyond. For the men who failed to pay hut taxes, they were faced with the prospect of a jail sentence, fines and ridicule from their in-laws (often due to the fact that their wives would be jailed, if they failed to produce evidence of tax payment).
It soon became commonly accepted, that being a real man meant that one had to provide financial security for his wife and family. It is important to note that, under British rule, local enterprises like the brewing of kachasu (local brew), were prohibited in colonial towns, which meant that most male adults, in colonial towns of Limbe, Blantyre and Zomba, had to be engaged in some form of legitimate employment or income generating activity.
In other words, it was only through the possession of a job or lawful income that a man could claim this new form of colonial masculine identity. So, in colonial Malawi, we begin to see the emergence of another masculine identity, constructed around ideas of financial security, legitimate income and waged employment.
After independence, the idea that a real man is one who possesses a lawful income and employment did not change. However, the creation of politics of patronage and paternalism, under President Banda’s one party rule gave impetus to another kind of masculine identity. While under colonial rule, the ability to find paid employment was determined by a number of factors that included the availability of an indigenous local economy, colonial administration offices, level of education and employable skills, to mention just a few.
Under the Banda and MCP regime, however, this was compounded by a system of controlled access to employment, higher education, business, and entrepreneurship. Generally, in postcolonial Malawi, a man’s pathways to the new middle class was either through education (limited spaces at the University of Malawi, prevented a lot of people’s entry into this new class) business and/or enterprise. An examination of the way high ranking officials in state owned companies were appointed, during the MCP regime (perhaps even today), will reveal a pattern of appointment based on loyalty to the party and the president.
This is not to dismiss those men who were able to create status and wealth of their own volition, but to simply underscore the fact that, under this regime, mipando yonona were often reserved for those deemed loyal. At the same time, these rewards were also used as strategies to buy loyalty or to silence critics (a phenomenon that is also endemic of the post-Banda dispensation). Once a man had entered the echelon of this exclusive elitist social class, he had access to unimaginable power. Under the regime, a man’s ability to access and possess a modicum of political power, even by proximity, allowed him to claim a superior masculine identity, which granted him access to great personal wealth, influence, license to criminality and the occasional infamous extramarital affair(s).
It is a well documented fact that under Banda, the plundering of state resources, the acquisition of large partitions of land, the creation of illegitimate personal wealth and even acts of criminality were carried out, largely, by the male political elite. One just has to read Tiyambe Zeleza’s Smouldering Charcoal, Du Chisiza Jr’s Papa’s Empire and James N’gombe’s Madala’s Children and a selection of other Malawian texts, to fully appreciate how the Banda regime operated. It can be argued that, access to this superior masculine identity was limited and controlled by the political elite, who acted as gatekeepers. It can also be asserted that, this new identity was envied by all those who could not find conduits to these spheres of status, power and influence.
When the MCP regime came to an end in 1994, democracy ushered in various rights and freedoms, which we are enjoying to the present and hopefully continue to safeguard. It also stripped the elites of their power and unclasped their grip on the economy, business and enterprise. Muluzi’s regime, made efforts to enact policies that would promote a market economy and also encourage local entrepreneurship. Shortly after multiparty was established, incidents of misappropriation of public funds began to emerge. Cases of corruption, criminality and greed were often reported to have been carried out by the new political elites. This phenomenon even found itself in the private sector.
In both the public and private sectors, the theft and misuse of money emerged as a recurrent theme. Another feature of the early post-Banda period, was the proliferation of criminal masterminds, starting from the mid 1990s to early 2000s, involved in complex levels of criminality and rumoured to have been associates of the political elite. While under Kamuzu Banda’s rule, the entry into an exclusive political social class gave a man access to wealth and its concomitants, in this new dispensation, money became the key to unlock a man access to power, respect and influence.
Surprisingly, the new ‘money men’ were adored and even envied, either because of the fancy cars they drove, expensive suits they wore and the beautiful women they had access to, irrespective of the illegitimacy of their business enterprise or sources of income. In this context, the new masculine identity was anyone who had money, which granted him access to status, power, and the ability to get away with murder; even the known criminal, as long as he possessed wealth, could command power and respect.
Now, let us draw our attention to our present predicament. In the recent months, perhaps even the past few years, incidents of gross theft of public funds have been reported by local and international media, social media and even the occasional ‘reliable’ gossip. When the now infamously famous Cash-Gate began to emerge, most of us heard stories of people hiding bundles of money in ufa, cars and ku silin’gi, to mention just a few. The extents to which people had gone to hide their stolen wealth, still leaves many of us quite baffled. What has intrigued me the most are the stories both reported and some based on anecdotal evidence, detailing how the money has been used.
It appears that a lot of the money has gone into the acquisition of personal wealth and sprees of excessive indulgence that include: expensive cars; mansions; designer suits and trips abroad with families, girlfriends and boyfriends, the list is endless. An examination of how the money has been spent suggests that, most of the culprits went into great lengths to acquire status symbols, which would act as channels to power and status. If one were to attempt to do a survey of the millions of public funds that have been misappropriated since 1994 to the present and how this money has been used, the evidence will surely point towards money acting as a key for accessing or opening the gates to elitist social classes.
In contemporary Malawi, as in bygone regimes, money still remains a key player in men’s ability to claim a superior masculine identity. The levels of criminal sophistication, one finds in the present day, underscores the lengths to which people, who were once denied accessed to status and power, will go to possess an identity that declares them as real men, even if that version of manliness is corrupted.
Have we lost our moral compass as a society; have we abandoned the values of thou shall eat thy sweat; do we lack the ability to be content with the little we have and to strive towards creating genuine wealth for ourselves, I wonder? As a concerned Malawian citizen, I believe that our ability to end criminality, greed and corruption begins with having the right political will and the role of our courts to ensure that all those found guilty are dealt with accordingly. At the same time, I also believe that our present challenges emerge out of a phenomenon that constructs a masculine identity on the basis of wealth. This masculine identity equates money to power; money to status; money to influence and money to being a real man.
As long as someone possesses great personal wealth, whether it is attained unlawfully, our society tends to approve them as real men. It is precisely this culture that has unleashed a level of gangsterism, which no longer limits itself to our political elites, but has cascaded to every sphere of our society. It seems, having money, even money attained illegally is the new Malawian masculine identity — I am mindful of the fact that some of the accused are women, so as I have already explained, masculinity is a social construct.
Whilst, I have no objection to the lawful attainment of personal wealth, I take issue with the acceptance of criminality and corruption, in Malawi, as a normal way of life. As a society we need to begin a dialogue to rethink these dangerous versions of masculine identity scripts and our accepted ways of seeing someone with great wealth as mamuna weni weni (a real man).
The end of corruption, will not be the result of employees receiving a fair and ethical package, but a society that does not glorify the unlawful attainment of wealth or upholds criminals as figures worthy of respect and adoration. Our failure to condemn this corrupted masculine identity creates an environment where the theft of public funds by our political leaders and now even the lowest ranking public officials is considered a normalcy.
It is our collective responsibility to denounce this phenomenon and endeavour to find alternative forms of positive masculine identity that will promote ethical values and inculcate integrity, accountability and transparency as part of a superior collective identity.
- Zindaba Chisiza, is someone interested in theatre, gender and cultural studies.