Half Formed Thoughts

A collection of musings I have been having over the course of the summer but have not yet formed into full on opinions but are nonetheless important observations. I would love to start a discussion and share thoughts and experiences on any of the following.

On Hierarchy

Hierarchy is hugely important in Malawi. In the home, in the workplace, in society there are strict well understood norms on people’s positions in social hierarchies. A good portion of this is part of the culture of respecting your elders and having a non-confrontational, welcoming disposition as a Malawian but there is more here.

I often wonder if it is that people believe they are entitled to certain statues of behaviour from working hard to achieve a post or by virtue of being born to it or something else. I also wonder why hierarchy is more important than progress. I hear time and time again that poor decisions are not overturned, feedback is not submitted, dialogue on field realities are not shared because of an individual’s  ‘slot’ in a hierarchy. When the decisions being made are affecting the lives and in some cases mortality of fellow citizens what is it about hierarchy that prevents a Malawian from dissenting to their boss when they know like country men are starving and dying? (Disclaimer: I know this is a problem everywhere it is just more apparent here)

On Communal Parenting

Parenting in Malawi is very different than in Canada. For one thing the saying “It takes a village to raise a child” is 100% true. The role of parenting children, particularly in compounds where families live close together, is shared amongst adults and children from all families alike. For another thing, a child in Canada for many signals the end of your life as you know it. From what I have seen, in Malawi, this is just not true. It means another mouth to feed, a lot more laundry and another load on a woman’s back but a relatively minor adjustment to the overall lifestyle of the parents.

When I explain why people in Canada have fewer children than in Malawi, I always say that parenting is more work because everyone only pays attention to their own children and that at no point would they take their eyes off a child. After saying this many Malawians look at me as if we are downright ridiculous, what do you think, are they far off?

On Pregnant and Nursing Women

I have been trying to observe and understand why pregnant and nursing women in Malawi are not treated with the same respect as in Canada. At home we would be appalled to see a pregnant woman standing on a bus while a spry fifteen year old boy sat, but here, fully grown, respectable men will literally push women out of the way to get a seat on the bus irrespective of if they are eight months pregnant and carrying a baby.

While I don’t understand this behaviour I imagine it boils in part down to the following:

  1. At least every other woman is carrying a baby either in their womb or on their back or both. Rarity makes it socially acceptable to treat pregnant women differently in Canada because they are the exception. You can give up your seat on the bus in Canada because it might happen once a month – here in Malawi, you might never sit.
  2. In Canada, we see giving birth as introducing a new member to society that will become our future. Investment in that life begins almost immediately. Although I think the longer term belief that children are the future is beginning to infuse itself in rural Malawian culture, in the short term giving birth is introducing another mouth to feed into an already overpopulated and underfed area.
  3. The HIV/AIDS epidemic has decimated the middle age population in Malawi. I was recently at a health centre with population demographics measured in the following categories: 0-1 years, 1-5 years, 5-10 years, 10-15 years, 15-45 years, 45 and above. The category of 15-45 years took up less than half of the population of the area!
  4. The importance of ante and perinatal care is not well understood. The importance of nutrition alone is not well understood in rural Malawi and even when well understood not well practiced, the lack of understanding of the importance of natal care I believe contributes to lesser treatment of pregnant and nursing women.
  5. In many ‘developed’ parts of the world, having a child is seen as an investment – we save for years and invest significant time and effort to creating successful human beings. From what I can tell, where I am living, children are a natural consequence to marriage and a gift from God. Although this difference is slight in perspective I think it plays enormously into the treatment of pregnant and nursing women and children.
  6. Religion, I am not sure how this plays in but I imagine there is an effect as there are few areas of rural Malawian life not touched by religion. If you have more opinions here, I’d love to hear them.

On Staple Foods

When I tell Malawians that I am from Canada, they often ask what our staple food is. For those of you who do not know, not most, but literally all Malawians eat nsima with relish twice a day. The one caveat being that they might have rice or chips (potato wedges) instead at one meal. In addition all Malawians, clear across the country drink ridiculously (but sooo delicious) sugary tea in the morning for breakfast. In addition, they all cook with artery clogging amounts of oil.

I knew about this before I came overseas, thought it was a fun change for a month or two, I became enraged at the low nutritional value vs. high monetary investment in ingredients and then it struck me – this is weird. Every person in a country eats the same things every day. Maize and cassava have strong cultural ties and for many are the only source of food, but even wealthy Malawians will eat nsima consistently. I have heard of restaurants trying to diversify but being unsuccessful unless they offered nsima.

It struck me that across economic, social, cultural classes this behaviour is consistent in Malawians despite- here is the interesting part – it not being very good for you and many Malawians knowing it. (Disclaimer: again this is not a judgment; we citizens of so called ‘developed’ countries put absolute garbage into our bodies everyday knowing it is terrible for us. What I am trying to hone in on here is that it is the same)

One could argue that the selection of options is lower here in Malawi – and they would be right – but why is that? Why is the selection of crops grown here smaller and why is is the variety of imported foods lower? Economics are hugely important in the current discussion, but my query is why these systems never developed.

I am going to propose a theory that was presented to me by a friend who actually read it in a book whose name I forget at the moment but will update this post with. The theory goes; the characteristics required to survive are counteractive to the characteristics required to ‘develop.’ As I understand it, the pivotal characteristic here is risk taking. In order to survive, particularly when resources are low, we turn to what we know works. Our ancestors farmed maize, our grandmothers cooked nsima, and our father bought chickens. If you are looking at the possibility of starving and not being able to provide for your family, to not be able to survive, it is safer to follow in the footsteps of those who survived before you. However, if you want to develop you must innovate, try things which have not been done before, take a risk of failure.

So I wonder if all Malawians eat nsima because their grandmother ate nsima, what other characteristics and behaviours might they all share and what effect this has on their abilities to create a different or better future than their ancestors?

Can the threat of not surviving be preventing development?

Like I said above, these are thoughts I have been having but my opinions are not yet formed and I would love to share your experiences on these issues.

Thanks for reading,



5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Alex on August 7, 2010 at 6:09 pm


    Your last bit about staple foods reminded me of my most fav author Jared Diamond! He wrote ‘Guns, Germs and Steel” which I know you’ve heard me talk about before. It covers your question about why there are fewer crop options in Malawi, and in Africa in general.

    The question about the staple food of Canada is an interesting one. In our history we have always had staple products (fur, timber, wheat etc) but I can’t think of one staple food product.

    – Alex


  2. Posted by Craig Sandy on August 9, 2010 at 10:52 am

    Alex, how about KRAFT Dinner?


  3. Touche on the KRAFT Dinner!

    Your response got me thinking Alex. Although throughout our history, Canada has had staple products but potentially not a staple food (although some of the things you pointed to are also food), I wonder if this intrinsically linked to more than bare geography. Pardon my ignorant self potentially grabbing at straws here but would it be a sound hypothesis to suppose that having staple products is perhaps a step up from extreme poverty. I am thinking that by virtue of focusing your efforts on a nonedible product you must have another relatively reliable source of food so that you have extra time to divest your energy elsewhere. If you are lacking in a reliable source of food maybe then you must focus all of your efforts on producing one item that ensures you can feed yourself and your family and if you are lucky be able to sell any surplus. Ta da subsistence farming.

    Just a thought, would love to have others join the discussion as my general understanding is very very low on the topic.


  4. Posted by Tom Hansen on August 11, 2010 at 1:47 am

    Neat stuff. I have two comments.
    The first is about the “On Hierarchy” section. When you asked why people don’t overturn poor decisions, give feedback… I think its because of fear. Fear of embarrassment in the present dissuades us from making the appropriate long term decisions all the time. This is because it is easy to procrastinate and ignore the effects of the long term decision when confronted with a more tangible short term loss. My analogy is this: when you are in near death experiences (or think that you are in a near death experience) you don’t always act to save your life. Example: you are in a car with some friends and you see an icy patch on the road, which the driver doesn’t see. The logical thing to do in this situation is to warn the driver, since accidents in the winter are very common… but I believe that majority of the time we would just keep the ice comment to ourselves. Risk our lives rather than embarrass ourselves in front of our friends. Not saying it is right, just that I understand why the poor decisions aren’t always rectified.
    Comment #2 – I think a significant factor in the diversity of food in North American is the diversity of the population. When people emigrate they bring their culture and we in North America are exposed to all these different cultures and as a result their foods.. I’d assume that less people emigrate to Malawi than Canada and as a result the diversity of Malawi’s population is probably limiting factor in the diversity of goods sold in Malawi.
    Hope that wasn’t too long winded and was somewhat coherent.


  5. Hey Lauren,

    So I really liked your last thought about stable foods, especially the theory that development and survival are counteractive. I was actually taking to a Ghanaian women on the bus from Tamale about this. More specifically on how, in her opinion, Ghanians rarely take risks, and, also her opinion, that you need to take risks to be the best at something, or create a successful business, and “develop” in general. I think it is an interesting theory, hopefully you remember the name of the book.



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