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Human Rights and African Airwaves: Mediating Equality on the Chichewa Radio

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Human Rights and African Airwaves focuses on Nkhani Zam'maboma, a popular Chichewa news bulletin broadcast on Malawi’s public radio. The program often takes authorities to task and questions much of the human rights rhetoric that comes from international organizations. Highlighting obligation and mutual dependence, the program expresses, in popular idioms and local narrative forms, grievances and injustices that are closest to Malawi’s impoverished public. Harri Englund reveals broadcasters’ everyday struggles with state-sponsored biases and a listening public with strong views and a critical ear. This fresh look at African-language media shows how Africans effectively confront inequality, exploitation, and poverty.

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1 Rights and Wrongs on the Radio

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“Government says it is committed to ensuring that rural areas are developed.” Broadcast in the main news bulletin of the Malaŵi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) in 2006, this headline did not announce news in any obvious sense.1 Novelty was less important than the timeless legitimacy of the state, whatever the composition of the government conducting its affairs.2 The headline, in point of fact, was itself timeless. The year of its broadcast could have been any of Malaŵi’s independence since 1964, when after three decades of Kamuzu Banda’s autocratic regime, the country was ruled by two ostensibly democratic presidents, Bakili Muluzi (1994–2004) and Bingu wa Mutharika (2004 to the present). When I first arrived in Malaŵi in the twilight years of Banda’s regime, it was the MBC’s weather forecast that represented to me the station’s disregard for imparting information. I discovered that the weather forecast had had the same refrain for decades, regardless of the season: “The winds will be light and variable but gusty in stormy areas.” With its caveat and tautology, it seemed to sum up an ethos whose principal interest was to broadcast platitudes that would apply to any time and anywhere in Malaŵi.

 

2 Obligations to Dogs

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Walking the dog was never a task Joseph Chisale cherished. Tending the garden of his European master, who was the only doctor at the nearby rural clinic, was a far more agreeable pursuit, and even cooking for the master involved skills and responsibilities that made the occupational category of “houseboy” a source of some respect in the village. Twice a day the master’s Alsatian, the dog that had traveled with him from Europe, had to be taken for a walk, each time Chisale wondering whether the master’s residence in his own village was such a blessing after all. Insolent children would run around him during the promenade, the cheekiest of them trying to provoke barking from the exotic creature. Adults would maintain a polite façade, their smiles and greetings, Chisale often felt, concealing their commiseration over the humiliation brought by a lack of opportunities in the village. Chisale suspected that the master would not have had the courage to face the commotion his outings with the dog would have caused in the village. The master’s residence there had done nothing to change his status as a stranger, or to improve his communication skills in Chicheŵa.

 

3 Against the Occult

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A story broadcast on Nkhani Zam’maboma in 2003 told of a woman who had been found alone in a rural graveyard at midday, lying on top of a tomb.1 On closer inspection, villagers discovered a bag next to her. It contained a razor blade, a needle, and a bottle of blood. The woman had sought to dispel suspicions that anything sinister was at issue by claiming that she did not know what she was doing because she was drunk. The story went on to report that the woman had good employment in the commercial capital Blantyre and that the villagers who had found her suspected that she had wanted to protect her job against possible dismissal. They also thought that the visit to the graveyard had been occasioned by her desire to find a charm (chizimba) for making bricks used in building a modern house (nyumba yamakono). Her first husband was reported to have left her because of her witchcraft (ufiti), while she had bewitched her second husband to stay at home with the couple’s children.

 

4 A Nameless Genre

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“A man who works in an Asian’s store in Limbe in Blantyre is said to have made his children drink beer when he did not have money to feed the children.”1 This headline introduced a story about destitution that epitomizes many of the themes and rhetorical devices in Nkhani Zam’maboma. The man was said to live in a particular neighborhood in Ndirande, a township in Limbe’s twin city Blantyre, and his troubles came to a head when the Asian boss failed to pay his salary. Tired of poverty, his wife abandoned him, leaving behind children crying from hunger. Unable to find food in the house, the man went to look for leavings of masese, opaque homemade beer, in the cartons drinkers had thrown away. He returned to give the beer to the children as if it was porridge, with the result that the children became drunk.

Just as the stories involving witchcraft carried allusions to various other issues, so too did this story evoke a range of themes, amenable to further expansion by listeners all too familiar with the hardship and injustice it depicted. It illustrated the thin line separating ordinary poverty from destitution. When listening to it with villagers in Dedza District and migrants in Chinsapo Township, I began to realize how a single story could evoke a range of grievances and reflections among its public. Some listeners in the township would describe their own experiences of employers skipping the payment of salary. Others gave further examples of the arbitrary and exploitative labor conditions in the enterprises owned by the merchant class of South Asian extraction.2 They described workers being locked up to prevent them from taking a break, the rejection of their requests to attend funerals, unexplained deductions taken from salaries. The domestic trouble mentioned in the broadcast story sounded familiar to listeners in both rural and urban settings, the ideal of the man-as-provider and the woman-as-housewife crushed under the weight of poverty. Although the act of giving beer to hungry children was the detail that made this story out of the ordinary, the entire scene it conveyed was at variance with the carefully cultivated image of a nation enjoying the fruits of development in the MBC’s official news bulletins.

 

5 Inequality Is Old News

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Wayilesi yakwanu, “the radio from your place,” an editor of Nkhani Zam’maboma remarked to me one day when the BBC World Service blared in the newsroom. Before I could think of a response, the editor went on to state that even white people should have a program like Nkhani Zam’maboma. “White people also misbehave” (azungunso amapalamula), she asserted, making them seem comparable to the Malaŵian figures of authority whose deceptive appearances made the headlines on Nkhani Zam’maboma. Listening to his colleague’s comments, another editor of the program concurred with the view that white people, for all their superiority in wealth and education, should also be exposed as liars and adulterers. But he asked me if witchcraft (ufiti) existed where I came from. My answer that it did not exist in the same way as in Malaŵi confirmed the idea he already had about witchcraft and science as the defining domains of Africa and Europe, respectively.1 After a pause, however, the editor recalled that even white people could adopt Malaŵian ways, to the extent that a white priest had joined the gule wamkulu secret society, an incident that the editor said had been reported on Nkhani Zam’maboma.

 

6 Stories Become Persons

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From semi-literates to academics, Malaŵians were generally familiar with Nkhani Zam’maboma. Although the regularity with which they followed the program varied greatly, virtually everyone I knew was able to discuss it with me. While many could cite its stories about witchcraft and errant authorities, some were unaware that the sources of those stories lay in letters, telephone calls, faxes, and e-mails from listeners.1 One university lecturer, for example, explained to me that from time to time some areas would emerge as what he called “hot spots,” locations where several incidents took place within a short span of time. Others assumed that the MBC’s network of reporters across the country supplied stories. What was remarkable about these perceptions was not so much their lack of accuracy as their expectation that the MBC could alone provide national coverage of localized stories. The expectation bespoke a residual faith in the broadcaster’s remit to represent the nation, whatever frustrations these listeners felt over its biased and didactic approach to other programs. In actual fact, in spite of having offices and studios in the three regions of the country, the MBC had no means of gathering stories from villages and townships on a daily basis.2 The frequent appearance of certain localities was a result of the frequent supply of stories from them.

 

7 Cries and Whispers

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When I discussed Nkhani Zam’maboma with people I had known for over a decade in Dedza District, many would add to their reflections a sober comment on the area’s invisibility in the program.1 The villages in their chiefdom did not seem to feature in the stories broadcast on Nkhani Zam’maboma, an observation corroborated by the absence of incidents in this area from my sample of stories. No one who made such a comment thought it warranted complacency. Rather than indicating the area’s exceptional record in avoiding scandals, the lack of its stories on the radio, I was told, arose from villagers’ problematic tendency to “keep secrets” (kusunga zinsinsi). Stories about misconduct and abuse did circulate locally, but their failure to reach the national radio bespoke a widely shared fear (mantha) of publicizing unsavory incidents. I heard stories and witnessed events that could have provided material for Nkhani Zam’maboma, and villagers were able to give further examples of similarities between their experiences and those reported on the program. Not only were witches’ aircraft seen to crash-land here as elsewhere, many less spectacular incidents could also have appeared on Nkhani Zam’maboma. For instance, some villagers told me, in hushed voices, about the widespread sexual abuse of female children, often by their own kinsmen.

 

8 Christian Critics

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As one facet of the liberalization that gathered momentum at the turn of the millennium, Nkhani Zam’maboma invites consideration of whether liberal values and procedures have any purchase on the moral imagination in a country like Malaŵi. Questioning the extent to which politicians and human rights activists were the most consequential participants in new public arenas, this book has sought to demonstrate that African-language claims mediated by the radio can yield insights into the broader issues of rights and obligations under the conditions of poverty and inequality. By thus including in the purview both the broadcasters and listeners of a popular radio program, this book shares an intellectual affinity with various attempts to go beyond Habermas’s notion of the public sphere (see chapter 2). Concepts such as counter-publics (Hirschkind 2006) and the parallel public sphere (S. Dewey 2009), in particular, might seem congenial to the project here to show that much else has been taking place in public than the endless bickering between politicians and activists over freedoms and responsibilities in the governance of Malaŵi. However, although much of this recent ethnographic and conceptual work is wary of imputing models of resistance to the alternatives it has discerned, the tendency to assume a measure of duality between the dominant and subordinate public arenas has not been repeated in this book. It was difficult to identify any emancipatory agenda in Nkhani Zam’maboma, because both its editors and listeners appeared to take for granted the institutions whose incumbents the program described. The idea of resistance has also been undermined by the editors’ commitment to serving the government.

 

9 Beyond the Parity Principle

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The first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” While the Second World War had attached new urgency to the definition and implementation of human rights, the 1990s wave of liberalization in Africa and elsewhere revived this project in the context of crumbling autocracies and widespread poverty. Much as its principled attention to all human beings could inspire fresh political, economic, and legal challenges to the status quo, the discourse on human rights was often highly selective in practice. Of the first article’s emphasis on freedom and equality, only the idea of freedom came to inform the public interventions by Malaŵi’s human rights activists and democratic politicians. As has been seen, the very concept of human rights was translated into Chicheŵa through the concept of freedom.

It would be futile, however, to expect that a conceptual shift from freedom to equality would by itself rectify the neglect of social and economic rights that the emphasis on political and civil liberties has seemed to reinforce. As central concepts in liberal political and moral theory, freedom and equality have been shown to carry multiple meanings and open up potentially contradictory possibilities. Feminist theorists, for example, have argued that once decoupled from its association with personal autonomy and self-rule, “freedom” can prompt questions of how social relations and institutions both enable and constrain subjects (Hirschmann 2003: 35–39; see also Friedman 2003). Such questions become particularly contentious when they no longer assume a categorical distinction between the subject’s desires and socially prescribed conduct, or that submission to external authority necessarily subverts the subject’s potentiality (Mahmood 2005: 31). As for “equality,” some philosophers have at least since Rousseau recognized how the apparent neutrality of formal equality can consolidate existing inequalities by denying differences in situations, resources, and needs (Hirschmann 2003: 223–224). Moreover, equality comes with variable complexions and goals, with the demand for one type of equality (such as equal rights) inconsistent with the demand for another type (such as the equality of incomes) (Sen 1992).

 

Appendix 1. Presidential News

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Main news on the MBC’s Chicheŵa news bulletin, February 2, 2003, followed by translation.

Pulezidenti wa dziko lino Dr Bakili Muluzi ŵati sadzalola nduna iliyonse yosakhulupirika kugwira ntchito m’boma lake. Polankhula pamsonkhano omwe anachititsa dzulo kwa Chinsapo One m’dera lakuzambwe mumzinda wa Lilongwe, Pulezidenti Muluzi anati akufuna nduna zomwe zili ndi chidwi chotumikira chipani ndi boma. Pulezidenti Muluzi anafotokoza kuti cholinga cha boma la UDF ndi kutumikira anthu osati kugwiritsa ntchito maudindo pazofuna zawo. Mtsogoleri wa dziko linoyu anati boma lake lili ndi mfundo zambiri monga zolemekeza ufulu wachibadwidwe wa anthu, kulimbikitsa ufulu wa demokalase ndi kulimbana ndi umphaŵi. Dr Muluzi anati ichi n’chifukwa chake sagwirizana ndi zomakangana pa ndale zomwe anthu ena amachita. Pulezidenti Muluzi anati ndi cholinga cha boma lake kupezera anthu zofuna zawo pa ntchito ya chitukuko. Iye anakumbutsa anthu kuti pa nthaŵi ya ulamuliro wa boma lakale aMalaŵi ankawapondereza ndipo analibe mwayi wogwira ntchito za bizinesi ngakhale wogulitsa zinthu m’mphepete mwa misewu ya m’mizinda ndi m’matawuni. Dr Muluzi ananenetsa kuti ndi chipani cha UDF chokha chomwe chingalimbikitse mfundo za boma la demokalase ndi kukweza miyoyo ya anthu. Dr Muluzi ananenetsa kuti palibe chifukwa chomapatula amayi ndi achinyamata monga momwe zinkakhalira zinthu pa nthaŵi ya ulamuliro wa boma la chipani cha MCP.

 

Appendix 2. Graveyard Visit

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A story broadcast on Nkhani Zam’maboma on July 25, 2003, followed by translation.

Mayi ŵina wa m’mudzi mwa [location omitted] akuti anapezeka ali kumanda masanasana dzuwa likuswa mtengo. Mayiwo amene wangoyamba kumene ntchito pa kampani in a kumzinda wa Blantyre akuti anapezeka atagona pa mitumbira iŵiri ya manda. Anthu atayang’anitsitsa pafupi ndi mayiwo, anapeza kuti panali kathumba momwe munapezeka zinthu monga malezala, singano ndi kabotolo momwe munali magazi. Atamufunsa chomwe amachita kumandako, iye anayankha kuti samadziŵa chomwe amachita ponamizira kuti ataledzera. Anthu ambiri akukhulupirira kuti mayiwo akufuna kukhwimira ntchito imene anayipeza kumene kuti asamuchotse ndiponso akuti akufuna chizimba choti atenthere uvuni ya njerwa zake zomwe akuti akufuna kumangira nyumba ya makono. Mwamuna woyamba wa mayiwo akuti anathawa zochita za ufiti za mayiwo zokhangati zomwezi. Mwamuna amene anakwatiŵa naye mayiwo panopa akuti akumukhwi-mira kuti asamachoke pa khomopo kuti azingosamalira ŵana cholinga choti iye azipanga zofuna zake.

 

Appendix 3. Drunken Children

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A story broadcast on Nkhani Zam’maboma on July 19, 2003, followed by translation.

Bambo ŵina yemwe amagwira ntchito pa sitolo ya mwenye ŵina ku Limbe m’mzinda wa Blantyre akuti anamwetsa ana ake masese atasoŵa ndalama yodyetsera anawo. Bamboyo akuti amakhala [location omitted] kutawuni ya Ndirande m’mzinda wa Blantyre. Mwezi wathawu mkuluyu akuti sanalandire malipiro ake a pamwezi pa zifukwa za pakati pa iyeyo ndi bwana wake. Atafika ku nyumba mkuluyu akuti anapeza mkazi ŵake atapita kwawo kamba kotopa ndi umphaŵi. Mayiyo akuti anasiya ana onse amene anabereka ndi mkuluyo ndipo pofika pa nyumbapo bamboyo akuti anaŵapeza anaŵa akungolira ndi njala. Izi zinamuimitsa mutu ndipo anaganiza zosakasaka chakudya. Pochoka pa khomopo mkuluyu anatenga poto ndi kuloŵera kumalo ena kumene amagulitsa mowa wa masese. Atafika kumaloko bamboyo akuti anatolera mapakete a masese omwe anthu anataya ndi kuyamba kukhuthulira masese otsalira mu potomo. Poto litadzadza mkuluyu anabwerera kunyumba yake ndi kuŵiritsa masesewo. Ataŵira bamboyo akuti anamwetsa anawo omwe anaganiza kuti ndi mphala. Atamwa maseseŵa anaŵa akuti analedzera kwambiri ndipo mkulu anaŵanyamula ndi kuŵagoneka. Pakadali pano akuti bamboyo anaima mutu ndipo ŵasiya kupita ku ntchito.

 

Appendix 4. Giant Rat

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A story broadcast on Nkhani Zam’maboma on July 15, 2003, followed by translation.

Chikhoswe chachikulu champhongo chimene chinali ndi mphinjiri zitatu m’khosi mwake akuti chafa chitalephera kulowa m’mpanda kwa sing’anga ŵina [location omitted]. Sing’anga akuti anachoka kunyumba kwakeko chama half past five m’maŵa kukakumba mankhwala kuphiri. Ali kumeneko chikhoswecho chinafuna kuti chiloŵe kunyumba kwakeko, koma chinangoyamba kujenjemera mpaka khangati chakomoka. Pamene sing’anga anafika kunyumba anapeza anthu atadzadza kukaona chikhoswecho. Iye sanalankhule ndi munthu koma anangoloŵa m’nyumba kukasiya mankhwala amene anakumbawo ndipo kutuluka ndi mankhwala ophera amene anaŵaza chikhoswecho mpaka kutsirizika. Ataitanitsa nyakwaŵa ya m’mudzimo sing’anga akuti anang’amba chikhoswecho ndipo mkati mwake anapeza masingano, flexafoam, tsitsi la mwana ndi la mzungu kudzanso nsanza. Sing’anga anatentha zinthu zonsezo atasakaniza mankhwala ndipo analonjeza kuti munthu amene anatuma chikhoswecho aona. Pasanathe masiku mkulu ŵina ndi mkazi wake akuti anapita kwa sing’angayo kukamupempha aŵachotse ufiti popeza kuti anamva kuti anapha chikhoswe kunyumba kwakeko. Sing’anga analamula anthuwo kuti amene akudwala kuti alipire mbuzi imodzi kapena nkhuku zisanu.

 

Appendix 5. Reclaiming Virginity

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Unedited version of a story broadcast on Nkhani Zam’maboma on July 11, 2008. The transcription is a copy of the original sent to the MBC, and no attempt has been made to amend its spelling and grammar.

“Worship, the Woman is Polyandrous!”

A woman speaking at the First-Grade Magistrate’s Court in Lilongwe demanded her husband to restore her virginity and cleanse her of AIDS if he wanted to leave her. But some tried to think critically and condemned the ex-wife describing her irresponsible.

Magistrate Kachama made the situation even worse when he said: “The woman is saying you are still her husband. And that if you want to leave her, you should restore her virginity and cleanse her of AIDS, which she claims, you infected her. What are you going to say?”

The husband did not waste time thinking about what he could do for the lady. He just hit the nail on its head saying: “I don’t want this woman. As for AIDS, I cannot be responsible because the woman married three times before me.”

 

Appendix 6. The Truth about Porridge

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A story broadcast on Nkhani Zam’maboma on June 14, 2008, followed by translation. The transcription is a copy of the text prepared by an editor at the MBC, and no attempt has been made to amend its spelling and grammar.

Anthu okhala dela la [location omitted] adadandaula kwambiri ndi khalidwelomwe akuchita aphunzitsi a pasukulu ina kumeneko ati pomatangwanika ndi phala lomwe limaphikidwa pasukulupo m’malo mophunzitsa ana m’kalasi. Amene watitumiza nkhaniyi wati pasukulupo pamaphikidwa phala lomwe ndi imodzi mwa ndondomeko ya boma kuti ana adzilimbikira maphunziro. Koma chodabwitsa n’chakuti aphunzitsi pasukulupo akumabwera ndi mbale pochoka kwawo, akatero akuti akumakhala muofesi kudikilira kuti phala lipse, nthawiyi akuti ana amangopatsidwa ntchito monga kukadula senjele zomwe akuti aphunzitsiwo akumagulitsa kuti apezepo cholowa. Izi akuti zakhumudwitsa kwambiri makolo awana omwe ali pasukulupo. Ndipo apempha oona zamaphunziro m’bomalo kuti achitepo kanthu.

 

Appendix 7. “Makiyolobasi Must Stop Bewitching at Night”

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A story submitted to Nkhani Zam’maboma but rejected in 2008, followed by translation. The transcription is a copy of the original sent to the MBC, and no attempt has been made to amend its spelling and grammar.

Mai Wenzulo sadaname kuti Makiyolobasi ndi satana weniweni ndipo asayime pa upresidenti padziko la Malawi

Zikomo Mkonzi

Makiyolobasi asiye kutamba usiku

Mnyamata wina kuno ku Thyolo wakhala ali kudandaulira kuti adalemba masiku ndi miyezi yomwe Makiyolobasi amabwera muufiti atasanduka khoswe. Komanso Makiyolobasiyu ali ndi anzake womwe amasanduka galu, muleme, mphemvu, kangaude ndi zilombo zina ndipo akuti Makiyolobasiyu ali ndi makoswe ambiri woti adzawagwirilitse ntchito povota mavoti a chaka cha m’mawa 2009. Komanso anzakewo ali ndi ndege zitatu zoti zizanyamule mavoti usiku. Ndipo mnyamatayu wati atengera Makiyolobasi kukhoti pogwiritsa malamulo a Dziko ndime 16 komanso amubwezere zonse wawononga pamatenda ake.

 

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