I defended my dissertation on March 1, 2019. Data was gathered over a period of approximately 12 months during three separate trips to Malawi (February 2017, July 2017-April 2018, August 2018). My research was made possible by multiple sources of funding including the U.S. Student Fulbright Program and the USAID Research and Innovation Fellowship Program. At Notre Dame, I secured funding from the Kroc Institute, Kellogg Institute, Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts (ISLA), and the NSF-SRR Program. For additional information and updates, please feel free to contact me.

28516829_10155599569820326_7538860916101500056_o (1).jpg

Beware the Magic Crocodile: The Role of Chiefs in Cultural and Political Reform in Malawi


The study of chiefs as legitimate political players is a growing field in political science. Recently, scholars have looked at vote brokerage and the provision of resources, but few talk about the power of chiefs as agents of cultural change. Using Malawi as a case study, this project uses 121 interviews with chiefs, with supporting evidence drawn from approximately 50 additional interviews from key stakeholders (including teachers, child protection workers, government bureaucrats, and NGOs), and 23 focus groups with over 200 women, to explore how and why chiefs are promoting political and a cultural reform to combat child marriage.

I find that the dual positionality of chiefs as both political and cultural actors, invested with high levels of trust and support from their communities, contributes to their ability to address culturally embedded practices like child marriage, which actively promote violence against children. Chiefs are joining with government and NGO actors to promote political reform in that they are working to educate their constituents on recent changes to the national marriage laws; in many cases, they are also using their authority as chiefs to pass bylaws that incorporate harsher punishments for those found breaking the law. But chiefs are—paradoxically, many argue—taking their advocacy a step further by using their authority as the “custodians of culture” to address and reform the underlying cultural norms and practices that make child marriage acceptable. To this end, chiefs emerge as curious political actors that have the power to do what many political reforms fail to do: change the underlying culture. Chiefs should therefore be central to the efforts of NGOs, governments, and human rights activists interested in, not only passing legal reforms to reduce forms of violence, but addressing underlying culture practices that create a space through which this violence emerges.


Interviews with Chiefs

I completed 121 interviews with chiefs from across the hierarchy in seven districts representing all three regions of Malawi. These interviews ranged from 25 minutes to one hour and were all individual.


Interviews with Other Local Leaders

I conducted an additional ~50 interviews with other key actors including ward councilors, social workers, teachers, education advisors, mother's groups, and religious leaders.


Focus Groups with Women

I completed 20 focus groups targeting Malawian women to help determine the degree to which women's rights, like the right to marry (or not marry), reach the target audience. Focus groups ranged in size from 3-10 women.

Participant Observation

The final component of my fieldwork consisted of participant observation and cultural immersion. I lived with Malawians, sharing daily spaces for cooking, washing, and raising our children. I toured cultural/historical sites, and I also participated in cultural events. 


They say it takes a village to raise a child, and a dissertation is no different! There are so many important people in my "village" that have and are making this dissertation project a reality. Two people absolutely central to this project are pictured below. To my immediate right in red is my dear friend, Village Headman Gilvert Chizukuzuku, without whom I would have wandered the Central Region knocking on doors soliciting my own interviews. He is a wonderful assistant, translator, and friend. Next to him is another very dear friend, Idana Silika, who was my fearless driver-turned-assistant and one of the very first people we met in Zomba! Idana borrowed motorbikes and bicycles, even took the bus if needed to get to villages all over the Southern Region to find me chiefs to interview! I relied on these men and so many others for so much. To Phyllis, David, Jordan, James, John, Esme, Mike, Aaron, Edward 1, Edward 2, and Edward 3 (so many Edwards!) I say: Zikomo, Zikomo, Zikomo!