As of May 2018, I am in the writing stage of my dissertation project. I have completed a full draft of my dissertation and it is now in the editing stage. I intend to complete my dissertation, defend, and graduate by May 2019. Data for my dissertation 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. Below I provide an abstract of my dissertation, as well as a breakdown of sources of data gathered. For additional information and updates, please feel free to contact me.

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


The study of traditional authorities (TAs) 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 TAs as agents of cultural brokerage. In Malawi and elsewhere, TAs have the power to set and change cultural norms. In the case of child marriage in Malawi, TAs could potentially stop this harmful practice completely. The questions are: Why would they want to? What incentive does a chief have to push for such a radical cultural change? What are the benefits of becoming an advocate of women’s rights? What are the dangers? This project uses interviews with TAs from across the hierarchy (village headmen to senior chiefs), with supporting evidence drawn from additional interviews from key stakeholders (including teachers, child protection workers, government bureaucrats, and NGOs) to explore how and why TAs promote women’s rights in Malawi.

Based on preliminary data, while the government of Malawi is largely ineffective at implementing laws designed to promote women’s rights, the TAs of Malawi are deeply engaged in this issue. This advocacy comes at great personal risk—threats, intimidation, loss of support, one chief was recently eaten by a “magic” crocodile for his interference—and no personal benefit. These TAs work directly with girls to provide personal and family counseling and financial support, often going out of their way to push the community to help them break these marriages and send the children back to school. They do this work with no government support, very little coordination, and little to no formal training. Preliminary policy recommendations highlight the need for interested groups to invest in training and coordination for those chiefs closet to the people: village headmen. 


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. In almost all cases, I personally traveled to the home of the chiefs and interviewed them in their own village. 


Interviews with Other Local Leaders

I conducted an additional 50~ interviews with other key local cultural, social, and political leaders including ward councilors, MPs, social workers, teachers, primary education advisors, gule wa mkulu councilors, mother's groups, and religious leaders. These interviews also took place across all seven districts. 


Focus Groups with Women

In addition to semi-structured individual interviews, I completed 20 focus groups targeting Malawian women to help me 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. These were completed in Dowa, Salima, Nkhotakota, and Lilongwe with the help of a moderator/translator.

Participant Observation

The final component of my year of fieldwork consisted of participant observation and immersion into the culture and lifestyle of Malawians. 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, including watching performances by the gule wa mkulu (male masked dancers). 


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 (chief) Gilvert Chizukuzuku, without whom I would have wandered the Central Region knocking on doors soliciting my own interviews. He is a wonderful assistant, translator, partner, 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 so greatly to make my research dreams a reality. Together with these two men alone I completed over 100 interviews with chiefs from the senior chief level down to village level. 

Zikomo, Zikomo, Zikomo!