Paramount Chief Lundu of Chikwawa has declared that legalized chamba and legalized commercial sex work are not Malawian culture. This initiates a very interesting discussion, better known as a can of worms. The question it raises is: what is Malawian culture? For “culture” we can look up the dictionary which says:
“Culture refers to the cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, notions of time, roles, spatial relations, concepts of the universe, and material objects and possessions acquired by a group of people in the course of generations through individual and group striving.”
That is a big mouthful, and takes a minute or two to take in. If you read this ttentively it becomes immediately clear that culture cannot stay the same over time. These beliefs, experiences etc change for the whole group from era to era. Just take the example of Christianity: this was not Malawian culture before Livingston brought it in. But today it is very much part of the collective belief system of the group called Malawi. 200 years ago it was unknown and the religions were true African religions like Nyau and such. Over time Christianity has become part of the belief system of the majority of Malawians. So then the question is: how does something become Malawian culture? And do we have one Malawian culture, a National Culture like Hastings Kamuzu Banda was striving for, or do we have different cultures in different regions? The answer is obviously both: we have collective national belief systems like our National Anthem which is doubtless part of Malawian culture, and we have more local cultures like Gule Wamkulu in the centre and different cultures in other regions.
Then types of culture evolve to suit the needs of a population as the country develops. We all strive for development of the country, and this means that we strive for change. This change will be reflected in the culture. For instance the Gule Wamkulu is changing, but not disappearing: in the 1950s there was very little cash economy in the rural areas. So in the dry season the village would have nothing else to do than sit together and create big Gule Wamkulu structures. These days in the dry season people go around looking for paid work to raise money and to contribute to the development of the country economically. So there is less time to create big structures, and these are rarer than they used to be 50 years ago. At the same time with more cash, dancers receive tips. This enables them to be more professional about the dancing, and spend time practicing rather than going around looking for Ganyu. So the dancing professionalises, and this can support tourism, which brings in foreign currency, which supports the economy. Again development. Culture develops along with the needs of the population, and drives development at the same time.
Also there are groups of Malawians who create and enjoy for instance Chichewa hip hop music, and this has clearly become part of Malawian culture over the past decades. How does something become Malawian culture? Who decides what “is part of Malawian culture” and what “is not”, like Chief Lundu stated? The chiefs are custodians of tradition, but not always in the best position to decide about modern culture, like hip hop. And what if we decide that something should become part of Malawian culture because it improves the country and suits the needs of the population. Then we integrate it into our cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, notions of time, roles, spatial relations, concepts of the universe, and material objects and possessions. One example is the mobile phone. It helps us run our businesses and maintain our contacts, and has grown very popular in very short time. It used to be foreign, but now it is integrated in our system. Likewise with the car, piped water, electricity, radio, democracy just to name a few.
The statement that legalised commercial sex is not part of Malawian culture now may be correct, illegal commercial sex is clearly part of the experience of many Malawians. Which according to the definition includes it in Malawian culture. If today, legalised commercial sex work is not part of Malawian culture, we can make it Malawian culture tomorrow if we decide that legal sex is better suited to our nation than illegal sex. It is up to us as a group to decide, and to instruct our representatives in Parliament and Government to make sure the laws reflect the needs of Malawians. We shape our culture according to our needs, that’s the power of culture and the power of the Malawian people.