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ESRC: Radio a key tool for Malawians in human rights struggle

ESRC: Radio a key tool for Malawians in human rights struggle

Malawian villagers have found an unlikely platform to expose injustice and abuse of power and bring their leaders to task, according to research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Malawi’s public radio station broadcasts are providing an alternative programme of news stories. The programme features contributions by ordinary Malawians, highlighting their everyday experiences of abuse and violation.

In a country where radio is the main form of mass media, the daily programme broadcast in Chichewa, the language spoken by most Malawians, has become a veritable household name despite an increasing range of entertainment offered by private and religious radio stations.

The Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) launched Nkhani Zam’maboma (News from the Districts) to broadcast success stories about local development but the editors soon realised that most of the stories they received were actually complaints about the behaviour of village headmen, employers, healers and others in authority. This was in sharp contrast to what the state-sponsored stories told.

Dr Harri Englund from the University of Cambridge found that witchcraft features in many of the news stories and is one of the ways of talking about abuses of power. For example, stories suggesting that prominent people may be using magic to steal money, property or to cause misfortune or even death for their own benefit are used to highlight greedy and corrupt behaviour. Although no direct accusations are made, listeners can easily work out who is being targeted by the story and what they have done.

Dr Englund found that rather than openly challenging those in authority in the way that Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) do, the stories highlighted injustice in innovative and subtle ways and served to remind those in power of their social and economic obligations to impoverished Malawians. “During my fieldwork, the villagers I spoke to kept telling me that I should listen to this radio programme if I wanted to know what really mattered to them”, Dr Englund explained.

Surprisingly, the stories never mention ufulu wachibadwidwe, the ‘birth freedom’ that has become the standard Chichewa translation for human rights. When asked why it was not used, the programme’s editors explained that this term belonged to the NGOs. “Although some aspects of the work done by human rights activists are exciting and have made a difference, their focus is on political liberties and individual freedom while for many ordinary Malawians the main problem is poverty and hunger,” Dr Englund continued.

By providing an unprecedented outlet for Malawians to air their grievances, Nkhani Zam’maboma has become an institution in its own right. In contrast, Dr Englund argues that the narrow-minded focus and confrontational approach of human rights activists has made the concept of human rights much less relevant and appealing.

“Ordinary Malawians think that human rights are only about what they see as quite frivolous freedoms. But they can’t eat freedom so they are not very taken with this sort of human rights talk anymore” he said. NGOs working in Malawi may have to consider different ways of fighting injustices and promoting human rights in order to gain support and drive from those people they are trying to help.



Dr Harri Englund (Tel: 01223 763962, email: hme25@cam.ac.uk)

ESRC Press Office:
Danielle Moore (Tel: 01793 413122, email:danielle.moore@esrc.ac.uk)
Jeanine Woolley (Tel: 01793 413119, email: jeanine.woolley@esrc.ac.uk)


1. This release is based on the findings from ‘Human Rights, African Alternatives, Witchcraft and the Public Sphere’ funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and carried out by Dr Harri Englund at the University of Cambridge.
2. Methodology: Dr Englund carried out 18 months of ethnographic fieldwork between 2003 and 2008, based on participant observation, conversations and semi-structured interviews among both the editors and listeners of the radio programme. He also analysed a sample of over 500 stories broadcast on the programme.
3. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s total budget for 2011/12 is £203 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes. More at www.esrc.ac.uk
The ESRC confirms the quality of its funded research by evaluating research projects through a process of peer review. This research has been graded as outstanding.

Kind Regards

Jeanine Woolley
Communications Manager
Communications Team
Polaris House, North Star Avenue
Swindon, SN2 1UJ

01793 413119 

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