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A conversation on a windy Malawian hillside in late 1969 planted the seed of this book in my mind. On holiday from the University of Malawi, I was then travelling in the Northern Region to do field research on the area's pre-colonial history. In the course of my work, I had met a primary school teacher in a village deep in the hills, many miles from the main road. He asked me how I liked Malawi. I replied that I liked it and thought it an interesting place. The teacher was not satisfied with such generalities, and he pressed me, asking me specifically if I enjoyed the Southern Region, where the University was located, as much as I did the Northern Region. I said that I found all parts of the country attractive.

It was clear that this answer both puzzled and frustrated him, and he then assured me that, as I continued my journey, I would soon recognize that the Northern Region was a better place than the south because its people were 'more civilized' and 'more progressive'. To clinch his argument, he pointed out that in the south 'people actually live in round houses, while we here in the North use square ones'! This proud claim of cultural superiority for the people of the Northern Region on the basis of the design of their houses called to mind the attitude of many of my students from the Northern Region. In 1968, the year of the Nigerian Civil War, many had predicted, with abundant optimism, that 'Northern Malawi is going to be the next Biafra'!

It was evident that despite the fact that Malawi had won its independence from Britain just four years earlier, its nationalist movement was already a spent ideological force. The official rhetoric in the government-controlled press and radio about 'building the nation' and the Malawi Congress Party's endless sloganeering for 'Unity, Loyalty, Obedience and Discipline' were belied by the fact that many Malawians who, according to the received wisdom of the times, should have known better, were ardent 'tribalists' with no love for the Party and its grandees or for its stated goals. Why had nationalism and nationalist unity evaporated so rapidly?

In retrospect, the answer seems quite straightforward. Nationalism, not only in Malawi, but in many other areas of Africa as well, had been a basically negative force, directed against colonialism, with little positive vision about the nature of the new society after colonialism's demise. Tribalism', that troubling enemy of the dominant party's programme of 'nation-building', had quickly come into the open after Malawi's independence. This was partly a result of the 'Cabinet Crisis' of late 1964, which fractured pre-Independence political alliances along fault lines of ethnic and regional identity, with a group of Chewa-speaking politicians from the Central Region ultimately gaining the political upper hand.


It was also partly the result of the Malawi Congress Party's actions against the strongly entrenched position within Malawian society of comparatively welleducated bureaucrats and civil servants from the Northern Region. This assault was broad in its scope, but it had been most strikingly symbolized for all Malawians by President Kamuzu Banda's decision in 1968 to remove the Tumbuka language—spoken by the great majority of the Northern Region's people—from its status as an official language of the country, banning it wholly from radio broadcasts and newspapers.

The fragmentation of Malawi along ethnic lines perplexed me personally. I had only recently come to Malawi from graduate school in the United States. There I had been taught that the notion of 'tribe' was little more than a racist term with a myriad of negative connotations, and its use in student essays brought quick professorial rebuke. I had also fully absorbed the view widely held in American Africanist circles that nationalism and 'nation-building' were irresistible forces destined to rout any lingering local parochialism and to bring benificent Progress to Africa. In Malawi, however, things were not going according to the American script. My students at the university never hesitated to identify themselves as members of a particular 'tribe', and they did so with obvious pride. Furthermore, 'tribalism' was growing rapidly, and it clearly was not about to dissolve before the solvents of 'modernization' or 'nation-building'. I became intrigued as to whence 'tribalism' derived its strength, and interested in exploring its roots.

If my conversation with the school teacher on that hillside in 1969 planted the seed of this book in my mind, the field research that I carried out over subsequent years caused it to germinate. When I arrived in Malawi in 1967, I was searching for a project upon which to work. A colleague at the university suggested that I study the 'Nkhamanga Empire', a large state said to have existed in northern Malawi prior to its destruction by militarized Ngoni refugees from South Africa in 1855–6. As I carried out my research, however, I discovered that this 'empire' had never actually existed.[1] It became clear that the supposed history of this 'empire' was actually the self-conscious creation of certain Tumbuka-speaking intellectuals at the turn of the twentieth century, the ideological product of political struggle and economic depression.[2]

As I explored the manner in which this vision of a glorious past had been constructed and deployed, I further discovered that the narrower Tumbuka 'tribalism', based on the carefully crafted version of local history that dated from the turn of the century, had been transformed in the 1930s into a broader, more powerful northern regionalism that rested on two pillars: the widespread acceptance of the importance of the Tumbuka language; and the assumption that, as northerners were better educated than other peoples of colonial Malawi, they deserved powerful positions in society acquired through merit. Once again, this was an ideological transformation that occurred at a time of political and economic struggle.

It became increasingly clear to me that the 'tribalism' of the late 1960s in Malawi was in large measure a reassertion of a well-established ethnic and regional consciousness dating from much earlier in the century. The claims for the 'superior culture' of his fellow northerners and the 'primitiveness' of other Malawian peoples made by the school teacher, as well as my students' infatuation with the local potential of the Biafran gambit, both reflected the power of an ethnic consciousness already in place at the time of independence from Britain, in 1964. The upsurge of 'tribalism' during the late 1960s was the ideological reflection of the political struggles that were then going on in Malawi, and its very strength was indicative of its deep historical roots.


It struck me that what had occurred in Malawi was likely to have occurred in other parts of southern Africa as well. If ethnic consciousness was a product of historical experience, then its creation and elaboration would be a proper subject of enquiry for historians. Moreover, it seemed important to understand the historical dynamics of the creation of ethnic consciousness because it seemed likely that the process would continue into the future and retain great political salience. It was with these ideas in mind that I decided to organize a conference to explore the issue. I had two goals for this conference.

First, I wanted a set of case studies that would deploy fresh empirical data illuminating the historical processes involved in the creation of specific examples of ethnic ideology. The widely-held assumption that 'tribalism' would soon disappear, coupled with the moral opprobrium associated with it as a topic of study, meant that. many academics had tended to shy away from it, apprehensive lest such studies undermine officially supported goals of national unity and 'nation-building' by succouring parochialism.[3] As a consequence, studies exploring the inception and growth of such ideological constructs in southern Africa were relatively rare. There was, then, a real need for detailed case studies based on original research that might illuminate the historical process involved.

Second, I felt that a comparative approach to the phenomenon might suggest reasons for the salience of ethnicity as an ideology for many peoples scattered over the whole southern African region. Too frequently, journalists and other commentators on African political life have tended to take 'tribalism' as given, useful in explaining political actions but itself not really requiring much explanation. I thought that by comparing case studies from a single region of Africa one might discover the reason for the specifically ethnic thrust of the fast-growing ideologies. To give a common basis for such comparison, therefore, I suggested to the participants in the conference that they should try to relate the ideological changes they were investigating to the nature of the political economy of the areas in which they were interested. In this way we could probe the possibility of linkages between political and socio-economic changes on the one hand and intellectual and cultural changes on the other.

By emphasizing the historicity of the process and by placing the case studies within a comparative framework, I hoped that ethnicity might, at least partially, be explained. The tautological argument that Africans acted 'tribalistically' because they were 'tribal' people would thus be replaced by an explanation with greater power. This explanation would be important not only for its own sake, but, more practically, because ethnicity remains a political reality in the region today and because the potential for ethnic conflict in a future black-ruled South Africa is something to be taken very seriously indeed. Should such occur, it will be highly disruptive—as ethnic conflict in Nigeria has been—because it will be occurring in the industrial, social and political centre of the entire region and would in all likelihood lead to its political destabilization.

The conference itself was held in April 1983 at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, under the auspices of the Carter G. Woodson Institute. Armstead Robinson, the Director of the Institute, was unfailing in his support. I must make


special note of the work done by the Institute's staff, especially Mary Rose, in ensuring that the conference took place smoothly and for aid in the subsequent editing of the volume.

I owe a great deal of gratitude for the conference's success to all the contributors to this volume, whose papers comprised the bulk of the work discussed at the conference itself and whose patience through an exceedingly long period of editing has been both monumental and deeply appreciated. Other participants who contributed to the conference's intellectual vitality were Hoyt Alverson, Colin Bundy, James Carragher, David Coplan, Jill Dias, Robert Edgar, Alexis Gardella, Stanley Greenberg, Halisi, Richard Hodder-Williams, Mary Rayner, and Richard Sigwalt.

Special mention must be made of two people without whose support this book would never have been brought to a conclusion. First, although Joseph Miller did not present a paper, he did virtually everything else he could to ensure that the conference took place and that it would be a success. Whenever I was depressed about organizational problems, I could count on him to convince me of its worth and that I should carry on. He served as my intellectual guide, sending me memos about obscure publications on ethnicity and freely giving me his own ideas on the topic. And at the conference itself, he shone both as a representative of the University of Virginia and as an acute commentator on several papers.

Second, although she has repeatedly reminded me of my statement, made in 1975, that I would never be crazy enough to organize a conference or edit a book, my wife Patricia has been unfailing in her substantive enthusiasm for both projects, giving free technical advice and warm emotional support with equal cheer. That the book is at last appearing is entirely to her credit and I, for one, thank her.


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