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5— Tribalism in the Political History of Malawi1
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Dissatisfactions in the Central Province

In Nyasaland's Central Province the situation regarding the development of ethnic identity was wholly different from that in either the Northern or Southern Provinces. In the pre-colonial period, its small scale uxorilocal villages without strongly centralized political structures had survived the political and economic disruptions of the nineteenth century in firm possession of ancestral lands. Only in two enclaves did the Ngoni establish their presence, and to a great extent local Chewa culture speedily overwhelmed Ngoni culture.

Up to the end of World War I it was also comparatively unaffected by colonial rule, suffering neither the large scale labour migrancy that typified the north nor the oppressiveness of a government-supported planter and chiefly elite which had characterized the south. Hut tax had been imposed, but it was not collected rigorously until 1915–16, and little land was alienated to Europeans because the area was too far from transport routes to interest planters. Village life was stable and the fertile soil of the Province ensured subsistence, making it possible for most of the people to meet colonial tax demands through producing crops for market.

Unlike the Northern and Southern Provinces, it" was also remarkably homogeneous culturally, with the Chewa language spoken throughout. The


Chewa were also distinguished by an institution of remarkable resilience and vitality, the nyau societies, which served to unite the people in times of social stress and acted as powerful curbs on the influence both of missions and chiefs or headmen.[121] Many Chewa desired Western education, but they had a well-founded fear that mission teachers would assail Chewa culture in the classroom and consequently hesitated to send their children to the mission schools.[122] All education, moreover, was controlled by French-speaking Roman Catholics and Afrikaans-speaking members of South Africa's Dutch Reformed Church, both committed to policies that de-emphasized the use of English because of a fear that its use would encourage labour migrancy. Furthermore, they stressed the duty of moral and intellectual passivity before a body of fixed doctrine and were either hostile to or uninterested in African history and culture.[123] Virtually no Chewa intellectuals emerged from this educational milieu to serve as culture brokers either for a progressive ethnic ideology along the lines of the north or a universalist nationalism like that explored by Chilembwe in the south.[124]

Yet despite the continued stability of the Chewa culture and way of life, a mounting resentment against colonialism developed in the inter-war years. This resentment centred on economic issues. In 1920 two planters seeking to expand tobacco production leased 2000 acres near Lilongwe. It was the start of a new industry which grew rapidly. The tobacco grown was the fire-cured dark leaf type which had been first grown in 1916 in the Southern Province, and it quickly attracted African peasant growers. Even in the mid-1930s, when the first tobacco rush was over, only some 30,000 acres had passed into European hands compared to the million acres held by planters in the south. There was no thangata system and, though labour could be tied to planters or buyers through a variety of devices, all labour was paid. Finally, there were no Nguru immigrants from Mozambique to be used by planters or by chiefs and headmen as captive tobacco growers. Principal Headmen who wished to have their tobacco grown cheaply had to resort to using tax defaulters. The tobacco boom in the Central Province was thus a very different affair from that of the south. There was plenty of fertile land available together with large supplies of firewood for curing the leaves, and there was a population experienced in the production of indigenous tobacco and eager to exploit the new opportunities. In 1924 an official observed that there was little likelihood of Africans turning to migrant labour as they now had 'a method of earning money without having to work for somebody else, which is just what the natives were longing for'.[125] As the Central Province was opened to road traffic, the number of African growers increased from 900 to over 33,000.

The very success of African peasant tobacco production, however, soon led to state intervention. The arrival in tobacco areas of buyers eager to purchase African grown tobacco shattered earlier monopsonistic marketing arrangements and resulted in a quick rise in producer prices. This annoyed government officials, who deeply distrusted African initiative. Listening to the complaints of the local white oligarchy, they determined that European interests should have first priority and that Africans should be 'encouraged' to work for whites: 'The education value to Natives who engage in this sort of work is great and for some time to come better results will on the whole be obtained from this work than by production by Natives working for themselves.'[126]

Starting from this clear racial and class bias against African endeavour, the officials began controlling what they had had no part in establishing. Asserting that open competition for tobacco was bad for the African growers, they explained state intervention by declaring that they were seeking a 'rationalized'


industry by establishing so-called 'stable' prices. In 1926 a Native Tobacco Board was set up, the work of which was financed by a special tax on African-produced tobacco.[127] The Board, on which major European planters were prominent members, was clearly intended to protect European interests from African competition, and the measures it employed were crudely straightforward.[128]

A slump in tobacco prices in the late 1920s brought further state intervention. During the Depression years a general consensus developed throughout European colonial empires that the way out of the Depression was to force up prices by cutting commodity production. In Nyasaland, African-produced tobacco was the main target, and efforts were quickly made to 'stabilize' the industry. Officials talked urgently of the 'moral development' of Africans as well as their material development and pontificated about the need to teach growers 'a sharp lesson now and then'.[129] It was a generally held official opinion that 'you cannot treat the native as if he were a responsible being'.[130] So zealous was the Board that it passed regulations permitting the uprooting of growing tobacco.[131]

The policy succeeded. In 1934 the District Commissioner at Dedza reported that the local industry was 'dying of discouragement and neglect', while the District Commissioner in Lilongwe observed about the African tobacco producer that:

one cannot help feeling that as a primary producer he has been the plaything of the rapacious middleman, and that the Native Tobacco Board has done remarkably little—beyond collecting an enormous revenue for itself—in the way of protecting him from these powerful interests.[132]

Prices dropped again in 1937, and African growers showed their dissatisfaction by burning tobacco in protest in near-riot conditions.[133]

Although complaints about governmental agricultural policies were also heard from Africans in the south, it was in the Central Province that such complaints were most clearly articulated. The Central Province (Universal) Native Association was founded in 1927 under the leadership of George Simeon Mwase, a Lakeside Tonga then trading at Lilongwe. The executive committee of the Association was composed for the most part of store owners and tobacco growers. Significantly, none of them were mission teachers, clerics, or government clerks. The Association, then, was far different from those elsewhere in the country. It was not preoccupied with employment opportunities for school-leavers literate in English, nor was it interested in promoting any sort of ethnic consciousness in support of limited local autonomy. They consciously saw themselves as 'universal', above 'tribe' and within the Chilembwe tradition, recapitulating matters which originally had been discussed at the Providence Industrial Mission. Significantly, Mwase became the first Malawian to write a full account of the Chilembwe Rising.[134] They exchanged visits with the other Native Associations so that the regional distinctions began to be blurred.

Yet it would be wrong to overemphasize the forward-looking, nationally oriented petty bourgeois element in the Association, for their concerns were local concerns. Fully three-quarters of the membership were tobacco growers, and it was the concerns of the small growers and small traders of the Central Province that dominated their meetings. Thus, for instance, the Association complained about the Credit Trade with Natives Ordinance, which made African debts unrecoverable at law. They attacked the Native Foodstuffs Ordinance, which forbade trade in foodstuffs between districts by Africans. They criticized the Forests Ordinance, which regulated access to firewood needed by tobacco growers for curing their product. And they attacked the Native Tobacco Board's policies.


The various ordinances of which they complained, and especially the restrictive pricing policies of the Native Tobacco Board, were real obstacles to the accumulation of capital by Africans. The Association in effect was representing men who were trying to break loose of the restraints of the local Chewa matrilineal system by accumulating capital through their control over new sources of wealth, especially tobacco. Government policies were frustrating this control and checking the growth of a new, rurally-based bourgeoisie.[135] Thus, in a region where there were over 33,000 tobacco growers, the Association was speaking for a substantial constituency best described as peasant producers. Apart from the absence of women from their constituency, it had claims to genuine mass support in the Central Province. Within a few years, continued unsatisfactory colonial agricultural policies gave this constituency a truly national dimension.

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