Matupi athu Moyo wathu (Our bodies Our lives): Building feminist holistic health and direct democracy in Malawi

Salimah Valiani

In the mid-1970s, at the height of the Cold War, and following the victory of the Vietnamese people over US world hegemony, The Green Book was published in Africa. Muammar al-Qadaffi’s Green Book offered what he termed “the third universal theory” — an alternative to both representative democracy of “the West”, and authoritarian communism of “the East” (Qadaffi 1975, 24). At the heart of this alternative is The Green Book interpretation of direct democracy.

Advisory measures, ballot measures, and referenda are examples of forms of direct democracy in contemporary Europe and the USA. These work alongside elections and other instruments of representative democracy. In contrast, inspired partly by precolonial forms of direct democracy in Africa, “popular conferences” and “people’s committees” are the proposed vehicles of direct democracy in the third universal theory. The central critique of representative democracy is that it is driven by struggles for domination between individuals, classes, sects, tribes, or/and parties.[1]

In some detail, The Green Book’s popular conferences consist of people identifying, debating and taking decisions around social issues in their neighborhoods. “People’s committees”, in turn, are selected in neighborhoods, in rotating manner, to administer public institutions and enact decisions taken at the neighborhood base. With the failures of representative democracy, Keynesian capitalism, and state socialism becoming clear in much of post-Independence Africa, by the early 1980s, The Green Book’s direct democracy had great resonance. While Qaddafi, himself, remains a controversial and contested political figure, his theoretical formulations continue to be a useful heuristic tool for rethinking notions of democracy. In this short account of a longer study, I present how Matupi athu Moyo wathu (MaMw) is both reviving, and transforming Green Book notions of direct democracy in Africa. In a word, I argue that MaMw is enacting 21st century, African feminist direct democracy.

MaMw’s 21st century African feminist direct democracy

Rather than seizing political power at the national scale, MaMw is a movement from below. Gathering people at the village level, MaMw district hubs raise awareness around social problems, inspire discussion and debate, and nurture solutions. Combined with this is MaMw’s feminist reading and identification of what problems and solutions are key. As Lisa VeneKlassen, co-founder of Just Associates (JASS), explains the non-governmental organization that kindled the MaMw movement:

“because women typically step in to fill gaps where state action is lacking, when women’s skills and capacities are supplemented by critical thinking tools, women propose innovative solutions to societal problems that tend to be more sustainable.”[2]

The account of Phylis Kasiya, reflects the breadth and stem of MaMw’s African feminist direct democracy: emancipating the individual through building self-awareness, and offering tools of critical thinking which can lead to tackling problems of the many. Kasiya lives in Kasungu, Malawi’s sixth largest district, with a population of 842,953 spread over an area of 8,017 km².

“I joined after learning of my HIV status and I heard about MaMw’s activities. Women with MaMw were telling me about their new skills and spirit about what they can do. So that encouraged me to join. Men close to me were impressed with the changes I was making as a widow. From my looks, to building my own house, to starting to raise pigs and sending my kids to school. Men were impressed and even began learning from me… There were many challenges we took on in the district. We were not getting positions in the community. Few women were made leaders in the villages, but now we are. Now we are expert clients in hospitals, secretaries and treasurers of government’s village development committees that along with chiefs, make decisions about how to use government funds… MaMw has been involved in establishing water supply in villages. Previously women were not working on this. At first no one in the villages was demanding water. MaMw women went to the Water Board to bring water to Gundani, Chiteyeye, Casalika, Chimbuna, and Ntambarara. Earlier, the women were fearful of government and the Water Board officials.”[3]

Kasiya refers to changing her looks. This is related to the type of anti-retrovirals (ARVs) used in Malawi’s public healthcare system in the early 2000s. MaMw leader, Miriam Nsewa elaborates the problem, and the political action pursued by MaMw to solve it:

“We advocated for better ARVs. Without so much stavudine. DTG (Dolutegravir) is a much better medication… Government had ordered in bulk the cheaper meds with more “stavudine”. Even after the WHO said to change the ARVs, government was still distributing the cheaper ones. Most women lost their body shape, the face was destroyed, and the legs. So women lost their marriages due to the ARVs. As well as employment opportunities. And it increased the stigma of HIV… Government did this because they thought we were voiceless and didn’t know we have rights. And, we didn’t for some time… The campaign was not easy. But to have a woman president was useful. Initially government tried to stop the campaign, saying it would change to the better ARV treatment. But we said no, we don’t know that for sure. We pointed out that the better treatment was only being rolled out to women who were pregnant, and this was increasing the rate of pregnancy. We said we need to stop this behaviour of women. So we continued rolling out the campaign and government began the DTG rollout in July 2012. We monitored in the communities and continued pressuring because we saw everyone was not getting. Government put new limitations: only men and only people not in the reproductive stage of life… Finally in 2019 everyone was on DTG.”[1]

MaMw taking on African patriarchy

Returning to the village, MaMw hubs take on local patriarchal structures with equal fierceness and consistency. As structures that are complex, far reaching and interconnected, the nature of these patriarchal structures merit elaboration.

In Chichewa, Singini denotes the Traditional Authority layer of leadership as ‘Mfumu yayikulu’, the group village headman as ‘mfumu’, and village headman as ‘Mfumu’.[2] Similarly, Hussein and Muriaas note that ‘mfumu’, the Chichewa word for chief, is used broadly to refer to all leaders somehow connected to the traditional hierarchy.[3] The variation in case, in Singini’s denotation, combined with the accounts of other MaMw leaders, suggests that Mfumu, the village headman, can carry greater power than mfumu, group village headman, particularly in local life. Chiyeso Chisale, of the Ntcheu district hub, and Dorothy Mtuwana, of Blantyre district hub, give examples of how Mfumu, or village headmen, exercise control over widows and HIV positive women through public and other collective resources.

“There were land issues. Traditional leaders and others were taking the land we were cultivating because they knew we were HIV positive. They were saying, you are useless now.”[4]

“We also use the hub to discuss and strategise how to deal with discrimination from chiefs. Like widows and other vulnerable women being left out of fertilizer subsidies, cash transfer programs, and public works projects.”[5]

Political analyst, Linda Semu, offers an explanation for the particular nature of patriarchal power of local chiefs in post-colonial Malawi. She argues that during colonial times, the power of chiefs was diminished by British rule and the Christian church. State and church thus formed a new structure of power that largely continued after Independence. Chiefs came to concentrate on building power through culture, which often translates into controlling women. I posit that this, along with high population density, and the sheer number of chiefs, explains the range of patriarchal practices in different villages and districts.

Elizabeth Chilimampunga, of Neno district hub, demonstrates the way, in the name of tradition, HIV/AIDS has been used to create new practices that burden women and benefit several layers of chiefs.

“One of our biggest problems was a cultural practice whereby women were supposed to take a chicken to the local chief in order to be able to report an adult’s death to the Traditional Authorities and bury the body. This was a burden for women and a danger because there is a body with sickness lying dead in the house, and they have to go around looking for the chicken. It was also very dangerous for women because they were the ones washing the bodies. We decided in our hub to meet with the TAs and other different stakeholders. When we all went to speak with the four TAs in our District. They said they were receiving the chickens from chiefs but didn’t know why. We said no, the Traditional Authorities were the ones who asked for this to be done. Almost a year of talking, and after struggles, they agreed to stop the requirement.”[6]

MaMw initiative is as strong and alive in urban areas as it is in the rural hinterland.

Miriam Nsewa, of the more urban, Lilongwe district hub, describes the incremental approach taken to create discussion and change around the patriarchal practice of ‘blanket of mfumu.’ In JASS movement-building language, the hub’s approach involved linking heart and mind, and along the lines of Green Book philosophy, political mobilization from the core, outward.

“We started first by getting people in villages to reflect and identify practices and beliefs. We had JASS training on how to get people to reflect. We held discussions with women, young girls, and then men. On the blanket of mfumu, mothers would say, ‘Oh, but the chiefs need entertainment when they come to the village.’ We would reason that the chiefs must travel with their wives if they need pleasure during trips. Despite mitaloa (polygamy), the chiefs were being given virgins…  After that we went to the headmen. We mobilized NGOs, the Human Rights Commission, the Coalition of Women Living with HIV/AIDS and the National Association of People Living with HIV/AIDS. The process took about three years. We had many meetings, dialogues, in villages, with headmen, and with the ADCs (Area Development Committees) of the District Council that are responsible for taking issues to chiefs. The ADCs initially reacted negatively but we developed an argument around the question, What if it was your daughter, how would you feel? What if she got sick? How about never knowing who your father is? We tried to create empathy.”[7]

Femia Mafupa, of MaMw Thyolo district hub, illustrates the magnitude of the traditional authority structure in the political economy of Malawi; from the number of chiefs, to the nature of their power over daily village life, and how this power is buttressed by the state, via public resources. Mafupa uses the term, ‘The Master’s House’, a notion of African American feminist, Audre Lorde, which refers to the multiple floors, rooms, and furnishings of power in contemporary capitalist societies.

“I can’t know how many chiefs are in our district. There are too many. In my community there are 10 mfumu and about 3000 people. We have helped women in the community to get out of The Master’s House. To undo cultural practices of a patriarchal society. For example family decisions were taken by men only. And traditional leaders saying women can’t be part of community decision making. After JASS training we approached our chiefs and talked to them about the Master’s House. It took several dialogues, over four months, and bringing the chiefs into our projects. They started to agree that we had not been doing things right… One of our projects with chiefs was around FEDRISA, the government food aid program. The chiefs distribute coupons for 50 kg bags of maize, and they were excluding HIV positive women and other women. We challenged this and now women are not being excluded.”[8]

MaMw leader, Beatrice Munyowa elaborates on how the Chikwawa district hub initiated the collective creation of by-laws to prohibit HIV/AIDS related discrimination. The entire process, as well as education carried out around the by-laws, and the plan to review and amend the by-laws, is a concrete expression of MaMw’s building of direct democracy in Malawi.

“As MaMw we went to the Traditional Authorities who were practicing discrimination in giving vouchers, to talk to them and show them this was wrong. In some of these Traditional Authorities we brought together political parties, police,  MaMw members, community members and traditional leaders to create by-laws. They all participated in the discussion over a period of two months in Kantema, and the laws are recorded in the minutes of the meeting… We move around different villages to teach them about the by-laws. And these are time bound. In 2022, we will talk again and amend them and add to them.”[9]

In Rhumpi district, MaMw organising has begun changing economic norms. Using a national legislative amendment that had been laying dormant for some 20 years, the MaMw hub redirected patriarchal landholding practices and governance in a Traditional Authority dating back to 1805. Tiwonge Gondwe’s elaboration is detailed and comprehensive, demonstrating significant advances achieved by the hub in collective administration as well as equality within the family.

“In my community there are 38 group village headmen under the Chikulamayembe Traditional Authority (TA), covering an area of more than 4,000 hectares with a population of 12,879. More than half are female: 8,458… In our hub we have worked on land policy especially. We have put women in land governance structures. The 1972 land law that was implemented in 1984 made provision for land governance structures at traditional authority level made up of six men and six women. So in our community we put women into the 39 land governance structures of Chukulamayembe Traditional Authority… We also pushed for joint titling. In the past, a husband would take a wife as witness to register land, but her name would not be appear in the title. Now a woman and one child must appear on the paper. The same with property after the man dies. Now it must go to those living there.”[10]

Lucia Kumwenda, chairperson of sex workers of Rumphi district, and MaMw member, explains how MaMw conscientization has inspired sex workers in Rhumpi to organise. This, in turn, has changed community perceptions of sex work. Sex workers have come to be regarded as performing a service, which, in turn, has made the work safer, and more consistently remunerative.

“I joined Matupi athu Moyo wathu in watching its work and finding it useful and good. I was already a sex worker and after joining, I saw the discussions were good and took them to other sex workers. Issues of ARVs, adherence. A lot of sex workers are now taking ARVs and adhering… For sex workers a big problem has been getting paid for our work. Some were even getting abused after performing the service. Now we stand up to assure we are paid. We sat down together and decided that we would not give services before being paid by customers… We also started organizing around abuse we face. We reached out to the police who now work with us… The men/customers have seen our collective power. If they refuse to pay before, we refuse to do the work. And the next sex worker does the same. So we stand together. But the key is the knowledge of our collective power.”[11]

Expanding the frontiers of people’s authority in Malawi

Through the discussion so far, we have seen the broadened and politicised worldview of MaMw leaders and members, and how MaMw has impacted community life. The interview excerpts that follow hone-in on MaMw led accomplishments that have been visionary. I argue that these visionary accomplishments are expanding the frontiers of people’s authority in Malawi.

Cervical cancer is widespread in Africa, with 19 of the world’s top 20 incidence rates in West, East and Southern Africa. Eswatini and Malawi have the highest incidence of cervical cancer in the world.[12] Every year, 4145 women in Malawi are diagnosed with cervical cancer, and 2905 die from the disease.[13] But unlike most cancers, cervical cancer is almost 100 per cent preventable if young girls are vaccinated for HPV, and women receive quality screening and treatment for precancerous lesions. Using knowledge gained around cervical cancer, MaMw hubs throughout Malawi have mobilised to demand cervical cancer screening. Elizabeth Chilimampunga recounts how this resulted in the creation of a new testing centre in Neno district:

“We tried our best as MaMw women to reduce the deaths of women in Malawi by conducting meetings and holding trainings to encourage women to get tested for cervical cancer. The testing was once a month, but when we saw in 2016 that women were going for testing in large number, we advocated for regular testing, and it happened. In 2017 the Ligowe Health Centre was opened in Mlauli Traditional Authority in Neno district.”[14]

Based on official data sources, a health systems study found that between 2011 and 2015, the number of cervical cancer screening sites in Malawi increased from 75 to 130, and the number of women screened rose from 15,331 to 49,301.[15] Though health systems studies tend to overlook or obscure it, without work like that of MaMw hubs in Neno, and other districts, such increases would not be possible. The MaMw work of consientising women and girls, and demanding more screening is an instance of the democratization of health in Malawi. 

Ellen Mhone’s account of Nkhata Bay district hub is an example of how MaMw redirects public programs from vehicles of patronage, to socially productive use. This is visionary in the Malawian context where, as exemplified in several accounts above, decentralized public resources are distributed on the basis of rules created by chiefs.

“There are 30 Traditional Authorities and six to eight Group Village Headmen per TA in our District. Three years back, through the Public Works project of government, chiefs were giving money to young women and men without expecting work in return. We intervened and said no, younger people should work if they are capable. They should be taught to work the fields and not to expect money for nothing in return. Now they are working the fields.”[16]

By far the most widely shared MaMw vision is expanding the reach of the hubs. Gondwe (Rumphi) and Mhone (Nhkata Bay) stress the yet to be fulfilled potential of MaMw hubs if they were able to deepen organising in villages.

“Now, during Corona, community level people could use direct funding and resources, rather than having to wait for national level funding and information.”[17]

Despite the paucity of resources, MaMw hubs continue to emerge and survive in the rural areas.

“Much has been done at the national and regional levels of MaMw, but not enough at the village level. Trainings, awareness raising with grassroots women — whether HIV positive or not. Because of transport and other shortages, we are not doing enough of this.”[18]

On the question of resources, importantly, while most MaMw leaders interviewed cited lack of resources as a challenge facing the hubs, none raised individual or hub remuneration as a goal. This suggests a sophisticated, collectivist, participatory vision of direct democracy, and the role of MaMw hubs within it.

Grace Kamanga’s account, of Nkhata Bay district, exemplifies MaMw hub ability to map place-specific needs, an important aspect of people’s committee work. The challenge of patriarchy is, again, pronounced: Nkhata Bay is a relatively small district of 285,795 people living in 4,182 km², but with 14 Traditional Authorities and more than 700 group village headmen and village headmen. Both the vision and the challenge, as seen above with cervical cancer prevention, speak to MaMw’s role in democratizing health.

“It took about six months to build our hub. Now we are 39 members. Nkhata Bay is a small district but with 14 traditional authorities, each with more than 50 chiefs. So many chiefs. But not all support MaMw… We have reached up to a certain point in organising but want to reach three more major areas. We want to go as far as Dikoma, which is an island, and Kavusi Estate, which is a tea estate. Many people come to Kavusi Estate from all over Malawi for jobs. People there need information about health, because their living conditions are not good, and they are not there with their families. Sexual relations are free and that means high risk for HIV to spread… Tukombo is the other area we want to reach. It is lakeside, and people go there to buy fish. There is much traffic and high HIV risk. People from as far as Lilongwe and even South Africa travel there to buy fish.”[19]

Collective love

In closing, a final quote from MaMw leader, Ellen Chikadza, that reflects the larger love underlying MaMw’s practice of direct democracy. In this world historical moment of intensified wealth polarization, including within Malawi, and Africa as a whole, MaMw offers hints on how to reconstruct a world built and crumbling from taking.[20]

“Defaulters who are in faraway places are an unsolved problem in Balaka hub. Transport and food become a problem for the expert clients. Bicycles would be a great help… Once a woman from Tiesamara had defaulted and even the family had given up on her. MaMw managed to reach her. We can walk for many hours to reach people. I don’t know the exact distance but sometimes the round trip is from six in the morning to one in the afternoon. Sometimes from six in the morning to four or six in the evening. When the family members can help with money we rent a bicycle from a shop for the ill person to sit on. Then we push the bike to the clinic. If there is no money for a bicycle, we travel together, with family members and others we can gather, taking turns carrying the defaulter to the clinic.”[21]

Salimah Valiani is a Research Associate with the Center for the Advancement of Scholarship, University of Pretoria.

[1] Interview with author, June 7, 2020, Chichewa to English interpretation by Sibongile Singini.

[2] Email correspondence to author, July 9, 2020.

[3] Mustafa Hussein and Ragnhild Muriaas. 2007, Chapter 8. Traditional Leaders in Malawi, in Government and Politics in Malawi, edited by Nandini Patel and Lars Svasand, Zomba, Centre for Social Research and Chr. Micehlsen Institute, 2007, p. 155.

[4] Interview with author, July 1, 2020. Chichewa to English interpretation by Sibongile Singini.

[5] Interview with author, June 16, 2020. Chichewa to English interpretation by Sibongile Singini.

[6] Interview with author, June 7, 2020, Chichewa to English interpretation by Sibongile Singini.

[7] Interview with author, June 7, 2020, Chichewa to English interpretation by Sibongile Singini.

[8] Interview with author, May 29, 2020, Chichewa to English interpretation by Sibongile Singini.

[9] Interview with author, July 1, 2020, Chichewa to English interpretation by Sibongile Singini.

[10] Interview with author, June 6, 2020; Chichewa to English interpretation by Sibongile Singini.

[11] Interview with author, July 1, 2020, Chichewa to English interpretation by Sibongile Singini.

[12] World Health Organisation Regional Office for Africa, “Health Topics – Cervical Cancer,” 2020,, retrieved December 3, 2021.

[13] HPV Centre, “Malawi Human Papillomavirus and Related Cancers,” Fact Sheet 2021, Barcelona, ICO/IARC Information Centre on HPV and Cancer, 2021,, retrieved December 7, 2021.

[14] Interview with author, June 7, 2020, Chichewa to English interpretation by Sibongile Singini.

[15] Kelias Msyamboza, Twambilire Phiri, Wesley Sichali, Willy Kwenda, Fanny Kachale,“Cervical cancer screening uptake and challenges in Malawi from 2011 to 2015: retrospective cohort study, BMC Health, v. 16, n. 1, August 17 2016, p. 806,, retrieved May 5 2023.

[16] Interview with author, May 29, 2020, Chichewa to English interpretation by Sibongile Singini.

[17] Interview with author, June 6, 2020, Chichewa to English interpretation by Sibongile Singini.

[18] Interview with author, May 29, 2020. Chichewa to English interpretation by Sibongile Singini.

[19] Interview with author, June 27, 2020, Chichewa to English interpretation by Sibongile Singini.

[20] ‘a world built and crumbling from taking’ is taken from the poem, ‘On love xxx’, Salimah Valiani, Love Pandemic, p. 1, Daraja Press, 2022

[21] Interview with author, July 1, 2020, Chichewa to English interpretation by Sibongile Singini.

[1] Muammar al-Qadaffi , The Green Book, 1975, p. 7.

[2] Lisa Veneklassen, Making Change Happen 4: Power-Movements-Change: Malawi, Just Associates, Washington DC, 2013,  p. 4.

[3] Interview with author, July 1, 2020, Chichewa to English interpretation by Sibongile Singini.

Discuss these articles on our forum

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top