2013 Silvia Neagu 100x150By Silvia Neagu

Muli Bwanji ! Greetings from Malawi!

I’ve been in Malawi for over a month now.  My host organization, the equality effect, is a Toronto-based organization which uses the law to enforce the rights of African women and girls. The organization is starting a new project in Malawi, focusing on the legal treatment of defilement, the legal term for rape of girl children. The organization sent a University of Toronto intern and I to the University of Malawi in Zomba for the first half of our internship.  Zomba was previously the capital city under Malawi’s first president, but is now best described as simply a “big village”.  It is now surpassed in size and importance by the capital, Lilongwe, and the business capital, Blantyre. The town is overlooked by the mountainous area of the Zomba plateau, which makes the town breathtakingly beautiful.

Background on Malawi

In case you do not know much about Malawi, here are some quick facts about “the warm heart of Africa”: the landlocked country sits at the crossroads between East Africa and Southern Africa and was formerly a British protectorate called “Nyasaland.” The country became independent in 1964, and elected its first president, Hastings Banda, whose dictatorial “one-party” reign endured until 1994. Malawi is one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world.  As one of the professors we met observed, “this country is run by development agencies.”

65% of Malawi’s population lives on less than 1$ a day. To put things in perspective, the head waiter at my hostel told me it took him 5 years to find his current job after being let go from a job at a bank.  The prevalence of HIV in Malawi is among the world’s highest ; 11% of the population currently lives with HIV. Malawi’s population is also very young ; 58.8% of the population is 19 and under.[1]

Working at “Chanco” during a sit-in

Our supervisor, Professor Ngeyi Kanyongolo, a legal expert in women’s rights  in Malawi, wanted us to come to Chancellor College (“Chanco”) in order to interact with students and attend some classes. Unfortunately, for the first three weeks of our stay the students were on “sit-in” (strike).  The university was pretty deserted, although we were lucky to meet some of Dr. Kanyongolo’s research assistants, who were extremely helpful in introducing us to the university and Zomba. As we soon discovered, it is not uncommon for students’ academic year to be disrupted in Malawi. When we asked students when their academic year usually begins and ends, they gave us varying dates and said it depended on the dates announced by the government.

The accounts we were given of the “sit in” were, perhaps, a good introduction to the situation of political rights in Malawi, particularly when financial aspects are at play. The students were demanding higher allowances from the government. When the sit-in was announced, the government decided to close the school, giving students only 8 hours to vacate the university (including those living in the university residences). After several weeks, the government gave the students the “choice” of returning to school if they signed a form stating that they “agreed” to the previous conditions. As any student in the world can imagine, being given the “choice” to finish a degree that you’ve almost completed is not much of a choice at all.

We were also informed that the university professors also recently protested, demanding academic freedom, after a professor’s comments in class led to him being summoned by the Inspector General for questioning. The professor had compared the precursor events of the “Arab Spring” to the fuel shortage in Malawi at the time, during a political science class. So, one of my first lessons at Chanco was that when a university is entirely government sponsored, students’ education is easily disrupted, and professors’ ability to speak their minds can be extremely fragile.

Entrance to Chanco
Banner proclaiming Academic Freedom at the entrance to Chanco

Adventures in legal research in Malawi

Doing legal research in Malawi definitely falls under the category of “Things they never teach you in law school.” Firstly, power outages can happen at any time of day and their frequency and duration are completely random. During our first week in Zomba we experienced power outages nearly every day (sometimes for almost the entire day).  In the past couple of weeks, we have been lucky to only have one or two a week. I have learned to ensure that my computer is well-charged.

Secondly, the availability and reliability of internet imposes another challenge. We are lucky that the law faculty has wifi (restricted to staff use only), but it is often slow and does not work during a power outage. We also bought “dongles” – portable internet modems- but these also often had signal problems and limit the amount of downloading/uploading you can do. Therefore, we often save our downloading and uploading for the days when the university wifi is functioning well.

Thirdly, Malawian jurisprudence is extremely hard to locate. While there is a “MalawiLii”, it currently has very few cases. There is no search engine that allows you to search for the leading cases on specific topics. Students tell us that they rely on their course reading lists and photocopies of cases passed down from upper-years to learn the main cases in a specific area of the law. My co-intern and I therefore have been relying on secondary sources to point us to some of the leading cases. We are also lucky that Edge Kanyongolo, the Malawian constitutional expert, had an office steps from us and was helpful in pointing us in the right direction.  Another challenge is that, once we do locate a case, the judge’s reasoning is often very fact-specific and lacks in critical analysis of the rights at play. This makes it difficult to anticipate how a court would interpret a right in a novel factual context.

Lastly, a large number of cases in Malawi are unreported, leaving the current realities of the Malawi justice system largely outside our reach.  For instance, all defilement cases are decided at the magistrate court level (lowest level of courts), where cases are not reported. Because the Department of Public Prosecutions essentially never appeals decisions from the magistrate courts, many acquittals are not only inaccessible to legal researchers like us, but are also shielded from revision by other courts.

University greens
View from the law faculty at the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College


[1] “Malawi Demographic and Health Study, 2010”, Malawi National Statistics Office, 2011.