SPECIAL REPORT: CULTURE, FOLKLORE & WILDLIFE IN MALAWI

As part of our work to tailor our messaging for our conservation education and advocacy campaigns, Eddie Royle has produced a report on cultural attitudes and beliefs towards wildlife in Malawi.  Read Eddie’s full report here and his article below.  Thanks Eddie for all the hard work!

culture_eddie_ele50 % of the world’s species has been lost in the last 40 years and Malawi has not been spared these devastating losses. The black market bushmeat trade has significantly impacted Malawi’s mammal populations such as duiker and bushbuck, and over half of the country’s elephants have been lost since the 1980s. Malawi also has the 5th highest deforestation rate in the world and has recently been named a ‘country of primary concern’ for its role as a major transit hub in the illegal ivory trade published by TRAFFIC and ETIS. Now more than ever, there is a desperate need for new and different conservation approaches.

Conservation is a modern problem. In tackling today’s conservation issues, new work needs to be done towards understanding Malawian cultural and traditional views towards wildlife. Representations and cultural attitudes towards the natural world has proved fundamental in the treatment of real embodied animals and plants. Many types of flora and fauna appear throughout Malawian customs and storytelling. Through a cultural lens one can gain more insight into the ways in which Malawians encounter, react and portray neighbouring animals. Working alongside folklore and traditional views opens up a new dynamic in helping to reshape and support a better sustainable conservation ethic in Malawi.

Conservation does not into the traditional and cultural methods of storytelling in Malawi. The issue lies in addressing the problems of today in old traditional forms (Folklore, mythology, art, dance, song, etc). Most animals in modern day societies are represented as primarily symbolic. Graham Huggan suggests that animals are given an “exclusively human significance, a whole repertoire of metaphoric associations”. In agricultural Malawi, the hoe-cultivator lifestyle is highly depended upon and the worry of rain and the threat of wild animals destroying crops or ravaging farm herds is a constant cause of concern. Due to this threat, Malawians often express a general attitude of opposition towards animals, viewing them as chirombo, hostile and harmful creatures.

Malawian representations and understandings of wildlife is often focused on its value as a resource for human use or consumption. There is difficulty in separating the portrayal of wildlife as a commodity. The very terminology of the Malawian Chewa language presents harmful connotations. For example, nyama stands for either the animal or meat. The definition can be read in terms of the animal and for its representation as a resource.

Claude Boucher (head of Malawian cultural village, Mua Mission) stresses the Malawian concern towards social change. In reading Boucher’s descriptions, the force of the ancestral and traditionalist messages to younger generations may be paraphrased to “if it was good enough for us, so too for you”. Few cultural representations advocate change from accepted long-term or traditional practice. Generally the adoption of practices is seen as reckless and threatening to the status quo of a healthy village, or so ancestors believe. Boucher goes as far to state that “innovation is threatening”. Thus Malawian cultural understandings and traditional perspectives present a barrier to conservation approaches.

Mythology and arts however, can preach for and against conservation issues. In Malawian culture, wild animals are used as theriomorphic structures to play a key role along with masked dancers in a “great dance” – the Gule Wamkulu. At Mua Mission new characters are being added to advocate for change and wildlife conservation. The Chameleon was added last year to tell the story of creation to the Chewa and carried a message from god to plant trees. In addition, a baobab tree has been added to portray the sad loss of wildlife.

Storytelling has also become an important part of Lilongwe Wildlife Trust’s conservation education programme, which engages over 45,000 learners around protected areas and city schools each year.  Drama, poetry and singing has become an important tool for bringing wildlife issues to life.  

With new hopeful adaptations to art, dance, and folklore in Malawi, new priorities can be placed on changing perspectives and values towards wildlife conservation. Wildlife is part of Malawi’s natural heritage, and its conservation should not be based on treating it as a resource or a commodity but rather by enabling and supporting new ecological representations and conservation ethics. By working with cultural and traditional forms, wildlife conservation can begin to break down wildlife representations as “resources” and further enhance the idea that nature has an intrinsic and moral value.

Read the full report here