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Love and marriage in modern Malawi

By Philippa Croome

There’s a running joke in my newsroom that our resident arts reporter denies being married.

Like a lot of 28-year-olds, Sam Banda Jr. wasn’t ready to get married when his girlfriend moved in a year and a half ago. But she had lost both her parents, and it was only natural for him to take her in.

“The love was there but it was more to do with desperation,” he says.

Today, my colleagues at The Daily Times in Malawi say as far as they’re concerned, the two are married. No certificate, no ceremony, rather, a culturally recognized fact. Blantyre lawyer and chair of the Malawi Law Society, John Gift Makhwawa, says marriage by reputation is in place to “protect the middle class who are no longer tied to those traditional beliefs. “Society’s changing,” he adds. “Marriage now is more or less diluted.”

Malawi’s clash of old and new is everywhere: paved streets are found not far from fields of maize, long hemlines become miniskirts in night-time dens of iniquity. Cities are cast between traditional expectations and modern development. Relationships are very much caught in this pull, as Malawians’ views of marriage continue to evolve alongside the country’s national identity.

The urban population is the underwhelming minority here, with only 15 per cent of Malawians living in cities. And while courts must still factor in the intent of both parties should a dispute be brought before them, evolving views on relationships, divorce and cohabitation are still swayed by popular opinion, according to Makhwawa.

Views on divorce are evolving too. Malawi’s rates are high—in fact, it has one of the highest rates in Africa, according to the Population Studies Center. It estimates the rate at 40 to 65 per cent, a number comparable to developed world rates: 2003 Stats Canada numbers show that 40 per cent of couples in Canada will divorce before their 30th wedding anniversary.

And yet most Malawians still have close ties to traditional marriage customs. Banda says he withheld from telling his relatives about his live-in partner because he knew they did not approve of co-habitation before marriage. His surviving family, Christians from the Northern region, are used to wives being lined up for their sons, in line with the region’s patrilineal tradition.

Once he did tell them, pressure from Banda’s side of the family saw his girlfriend return to her relatives. A short while later, they brought her back.

“They thought I was chasing her away,” he says. “I was torn between two worlds…do I have to convince my relatives or hers?”

Makhwawa says “the illiterate in the village” would never be in these situations in the first place—parents or relatives would immediately be consulted when it comes to getting serious about a girl.

Both statutory (licensed) and customary (traditional) marriages are recognized under Malawi’s Marriage Act. Marriage by repute fits somewhere in between.

“You don’t have to examine a register of marriages to establish whether people are married, you allow basic assumptions from their conduct,” says Makhwawa.

Though Banda doesn’t consider himself a married man, it’s essentially been decided for him. Last month, Banda and his girlfriend had a baby, and as soon as he can afford it, they will be married under statutory law.

“To some effect I’ve been forced into marriage earlier than I thought,” he says.

“But I hope we’ll do the actual marriage thing, because that’s the right thing to do.”

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Africa Without Maps

  • There's so much more to Africa than predictable headlines about war, famine and AIDS. From Ghanaian beauty pageants to music in Malawi, Africa Without Maps provides a rare glimpse of life in Africa from Journalists for Human Rights interns on the ground.

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