Analyzing and Deconstructing Malawian Masculinities — Part 1: The General Distinction of Formal and Informal Masculinities in Malawi (Lessons from South Eastern Malawi)

I do not wish to challenge the general idea that there are multiple forms of masculinity in Malawi, and multiple genders generally. I have argued in other pieces that postcolonial officialdom is the space within which Heternormativity finds its expression, and that non-heteronormative gender exists outside the postcolonial parameter of officialdom as a form of postcolonial disavowal and resistance by Malawian Africans.

When it comes to masculinity, following a brief excursion of mine into the South-Eastern Region of Malawi during the month of November 2018, I think that another line divides and designates two major forms of masculinity to construct not just two general types of Manness but also the logic of either one as well as the nature and character of its respective gender order and gender hierarchy.

Men, in Malawi today, in my view, generally fall into two broad political economic distinctions: one, is the formal economy where largely formally acquired skills are rendered by men in exchange for formal wages or salaries, which are spent on items, goods and services which are hard and fast defined by and in terms of contemporary statist officialdom. Two, is the informal sector, which is characterized by irregular, that is “by mouth contracts”, customary or orally transmitted arrangements, informal work, and barter in the widest application of the term (encompassing all forms of exchanges facilitated by money, items, domestic animals, cultural capital, social obligations, labor and so on). Functionally, from the state perspective, the informal sector entails all that the state cannot administratively see — that is, all that a state has not yet been able to or is unable to regularize for its own administrative purposes and functions.

Masculinity as designated under the formal political economy is a masculinity of consumerism, steeped in an ego whose fortification is founded on a sustained, ever-expanding consumerist ableism: the ability to spend money, and to command a variety of resources (male, female, and non-human resources) through the depth of one’s pockets. This masculinity, and its resultant hierarchy, obtains from the ability to remain relatively autonomous of economic and even political currents — to stay above downward movements of the Kwacha, or Electricity blackouts, or high petrol and diesel prices, or high school fees, or poor public transport, or dilapidated health systems, and so on. Thus an archetypal male, the alpha masculine, in the formal sector is the man who exudes an imperviousness to formal circumstances, and an indefatigable capacity to channel largesse to other smaller men, giving them access to potential sources for their own sustenance. This is the masculinity of the hierarchical and appositional relationships between and among men, which lead upwards to “the Big Men” or the “Big Man” who has the greatest access to resources, runs the economy and commands the formal polity. This isn’t just a masculinity anchored on certain temperamental and attitudinal dispositions to women (who also are similarly disaggregated into formal and informal spaces) — but a masculinity which presides as the source of societal sustenance, and also as, through its series and networks of relationships, the primary conduit for the supplying of such largesse to a configuration of beneficiaries. The materialism (or consumerism) which undergirds it is primary, so that the systems which are built by the series and networks of relationships between and among men from the Big Men at the top to the Small Boys at the bottom, are secondary — this is because the status of the formal archetypal masculine depends on the sustenance doled out to the subservient ones, where subservience is maintained by the archetypes continued ability to channel sustenance downwards while receiving status embuing deference upwards.

It is within these systems that the pernicious effects of economic, political, cultural, emotional, sexual and all other forms of violence are propagated in the service of the Big Men (or Man) at the top. This means that formal masculinity at its purest — which is at the top — is not a masculinity of the actual physical body of men (of penis sizes, sexual prowess, physical strength, and other body related vulgarity). Rather, it is a masculinity of unrivalled access to all human and non-human resources through an incontestable consumerist ableism in a general environment of lack: in relation to women, it commodifies them into its things so that — violence or no violence — it is this thingification of women which is the ultimate marker of pure masculinity (that is the pure consumerist ableism required to thingify women).

Masculinity under the informal designation is a masculinity of relative differences within informal spaces, marked by direct, largely horizontal-cum-diagonal relationships between and among men aided and assisted by relative accesses to customary, traditional, social and other “non-formal” forms of capital including the capital of ones own male body. Unable to participate in the consumerist world of the formally masculine, the informally masculine traces their being a man or a male back to a gender ontological argument that the actual flesh that constitutes a man is in relation to the world around them, different from the flesh that constitutes a woman. The male flesh is defined by an oppositional and prime-agential orientation to the world, meaning — the notion that the male body is primarily built to interface and engage with the world on naturally ordained terms than the woman’s body. To go further, it is also the idea that women intervene or act in the world “artificially” because of some fundamental discrepancy between women’s agency and the world as a realm in which people act. In another iteration: it is a notion that strongly suggests that women are akin to other things which are of the world, things which constitute it, and thus things that men might act or exert their wills upon.

(An important distinction must be made here: formal masculinity more readily flows into informal spaces because it is steeped in officialdom — akin to the officialdom of the colony — and is constituted by different aspects of informality as well such as ethnic backgrounds, spiritual and religious systems, customs and traditions, folklore and so on. Informal masculinity has limited influence in the formal sector because it does not possess its currency — official money and the ability to dole out sustenance in the formal domain. Thus, men from the informal sector become the body extensions of formal sector men when they are hired to carry out physically exerting tasks such as building, garden-keeping, digging, and so on. Keep in mind: formal sector masculinity is fundamentally a masculinity of “orders” and “commands” backed by money and beneficiary networks.)

While in the South-Eastern Region of Malawi, during Focus Goup Discussions with men from different ethnic backgrounds including spiritual and religious systems, men repeatedly made references to their physical ability, even in the depths of their poverty, to dig graves on hard soil, to brave the elements out on Lake Malawi on fishing trips, to mold and stack bricks into kilns, to be polygamous without “revealing any sexual fatigue to their many partners”, to walk long distances, to use their voices to silence opponents against their communities and families, and so on. They also sidestepped the obvious differences between their individual understandings about what it meant to be a man from their diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds by rallying around these commonalities of the male body: that is to say, men recognized each other as men based on the abilities of their bodies — in strength, in lasciviousness, in voice, in exertion, in endurance, in versatility — in body-politic agency. Additionally, to be a man was to be able to express some aspect of this “body-politic” within ones circumstances — that is, to leverage some aspect of their body within the informal setting pursuant of some goal which would benefit him and his immediate dependants. Thus men with the most forms of body-politic leverages were also the most manly of all because their bodies were the most versatile or the most able. Examples were given of men who could build dug-out canoes or boats, go out on the lake to fish, sell the fish themselves, and then use the money to buy iron-sheets for the roofs of the houses they were building by themselves. Men who could fix bicycles, cut hair, till the land and walk long distances. (Obviously there is a serious blindness to the lives and realities of women and girls whose versatility is not only at least as comparable, but which is undervalued: the tremendous work in the home and community undertaken by women and borne on their bodies is clad in an invisibility engendered by the devaluation of their work — this goes back to the prime-agential observation I have made above: an epistemology of work which ordains men’s work as inherently central and foundational to all work, and that of women as peripheral, optional, supplemental or secondary.)

However, as gender relations gradually change in the South-Eastern region as in other regions of Malawi due to government, international organization, civil society and NGO efforts, including and most importantly the efforts of women themselves to especially attain cultural, economic and political equality and equity, men have attempted to preserve their masculine identities by emphasizing even more this body-politic aspect of masculinity. During a Focus Group Discussion with 8 male interlocutors, about 4 brought up direct references to the male body having just commended the greater access of women to paid, formal work. (Notice here that shifts in gender relations towards equality entail both the quantifiable numbers of women getting plugged into formal vocations especially via the non-governmental sector, and the qualitative effects such reaching-across the informal-formal divide brings to the relationships between men and women, plus men with men. So that femininity in the informal sector as a kind of fleshly distinction also increasingly entails a very specialized form of access to two realities of masculinity, at least from the point of view of the informally masculine. It is not quite the femininity of the formal — a distinction I will try to describe in a subsequent piece — but it derives a certain prominence and independence from the informal masculinity via different forms of affirmations emanating from officialdom.) One man spoke of gravedigging during funerals, saying, — I paraphrase — that he would appreciate it if women would leave gravedigging to men because it was the last thing of no real gender consequence to the community which reminded him and his friends of their being men. Another mentioned the sleeping arrangements at funerals when the body of a deceased was lying in the home awaiting burial the next day. Men sleep outside, while women sleep inside the home or around it together with the body. All the men at the table, having heard this example, insisted that things remain the same — that women remained indoors and that men stayed outside. The argument: “let our bodies brave the elements, the rain, the cold or the heat” since their bodies were meant for that.

So while in the formal setting, masculinity is increasingly disembodied into the phantom of money, transactions and consumerism, in the informal sector masculinity concretizes itself into an ideology about the essences of male and female flesh.

In the next piece, I will fill-out the gaps in greater detail left unattended by this opening adumbration.

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Part 2 Coming Shortly

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Moses Mphatso

Moses Mphatso

Closed-minded, Monocular, Tedious Company & Staggeringly Boring