Homage to Peasant Small Holders

Review by John Wilson

HOMAGE TO PEASANT SMALLHOLDERS: Land and People of the Shire Highlands, Malawi

Brian Morris 
Luviri Press, Malawi

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This book brings together all the various studies conducted by the author, whose close relationship and empathy with peasant smallholders, facilitated by his fluent Chichewa, fundamental to this relationship, gave him a comprehensive knowledge and deep insight into the cultural and economic aspects of their lives. This was compounded by his extremely strong interest in the flora and fauna, which led to his initial contacts with the local people, notably the hunters of small mammals and the gatherers of edible fungi and medicinal plants, while he worked on tea estates in Thyolo and Mulanje.     

The book consists of 11 chapters and a comprehensive Preface and Introduction. Each chapter is preceded by a prologue, setting out the contents of that chapter, and concluded with a brief conclusion. This format greatly enhances its clarity. The liberal insertion of the Chichewa terms in the text gives it an authentic Malawian aspect.    

Chapter 3 Patterns of Social Life sets out the various social systems that together provide the framework for everyday life among the peasant smallholders of the Shire Highlands, which is fundamental to this study. The dominance of matrilineal kinship is highlighted.  

No less than 6 chapters are devoted to agriculture and the author dispels the belief that peasant smallholder farming is inefficient and primitive, and shows a lack of capacity to innovate and adopt new ideas, and makes a strong case against the promotion of industrial agriculture. The issue of land tenure, specifically relating to customary land, is also comprehensively explored.

The chapter on Brachstegia woodland, which formerly covered large parts of the Shire Highlands, and indeed much of Central Africa, is particularly illuminating, including the adaptation to the prolonged dry season, fire and poor soils, and how this has contributed to the vital resources this woodland provides to the peasant smallholders, including hardwood timber, firewood, fibre, herbal medicines, wild fruits, edible fungi and insects, thatching grass and wild herbs.  

In 1958 when the author first arrived in Malawi, the population was 3.5 million. 40 years later, in 2009 it had increased fourfold to 14.3 million. This period thus saw the drastic reduction in peasant household land holdings, but also the almost complete deforestation of the Brachstegia woodland.  The creative response of the peasant smallholders to this widespread deforestation is especially interesting, and the author’s personal research into household trees is noteworthy.

The author’s knowledge and experience of Malawi, and especially the southern region, spans 50 years from 1958 to 2009, and covers the colonial period, the thirty years of the Kamuzu Banda era up to 1994, and the “multi-party” free for all that followed it. The impact of the different government and donor policies, especially on the peasant smallholders is extensively reviewed. The influence of the World Bank, and especially its “Structural Adjustment Programme”, and the government and donor attitudes to the fertilizer subsidy programmes, crucial to the productivity of the land, is salutary.     

The author’s knowledge was supplemented by interaction with a multitude of people as illustrated by the bibliography which contains a staggering 456 references, including 27 publications by the author himself, 15 of which are books, all of which is a measure of his scholarship and the depth of his investigation.

As a scientist, I’m afraid I was slightly irritated by the treatment of the scientific names, in which contrary to convention were not in italics, and the species name was headed by a capital letter. There were also a number of minor errors in these names. Having said that, it was very useful including the scientific names, as well as the vernacular names. The illustrations by the author, mainly of the peasant smallholders with whom the author had such a close relationship, enhance the presentation, and perhaps one would have wished for more photos, and in a slightly larger format.    

Although the focus of this very comprehensive book is on the Shire Highlands in southern Malawi, much of what it covers applies equally to the rest of Malawi, and indeed much of Africa.

I believe this book should be required reading everyone involved in rural development in Malawi, both in the Public Service and Non-Governmental Organisations, and with the donor agencies, especially expatriates but also Malawians, and particularly those involved with the agriculture sector.

Finally it is recommended to read the companion volume, An Environmental History of Southern Malawi. Land and People of the Shire Highlands 2016, and perhaps also some of the author’s other books of which I particularly recommend his personal memoirs, “I Yam What I Am. The Life and Adventures of a Reluctant Anthropologist”, a copy of which is lodged in the Society of Malawi library.    


This review was first published in the Society of Malawi Journal.

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