Accepted paper:

Anomalous children: the problems faced by children falling between two contrasting social constructions of belonging


Elaine Donovan (Massey University)

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores how, in Malawi, children of matrilineal fathers and patrilineal mothers are rendered vulnerable following their father’s death due to falling between two contrasting social constructions of belongingness. The discussion examines moral sentiments and the effects of colonialism.

Paper long abstract:

The majority of Malawi's population is traditionally matrilineal and accordingly trace genealogy through the maternal line. However, in the northern region and the southernmost district, patrilineal groups, who trace genealogy through the paternal line, prevail. Thus, there are two contrasting social constructions of children's belongingness. In matrilineal groups, children belong to their mother's clan. Conversely, in patrilineal communities, children are affiliated to the husband's clan providing the lobola (bridewealth) requirements have been fulfilled. These contrasting customs endure despite the Malawian 1994 constitution determining equal rights for spouses in relation to child custody. Based on recent ethnographic fieldwork, this paper explores cases in which children of patrilineal mothers and matrilineal fathers are rendered particularly vulnerable to abuse and neglect following their father's death, due to falling between the two contrasting genealogical discourses. The fathers' matrilineal clans claim entitlement to the children, based on the lobola payment having been paid, and remove them from their mothers. Curiously, they use a patrilineal social construction of belongingness to assert the children belong to their matrilineal clan. However, they do so, not in terms of the moral norms of kinship bonds characterised by bi-directional belonging (belonging to each other) but more in terms of unidirectional belonging (transactional belonging) as in property. This situation is discussed in relation to ideas of moral sentiment and how, during the colonial era, the patrilineal custom of lobola became an official and enforceable means of determining to whom children belonged, particularly in relation to inter-tribal marriages.

panel P66
Community, belonging and moral sentiment: is to belong to be a moral person?