Accepted Paper:

Doing it "the village way": determining paternity in Malawian magistrates' courts  

Author:

Jessica Johnson (University of Birmingham)

Paper short abstract:

This paper focuses on legal facts and ethnographic facts in the context of a paternity dispute observed in a Malawian Magistrate’s Court in 2015, examining the different valuations of doubt and certainty by the Magistrate and the anthropologist in light of their contrasting aims.

Paper long abstract:

'We've done it the village way. There are two ways of doing it, at hospital and as we have done it here…My ruling is that the child is yours'. Thus, a Magistrate informed a young man in rural Malawi that the 1-month old child he insisted he had not fathered was in fact his, and that he would be expected to support it financially until it reached adulthood. With DNA testing ruled out on cost grounds, the Magistrate had made his decision on the basis of what he called 'traditional' evidence. One by one, he had called three unrelated women, all of them mothers, into his office, explaining to each of them that two of the men in the room - the defendant, and the child's maternal uncle - were claiming paternity. The women were asked to look carefully at the child and then to decide who they thought was the father. As far as the Magistrate was concerned, the evidence was overwhelming. Others present that day in September 2015 were less convinced. In declaring paternity, the Magistrate's interests couldn't have been more different from the anthropologist's. For him, apparent consensus enabled the declaration of legal fact: the man was the father. For the anthropologist, differing perspectives on what had occurred were essential to the construction of the ethnographic fact of contestation. This paper will consider how our different interests produced contrasting assessments of what 'counted' as evidence and what that 'evidence' ought to achieve.

Panel P063
Evidence in question: anthropological authority and legal judgment [Anthropology of Law and Rights]