My Review of the book “Human Rights and African Airwaves” by Harri Englund

Harri Englund. 2011. Human Rights and African Airwaves: mediating equality on the Chichewa radio. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Building on several years of anthropological fieldwork in Malawi, Harri Englund offers the reader a detailed account of the narratives and the editorial mechanisms of a popular radio program in Chichewa, the lingua franca of Malawi, reporting on local stories from all parts of the country. Anybody can submit a story, and the ones selected are then skilfully crafted for aesthetic efficacy and popular appeal by senior editors. The stories and the processes of producing and broadcasting them provide unusually profound insights into the everyday life of people in Malawi. The imagination of Malawians comes to the fore, with their views of morality and proper behaviour. More often than not, the stories are a commentary about poverty and inequality, but from a perspective that differs from the official human rights and pro-democracy discourses of NGOs and politicians. The narratives primarily features figures of authority – like village headmen and headteachers, among others – and their failures in fulfilling their obligations towards the people they have power over. Condemnation of inappropriate behaviour then becomes an equalising tool of the poor to make sure that people in power fulfil their obligations towards them.

Englund cogently notes the radical differences between local views of personhood, morality and obligation, and the official discourse of human rights imposed by the national educated elites and the international organisations. The author also contests the idea that equality belongs necessarily to the realm of universal discourses of human rights, a domain in which local people have often little or no voice. Hierarchical and unequal relationships of the kind Malawians engage with in their everyday life are always posited on equality as a condition of all social relationships. Englund opposes this view of equality emerging from the voices of the Malawian poor to the business of equality as a utopia to be championed by the vanguard of the ‘enlightened’ national and international elites.

This is an essential reading for anybody interested in contemporary African politics and anthropology, African views of politics and morality, and the controversial local and international practices and discourses surrounding increasingly contested terms like ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’. Its highly detailed, accurate and engaging empirical descriptions of local realities are coupled by a theoretical argumentation that reaches well beyond the specific case of a Malawian radio program. Englund’s book is an example of contemporary anthropology at its best.

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