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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: November 2017

6 - Seeing Like a Village: Headmen as Agents of the Global AIDS Intervention


Officials from our district hospital came to the villages to talk with the people without involving chiefs but that was not fruitful at all. People trust chiefs a lot.

Headman Interview #157, Mchinji District, July 20, 2009

A chief is just like a doctor. He can keep secrets and I see no reason why he should not know the [HIV] test results of his people. It is important because the villagers turn to the chief for all their problems … The village headman will always be there for his people.

Headman Interview #159, Balaka District, August 26, 2009

While the previous chapter documented the perspectives and priorities of international donors and ordinary citizens, this chapter shifts perspective to detail what a headman sees as he faces the AIDS epidemic in his village. This chapter's primary goal is to describe local agents, their priorities, and the context constraining their decision-making. Local agents implementing HIV/AIDS interventions in Malawi and elsewhere in Africa include community health workers, local religious leaders and congregations, and community-based organizations, but these have already been well-studied in the scholarship on AIDS.

I highlight less well-studied agents – Malawian headmen – because as elsewhere in Africa, most of Malawi's population (80%) live in rural areas, where chieftaincy remains important in provision of goods and services. In Malawi, no local development happens without the assent and participation of village headmen, and this chapter thus contributes to our understanding of their role in health and development interventions as well as the constraints they face. The quotes from village headmen in this chapter's epigraph also suggest headmen are trusted, effective helpers of their villagers, at least as reported by headmen.

A secondary goal of this chapter is to build on existing literature about chieftaincy and representation in Africa. To this end, I first substantiate the alignment of priorities between village headmen and their local principals – the villagers among whom they live. Then I also explore what shapes headmen's priorities. Contributing to the ongoing debate on chieftaincy in Africa, this chapter is the first empirical analysis to my knowledge that examines the fit between policy priorities of villagers and those of their headmen.