Thursday, December 9, 2010

Analysing strengths and weaknesses of a commutter family in Malawi

By Richard Chirombo
The term ‘family’ continues to play a key role in assisting sociologists develop perspectives (defined by British sociologists Shaun Best, Janis Griffiths, and Tanya Hope as a representation of a particular view point, such as functionalism and feminism), and was one of the driving factors behind the emergence of sociology as a distinctly new academic discipline, from the ashes of a mere political and economic branch of philosophy before the coming in of people like Karl Marx (1818-83), Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) and Max Weber (1864-1920)- widely considered the ‘founding fathers’ of sociology. Despite a spectrum of views on the family, sociologists acknowledge that it falls under the micro or interpretive perspective- which is basically the level of everyday interaction typically involving face-to-face negotiations between individuals (Best, Griffiths, Tanya, 2000)- as opposed to macro or structural perspectives -which refer to the global structures of societies, and the analysis of major institutions such as the interface between the economy and politics; it also deals with large-scale collective action including global social movements (Best, Griffiths, Tanya, 2000). At the same time, there seems to be a continuous struggle for a specific definition for family, as classifications generally accepted a few years ago fall under the microscopic eye of modern sociologists. Best, Griffiths and Tanya argue that the difficult in coming up with a simple family definition lies in the fact that the family is primarily a religious, moral, social and legal institution, rendering it “enormously difficult” to define. They cite the example of people who count distant and non-blood relatives and individuals, respectively, as family, and yet feel no sense of kinship with close relations who can be ignored for years and get contacted only for weddings and funerals. However, George Murdock, one of the earliest writers in the functionalist tradition, suggested that a family consists of a social group which includes sexually cohabiting adults and their children. He argued that, no matter how far from our own cultural norms, the standard family arrangement would always have sexually active adults (a man and a woman) at its core, a position being currently challenged in the wake of other emerging family forms. He continued to offer three main characteristics of the first social unit called family, namely: the development of a social structure that suits their physical environment, in accordance with cultural norms; linkage by kinship ties, duties, obligations, and rules which must be observed, and; provision of social support to the mother and her children. This tallies with the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (7th Edition, 2006) definition. It describes the family as a group consisting of one or two parents and their children; enthusing that family members may even share a common feature or predicament, such as heart disease which may be said to ‘run in the family’.

Whereas married nuclear; cohabiting; single-parent; step, joint or shared-custody; grand parent-led; same-sex headed; foster, group, home, and community families have come to be accepted as ‘normal’ family kinds, difficulties in obtaining two suitable jobs in the same vicinity has paved the way for a new type of setting: Commuter family1. Research findings from the United Kingdom reveal three main characteristics in such families: parents live and work in different towns; one of the parents provides the primary residence, while the other parent visits home for short periods of time, and this may include weekends and holidays; while the third thread is the need to acquire additional skills or secure new jobs in a highly competitive world1. This paper attempts, using traditional family kinds as a litmus test, to examine both the strengths and weaknesses likely to be derived from commuter families, and sets out to achieve this by narrowing down its examination in the context of social, economic, religious, cultural and human development benefits or deprivations in Malawi’s context.

Consensus is emerging among economic and social commentators that Malawi has already caught the Globalization bug. The economic meltdown that affected a large chuck of the world population during the past two years is a good case in point. Except for strong linkages with foreign financial institutions, a trend that saved Malawi from the adverse effects of the Global Financial Crisis, the country continues to attain tremendous strides in linking up with the global community. It can also be safely argued that the country’s foreign policy is enshrouded in accommodative tendencies, a development that has eroded some of the country’s highly valued customs, including the role of women as custodians of the home2, something locals cannot run away from because it has quickly become part of the society’s psyche. The country should expect that, as economic needs override stereotypes on the role of women, traditional family values and meanings will erode while pushing the country’s economic indicators up, starting at the household level. This will become necessary to weather out the storm of poverty, dependency on one bread winner and the long-held subordinate status of women. All this will help boost economic growth, reduce poverty and meet the much-touted millennium Development Goals (MDGs). This withstanding, the country stands to benefit a lot in terms of economic emancipation for women, and because this has started changing at the micro (domestic) level, the overall effect on national development could be overly positive. Real economic development must start at the domestic level, and the commuter family has already started satisfying this need2. Feeding into this argument of stable economic standing at the household level are indicators from Blantyre Child Justice Court. Statistics for 2007 to 2010 reveal that, out of 387 cases of child trafficking, negligence, abandonment and abuse, only one occurred within a commuter family set up. But this, too, did not pertain to negligence but an ‘isolated case’ of a child who left his mother in Blantyre for Lilongwe, “just to see his father, who, in October 2009, was working for a hospitality company”. The child left the Blantyre family home without bidding bye, and got lost in Lilongwe. A Kasungu-based man took the boy home, and demanded K100, 000 to return the 12 year-old boy to his parents. The case reached the Blantyre Child Justice Court and the court ruled in favour of the parents and the Kasungu man went home ‘empty-handed’3. Children who have no biological guardian, or have no extended family relations are more likely to fall victim to abusers or people feigning to be good would-be adopters4.But children who come from economically-stable families tend to have access to the basic needs in life, including quality education, good nutritious, early childhood nourishment, and tend to be wary of strangers, making it unlikely for them to fall into abusers’ hands. Such children also achieve normal mental development.

Indicators also show that commuter families have raised the status bar for women. While, just two decades ago, women were largely presented as totally incapable human beings, trends are now changing. For instance, research findings on the image of women projected by radio (Malawi Broadcasting Corporation, in this case) revealed four shocking findings: women did not exist to the same degree as men do; they occupied restricted sex-defined spheres; they served primarily as auxiliaries to men, and; that all this (the above) is as it should be6. Increased cases of commuter families have prompted men to re-examine their attitude towards women, in the process reducing cases of domestic and gender-based violence as women get accustomed to living without the ‘man-of-the-house’ for longer periods of time, thus discovering their potential to live sustainable, fulfilled lives. This has also lessened the pains suffered from being widowed as paternal relations now think twice before indulging in such bad practices as property grabbing. Improved education and economic status have translated into women’s ability to buy and own property, including land and real estate property7. Property grabbing is likely to remain a huge problem, despite laws aimed at criminalizing the same, for the housewife, while commuter families have increased women’s belief in themselves8. A property grabbing case in Nkhatabay in January 2010 revealed just how deep-rooted the problem of property grabbing is, but the woman was able to retain all property after producing requisite receipts indicating she actually owned it. The woman’s husband was working and staying in Nkhotakota while she run a personal lodge business in Nkhatabay, a typical example that commuter families have become accepted in Malawi. However, the husband’s relatives took it that she was running the husband’s business, and rushed to grab all property when he died in April 2010. The wife graduated in Catering from the Malawi Institute of Tourism9.

This notwithstanding, social commentators acknowledge that Malawi remains deep-rooted in ideals of the extended family system10. So, while the wife may stay with her biological children in a town far away from the husband, it is less likely that the husband will be staying alone- doing all the cooking and laundry; he is more likely to invite some extended family members to be staying with, and is more likely to be meeting their basic education, economic and social needs, thus spreading his worth and contributing to government’s poverty reduction efforts11. More over, families forced to go commuter by the need to secure better employment and improve economic status are more likely to source enough funds for large-scale investment, apart from having ready collateral in case they want to borrow finances from Authorized Dealer Banks, making it possible to achieve their dreams12

For example, I have managed to consolidate resources with my husband, who works in for Mzuzu City Assembly, and have just bought a minibus. Together, we have also managed to buy a house in Chilomoni Township (Blantyre), and share responsibilities on paying school fees. We have two children; I pay for the Secondary School education of two, while my husband pays school fees for the other two, in addition to one extended family system member13.

While the real impact of commuter families is yet to be ascertained, owing to the need for more localised research findings, others fear that this set up is eroding family values. They share Marxism views that the family has become a unit of consumption, existing to buy goods, rather than a unit of production, which it was in the pre-industrial society; a view wholly supported by Friedrich Engels14, who purported that marriage and the family evolved along with the concepts of private property and inheritance. In crude terms, Engels said women can only be proved to be the mothers of the children they bear, as witnesses are present at the birth. However, there are no witnesses to conception and a man has no certainty that the children a woman bears are his- he must take her word for it. Blood testing and genetic analysis has altered that, but these are new technologies and largely inaccessible in developing countries. To ensure that the children to whom he intends to live property are his own, the man must own his wife and restrict her freedom.

Freedom associated with commuter families goes against this grain, and this has eroded the ‘sacred nature’ of the family. It is the weak link in this type of family. Then there is the notion of experience, which suggests that trust is a perishable product. The commuter family will thus pave the way for extra-marital affairs15. Add to this the reality of HIV and AIDS and the prevalence of Multiple Concurrent Partners, and it becomes a disaster of quadruple proportions. The establishment of HIV and AIDS Policies in most companies cannot guarantee against promiscuity, the more reason Trade Unions discourage commuter families because, apart from creating an artificial emotional gap, they also drain financial resources from people already grappling with the problem of poor perks, thus affecting economic emancipation. After all, workers already sacrifice their ‘blood and sweat’ in high tax cuts12.

‘Remote love’, as child rights activist Kenwilliams Mhango describes commuter families, has proved a big failure in Salima District, where children of fathers who go to work in tobacco estates in the Northern region have become easy targets for ‘teachers’ of witchcraft. Research conducted by the African Network for the Prevention and Protection of Child Abuse and Neglect (ANPPCAN)-Malawi Chapter between September and November 2009 revealed the existence of witchcraft schools in the district. This is because, in pursuit of role models and guidance, children find solace and camaraderie in ‘witches’, thereby affecting class performance of pupils as many sleep in class while their friends sail on in the sea that is basic education. Education pundits say education is a social vaccine but, because of commuter families, others are losing out on this, putting future prospects of the country in jeopardy17. While radical psychiatrists and psychoanalysts such as Laing and Copper suggest that some mental illnesses are caused by the strain of family life on individuals; and although this view (also known as anti-psychiatry) still influences some perspectives such as feminism (where a woman’s mental instability and misery is said to be caused by the heavy influences of patriarchy), critics of commuter families say the father and mother remain role models – experiences that stick throughout their lives (Best, Griffiths, Hope, 2000). Psychologist Harry Harlow also warns that children who don’t receive maximum attention tend to develop anxious attachment (a reaction they develop after noting that their caregivers are not always accessible) rather than the much-needed secure attachment (which develops after parents’ or caregivers promptness in responding to the child’s needs), and this sense they take well into adulthood and affects how they later relate, or socialize, with others.

It is a view shared by a host of religious institutions. The dominant view is that commuter families, like same-sex marriages, are against the principles of family values and are tantamount to abdicating from responsibility. The argument is the God’s purpose for the family is four-fold: attainment of sexual control, procreation, socialization of children, and the sustenance of a sense of belonging in children. The family should perpetuate a sense of solidarity, a feature that was losing value as members abandon moral values- becoming fragmented and less community-oriented18. This is likely to exert a negative ‘social influence’, and distort the real meaning of family (Elliot Aronson, 1972). This problem can be solved if families stick together, pray together and study scriptures together 20. Otherwise, The International Child Abuse and Neglect Journal (vol., 34, No., 1, January, 2010 pp., 20) reports that 70 per cent of children abused in South Korea and developing countries suffered such human rights abuses at the hands of people they knew or distant relatives simply because one or two biological parents were not at home, mainly in pursuit of good employment opportunities and economic prospects.

In concluding, it is clear that the family remains the most important social unit in Malawi, and shall- at least in the foreseeable future- continue to be held in high esteem. What is apparent, though, is the need for more localised research to ascertain the real long-term impact of the commuter family system, and the possible role it may play in advancing the country’s social-economic development agenda.


Best, S., Griffiths, J., and Hope, T., (2000). Active Sociology (AS and A Level).London: Pearson Education Limited. Pp., 298-300 (14)

Blantyre Child Justice Court’s Civil and Criminal Cases Registry from January 2007- September 5, 2010. (2007/2010).

Chanika, E., Executive Director, Civil Liberties Committee. In an interview. (7)

Chidyaonga, G. F., Kanjo, K. K (1995).The Representation of Women in Malawian Mainstream Media; A paper presented at a Gender Sensitization Workshop for Media Personnel (Ryalls Hotel, Blantyre, November 30-December 2). Blantyre: The Malawi Polytechnic. (6)

Chilimasabwe, M. (2010). Understanding human behaviour in dating and divorce (The Nation Vol. 17 No. 143, Pp. 18). Blantyre: Nation Publications Limited. (10)

Chirwa, F., Executive Director for National Women’s Lobby Group. In an interview. (9)

Chisi, M., Sexual Reproductive Trainer, Blantyre. In an interview. (15)

Chawanda, O., Programmes Officer for Media AIDS and Health Watch (Mawa). In an interview. (16)

Kadawati, M., (Rev.) Chairperson, Public Affairs Committee; Saiti, J., Executive Director, Muslim Association of Malawi; Matale, E., Public Affairs Director, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and; Khoviwa, T., (Apostle) Word of Faith Temple. In separate interviews conducted on Tuesday, 28 September, and Wednesday 29 September, 2010 during an HIV and AIDS Interface Meeting held at Mount Soche Hotel in Blantyre. (18)

Kenwilliams Mhango, Country Director; African Network for the Protection and Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (ANPPCAN)-Malawi Chapter. In an interview. (19)

Laston, M., Blantyre-based wife in a commuting family. (2010). In an interview. (11)

LDS Church (2009). Gospel Principles: Family Responsibilities. Salt Lake: LDS Church. (20)

Lecture Notes on Family Kinds. Lecture delivered on Monday, September 27. (1)

Mhango, K. W. (2008). Findings of Research on the Long-term Effects of Child Abuse and Neglect: The Case of Malawi, 17, 408-414. (17)

Mkwezalamba, R.: Secretary General, Malawi Congress of Trade Unions (MCTU). (2010). In an interview. (12)

Munthali, T. C., President, Economics Association of Malawi (ECAM). In an interview. (2)

Mussa, C., Executive Director for Gender Support Programme. In an interview. (8)

Mwamadi, L.: Primary School (Life Skills) Teacher at Mulunguzi in Blantyre. In an interview. (13)

Tembenu, E.; Presiding Magistrate at the Blantyre Child Justice Court. In an interview. (4)

Twea, E., (Justice), Chairperson for the National Child Justice Forum. In an interview. (5)


1. Arouson, E., (1972), The Social Animal. New York: The Viking Press.

2. Best, S., Griffiths, J., and Hope, T., Active Sociology, (2000). London: Pearson Education Limited

3. Gospel Principles, (1978, 2009), Family Responsibilities. Salt Lake: LDS Church

4. Ichheiser, G., (1970), Appearances and Realities: Misunderstanding in Human Relations San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc., Publishers

5. Kempe, H. C., and Wolfe, A. D (2010), Child Abuse and Neglect: The International Journal (Vol.34, Number 1). Oxford: Elsevier Limited

6. Loftus, E. F., and Wortman, C. B., Psychology (3rd Edition)New York: Vortman Loftus

7. Marriage and Family Relations: Participant’s Study Guide (2000). Salt Lake: LDS Church

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