Literacy in Oral Cultures: History and Development of Information and Record Keeping in Predominantly Oral Malawi

This paper traces the history and development of information and recordkeeping in predominantly oral Malawi from the pre-colonial period to the present day. As administrative developments offer a good context for understanding the development of recordkeeping in a society over a specific period of time, the paper identifies the traditional African order (from time immemorial up to 1891); the period of tutelage under the British colonialism (1891-1964); the post-colonial one party regime (1964-1994); and the post-colonial multiparty democratic period (1994-present) as the four administrative epochs, which Malawi’s history has spanned. The paper then discusses the developments of record making and record keeping within this administrative spectrum. The paper finds that oral culture was a hallmark of the pre-colonial African period where all official and social business transactions were conducted orally. Systems for capturing, disseminating, and preserving official and social information orally and culturally were in place and robust. In contrast to the pre-colonial era, the paper finds that the colonial period was marked by the introduction of the written records for business transactions. However, the colonial written culture that operated in a predominantly oral culture adapted to some of the influences of the oral culture,  which reflected itself in the quality of record keeping mostly during half of the early colonial period. After the 1964 independence, the paper finds that the public service Africanisation programme, the influence of the autocratic one party rule and the world economic downturn of the late 1970s, which forced the country alongside other sub-Saharan African countries to undertake major economic reforms, all impacted on archives and records management differently. Finally the paper further finds that coupled with advances in information and communication technologies post-1994 administrative reforms, which are undertaken under the auspices of the development cooperating partners have impacted and continue to impact on and shape record keeping accordingly. 

Paul Lihoma is Director of National Archives of Malawi and an executive board member of ESARBICA. He obtained both his Master of Science in Information Management & Preservation (Archives & Records Management) degree and Ph.D degree in Information Science from the University of Glasgow.