How The Atlantic Can Do Better, Starting with Malawi

Confronting a Sexual Rite of Passage in Malawi”, published by The Atlantic last Monday, is misleading and continues a long tradition of ethnocentric, sensationalist reporting on Africa. The article tells the tale of a 14-year-old girl, Grace Mwase, of Chiradzulu District in Malawi, saying that she defied a tradition of sleeping with an older man after she went through an initiation ceremony at the age of 10. I am not an expert on culture and customs in Malawi, but one doesn’t have to be to get the story straight on customs and their impact on a community. 

You might ask (especially if you’re unfamiliar with Malawi), what’s wrong with The Atlantic’s story? A lot. But I’ll limit myself to the errors and shortcomings I think are the most egregious and can be corrected easily. Below I select passages, point out errors of fact or representation, and then suggest a solution for fixing the system so such an error is not repeated.

In many villages across Malawi…custom dictates that both boys and girls as young as eight attend a rite of passage known as ‘initiation’.

This is an error of misrepresentation. A nationally representative survey of adolescents conducted in 2004 in Malawi estimated only 43% of adolescent girls participated in an initiation ceremony. There is variation within Malawi, with only 26% of girls in the Central Region reporting to have participated in an initiation ceremony, compared to 57% of girls in the Southern Region. Adherence to the custom also varies by ethnic group, with only 20% of Sena girls reporting to have participated in initiation, compared to 75% of Yao girls. Note, however, that there is no group or region of residence where every girl reports having gone through initiation. Even in places where initiation is popular, children are certainly not “dictated” to participate. When the writer uses words like “many” and “across,” it creates a mischaracterization that all Malawian groups are strong adherents to the custom.

Editors when reviewing submissions can look for words like “many” and “across” and ask for corroborating evidence (how common is the practice? is it practiced in all regions of the country?), or if unavailable or if deemed to be misrepresentative during the editing process, the editor can advise the writer to be more specific and avoid misleading their readership. Then this:

In fact, girls in Malawi are often told that if they don’t have sex upon concluding initiation, their skin will become dry and brittle. This will mark them for life, and they will be ostracized if they don’t complete the custom as their mothers and grandmothers did before them. These guardians often force their daughters to go through with the ritual for fear of breaking with tradition.

This is plain false. In my eight years studying Malawi, I have read and heard a lot of rumors, gossip, and old wives’ tales about sex (it used to be my job!), and I have never heard this. Though initiation in Malawi is practiced somewhat differently dependent on the cultural group to which one ascribes, and it is true that during initiation there are discussions about sex, it is not the custom in any group with which I am familiar that parents force their young daughters to have sex following initiation ceremonies.

BTW, it is unclear which group The Atlantic’s article is accusing of forcing young girls to have sex following initiation, because the article only refers to Grace Mwase as coming from Chiradzulu District, but does not identify the cultural group in which she was initiated. Based on location, the girl is likely from either the Yao or Lomwe group, though there is sufficient diversity in Chiradzulu District it is also possible she is from the Nyanja or Ngoni group.

There are many ethnographies on initiation rites in Malawi and her neighbors, so I leave readers to delve into the works done by experts to learn more about what these ceremonies often entail and what they mean for the societies in which they are celebrated. Initiation ceremonies have actually been regarded (by two prominent, Malawian social science and public health researchers – in an open-access article analyzing survey data and in-depth interviews of Malawian adolescents) as a great opportunity to prepare young people for responsible sexual and reproductive behavior, since the topic of sex is already being broached, and initiation is specifically tasked with transmitting knowledge.

If the story in The Atlantic was right to ring the alarm bells on the vulnerability of young girls in Chiradzulu because of this harmful cultural practice, then we might see certain patterns in population-level data.

The 2010 Malawi Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) found the median age of sexual debut among girls in Chiradzulu District is 16.8. That age is much higher than Grace Mwase’s reported age at initiation: 10. Age at sexual debut among girls in the Southern Region generally was 16.8, and it was 17.4 in Malawi overall. (There are other relevant indicators that are inconsistent with the story in The Atlantic. For example, among girls aged 15-19 in the Malawi DHS, 0 in Chiradzulu reported ever having sex with a man who was 10+ years older; 0.1% in Southern Region; 0.6% in Malawi overall.)

If there is some sort of epidemic of young girls being forced to have sex after initiation ceremonies, we should see – in fact – girls living in this place to have sex at much earlier ages.

To put this in perspective, in a representative sample of American high school students (aged 12-18), 54% of female students reported to have never had sexual intercourse. In Malawi’s DHS, 71% of never-married women aged 15-24 reported never having had sexual intercourse; the figure was 65% in both Chiradzulu District and in the greater Southern Region of Malawi. Why does the article on Malawi not provide this kind of relative perspective?

The claim above accuses a people of acting inhumanly – of “forc[ing] their daughters” to “have sex upon concluding initiation,” which could be when girls are as young as 10, as Grace Mwase was when she was initiated. Such an indictment requires careful consideration by an editor.

If true, there could be some normative value in reporting on the practice, in hopes of raising awareness and action. If false, however, The Atlantic is actively participating in the defamation of the character of a people, who are already struggling – as the article points out – “in a country where nearly three-fourths of the population lives below the poverty line.” Before making such an inflammatory accusation of a people, how could a writer (or an editor) familiarize herself with initiation in Malawi?

I found the public-access article mentioned above by simply going to Google Scholar and typing “initiation” and “Malawi” in the search box. And, to examine patterns in the population more broadly, the Malawi Demographic and Health Surveys can be referenced. Yes, Demographic and Health Surveys are collected regularly in multiple developing countries around the world, not just in Malawi. The DHS is a widely used data source available publicly online in an accessible (non-jargonized) format. Even if a writer has no data analysis skills, so long as they can read a table in a PDF, they could have learned for themselves everything I’ve written in the preceding paragraph. The editorial team at The Atlantic should have a series of reliable, country-specific resources such as the DHS so that when writers submit stories like these, someone can fact-check against patterns in the population, or at least encourage the writer to do so.

 We speak over dinner beside the glittering but parasite-ridden Lake Malawi.

I’ll just share what Malawian commenter Peter Nkosi wrote in a comment below the story about this terrible, terrible line:

There may be bilharzia in a few parts of the lake, but it is journalistic hyperbole to call it parasite-ridden. Anyway what is the relevance of the alleged parasites to the story?

Exactly. I want to blame the author, but what editor let that get through?

Perhaps the hardest part for me to stomach about the article was that it links to a few of the resources I’ve pointed to in this post.

How could it be that the writer and I can be reading the same works and coming to entirely different conclusions on initiation ceremonies? The writer even managed to find and cite a report prepared by the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) on how cultural practices impact human rights, particularly the rights of women and children. (It should be noted, BTW, that the MHRC report draws on a non-representative sample – which doesn’t even include respondents from Chiradzulu District, where Grace Mwase is from, and upon whom The Atlantic article largely rests.

Whereas I read these things in their entirety, the writer of the article in The Atlantic cherry-picks from the MHRC report, the Rasing book on girls’ initiation in Zambia, and the Munthali and Zulu paper primarily those details that support a negative perception of initiation ceremonies. On this, I have no advice for The Atlantic. Perhaps readers with more journalism expertise can offer suggestions for how an editor can identify a writer who has been selective with evidence, only to include that which supports her argument/narrative.

Finally, The Atlantic aren’t the only ones to have picked up Grace Mwase’s story. It was also published (by different writers) in The Star (from Toronto), the Huffington Post, and in the online Malawi news agency, Nyasa Times (those versions, however, left out the “parasite-ridden lake”).

Why are we seeing this same story of this Grace Mwase across multiple outlets? Because it was an NGO set-up.

The NGO brings a girl with a sensational story, invites reporters to come and hear the story, and then these reporters who know little to nothing about the context take as truth what’s being told to them and essentially write a press release for an organization competing to win a $10,000 prize. The writer’s bonus: one more stamp in the passport, one more country she can say she’s reported from.

The Atlantic and other agencies should be careful of accepting stories that have been generated by the NGO-seeking-funding machine. In my mind, the real story is in the making of this story. Who is Grace Mwase really? And what of this NGO in Malawi that has been parading her in front of foreign journalists to try and tell a sensational narrative in exchange for attention and potentially cash? And what do ordinary Malawians think of this story being told of their people? I doubt anyone is inviting reporters on junkets to do that kind of reporting, though. (But this guy managed to keep a critical perspective.)

Through this look at one bad article in The Atlantic, I have offered here some resources specific to Malawi. But the strategy of finding reliable, publicly available information can be applied to other places with which a writer or editor is not terribly familiar. It is imperative that The Atlantic and others reporting stories from far-away places be careful in representing others. In Grace Mwase’s own words: “You’re like a visitor so you don’t know anything.”

Further Reading

Goodbye, Piassa

The demolition of an historic district in Addis Ababa shows a central contradiction of modernization: the desire to improve the country while devaluing its people and culture.