The Journal of Modern African Studies

Ganyu casual labour, famine and HIV/AIDS in rural Malawi: causality and casualty 1

Deborah Fahy Bryceson a1
a1 African Studies Centre, Oxford University.

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Over the past ten years, Malawian peasant farming households have endured a number of material and life-threatening setbacks. The absence of subsidised fertiliser loans to farmers continues to trouble villagers a decade after their removal. Yields of both food and cash crops have been declining. Farming households' earnings from agricultural exports and remittances have decreased. The creeping and then intensified incidence of HIV/AIDS infection has led to widespread debility and death, compounded by a serious famine in 2001–03. During the famine and its aftermath, ganyu casual labour gained in importance as a source of income, especially for women and youth from poor rural households. Field evidence suggests that the highly exploitative contractual terms that employers offered widened the gap between the haves and have-nots, and fuelled the risks of contracting HIV/AIDS. Ganyu, representing an established form of labour based on mutual economic benefit between exchange agents stretching back over a century, has become synonymous with degradation and despair for the working poor.


1 I am grateful to CARE International, the Regional Network on HIV/AIDS, Rural Livelihoods and Food Security (RENEWAL) and IFPRI, who sponsored the study on which this paper is based. Special thanks go to John Kadzandira of the University of Malawi, Michael Drinkwater, Jodie Fonseca, Nick Osborne and the CARE Malawi staff for their guidance and involvement throughout the study. In addition John McCracken, Bridget O'Laughlin, Sarah Levy, Robin Palmer, Pauline Peters, Deborah Potts, Jan Kees van Donge and Megan Vaughan offered advice on references, comments and criticisms, although I take full responsibility for the analytical interpretation of the historical record and survey data presented in this article.