In May 1994 Malawi held its first democratic election. Human rights standards were introduced in Malawi simultaneously with other political and financial changes. This was the basis for my anthropological research. 1 wanted to use the recent democratisation process and the history of Dr. Banda's regime to focus on how human rights instruments are manifested in local discourses and how these manifestations influence human dignity.
Human rights western connotations made it important to start with information existing around my informants. The data was collected during a fieldwork between July 1995 to June 1996. 1 worked in two villagers in Zomba district as well as with people coming from Zomba town. Newspapers and books, reports and minutes, as well as district courts and villager trials were all?important sources of data in the beginning. Existing written and oral material was used in an attempt to correct, moderate and contextualise my own concept and categories prior to engaging in personal interviews. The incident mentioned in newspapers, books as well as court?cases were then used as point of references in conversations.
Data collected demonstrates that human rights standards are manifested as opposite of 'culture'. This opposition was created by the terminology and logic utilised by official agencies during the democratisation process. 'Traditions' were identified as obstacles to human rights in official discourses, creating contra?arguments stating that human rights 'have swallowed out culture'. In the eyes of people the mass of simultaneous changes gave an experience of reality were increased criminality, higher prices, individual oriented valuesystems and democratisation became synonymous. Change became an opposition to 4culture' which according to many have worsened their situation and increased the risk of assaults on their dignity.
According to the International Bill of Rights, rights are ascribed to autonomous individuals. This ideology is often contrasted with African value?systems that are described as socio?centric ascribing rights to persons depending on their social relations. Changing the focus from personhood to human dignity, the differences are however less significant. The local concept of human dignity (ulemerero wa umunthu) includes both individualistic and socio?centric aspects. People in Malawi have rights to dignity depending on who they are within social settings. At the same time, people also have rights to dignity due to their humanness as opposed to animals.
To fully understand why some of my informants said "It's Malawi that's without dignity" it is essential to focus on supra?local influence. The conditionality that 'forced' the former government to introduce human rights included restrictions on governments spenditure and 'forced' the government to liberalise and privatise the market and abolish subsidies on maize and fertiliser. People experience that Malawi as a nation lacks self?determination. The government's decisions are to a large extent restricted by supra?local organisations. A feeling is created of the country of the country as violated. Malawians are left experiencing that individual acts are meaningless because the country itself lacks dignity. The same technocratic terminology is utilised when introducing human rights as restricting the government's actions. Hence 1 would argue that it is not the content in human rights standards that are alien. Distance is created by the terminology and logic utilised in the process of introducing human rights.