Thandeka Cochrane takes the page 99 test

In the middle of the page a line jumps out:

Nthanu telling, therefore, encapsulates a moral performance”.

Lying at the centre of page 99 this line also lies at the centre of the chapter that holds it, chapter 2, ‘Speaking Stories: Declining (m)orality? Orature, schools and elites’. The chapter tries to understand the purpose and role of a particular form of oral literature, nthanu, in rural village communities in northern Malawi, the small African country where I spent 18 months doing my fieldwork. In this chapter, and over the thesis as a whole, I am trying to solve a puzzle:

What do stories do, I wonder? Why do we tell stories to children? What does it do to us to grow up with particular kinds of stories? How do stories create the people(s) we become?

My thesis starts with a quote by the Nigerian novelist Ben Okri, in which he warns, “Beware the stories you read or tell: subtly, at night, beneath the waters of consciousness, they are altering your world.”

This is what my thesis is trying to understand, how the stories we encounter as children, quite veritably our ‘children’s stories’, alter our world.

Initially, I had gone to Malawi to study early childhood development centres (ECD) – specifically the English language children’s fairytale books that are brought to these centres as donations. But, as is so often the case in anthropology, the village landscape that was to be my fieldsite had dramatically changed since I had last been there. The ECD centres were gone, and so my fieldwork inevitably shifted, from the centres to the books themselves. In searching for these books, I discovered a hidden world of village libraries, some beautifully built and stocked full of thousands of books, some barely remembered, filled with tattered books and dust motes lying behind crumbling doors.

In exploring children’s books in libraries, I also encountered the rich world of oral literature of the communities I lived in, in particular the stories used for teaching children, nthanu. Like in many societies across the world, nthanu, were fireside stories, told to huddled groups of children and adults who would sit around listening to them after evening meals. These days, very few tell the stories – something that was perceived by many I spoke to as a bitter loss. These stories, people told me, were enormously important. Not just for entertainment, but for building who they believed they were.

For my interlocutors, children’s stories were, and are, the means through which they create a moral community of belonging. They were, and are, also the means through which the political, social and moral codes of the society are transmitted. As one young woman told me,  “[nthanu] taught us how to live in a society, it taught us how to live, how to communicate, it was stories that told us what was life […] that’s what it taught us: oneness […] Gogu’s (grandmother’s) stories wanted to relate to us that this world is not just for us”.

These oral stories, therefore, transmit an entire moral and social code that lies at the heart of not just sociality, but at what it means to be human. Telling children stories at night is telling them who they are.

What then does page 99 tell us about my thesis? It is a somewhat convoluted, slightly over-technical discussion of what the performance of oral literature could mean in a rural village setting in northern Malawi – fitting for a thesis that sometimes loses itself in over-theorisations. But it is also a page that suggests one of the central arguments of my thesis; that the stories we tell are a fundamental part of the creation of our moral universes. And if we alter the stories we tell, we will alter our moral universe.

Thandeka Cochrane. 2020. Epistemic entanglements in an age of universals: literacy, libraries and children’s stories in rural Malawi. University of Cambridge, Phd. thesis.

Francis Cody on his book, The Light of Knowledge

Interview by Rachel Howard

What was your main goal in writing about literacy activists in Tamil Nadu? And how did your goals change as you learned more about the site?

I had gone to do research on literacy activism in Tamil Nadu with a deep interest in language and political economy.  My graduate education was fueled by the theoretical energy that had gathered around both questions of language ideology and postcolonial studies.  It struck me that studying a movement that promised to deliver enlightenment to the marginalized through written language would enable me to address some of the big questions about power, the materiality of language, and temporality that we were wrestling with at the time.  More specifically, knowing that Tamil is a language shaped deeply by diglossia, I went to study how learning the written variety was meant to empower people.  I sensed a paradox of sorts in a practice that required people to learn a new register of their own language in order to free themselves.  But my goals quickly changed when I realized that the difference between written and rural spoken varieties was perhaps not so important in a context where simply teaching people how to write their own name was such a major effort, and where the literacy movement had also reflected upon its own practice so much in its transition from being a revolutionary movement of sorts to becoming a partnership with government. The literacy had also become a women’s movement, somewhat unexpectedly.  So, following the lead of my interlocutors, I became much more interested in the practice of activism itself.  New and more interesting questions about writing and embodiment, as well as questions about the very practice of mobilizing rural, lower caste women, who are often thought of as the most subaltern, arose from the ethnography as a result.

Continue reading