Two young academics reflect upon their experience at the MedHums conference

We had the pleasure of attending the first ever medical humanities conference in Malawi. This conference explored the hybrid space of humanities and medicine.   We learnt so much and met a lot of people who are doing interesting work in medical humanities. The wide array of interdisciplinary papers presented tackled historic and contemporary issues in medicine from a humanities perspective. They also tried to pave a way forward in the African medical humanities scene.

The presentation panels were grouped according to common themes and disciplines. This grouping was not well-thought which resulted in papers clumped together according to superficial similarities; had the programming been based on scrutinisation of the abstracts, they would have been grouped using deeper similarities that transcended discipline. If we were all attending the same session, this would have been appropriate but because we were spread out in two panels this hindered interdisciplinary discussion because attendants went to panels grouped according to their discipline. For instance, they were three papers on mental health; one was in History, the other in Literature and one in Theology. These papers could have been grouped together instead being put in panels according to their discipline.

The casual vibe of the conference made it a good environment to foster ideas. The keynote speakers were masters in their fields and good orators which made their long presentations interesting and thought provoking. We, two recent graduates, rubbed shoulders with professors and academic masters in their field but we were able to speak as and ask questions though they were our equals. The audience was attentive during our presentations and gave us criticism that we could use to improve our papers. The opportunity to present our papers at an international conference was amazing and we would love for such opportunities to be found more often. However, as fledglings still finding our footing in the world of academia, it would be nice to have more rewards for our efforts. Young people in other ventures such as entrepreneurship and those starting NGOs are given more rewards and incentives as opposed to young researchers.

In the recent years, there has been an exponential growth of artists, NGOs, academics using humanities to solve problems in health. If the conference had been well-advertised we would have had more papers from Africans, and more Malawian attendees (who were not presenting) who were interested in the discussions because it connects to work they are already doing.

Writing the papers was hard because both of us have studied close to nothing about medical humanities in our degree programmes. There is little knowledge of medical humanities in a Malawian context so it felt like we were groping in the dark. But also, individual unsupervised research is something new to us.  As a recent graduate, to present in front of professors, doctors and other highly success people and get such a positive feedback was amazing. We are grateful for this opportunity.

Bongani Khoswe (right) presents her paper on the role of the church in mental health in Malawi

The papers we presented, one looked into how the church in Malawi has dealt with depression amongst its members and the other on how women with disability are portrayed in Malawian folklore; both fit into current debates in medical humanities. For some time now, NGOs and government have tried to explore the role existing structures, such as the church and community leaders, can play in solving problems in medical practice; this was reflected in the paper on depression. Though within this debate, this paper went in an unexplored direction which was the Church’s role in mental health.

Wongile Mbano (left) presents her paper on the disabled women in traditional folklore on the literature panel.

Due to the recent increase in attacks on people with albinism, NGOs and the government have tried to change the societies mind-set on people with disability by trying to get it to see them as people instead of “the other”. This paper scrutinises society’s attitudes on disability by dissecting their oral literature on disability.  We hope that in future there will be more training opportunities in medical humanities in Malawi, both at undergraduate and postgraduate level.


– Bongani Khoswe (Chanco graduate, theology) and Wongile Mbano (Chanco graduate, English literature)

The Oral Literature Research Programme – Fieldwork with the Department of English at Chanco

The Hayter Committee at the University of Edinburgh offered a grant, which would support fieldwork in Malawi. I partnered up with the Department of English at Chancellor College to provide staff and students affiliated with the M.A. program in Oral Literature on 4 medical-humanities field excursions.

On 31 July, we paid a visit to the The Oral Literature Research Programme in Chileka Blantyre, where we met Dr Moya Malamusi, an ethnologist, cultural anthropologist and musician, and Professor Gerhard Kubic, an ethnomusicologist and professor at the University of Vienna.

This was an extraordinary experience for all of us. In other cultures, music is a distinct art form which is studied separately from literature. We learned in this trip about the Chileka forms of music and how it intersects with storytelling and healing.

Professor Kubic plays the ‘kalimba’, a small instrument which creates a soothing and therapeutic sound

It was an introduction for me about the history of storytelling forms in Malawi but also an opportunity to recognize that this centre is one of the few places that is preserving audio recordings and instruments which are now endangered. It has opened my eyes to the importance of preservation of oral literature and traditional music.

Chisomo Kalinga, postdoc, Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh

The field Trip to Dr. Malamusi’s Oral Literature Centre in Chileka

The field trip was fun and very educative. Looking through their rich library and listening to both Dr Malamusi and his colleague (who are wells of knowledge on Malawian Oral Literature) taught me a lot.  I learnt about Oral literature research and the history of music in Malawi. The part I enjoyed the most on this trip was when we went to the Jacaranda Museum of Ethnographic Objects. There were so many musical objects; most of them were Malawian instruments and some from other parts of Africa. Up until this moment I did not know that we had this many music instruments in Malawi.

Dr Malamusi teaches Wongile Mbano about the instruments in the ethnographic museum.

I have not been exposed to that many indigenous Malawian musical instruments. Because of that I assumed that we did not have many musical indigenous instruments. Just by looking at the instruments, I could see that there were many similarities in musical instruments we have in here Malawi and to those of other African countries. Dr. Malamusi’s colleague explained that the technology of used to make some of these instruments was lost on the new generation. This statement made me realise our people had the mastery and technology to build complex instruments that made beautiful music such as the Malimba.  At the end Dr Malamusi’s colleague played the nsansi and sang for a bit. It was beautiful and soothing to listen to. We closed the visit with a video of the Kachamba Brothers.

Wongile Mbano,  recent B.A. English graduate, Chancellor College, UniMa


Museum of Ethnographic Objects

An initial step in conducting research is in understanding the research process, which involves delicate procedures of data-gathering and methods of recording in the field. Through the years processes inevitably change as new technologies evolve. Striking a balance between techniques of methodology, the Museum of Ethnographic Objects in Chileka, Malawi, maintains solid awareness of the value of ‘old’ disciplines while catalyzing contemporary technologies in the digital age to ensure a disappearing world of oral literature is recorded.

Instruments on display at the Jacaranda Museum of Ethnographic Objects at Chileka, Blantyre

The Museum is interesting in terms of its intersectionality and its temporality. Various facets of culture are manifested, highlighting that storytelling interlinks with music which interlinks healing practice showing how each has elements of the singular and of the collective ‘oral literature’ incorporated. The archival timeline spans from 1960s to the present day – black and white photographs show the rituals of the Gule wa Mkulu while hanging above these is an instrument made from a plastic carton by a small boy a number of months ago.

Walter Banjamin’s ‘aura’ is evoked in Chileka – an authentic feeling surrounds the objects, both material and abstract, creating a sense of measured endurance, symbolically referring to the people/community as much as to the survival of the objects themselves. The space inside the Museum and its library stands less as a space seeking revival as it does a space of remembrance. While it is at best puzzling to think that the TV took over storytelling practices around the fire, it is rather more conducive to think of the space of oral literature as an evolution in process – the art of yesterday becomes artifact, but rather than buried it is memoried and can in fact be sourced in contemporary art forms of today.

Joanna Woods, Lecturer, Department of English, Chancellor College, UniMa

Inaugural Medical Humanities Conference, hosted by Chancellor College, University of Malawi

Conference under development, more details to follow…

The Malawi Medical Humanities Network is pleased to announce a forthcoming inaugural conference tentatively titled “Medical Humanities in an African Context”, which will be hosted by Chancellor College, University of Malawi on 23-25 August 2017. Please check back with us for updates and a CFP in upcoming weeks.

International Medical Humanities Call for Papers

CFP: Medical Humanities in an African Context

Hosted by Chancellor College University of Malawi, 24 & 25 August 2017

Chancellor College is pleased to announce a 2-day international medical humanities conference to be held at the college’s Great Hall in Zomba, on 24th & 25th August 2017. In Europe and North America, medical humanities is understood as an emerging discipline which explores the social, historical and cultural dimensions of medicine. This conference offers a formal space to further our understanding of how illness, wellbeing, medicine & treatment intersect with the arts and humanities and to encourage discussions about what these concepts mean in an African context. It provides a highly interdisciplinary platform for a diversity of perspectives and inquiries into African concepts of health and wellbeing. Malawi’s own scholars–the late Professors Steve Chimombo and Chris Kamlongera–were pioneers in bringing the arts into conversation with health, community and development. We aspire to showcase the vibrant, contemporary medical humanities research within Malawi and throughout the African continent.

We invite 20-minute papers on the following subjects including, but not limited to:

  • The history of medicine and healthcare
  • Medical ethics
  • Medical anthropology
  • Literature, poetry and medicine
  • Visual and performed arts and the body
  • Representations of illness and treatment
  • Communication in health care
  • Religious/spiritual perspectives on health
  • Sociology of medicine
  • The caregiver/patient relationship
  • Healthcare architecture and design
  • Disability studies
  • Medicine and the law
  • Globalisation and healthcare practices

Please send an abstract (approximately 300 words) and short biographical note to the conference organisers by no later than Friday 21 April 2017. Proposals and all enquiries should be addressed to the Proposal Review Committee at

Conference details and updates will be posted to

This conference is hosted by the Department of English, Faculty of Humanities at Chancellor College University of Malawi with funding from the Wellcome Trust and collaborators at University College London and the University of Edinburgh’s Centre of African Studies.