Becoming a bwana and burley tobacco in the Central Region of Malawi

Martin Prowse

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Smallholders now grow most of Malawi’s main export crop – burley tobacco.
Based on nineteen months’ fieldwork in the Central Region, this article offers a
sociological interpretation of why some smallholder growers spend a proportion
of burley income on conspicuous consumption in rural towns and trading centres.
This practice can be seen as a form of inculcated behaviour whereby smallholders
reproduce elements of one model of success in this region: that of the Malawian
tobacco bwana (boss/master). The article discusses implications from this form
of potlatch behaviour by describing the contrasting fortunes of two non-farm
rural enterprises, examining data on how tobacco production and ‘cooling off’ is
viewed by wives, and comparing the crop preferences of husbands and wives.
It concludes by suggesting that the concept of conspicuous consumption
may provide an alternative prism to the instrumental lens of neo-patrimonialism
through which to view apparently unintelligible investment decisions in African
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)575-602
Number of pages28
JournalJournal of Modern African Studies
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2009


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