by Landeg White
Cambridge University Press 1987

This book is a historical portrait of a village in the southern region of Malawi from 1859 to the present day. The portrait has two aspects. Magomero is a place on which many of the principal concerns of Africa’s historians in recent years are focused – the slave trade, Christian missions and their impact, colonialism and ethnicity, land alienation in a plantation economy, resistance and the rise of nationalism, peasant cash-cropping and the mobilisation of labour, the struggle for resources between men and women, and the perpetuation of poverty into the period after independence. One aspect of the portrait investigates how all these different topics appear ‘from the inside’ as reflected in the experience of a few hundred men and women.

On the other hand, the book’s overriding concern is to capture something of the tone and tenor of village life since 1859. It records the changes that have taken place in the economy, in custom, in relationships both personal and political, and in the village’s changing relationship with the broader Malawian and southern African context. Above all, it explores the different perceptions of the world that have animated village life over a century and a quarter.


“The two most important events in Nyassa (Malawi) history occurred in the same region (‘Magomero’), yet on the surface seem unrelated. Here Bishop Mackenzie, pioneer of the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa, started his colony of freed slaves … Fifty years later, the Providence Industrial Mission, founded by John Chilembwe, combined to rise against the white owners of A.L. Bruce Estates, Historians have seen little connection between these two events. But Landeg White has had access to papers and is able, brilliantly, to show continuity in all this.”


“Firstly, the book is extremely well written. A clear and economical narrative is informed by incisive analysis and is combined with passages of great descriptive power which recreate in a most vivid and colourful, yet scholarly, style the way of life of the people of Magomero at various times in the past 130 years. Secondly, the book combines an impressive mastery of an abundance of documentary material with the imaginative use of both oral testimony and song – a source which White has earlier pioneered … It is difficult to fault White’s book as a treatment of Magomero … The study should be taken as an object lesson for those working on similar themes.”

Journal of Southern African Studies

“Landeg White’s elegant book is something of a minor masterpiece and may well influence writing about Africa more than its size, or the importance of its subject, would at first suggest…If in writing, style and form count for as much as content, then this book deserves to be read for the elegance and subtlety with which it encapsulates the whole history of colonial Nyasaland in the life of a single community. It is a perfect example of how to explain great issues by looking at their effects on the lives of little people.”

American Historical Review

“This is an original and outstanding book which deserves a wide readership. White’s sensitive use of the vox populi not only balances the archival material, so thoroughly examined, but adds a dimension of everyday life that archives so sadly rarely allow us to see. White is admirable in his concern with the apparently mundane. His close examination of the changing gender division and the changed nature of the parent/child relationship takes us right to the heart of local politics, for example. This is a humane revealing and important book and a major contribution to African studies.”

Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies

“ … it is a masterpiece of historical writing, incorporating a diverse array of oral and written sources. beyond being definitive, it is also an engaging read.”

Africana Journal

“This is one of those very rare books that can be recommended with equal enthusiasm to the professional Africanist and the general reader. Beautifully written, with a novelist’s feel for storytelling and a poet’s sensitivity to people and places, it provides a description of two village communities, one succeeding the other, on a bend in the Namadzi River in the Shire Highlands of southern Malawi … At one level, it succeeds as a kind of African Montaillou, a book which tells a gripping story so attractively that it could be read with pleasure by many readers who previously lacked any knowledge of African history (it would be pleasant to think that an enterprising paperback publisher might snap it up and put it on station bookstalls). At another, it is a major work of Malawian history, the most informative account to have been published on economic and social change in any part of the country. Few other books I can think of so effectively capture the authentic flavour of an African community over an extended period of time. Certainly, there is none that does it with such humour and such grace.”

Journal of African History

“This is the story of Malawi told through the prism of Magomero. White writes very well, his narrative is vivid and gripping, and he unobtrusively presents the insights of modern African historiography.”

New Society

“White’s book, written with such grace and humanity, so rich in its detail, so searching in its insights, is a triumphant vindication of the importance of local, peoples history.”

The Natal Witness

“White’s well-written monography reads like a detective novel. This is not downgrading it, quite the opposite. In my opinion it is a work that starts a new tradition in historical anthropology.”


“Village studies from Central Africa have provided a significant number of social anthropology’s classics. Landeg White is not by profession an anthropologist, but he had both drawn upon this tradition of work and magnificently transcended it, in producing a historical ethnography which holds in balance both the structural forces that have shaped local society over the past century and the subjective experience of the ordinary individuals caught up in them… Magomero deserves to be widely read by anthropologists other than Africanists. For its historican perspective, its sensitivity to local perceptions of the past, and above all for the manner in which it is written, it offers a model for the advancement of ethnography.”