Preserving Malawi endangered historical District Notebooks: 1891-1964 (EAP920)

Aims and objectives

This major project is a continuation of the EAP427 pilot project which identified and digitised Native Administration records (1891-1964). During this pilot project 182 District Notebooks were identified in 20 District Commissioner’s offices and registries. The major project will focus on the collection, relocation and digitisation of these notebooks.

Similarly to all other British African colonies and Protectorates, District Commissioner’s (DCs) maintained District Notebooks or Political Notebooks among other records in their Bomas (district headquarters). The idea of district notebooks came about out of the realisation that the knowledge of European officials in Africa constituted a vast reservoir of detailed information regarding local institutions and changes, which they were undergoing. Since this knowledge had not been recorded before, it was deemed important to record it in order to serve the interests of government, anthropologists and other users of information. This being the case and as a matter of rule, all British officers who served as District Commissioners were required to maintain district notebooks, which were handed over to succeeding officers until 1964 when the country became independent. Over the period that Malawi was under British rule, several district notebooks were generated in twenty district offices.

The system of district notebooks, termed as registries de renseignements politiques, was also used in the Belgian Congo and the French territories. Common subjects dealt with in the district notebooks included handing in and taking over notes, tribal history, notes on population and statistics, succession and inheritance, native social beliefs and customs, health and sanitation, economics, labour, natural history, military medals, metrology etc. District notebooks are unique because they were an intermediary between orality and literacy during the formative years of the colonial administration where British officers documented tribal customs and histories as narrated by non-literate tribal leaders and historians. District notebooks contain rare information about specific districts in Malawi and arguably, there are no single records that comprehensively portray developments in Malawi’s administrative districts during the colonial period than the district notebooks.

Because of the information, which they contain, these notebooks are highly valuable to the nation. Tribal histories, cultural values, beliefs, practises and relationships, which are recorded in the notebooks have helped and continue to help shape the Malawian society. In addition to providing valuable primary source of information on various aspects of Malawi’s socio-economic history during the colonial administration, district notebooks assist in resolving conflicts bordering on inheritance, land and chieftaincy.

After independence, the meticulous system of generating and maintaining district notebooks was discontinued by the Malawian District Commissioners. Today, a bulk of the country’s pre-independence district notebooks have been identified at various districts including registries and district commissioner’s offices. In 1939, the colonial office noted that district notebooks in the Belgian Congo were more systematically maintained than many of the British district notebooks.

Later in 1960, Curtin’s survey of archives in Tropical Africa revealed that nowhere had local government records, the majority of which were district records, survived completely (Curtin, 1960). Recent studies on records management in Malawi and National Archives’s own country-wide records management survey of 2007 have shown that management of old records is generally very poor and chaotic. Old records are more often than not, dumped haphazardly in storerooms alongside other non-serviceable goods, stores and old tyres and broken furniture. It is not uncommon to find such old records being eaten by rats and termites, and also soaked in rain water due to leaking and covered in mud and dust. It is difficult to retrieve any documents from such record storage areas.

It is against this background that the major project will see to it that all the identified district notebooks are collected and transferred to the National Archives where they will be copied and digitised as one way of safeguarding their long-term preservation. Once the notebooks have been transferred to the National Archives, they will be classified, digitised and preserved safely thereby enabling researchers to access easily the digital copies of notebooks.

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