On age and land management in Lilongwe’s poor settlements.

This post features edited excerpts from my recent report Survey of Urban Poor Settlements in Lilongwe, produced by ActionAid Malawi and the Lilongwe Urban Poor People’s Network.

Home in Chifumbe, one of the older settlements in Lilongwe

Home in Chifumbe, one of the older settlements in Lilongwe

Since when have you lived here? is not always an easy question. At least, that’s what we found when trying to get a sense of when the 33 poor settlements we surveyed were first established.

A number of reasons make it challenging to collect data on the age of the settlements. Some of the settlements have been in existence for a long period time, meaning current residents are uncertain of the exact date of settlement. Other settlements have experienced regular turnover of residents, diminishing communal memory.

In the below chart, settlements have been grouped in three main categories, which give a rough reflection on the ages of the settlements surveyed. Of note is that the majority (52%) of settlements were established in the post-1950 era, many as a result of evictions in the 1970s as Lilongwe became the capital of Malawi. A third (11) of the settlements surveyed are over a century old.

age of settlements

Data analysis shows that the age of a settlement increases the likelihood that land in the settlement is managed in a customary fashion (as opposed to by the City Council): having settled before 1900 compared to settling after 1951 increases the likelihood of a settlement having customary land management approximately 13.5 times. This suggests that the age of a settlement could be seen as a proxy for the strength of traditional authority, making older settlements more resistant to land ownership claims by the City Council.

On the topic of land management, respondents were asked who the land the settlement is located on belongs to. Responses were largely divided between land belonging to the City Council (55%) and land being held customarily (42%). Only one settlement (Mgona) indicated differently, stating that the land the settlement is located on is railway land.

Railway tracks going through Mgona settlement in Lilongwe

Railway tracks going through Mgona settlement in Lilongwe

It should be highlighted that the responses are based on perception of land ownership; land in some of the settlements who indicated that land is held in a customary fashion may formally belong to the City Council. As such, it is useful to consider how land in the settlements is actually managed, specifically, whether or not Chiefs play a role in allocating land.

Just over half (52%) of the settlements indicated that local Chiefs either allocate or sell land in the settlement. Of the settlements in which Chiefs play a role in land management, ten (59%) fall into the Rural category, six (35%) into the Transitional-2 category and only one falls into the Transitional-1 category. The one Rural settlement that did not indicate that Chiefs sell or allocate land was Kasengere, where respondents stated that no land remained for sale or allocation by Chiefs.

Chiefs, by contrast, do not play a direct land management role in any of the Urban settlements and 80% of Transitional-1 settlements. Chiefs do also not play a land management role in 45% of Transitional-2 settlements.

Nevertheless, Chiefs retain authority in all settlement categories: 90% of settlements indicated that Chiefs ‘always’ witness land transactions. The reason Chiefs do not witness land transactions in three settlements (Chifumbe, M’bwetu, Federation) is because land is not sold in these.


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