Reflections on Folk Classifications

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Living in a largely oral culture it has to be recognized that Malawians have no standardized terminology when it comes to insects, and the names given to insects vary widely. Not only are there ethnic and regional variations throughout the country - these are detailed in the appendix -but there are numerous cases of interchangeable synonyms, even with regard to a single individual. Thus both mafulufute and nyamu may be used to signify the thief ant Carebara vidua; either pherupheru or gulugufe may be employed to refer to adult butterflies and moths; gonondo and kafadala both signify snouted beetles. Moreover, there is often wide variation, both local and personal, in the pronunciation and structure of generic terms. The common cricket, for example, may be referred to as chijosolo, kalijosolo, kajosolo or nakajosolo. The taxon for the larger grasshoppers and locusts dzombe likewise has many synonyms; nazombe, sombe, nyadzombe, khwiya, as well as chiwala, which alludes to the brightly coloured hindwings. As ecological relationships are often emphasized, a specific association of an insect with a particular plant, such as the castor oil shrub nsatsi (Ricinus communis), will link together under the same term insects of diverse orders - in this instance the grasshopper Abisares viridipennis and the edible caterpillar Nudaurelia wahlbergi. The term itself may be variable - masatsi, nakasatsi, kam 'satsi, chansatsi. Given the nature of Bantu languages, and the desire of many Malawians to be helpful and practical, local people will often coin their own names for insects. A small grasshopper with reddish wings will be described as chafiira (fiira, red), an insect that is common in low-lying marshy areas chadambo (of the 'dambo'); a bug that emits an unpleasant smell, such as Nezara spp. chinunkha (ku-nunkha, to smell); the snouted beetle will be called chifadira - although most people use the generic Kafadala (ku-fa, to die). These may be valid names, but are highly idiosyncratic. Those I have listed in the previous section are the ones more widely recognized in the Shire Highlands, the outcome of discussions I have had in the field with numerous people. It is however common for people to use the singular term very rarely when discussing insects: thus Yao-speakers rarely use lupeu and/or litendeu for the cockroach and social wasp respectively, but always use mbeu and matendeu. Likewise Nyanja-speakers described the social wasps as mabvu and very rarely use the singular (dabvu, babvu). (In what follows, where the terms used for a species among Yao-specific speakers and speakers of Nyanja (chewa) differ, the former will sometimes be found differentiated by a bracketed upper-case letter Y following the name, and the latter by a bracketed upper-case letter C.)

In the classification of plants in Malawi, many intermediate, functional categories are recognized, relating to potency medicines, relish, latex or ecological niches or relations (Morris 1996: 40-5). But with insects few intermediate taxa seem to be evident, and the many generics are unaffiliated to any life-form category - apart from the general class of small useless organisms (kachirombo). Many of the generics, however, are widely used as general rubrics to cover several insects within a particular domain, or 'covert' class. Thus chitete is used as a general category to cover all grasshoppers of the three main families (Pyrgomorphidae, Acridae and Tettigoniidae), although I never heard the taxon used to describe the four species of crickets. Similarly, ntchenche covers many of the more conspicuous flies (of which there are several hundred species in Malawi, belonging to more than twenty different families); while nyerere is often utilized as a general category for ants. As with the classification of plants, certain species are seen as prototypes or exemplars of a particular generic. Thus the common katydid or cone grasshopper Homorocoryphus vicinus is widely known as bwanoni (syn. noni), and is familiar to all Malawians, as it is an important insect food, rich in proteins and fat. This is the true bwanoni (weni-weni, 'truly'), recognized by most Malawians by its pointed head and long slender antennae. But other similar grasshoppers may also be described as Bwanoni, such as Tylopsis rubrescens and Pseudorhynchus pungens, and less knowledgeable individuals may even describe Acrida spp. as bwanoni because of their similar size and appearance, even though they are quite distinctive, with characteristic short, blade-like antennae. The latter genus is more widely known as chigomphanthiko ('to peck at the porridge stick'). The importance and psychological reality of prototypes has been stressed in cognitive studies (D'Andrade 1995: 115-21), but they are also evident and salient in everyday folk classifications of insects. For insect generics tend to have a core reference - njuchi is the honey bee Apis mellifera - that is then extended to less familiar but similar species - such, in this instance, as the leaf-cutting bees (Megachile spp.).

Equally common is the use of the term nzache (neighbour, relative) to describe the relationship of an unknown insect to a more familiar generic. Thus the unusual, but rather uncommon, grasshopper Cymatomera denti-collis may be described as nzache wa bwanoni. When classifying insects - and Malawians are usually ready and eager to name, describe and differentiate the various forms of insects - people tend to use the terms gulu and mtundu, which may roughly be translated as kind, sort, tribe or assembly. As with the Nuaulu, Malawians clearly seem to operate with a concept of 'natural kinds' (cf. Ellen 1993: 68), although this in no way precludes a fervent interest also in the insect's activities, habits, ecology, and relationships - particularly in regard to what they eat. As with the mammals, amadya, 'it eats' is commonly invoked when people describe insects. Equally importantly, when discussing insects people clearly recognize the existence of morphotypes within a generic, and often allude to the name that it is given in another region or language. Thus someone will describe the tombolombo (dragonfly) as a creature (kachilombo) that flies and lives near water, and is given the Lomwe name mweteteri. They will suggest that it often feeds on winged termites, capturing them on the wing, and drinks with its tail (dragonflies deposit their eggs in this manner), as well as noting that there are many different forms. In discussing such morphotypes they invariably refer to colour - agrilini (green), amangamanga (spotted), ofiira (red), or akuda (dark, black). But such distinctions have little real cultural significance.

As with plants, people's knowledge of insects, in regard to both nomenclature and usage, is extremely variable. Many Malawians living in urban areas have very little knowledge of insects, and some people found it incredible, or highly amusing, that I should even know the names of such insects as mafulufute or chiswambiya. To ascertain the extent of and variations in people's folk knowledge of insects I conducted interviews with fourteen people I knew well - indeed, some of them, such as Salimu Chinyangala and Helen Mgomo, I have known for over twenty years. I questioned them on 64 common insects that I had collected and preserved, belonging to the following groups:


Dragonflies 1

Cockroaches 1

Mantids 1

Grasshoppers and crickets 18

Lacewings 1

Bugs 7

Beetles 16

Flies 3

Butterflies and moths 2

Wasps/bees 7

Ants 7


The people were of varied background: four were women, two were local herbalists (sing'anga), the ages varied from 25 to 65 years, and although all were living in the southern region they came from diverse ethnic backgrounds - Nyanja/Chewa, Yao, Lomwe, Ngoni. They were all essentially subsistence cultivators, though some had supplementary occu pations, and they all spoke little or no English. What I learned from these intensive interviews with selected friends was what I had intuitively understood from wider contexts and observations. The results may be briefly summarized as follows:

• There are many insects that are clearly recognized and named by everyone, and whose habits and ecology are well known. These include:

Periplaneta americana Mphemvu


Philonomon luminans


Brachycerus Labrusca

Namtundira M'Nunkhadala





Giant cricket

Gastrimargus africanus {

Yellow winged grasshopper

Platypleura brevis {

Gulumamina Nyenje



Brachycerus nr Labrusca {


Snouted beetle

Eumetia cervina

Gonondo Ntemankhuni

Common bagworm


Xylocopa nigrita {

Carpenter bee

Carebara vidua {

Thief ant

Anomma nigricans {

Red driver ant

• There are also many insects that are clearly familiar to people, but for which the names that are given tend to be variable, as a result of either ethnic or regional variations or personal proclivities. Knowledge of the habits of these insects also tends to be variable - and sometimes quite limited. Examples are:

- Polyspilota aeruginosa, the barred mantis, which has been described under several names - chiswambiya, chikasachiwiga (Y), chiswamphika, chilandamkphuno, gogofuno, chiswambali;

- Belonogaster junceus, the social wasp, which was similarly described by several names - mabvu, matendeu, mphang'ombe, mabvunkhomo; and

- Mutilla dasya, the mutillid wasp, variously described as mwayi, chisulu and nthumbatumba.

• It is also evident that many insects, although common and widespread and fairly conspicuous, are not recognized or named by Malawians -who generally know little or nothing about their ecology and habits. These include, in particular, many beetles. For example:

Goliathus albosignatus {

Goliath beetle

Anomalus heraldicus {

Grey beetle

Taurhina splendens {

Flower beetle

Catemerus rugosus {

Moss beetle

Lycus constrictus {

Orange net-winged beetle




It is evident that cultural factors influence - but do not determine - our perceptions of insects: and that these arthropods are not named simply because they exist in the life-world. • Finally there are many insects that are known and have a recognized name - and even usages - but that are unfamiliar to many people -either because of local distribution, or because they have little relevance to the people concerned. These include insects such as the blister beetle, dzodzwe (Mylabris dicincta), the giant water bug, Lethocerus niloticus - which is often aligned to the jewel beetle, nkhumbutera; the green long-horned grasshopper, chigomphamthiko (Clonia wahlbergi), and the ichneumon wasp, namlondola (Osprynchotus gigas). Most people I interviewed recognized and named around 75 per cent of the insects shown to them.

While there are gender variations in the ethnobotanical knowledge of plants and fungi, as I have shown elsewhere (Morris 1987b, 1996), there seems little difference between men and women in the recognition and knowledge of insects.

What is of interest, however, is that there appears to be little or no relationship between the folk classification of insects, and their edibility status, certainly not in terms of the concept of 'anomaly'. In spite of the criticisms I made long ago of the theory of classificatory 'anomalies', put forward by Leach (1964) and Douglas (1966), which postulated that those animals that are considered impure and inedible are those that transgress a 'symbolic order' or classificatory schema (Morris 1976, 1987a: 203-10), this theory is still bandied about as if it were a valid hypothesis (Douglas 1999; Bowie 2000: 50-2). But none of the insects considered by Malawians to be inedible and described as bad (woipa) are classifica-tory 'anomalies', at least not in terms of their folk classifications, although they may be seen as impairing people's social well-being. As with the Hebrew classification of 'unclean' birds - all of which are either scavengers or birds of prey, and were not anomalous according to their symbolic schema - most of the insects not eaten in Malawi are explicable in terms of material considerations. They are either predators, such as chigomphamthiko (Clonia wahlbergi) and the mantids (Polyspilota aeruginosa), which are not considered to have a good taste; or they are considered harmful and 'poisonous' (an English word commonly used by Malawians), such as mtemankhuni (Eumetia cervina), bvimbvi (Enyaliopsis petersi), dzodzwe (Mylabris dicincta) and namtundira (Tefflus cypholoba); or they are associated with faeces and human waste, such as chidyamamina (Gastrimargus africanus), chitutamanyi (Garreta azeurus and associates) and mphemvu (Periplaneta americana). Certain insects, if eaten, are said to cause deafness, and so are described as gontham'kutu ('deafen the ear'). As was noted earlier, these include some winged termites, as well as the crested grasshopper chansatsi (Abisares viridipennis). Cultural factors are clearly important in interpreting dietary rules; but social practices rarely if ever simply follow or replicate some cultural logic, or symbolic and classificatory schema (Holy 1986: 9; Morris 2000: 42-3).

The importance of the classifications, as Darrell Posey (1983) long ago suggested, is that they serve as a guide to culturally significant domains, and point to the crucial social and cultural practices of a community. The remainder of this study will be devoted to exploring the importance of insects in the social and cultural life of the matrilineal people of Malawi.

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