Click here to listen to This American Life's radio program on the Malawian Journals Project (Originally aired 08.26.2011).
In the Malawian Journals Project, now in its twelfth year, young Malawians have been keeping diaries recording conversations among rural residents pertaining to AIDS, love, sex, illness, life, death, and more – much more. This observational field journal project provides a rare picture of responses to the AIDS epidemic. The project has transcribed so far more than 1200 journals; the approximately 900 journals written before 2008 have been anonymized and de-identified for public use (available for download below). The journals were produced by a total of 22 writers, each containing about 10-15 pages of single-spaced text. These texts constitute a unique archive not only of the epidemic in Africa but also of everyday life in rural villages at the turn of the millennium.
Until 2008, the journals project, led by Susan Watkins, was part of the larger Malawi Diffusion and Ideational Change Project at the University of Pennsylvania; and was, and continues to be, maintained by Invest in Knowledge. Subsequently, the project moved to the University of Michigan, where it is directed by Adam Ashforth of the Center for African American and African Studies and benefits from funding by the Center for African Studies, both at the University of Michigan.
Currently five journalists are working in Malawi, three women and two men. All have been working with the project since the beginning and all are, in their very different ways, gifted observers of life in their communities. One, for example, is a drinker who harvests stories from the bars and kachaso dens of Balaka Town in between bouts as a Born Again Christian when he regales us in detail with the goings on in his church; another is a devout Muslim to whom women gravitate with tales of the hardships of life. Three of the journalists now work full-time as interviewers for a large HIV/AIDS research project funded by the National Institutes of Health. One has a small stall in a village market. The fifth is otherwise unemployed. The money they receive from writing journals, though a modest sum, is crucial to their livelihoods.
In the coming year, the archive of journals written prior to 2008 will be made publicly available under the auspices of the University of Michigan through the International Consortium for Social and Political Research. More details are available in an Introduction to the Journals, written by Amy Kaler and Susan Watkins early in the project’s life; another document, Guidelines to the Journals, provides important remarks on confidentiality and editing.
 For a description of the methodology, see Susan Watkins and Ann Swidler, “Hearsay ethnography: conversational journals as a method for studying culture in action,” Poetics, 37 (2009) pp. 162-184.
For examples of publications drawing on this material, see
Kaler, Amy and Susan C. Watkins. 2010. "Asking God About the Date You Will Die: HIV Testing As a Zone of Uncertainty in Rural Malawi." Demographic Research 32: 905-932.
Swidler, Ann and Susan C. Watkins. 2006. "Ties of Dependence: AIDS and Transactional Sex in Rural Malawi." Studies in Family Planning 38(3): 147-162.
Kaler, Amy. 2006. "'When They See Money and They Think It's Life': Money, Modernity and Morality in Two Sites in Rural Malawi." Journal of Southern African Studies 32(2):335-49.
Watkins, Susan C. 2004. "Navigating AIDS in Rural Malawi," Population and Development Review, 30 (4): 673-705.
Kaler, Amy. 2004. "AIDS-Talk in Everyday Life: the Presence of HIV/AIDS in Men's Informal Conversation in Southern Malawi." Social Science & Medicine 59(2):285-97.
Kaler, Amy. 2004. "The Moral Lens of Population Control: Condoms and Controversies in Southern Malawi." Studies in Family Planning 35(2):105-15.