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“Dying is dying, that’s all”: Structural violence and cultural projects in Malawian AIDS proverbs

Nicole C Hayes


This paper examines three Malawian proverbs about AIDS: “AIDS came for people”, “Dying is dying, that’s all” and “It’s in the flour”. Proverbs permit Malawians to discuss the otherwise taboo topic of AIDS because they offer a special register and perform a footing shift, a rhetorical manoeuvre that allows the speaker to attribute problematic speech to someone else. The proverbs under consideration convey a sense of powerless in the face of the AIDS epidemic, which is an indicator of the effects of structural violence on the everyday lives of most Malawians. Despite the aura of timeless tradition generally conveyed by proverbs, the author argues that individual Malawians are actually using AIDS proverbs to align themselves with the pursuit of gendered cultural projects, such as multiple concurrent partner sex and transactional sex, which are not traditional at all.

Keywords: Africa, agency, AIDS, discourse, gender roles, sexuality