Planting Trees: Sustainable Development

 Since the publication of ‘Inscribing the Mask’ most of the original woodland forests, planted pine and eucalyptus forests and even graveyard groves have disappeared across southeast Africa.  At the same time the vast majority of people rely on good rains to survive on smallholder farms.  Bare, unshaded earth is not sustainable for crop growth or for human life.

Research in local communities on arts, religion and society also made very clear difficulties people face every day, hardships to access clean water, firewood for warmth and cooking, food, healthcare, and shelter.

I believe local communities are key to finding solutions to reforestation, planting trees and nurturing them household by household, in gardens, in graveyard groves, beside houses, in orchards, on eroding hillsides.

Reforestation requires change, innovation in how wood is used, how cooking is done, how daily practical life goes on….

Hand in hand with planting trees is jumping technologies from electric wires and poles to accessing the constant sun across southern Africa with solar. Solar energy could transform communities still lacking access to electricity, whole towns and cities with daily blackouts, high costs to use electricty.

Solar innovations in cooking and heating that are acceptable to local communities contributes to keeping trees alive and healthy.   Solar and trees go hand in hand with sustainable development. Trees and rains, solar and power, in a renewable cycle of life!

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Laurel Birch Kilgore aka Birch de Aguilar


Laurel Birch (Kilgore) de Aguilar, PhD, FRAI  research and writing of expert reports in areas of expertise: region of Africa including Malawi, Zimbabwe and Zambia; wider regional issues in South Africa, DRC, Mozambique and issue-specific research in other African countries

ILPA and EIN Registered


Nationality and ethnicity

Customary Law, Marriage and Child Custody

Risk of State Persecution

Risk Analysis

Poverty and Rural Communities


Demographics, health indicators, life expectancy

Social realities

Country-specific histories, societies, political situation and economics

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Laurel Birch de Aguilar: Inscribing the Mask

This book presents original research of Nyau masks among the Chewa people in the central region of Malawi. Masks are created and performed by members of the Nyau society, a secretive society extending throughout the central and southern regions of Malawi and contiguous areas of Mozambique and Zambia. Masks are performed for the community ritual events: funerals, initiations, consecration of the community ritual space for a new Chief, and funeral remembrances.
The book is framed theoretically by the work of Paul Ricoeur in interpretation and metaphor. The case is made that masks are social phenomena subject to a text-interpretation, or hermeneutical method of interpretation. Combined with this framework is the central, recurring theme found throughout each Chapter and interpretation of masking: the theme of the living, the dead and the hope of rebirth in the exegesis of the masks.
Each Chapter takes a perspective on masks and masking, including performance, masks in social roles and community, historical experience, the making of masks, ritual and religious beliefs; culminationg in an overall cosmological interpretation of Chewa masks and Chewa society.
The book attempts to demonstrate that Chewa masks, with all the inherent conflicts, diversities and differing local understandings, does present a totality, a wholeness of society. This wholeness is shown to be construed from the myriad details which make up masking, accounting for change and adaptation while asserting a continuity in the central theme.

Laurel Birch de Aguilar is an Honorary Lecturer at the School of Philosophical and Anthropological Studies of the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. Research for the book was conducted by the author over the previous ten years, including five periods of fieldwork in Malawi, and doctoral studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. She has published several articles and poetry, and co-authored a publication for the Organizing for Development International Institute (Washington, DC; 1993).

Laurel Birch de Aguilar: Inscribing the Mask. Interpretation of Nyau Masks and Ritual Performance among the Chewa of Central Malawi. 280 pp., ill., 1996. ISBN 3-7278-1064-5. sfr 60,-

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Honorary Fellow, Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh


Chair, Malawi Famine and Community Development Project, Charitable Trust 2002/3 to present

Organized food aid directly into rural communities in 2002/3 and 2005 famines in Malawi

Cross Party Committee on Malawi in Scottish Parliament 2008-2011

Scottish-Malawi Partnership higher education committee 2007 to 2011

Fellow, Royal Anthropological Institute 1996 to present

Researcher, Centre for Study of Religion and Politics 2006 to present

African Studies Association, Arts Council 1988 to 2000

Research Associate, Organizing for Development International Institute, Washington DC 1988 to 1995

IBF Consulting (Europe) 2008 to present


PhD London School of Oriental and African Studies, African Art 1996

MA Antioch University, Anthropology

BA DePauw University, English



Expert Witness/reports for Court 2006 to the present

Registered Expert for the Court in United Kingdom for cases involving Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe and southern Africa.  Reports cover opinion on issues such as risk of persecution, political situation, customary marriage and customary law, ethnicity and nationality. Research and writing reports for 100 cases.

Chancellor College, Malawi 2009

Fellow, Scotland Malawi Partnership Higher Education fellowship exchange 2009

Served as Fellow in Chancellor College, Malawi for semester September 7 to end November 2009

Taught course in Department of Fine  Art on Malawi art and culture, presented public lecture, and lecture to fourth year Theology students on Nyau society in Malawi as religion.

Personal project in Department of English to edit and discuss novel based on Malawi with Dean of English

Participated in initial meetings and formal signing of agreement between University of St Andrews and Chancellor College for joint PhD degree program

University of Edinburgh 2004-present


Honorary Fellow, Centre of African Studies 2008 to autumn 2011

Board member, Centre of African Studies 2007-2009

Consultant: development project in medical education, University of Edinburgh and College of Medicine Malawi 2008

Project creating computer-based virtual patient cases for medical professionals in the local context

Part of team in April 2008 and returned on own to follow-up on the progress of patient cases June 2008

Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh

Organisation of large fundraising dinner event 2007

Participate in Centre projects, seminars and conferences

University of Edinburgh Development Manager 2004-2006

Writing proposals for funding from Trusts and Foundations

University of St Andrews 1996-2004

Honorary Lecturer, University of St Andrews School of Philosophical and Anthropological Studies, 1996-2004

Created new course in Anthropology of Art at honours level (third and fourth year honours students) that attracted students in anthropology but also art history, philosophy, geography, international relations, history and other disciplines

Taught honours course in Regional African Ethnography from classic detailed ethnographic anthropological studies in the British Social Anthropology tradition to current topics including anthropology and health/AIDS, development issues, urban and rural differences, literature and culture, ethnicity, politics and gender

Taught second year kinship and first year introductory lectures.

Consultant/Development 1990-1994

Consultant and Associate for Organizing for Development International Institute 1990-1994

Research and publication of monograph (1993) on gender, decision-making and local governance in African rural communities for Norwegian Foreign Ministry

IBF Consulting associate (Europe)


Field Research

Research/study/work periods in developing countries/Africa: 1984-1986, 1988, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1996, 2002-2003(five periods of development/famine aid) 2005 (aid), 2008 (education project) 2009 (Fellow in African University) 2014 (observed Presidential election)  India: 2008, Chile: 1998, 2000, 2002 Egypt: 2006 India/Tibetan exiled government: 2008

Museum Collections

Exhibit of collected Nyau masks and pottery in North Carolina Museum of Art: 2017

Collection of Nyau Masks and local objects for British Museum 1992

Three objects in permanent exhibition at present, exported with permission of Department of Antiquities

Smithsonian Museum of Natural History Africa exhibit: Focus on religious expressions/masks

Research, photos and Kasiyamaliro mask in permanent exhibition (1999 to present)

Photo of mask for US Department of State Embassy in Zambia (2011)

Selected Paper Presentations/Seminars/Workshops


Chancellor College Malawi 2009: ‘Face of the Spirit: African art as religious art’

Harvard University, Africa Studies Triennial paper presentation, ‘Patronage, Price and Market’  2004

‘Morality, Gender and Art-Making in Time of Famine’ Washington DC African Studies Association paper presentation 2002

Paper accepted: University of Florida ‘Inculturating Nyau’ African Studies Association 2007

African Studies Triennial paper presentation and panel chair, Virgin Islands, ‘Face of the Spirit: religion, gender and art’ 2001

African Studies Triennial paper presentation New Orleans:  ‘Clay and Metaphors of Womanhood in Malawi’  1998

Stirling University guest speaker, ‘Nyau Masks in Malawi’ Post Colonial Workshop 1997

Satterthwaite Colloquium, Lake District, in British social anthropology 1998

Archaeological Society of St Andrews, guest speaker 1996

University of Iowa Africa Triennial Panel Chair and paper presentation: Arts of the Maravi panel, ‘Kasiyamaliro’ 1991

Duncan Jordanstone, Dundee University guest lecturer (three times) 1999-2000

Seminar speaker: School of Oriental and African Studies: London, Anthropology seminar, History of Africa seminar and African Art History seminar 1993




Selected Academic Publications



‘Inculturating Nyau arts in Christian Paradigm’, Material Religion, Taylor and Francis, May 2015, original 2009

‘Metaphors, Myths and Clay Arts in Malawi’, African Art UCLA Spring 2007

2011, Cultural Sociology of Middle East, Africa and Asia: ‘African Autocratic Governance’, Sage Publishers London, Washington DC, New Delhi, Singapore,Thousand Oaks California

2011, Cultural Sociology of Middle East, Africa and Asia: ‘Regional African Ethnography 1900 to the present’, Sage Publishers

Conversations: ‘Inculturating Nyau: indigenous objects in Christian interpretations’ In Material Religion, peer review journal, article for special edition on Africa  (accepted and now in press)  2009

‘Art, Age and Cosmology: Narratives of Self and Society’ In Rethinking Age in Anthropology Vol II ed. M.I. Aguilar, Africa World Press, Trenton New Jersey 2007

‘Metaphors , Myths and Making Pots: Gender and Chewa art’

Special edition, African Arts international journal, peer review, Spring 2007, University of California (UCLA) Berkeley

Inscribing the Mask: Ritual and Performance among the Chewa of central Malawi, Anthropos Institute and University of Freiburg Press, Switzerland 1996

Nominated by publisher for Arnold Rubin book award

‘Hierarchy, Gender and Power’ In Anthropos Journal (peer review journal) Frankfurt, Germany 1995

Women’s Organizing Abilities: case studies in decision-making, gender and governance in Malawi and Kenya, co-author M.I. Aguilar, Organizing for Development International Institute (ODII) Washington DC and Norwegian Foreign Ministry 1993 (available on web since 1994)

‘Youth, Maturity, Aging and Ancestors’ In Politics of Age and Gerontocracy in Africa ed  M. I. Aguilar, Africa World Press, Trenton New Jersey 1998

Encyclopaedia entry:  Chewa Society, ed H. Cole and M. Visona, MacMillan Press New York, 2000

‘Marking Passages in Momentary Appearance’ Baltimore Museum of Art exhibition publication ed.

Fred Lamp, Prestel Press Munich, Berlin, London and New York 2004

‘Oral History of Nyau’, ‘Chewa Community Organization’ and ‘Gule Wamkulu Performance’ in Society of Malawi Journal, special edition, Blantyre Malawi 1995

‘Mask as Man, Mask as Spirit: ritual art of the Chewa’ In Spirit of the Dance in Africa  ed. E. Dagan, Galerie Amrad, Montreal  Canada 1997

‘Dance And Metaphors in Chewa, Yoruba and Dogon Folklore’ In Spirit of the Dance in Africa ed E. Dagan, Galerie Amrad, Montreal Canada 1997

Book reviews for African Affairs, peer review British journal

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