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Autor: reviewessays 22 December 2010

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The Chewa originated in the country of Zaire, but they emigrated to northern Zambia and central Malawi where they now live. The Chewa people are the largest ethnic group in Malawi and live primarily in the Central Region. The Chewa established their first kingdom around the year 1480. There are presently over 1.5 million Chewa people throughout Malawi and Zambia, however they are not considered people of Malawi, nor people of Zambia, but people of the Nyanja group of Bantu. The major languages spoken by these people are Chewa and English, but they also speak Nyanja (they call their language Chichewa).This research will be on the Chewa people historical facts, traditions, and daily life of these people.

The Chewa people first originated in Malambo, a place in the Luba area of Zaire, where they emigrated to northern Zambia, and then south and east into the highlands of Malawi. They migrated to Malawi during the 14th or 15th century. Their settlement was somewhere before the end of the first millennium. The first Chewa kingdom was established sometime either before 1480 or after that time. By the 16th century there were two different systems of authority, one controlled by the Banda clan at Mankhamba, and the other by the Phiri clan at Manthimba. By the 17th century, around the time the В‘Malawi' state became unified, the Portuguese made contact with the Chewa. Portuguese never reach the heartland of the chiefdom, but they had well documented records that occurred between 1608 and 1667. By 1700, several В‘Malawi' dynasties had consolidated their positions to various parts of central Malawi. The Chewa people had distinguished themselves from their neighbors through language, by having special tattoo marks called "nembo", and coordinated a religious system based on the nyau secret societies.


By the 1500s, the Phiri were the paramount family. They ruled over several semi-independent chiefdoms in the eastern part of Central Africa. The Phiri people were known as the Maravi, or the "fire flames". The controlled trade in fine cloths, foodstuff, iron goods, ivory, craft items, salt, slaves, and precious metals. All the trade with the outsiders had to pass the royal capital. The Maravi received tribute from their people. The carcass of every killed elephant, the tusk that lay upon the ground and "touched the king's land" was taken to the regional chief, who passed it on to the paramount chief. He could trade it for cloth or slaves with a trader. Hunters also gave items to the chief such as red feathers of certain birds and the skins of lions and leopards. The poison parts of animals were given to the chief because he was considered immune to their lethal power.

Much of the wealth of the Maravi, just as for the Chewa people today, came from farming. The earth in their country was very fertile, and local farmers often produced surpluses for trade. Land was considered very precious. Paramounts distributed land among local chiefs who allocated it to village headmen. Food and other goods were stored to help the poor, to give as gifts to loyal local leaders, to entertain visitors, or during festivals.

The Maravi federation was at its peak during the 1600s and as it grew, it became difficult to control the more distant territories. Paramount chiefs began to run out of land to give out to new chiefs. Competition for trade and the invasion of new groups into the new region combined to break down Maravi power. By the 1700s, the Maravi federation had broken into rival chiefdoms. The Chewa are a core group that separated from the Maravi. Indivisual chiefs preferred to deal directly with Portuguese and Muslim traders in their area, rather than share wealth with the paramount chief. The Maravi continued as it weakened in the 1800s.

The Maravi rules "sold-off" disobedient subjects to slavers. They bought slaves as wives for loyal chiefs. As the Maravi Empire declined, slave hunters from the east coast of Africa began to capture slaves in Maravi territory. At the same time there was an increased demand for slaves in Egypt, Arabia, and the Persian Gulf. The slave trade had a devastating effect on African societies and their relationships with their neighbors. The Yao people lived to the east and south of Lake Malawi and had mostly become Muslim.

By the 1800s, the Yao people had become specialist in slaving and were armed with guns. From the 1830s on, the region were invaded by herds of warlike Ngoni people who were fleeing the rule of Shaka, the Zulu king in South Africa. The were organized into the military system developed by Shaka Zulu. They moved until they reached Malawi and Tanzania. They drafted young men of the people they conquered, including the Chewa people, to join their army. In the beginning they welcomed the Yao as protectors against the invading Ngoni. But the Yao slave traders began to capture slaves from the Chewa territory.

The Chewa befriended the Ngoni, because their military efficiency was useful in fighting off Yao slave traders. In 1850, a Ngoni splinter group, Maseko Ngoni, settled among the Chewa people. They forced the people to adopt their dress, dances, fighting techniques, ad marriage rules for the Ngoni. Later on, the Ngoni adopted the Chewa language and some other Chewa customs.

After the abolishment of slavery, it signaled a new era for Africans: the era of English domination. In the 1800's, they were described to the Portuguese explorers by locals as Ceva, meaning "strangers". David Livingstone traveled to the Lake Malawi region between 1858 and 1863. He sent reports about the ravages of the slave trade back to England. He encouraged the British to take control of the region and stop the trade. The Scottish and other missionaries followed him and laid groundwork to colonial domination by converting Africans to Christianity and introduced them to Western ways. By the 1890's, the Chewa land was under the control of the British Central Africa Protectorate. Britain remained in control until 1964 because of their usage of abolishing slavery. It was a great relief to many African societies, which had been severely disrupted by the curse of slavery.

During the Maravi federation, the Nyau Society united men across the divisions of families, clans, villages, and chiefdoms. It was also a political pressure group that kept the power of matrilineal groups and chiefs in check. The Nyau were scorned by missionaries and banned by the British, who seized Nyau masks and drums. As a result, they operated underground for many years. Nyau became a popular form of protest against the colonizers.

Unlike other English colonies, the area around Lake Malawi attracted few settlers. It had little mineral wealth, and Europeans thought that the climate was unlivable. The Lake itself was still a strategic possession. The English took control of the chiefs through a policy of an indirect rule. Indirect rule meant that the British used chiefs to do what the British wanted, such as performing unlikely tasks such as collecting tax. In the 1920s, the British turned the Chewa traditions and customs into "customary laws". The British rearranged Chewa traditions of authority to suit themselves.

In Malawi and many other African countries, the British demanded a "hut tax". Every house had to pay a tax. This forces the African people to begin to earn cash. The Chewa economic system never involved cashed until that point. They depended on family to farm for the food they needed and traded their surpluses for other items. Those who were unable to pay the "hut tax" were forced to work under brutal conditions on British estates. Many African's realized that the "hut tax" was like slavery: it forced Africans to work for others against their will. Rebellion in English-speaking colonies over the tax, were brutally suppressed by the British.

In the late 1800s, under the British control the economy of the Malawi region turned away from the old African trade networks. British colonies started to take an interest in the mining industry in South Africa. By the 1930s, over 100,000 Malawians were working in the mines of Zimbabwe and South Africa. One-third of the workers would not return back to their home. In 1974 was when the numbers began to finally reduce.

Unlike other African tribes, the Chewa were barely affected by white settlers or labor migrancy in the beginning. They lived on fertile soil and sold surpluses of their food to pay the taxes. But they were forced to work as porters for the British campaign in Africa during World War I. Food was in demand for the army. This caused a greater shortage of people to work on the Chewa farms, a it became a scarcity of food. Chewa farmers attempted to grow tobacco and corn for export, but they were crushed by unfair taxation and destruction of their crops.


Today, nearly all Chewa men who are not strict Christians are members of Nyau. The Nyau Society is in charge of the secrets of men's initiations. It also performs elaborate masked ceremonies at the end of boys' initiation schools, at funerals of important people, and at the installation of chiefs. Chiefs are the organizers and controllers of secret initiation sites (manda).

The manda is usually a graveyard hidden deep in the bush. The manda is forbidden to women. In the past, teenage boys spent several most or years learning the secret knowledge and proper conduct of men. Today the age of initiates are about eight or ten years old. Initiation may only take a few days. Boys initiated together form bonds and friendships with each other that last a lifetime. After initiation, members of the Nyau meet regularly in the manda to tell stories and share problems.

At initiation, Chewa boys are insulted and beaten by their teachers. Through this humiliation and their removal from the village to the wild space of the bush, the boys are symbolically "killed". They no longer belong to the world of women and girls. The boys are told to move out their mother's house when they return to the village. They live with the bachelors until they are married.

The Chewa had various forms of tradition and religion purposes. These people believe that living things were created by God(Chiuta/ Chauta) on the mountain of Kapirintiwa, which borders present day Malawi and Mozambique, during a thunderstorm. Because of the storm, the rain begins to soften of the hard surface, but as it hardens again, there are remains of footprints of the ancestors that in engraved in the rock. Ancestors and spirits of other living creatures played an important part in their society by being in constant contact with the living world, mostly through dance initiated to Nyau(secret societies). Although they believe in one creator, which is Chauta, they also believe that the living can get in contact with spirits of people and animals. Spirits of men and the wild animals converge into everyday life through a great dance (Gule Wamkulu).

A traditional religious practice that is common amongst these people is the Gule Wamkulu, which simply means big dance. The peak season for this tradition is usually during July, with young men dressed as ancestral animals, trees, or in masks of ancestral spirits. The Gules are initiated through a formal ceremony into this society. The Gules are considered to be in animal state, and dress in animal attire where they are not to be approached. It is best to avoid a Gule in informal situations while in animal or ancestral states, for they are unpredictable.

The Gule Wamkulu dance is performed when the headman request a festivity such as weddings, funerals, or initiation rite ceremonies. The dances are a great from of celebration and they have numbers of traditional dances of the Gule Wamkulu, all performed at various events. The Zilombo(masked dancers) perform with lots of extreme movements and high energy, wearing elaborate masks and attire. The Gules wears masks that have thousands of representations that were developed hundreds of years ago by unique tribes. Masked forms represent a main symbolic representation of the Chewa culture. The cosmological order of human beings, spirits and animals is represented through carved masks that take part of their ritual dance.

The Gule Wamkulu has a female version of the tradition, which they call Chisamaba, and it is the female initiation ritual. During their ceremony, the woman is taken into a private room, and an elder woman instructs her how to become a proper woman. This does not diminish the event, but it is rather uprooted instead. Accompany the event is the celebratory Chisamba dance. Representations of animal forms are also made for the female initiation ceremony, and carried on the head of the new female initiates.

Cinamwali is another female initiation into the proper behavior expected of women and mothers. The girls are secluded for several weeks in a special initiation house in order to receive the secret knowledge of the Cinamwali. This is taught by a senior woman in the lineage who specializes in women's matters and the Chewa values that apply for them. The Namkungwi teaches the girls medical, sexual, and symbolic matter known only for women. One symbolic idea learned is that women are like scared antelope which are hunted by men. A lot of Cinamwali teaching is taught through songs and dances. They are usually performed using clothed masks.

Nyau Yolemba, meaning "Nyau that draws circles", as many as ten dancers are hidden inside to carry them. They enter the village majestically, spinning in circles. Sometimes a funeral coincides with men's graduation. When this occurs, a mourning ceremony called bona is combined with the graduation. Kasiya Maliro (enland) appears toward the end of festivities, late at night. Kaisya Maliro means " that which abandons mourning" because it is the eland that dances in front of the dead person's house after the funeral. After performing this dance, the eland returns to the bush with the deceased spirit. In the bush, Kasiya Maliro is burned.

The Nyau initiates to eat the ashes of the mask. This makes one immune to the dangerous "heat" that spirits are believes to have. The death of an elder is thus tied to the symbolic "birth" of the young initiates. Through Nyau ceremonies, elder men "give birth" to young adult men, paralleling the way that women give birth to infants. The coming to the eland to the village and it return to the fire in the bush echo important symbolism in the Chewa view of creation and renewal of life. Chewa symbolism are fire and ashes connected to the rain and fertility, and the return of animals and spirits to the world to mourn together with humans.


In the Chewa society the most important family relationship is between a mother and her nkhowe, or male guardian. The Chewa rules are a man or woman must marry someone from a different lineage. When two people wish to marry, the nkhowe from both families meet to decide if it is a good match. Chewa women marry young, ages 12 to 14, and to older men. The husband is expected to build a house for his new wife, to work in the garden of his in-laws, and to make craft items for them. If a man leaves the village without his wife, or if he dies, his children are take by the wife's brother.

These people also live in compact villages as part of their daily lives. The village hierarchy is usually lead by hereditary headman and supplemented with advisory elders. Village life is almost self-contained and not independent. Typical home commodities are purchased through bartering. The physical structure of the villages causes most farmland to be located on the outskirts on the village, often requiring long walks to and from fields. There are generally small gardens, known as dimba, where vegetables and small maize (corn) are grown. If any of these crops are sold, the woman usually collects all the income for the house.

Chewas bulk of their economy comes from slash-and-burn agriculture, known as swidden. The main crops produced are corn and sorghum. The Chewa people lives revolve around agricultural activities geared towards increasing production of maize, vegetables, and groundnuts. Tobacco is the only crop predominately for sale in central Malawi. Tobacco and maize are produced during the same season, although tobacco comes first.

The village headman determines the land ownership, which constantly changes. The Chewa people are considered matrilineal society traditionally. A wife and a husband would share the land, but the man would usually be the one in charge of have to sell the excess. Landowners are considered to have a high status, but owning more land means more work on land, which lead up to hiring additional labor workers. Women and men are usually hired as Ganyu labor who are essential to the functioning of the village, the payment is usually in maize.

Children are a valuable source of labor. Young boys begin to assist in farm activities at the age of six or seven. Young girls are also valuable to activities for they are responsible for laborious chores such as fetching water, caring for young children, helping mothers cook, clean, take maize to the mill, and look after sick people. Mothers and children involved themselves in laboriously processing staple maize and put in into Nsima, which is eaten with the hands and used as a palate.

All households are required to spend a certain amount of time involving themselves in activities to enhance village life. Such activities could include construction

of a church, work on an elderly person's land, or assisting instructed by a village headman. Village woman engage in additional income generating activities such as the sale of small goods, or making crafted or handmade goods. Men would do things outside of employment, such as working for daily salary in nearby tea plantations, making and selling bricks.

The education in Malawi is free education for children. Since there is free education, the number of students in school has increased. Children are even graduating from high school with this improvement. Teachers of the rural are now having qualifications of teachers with college education. Children are allowed to participate in school activities when not involved in other outside activities. The children do not go to school during the harvest season because they make a good source of labor work.


The Chewa people are historically significant. The Maravi Empire ruled the Chewa people at one period of time. The Chewa people were a core group separated from the Maravi. The Maravi rules were supposedly superior to all and everyone worship them. They enslaved there own people and were in control until the Europeans invaded there land. David Livingstone was the one who encouraged the British to take control of the slave trade and try to colonize the land and convert the people.

The British might of abolished the slave trade, but they began to bring British ways into the Chewa and other African societies by making them by a "hut tax". The Chewa people never had to use money as a economical system. If the hut tax wasn't paid, they had to suffer consequences that made them to extra labor work, which resemble slavery. The Chewa people were forced to work to earn cash because it was needed to buy food. They also could do any thing they wanted to do with their crops because the British put unfair taxations on everything. The Chewa people were struggling in their agricultural society, and the British were conquering everything. The British began to sought after the mining industry, which men were drafted to South Africa to work on the mines.

Chewa people do a lot for their community. They make sure they keep up with traditional practices and religious beliefs. The do not neglect the fact that there is only one God, which is either known as Chiuta or Chauta, but they still do other activities to get in touch with ancestral spirits and animals. The way they involve themselves in Gule Wamkulu, reminds me of fraternities and sororities of today in America. The Gule Wamkulu is a secret society that they get initiated into and it involves ceremonial dances, just like fraternities and sororities and they have Greek step shows. It all goes to show you that a lot of what we do today goes back to African cultures.

It is also known that they work together as a community to be villagers and keep the area plentiful. They have leader who guide people in the direction they need to be. The villagers are hard working people who make sure the work get done in orderly fashions. Men and woman are labor workers, as well as young boys and girls. The Chewa people are known for their agriculture habits, making sure they have enough maize, tobacco, and other goods to keep the community harvest like it should. These people also work together by doing community service, to make sure that the country is enhanced in positive activities by villagers.

Children are now getting a better education because it is free. Since there is free education, more children are going to school and completing their education up to high school. The teachers are more educated, by now having more teaching experience by being college educated. The Chewa people promote unity within the community, making sure that work gets done and they have fun too. Overall the Chewa people are positive, hardworking people, who distinguished themselves from other tribes in Africa.