Wondering thoughts about Chewa chiefs presser against Chakwera


Let me begin by introducing myself as a full-blood Chewa whose tribal name in Ntchisi translates as “philosopher” or “smart thinker” and “to Chewa” means “to philosophise.”My family roots are in Kasungu (paternal) and Ntchisi (maternal).

This other evening, before dozing off into deep sleep, I picked up a newspaper, like I usually do, just to catch up on what I might have missed on what was covered by the press. Just like everyone else, it was a pleasure to see, in one of the dailies, my own chiefs, 13 Chewa chiefs, sitting under one roof to give guidance to me and my tribesmen on how best we should look at the political stalemate between the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)-led government and the Leader of Opposition in Parliament who also happens to be the President of the main opposition party, Malawi Congress Party (MCP), Lazarus Chakwera. It was particularly pleasing to see Chief Lukwa of Kasungu, whom I fondly call “Atate” each time we meet, on this panel of chiefs. But, what was most pleasing to me was to see the Paramount Chief Lundu, one of the most senior Chewa (also called Nyanja or Mang’anja) chiefs among his brothers and sisters from the Central Region representing a horde of other Chewa chiefs in Southern Region among them Tengani, Malemia, Chigalu, Likoswe, Kunthembwe, Namkumba, Kasisi, Mbenje, Kawinga, Mpinganjira, just to mention some. You see, each time I meet or see Chief Lundu, my tribal history becomes complete and this day was no exception.

So, as soon as I saw the picture of Chewa chiefs in a presser, my wondering thoughts, like they always do, automatically switched back to over 500 years ago when, history tells me, the early Chewas, under the leadership of a succession of Phiri-clan chiefs known by the title “Kalonga”, came to Kaphirintiwa, a hill situated in the modern-day Dzalanyama Forest, 60km west of Lilongwe City, on their way from modern day Democratic Republic of Congo (some say eastern Zaire) through Choma, Chewa Hill (whose exact location has not yet been located) and Kapoche in modern-day northern Malawi. Let me digress a little, I have once spent a whole week in Dzalanyama Forest. During my honey moon over 20 years ago. There is a nice house there for those who care to know!


Chewa historians will tell you that Kaphirintiwa Hill is, to the Chewa people, what Mount Sinai is to the Jewish people because it is at the foot of Kaphirimtiwa where much of what the Chewa are known for today was conceptualised. They will tell you that the Chewa people came to Kaphirintiwa Hill in Dzalanyama Range when the rock that forms the hill was molten and the footsteps you will find on top of that hill are of first Chewa man and woman and of various wild animals with which they lived in peace and harmony in the serine and untouched hill and forest. Just like the Jews received the 10 commandments from God during their sojourn at Mt. Sinai that have shaped their nationhood to this day, what Martin Ott calls “the myth of Kaphirintiwa” and I fondly call “the Kaphirimtiwa Manifesto of the Chewa People” is what shaped the nationhood of what used to be called the Maravi Kingdom. According to Ott in African Theology in Images this is the preamble of the Kaphirintiwa Myth:

“In the beginning, there was Chiuta (god) and the Earth. Chiuta lifted the sky. Below him was the earth, waterless and lifeless. One day dark clouds filled up and covered the sky. Lightning flashed and claps of thunder rent the air. The sky opened and in a great shower of rain down came Chiuta, the first man and woman, and all the animals. They landed on Kaphirintiwa, a flat-topped hill in the mountains of Dzalanyama. Afterwards the ground where they landed turned to rock, and footprints and the tracks of many animals can be seen there to this day… Plants and trees grew on the earth, yielding abundant food and God, man and animals lived together in happiness and peace…”

The Phiri-clan-led secular headquarters of the Maravi Kingdom was at Maravi (Portuguese for “Malawi” meaning “Flames of Fire”) and its Banda-clan-led religious headquarters was Mankhamba both in Msangu-wa-Machete area, next to Nadzipulu River where modern-day Mua Mission is located at Mtakataka in Dedza. During its pick in the 16th and 17th centuries, the mighty Maravi Kingdom straddled over three modern day countries of Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique. There were also some parts of Tanzania and Zimbabwe that some historians claim were part of the Maravi kingdom. It, however, started to decline in the 18th century following attacks by the gun-toting Yaos who, supported by Arabs and the Portuguese, raided for slaves and ivory and the spear-toting Ngonis who raided for women, livestock, ivory and land. For the sake of peace, the Chewas shared their land and opted for coexistence and tolerate their interlopers at the expense of their vast Maravi kingdom.Currently, people of Chewa stoke, total nearly seven million (80 percent of whom are in Malawi with 20 percent spread in Zambia and Mozambique constitute over 50 percent of the current Malawi population) and are known for five key features. Well, my wondering thoughts also dwelt on these key Chewa features as I watched the picture carrying my 13 Chewa chiefs discussing Chakwera.


Firstly, the Chewa people are known for their matrilineal-inherited centralised system of government which they must have learnt from the Luba-Lunda Kingdoms of Eastern Congo. It is through this system that, from Kaphirimtiwa, Kalonga Chidzonzi was able to acquire land from its original settlers called a Batwa or a Kafula or a Mwandionelapati who were short in stature and lacked any discernible administrative system, and share it among his brothers, close relatives and faithful followers to form what was later to be called the Maravi Kingdom. According to DD Phiri, Pachai, some personal accounts and authors, from Kaphirimtiwa in Lilongwe and later from Mankhamba in Dedza, the Kalonga spread his brothers, relatives and followers to various parts of modern-day Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia and, in return, those subjects annually brought to him tributes with which to support his afflicted subjects in times of war and natural disasters such as droughts and raids of locusts which were common in those days. Undi and his subjects trekked northwards and these are people that we currently call the Senga in Mchinji (they speak chiSenga), the Nkhotama of Traditional authority (T/A) Kanyenda in Nkhotakota, Kabunduli in Nkhata Bay (and partly Likoma) who speak chiNkhotama), the Kasungu around Kasungu Hill and Kasungu East and South (and speak chiKasungu also called chidikizya) and the Chipeta in Ntchisi, Dowa, Salima, Lilongwe and Dedza (and speak Chipeta). Each one of them have a distinct dialect of the chiChewa language. Apart from their rich chiChewa vocabulary, supported by rich web of proverbs, adages, puns, witticism, wisecracks, idioms, figurative expressions, etcetera (something that I personally see as a language fence created to keep the tribal identity, particularly the gulewankulu institution, an impenetrable dead secret to non-Chewas). The Undi Chewas in Central Region are more strongly identified with the strict and well-defined gulewankulu practices than any other Chewa group in the three countries probably because of their proximity to key Chewa centres such as Mankhamba in Dedza and Bunda/Nsinja in Lilongwe. Changamire and Mchochoma went and settled in modern-day Ntcheu. He only moved out of Ntcheu in the mid-1800s when he was attacked by the Maseko Ngoni, raiding from Domwe Hill in Mozambique. He went and settled in Mwanza and some of his people have spilled into modern-day Mozambique. Mpinganjira and his sister Sazamanja trekked to Upper Shire and lived in the area that was later to be called Mangochi, Balaka (Ulongwe) and Machinga from where they have spread to other parts of Southern Region and are collectively called the Nyanjas and speak chiNyanja, which over time, has absorbed many Yao words.

From Kaphirimtiwa, Kaphwiti was joined by Lundu, Tengani and a Chewa female prophet called M’bona and settled in the Shire Valley where, in 1616, a Portuguese explorer, called Gaspar Bocarro, met them and wrote about them as Mang’anjas for failure to call them Nyanjas.Today, most chiefs in the Shire Valley and a few in Upper Shire owe their allegiance to Paramount Chief Lundu who is the most senior and powerful chief among the Mang’anja people and they speak a Chewa dialect called chiMang’anja. The Nyanja in Zomba, Mulanje, Phalombe, Chiradzulo and Thyolo were first raided by the Yao slave traders and settlers in the 18th century. But, according to B.E. Masinga, towards the end of the 19th century, (between 1895 and 1904 to be precise) the former Yao neighbours in Mozambique, the Lhomwes, also called the Anguru, peacefully crossed into Malawi in large numbers and settled among the predominantly Presbyterian (through the Blantyre Mission) Nyanja and Muslim Yao chiefs, [as a Tikhalenawo]. The majority of them became Catholic through the Chisitu Mission station in Mulanje and worked on tea estates run by white settlers and missionaries and never acquired authority over land like their Nyanja, Yao and white masters except for burial sites in uncultivatable stretches of land. It is for this reason that, while Yao have claim over land which they forcibly acquired from the Nyanja when they came in 1790s in such areas as Zomba, Phalombe, Chiradzulu, Mulanje and Thyolo, the Lhomwe (in Upper Shire and Mulanje Mountain area) and Sena people (in the Shire Valley) have no land of their own except where individuals bought on their own. They came at the time when the land had already been shared among the Chewa of Nyanja and Mang’anja stoke and conquered by Yao chiefs (Chikumbu, Juma, Mtilamanja, Matipwili and Chiuta) the Scottish missionaries and the white farming settlers.

Secondly, related to the feature above, like I have heard about the Kumasi of Ghana, the Chewa people are known for their matrilineal heritage system. In this system, one only inherits authority over people or land or property through the mother. In other words, the Chewa system puts the woman at the centre of the community’s day-to-day life. For example, no Chewa chief is elevated to the throne without the blessing of the family’s female folk and their children (mbumbu) because the Chewas believe that the effectiveness of any leader is in his/her ability to take care of the vulnerable members of the community and women are the best people to tell a bad leader from a good one. This philosophy also extends to the marriage arrangement where they practise the matrilocal system. A person who marries a Chewa woman is expected to ‘leave his father and mother’ and live in his wife’s village (chikamwini) where her (woman’s) uncle, brothers and other kin and kith will keep a close eye on how he (the husband) treats her and the children he sires for them. To the woman’s uncles and brothers, children are the future of the village since they will inherit the authority over land and people from them. They, the woman’s relatives, have authority to kick out the man out of the village in case of failure to give adequate care to the woman, run errands for the mother-in-law and the family, sire children, open a fresh garden (kuswa mphanje) for his new family and many other reasons.

Thirdly, like mentioned above, the Chewas are also well known for their well-defined, elaborateand intricate cultural practices, particularly gulewankulu (chief dance) and strong traditional religious shrines, prophets and institutions some of which are still functioning today. Today, one finds gulewankulu in Mangochi (T/A Nankumba’s area), Thyolo (T/A Mchilamwela’s area), Chiradzulo (T/A Likoswe and Mpama areas), Mulanje (T/A Mabuka’s area), Machinga (T/A Kawinga’s area) Blantyre (T/A Kunthembwe and Chigalu’s area) and many others in Mwanza, Neno and the Shire Valley. A part from serving as a rites of passage institution, gulewankulu is also a powerful communication platform from which traditional leaders guide the day-to-day affairs of their community. For example, when the nyau in the shape of an elephant called “Njobvu” (elephant) appears in public, it means that the paramount chief or king has a message that he expects every member of that community to take heed. The message can be a warning of an impending hunger, pestilence or aggressor that everybody must prepare for. Of course, one has got to be part of the Chewa culture for them to decipher the different messages that different masks of the nyau pass on to society. M’bona’s Khulubvi Shrine in the Shire Valley, Undi’s Bunda Hill Shrine (where Bunda College is located) and Makewana at Nsinja (near Kamuzu Dam) in Lilongwe are some of the best known religious features that have bound the Chewa people, in the Central and South together over the centuries and whenever their land has been afflicted by drought, pestilence or civil disagreement, elders snick to these shrines to consult their ancestors’ spirits for solutions. Of course, the penetration of the Christian faith has drastically reduced the occurrence of such religious rituals since most of the influential Chewas have since converted to Christianity which forbids most of the traditional rituals and practices.

Fourthly, the Chewa people are also known for their immobility and love for the soil (agriculture). While other tribes such as the Yaos, Lhomwes, Tumbukas, Tongas and Ngonis have, over the centuries, travelled extensively in the region to trade in different products such as slaves, ivory, beads and cloth and work in the mines, factories and farms outside Malawi, the Chewa people have generally remained in their villages in rural areas growing sorghum, millet and the Portuguese-given maize and tobacco. The Chewas also rear small livestock such as goats, pigs, chickens and doves although little by little they have learnt to rear cattle in large numbers from their Ngoni neighbours. I learnt, while growing up in the village in Kasungu and Ntchisi, that whenever a Chewa person sees gulewankulu wearing mud, they should be reminded that their main livelihood is derived from the soil – farming and nothing else! Is it surprising that Central Region, where the majority of the people are Chewa, is Malawi’s bread basket? No. Not, at all.

Lastly, the Chewas are known for their peaceful coexistence with people from other tribes and tolerance when faced with aggression or a divisive difference of opinion with people from a different tribe or background. Every history book that one picks talks about the peaceful attitude of the Chewa or Maravi people. History books show that Chewa people only went to war in self-defensive and not in offence. This explains why, for over four centuries, the Chewas did not raise a well-defined army and when the gun-toting Yaos came, many of them were taken captive as slaves and were sold to Arabs and Portuguese in Nkhotakota (Jumbe) or Karonga (Mlozi).

In Ntcheu, Ntchisi, Dowa, Lilongwe, Dedza, Mchinji, Mwanza, Blantyre, etc., the Chewas were easily defeated by the Ngonis but in Kasungu, where Mwase got guns from Yao traders, the Chewas confronted the Ngonis in a bloody war of Nguruyanawambe that the Chewas won arms down. It is for this reason that to this day, Kasungu is the only district in Central Region that does not have even a single Ngoni chief or a chief of any other tribe. In areas where the Chewas were defeated, they regained influence over their interlopers using their powerful matrilineal and matrilocal marriage system called Chikamwini.Under this system, they ensured that a man coming to marry their daughter should leave his kin an kith and come into his wife’s village where he was required to build a house; open up a new garden (kuswa mphanje m’munda mwa apongozi); speak the wife’s language (Chichewa – chakwanu leka!); sire children and raise them into prospective chiefs (mafumu ndi mafumakazi); observe all their (in-laws’) traditions including running errands. Whenever the man failed to achieve any of these expectations, he was sent back to his home village at the earliest convenience carrying nothing in his hands since he was a failure. When he died, his relatives did not inherit anything since everything belonged to his wife and children. On the other hand, if a Chewa man went to marry an external tribe, he was expected to bring his wife into his home village under what is called chitengwa and children born in that family became Chewas in practice. This explains why in strong Ngoni district of Ntcheu, for example, chiChewa is the lingua franca and chikamwini is still well and alive.

Nonetheless, historically Chewa chiefs have always been tolerant and peacemakers. For example, they allowed the Ngonis, Yaos, Lhomwes and Senas to live among them and peacefully allocated land to them. Ntchisi, Dowa, Lilongwe, Kasungu, Salima, Dedza, Zomba, Ntcheu, Mchinji, Mulanje, Thyolo, Phalombe, Mwanza-Neno, Blantyre, Chiradzulo, Chikwawa, Mangochi, Machinga, Balaka and Nsanje are districts where you will see how tolerant Chewas have peacefully coexisted with the Yaos, Ngonis and lately Llomwes and Senas.

Now, you will understand me why I was so flabbergasted when I watched Paramount Chief Lundu, Chief Lukwa and others declaring that “no opposition politician, particularly Dr. Lazarus Chakwera of the Malawi Congress Party and Leader of Opposition in Parliament, should be given a chance to address any high-level gathering of Chewa chiefs but only the DPP-led government officials.”

My mind could not stop but wondering and asking questions to myself. All the questions were going to me first, as a full-blood Chewa; secondly, as an non-governmental organisation leader, and thirdly, as a Malawi citizen.

First, who is Lazarus Chakwera? What cause is he fighting? Secondly, what is MCP? What is its place in the history of Malawi? Thirdly, in whose interest is this ban: Malawians? Chewa chiefs themselves? The DPP-led government? Donor? Is the ban based on the “Kaphirintiwa Chewa Manifesto” or it is based on the Malawi Constitution or is it based on the Chief’s Act? What will happen if other Chewa/Nyanja/Mang’anja chiefs disregard this ban – say, in the Central or Southern Region? They will be dethroned? Fourthly, have Chewas changed their attitude to those who hold a different opinion from their own like it happened with Yao, Ngoni, Lhomwes, Senas, etc.? Is this ban for real or it is a cover-up for something else? Fifthly, is Kalonga Gawa-Undi part of this decision? What if Kalonga Gawa-Undi vetoes the decision? Well, your guess is as good as mine.

Well, these were just my wondering thoughts. “Zina ukamva”, I thought to myself, “kamba anga mwala!” Sorry, no English translation. I drifted into deep sleep.

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