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Gule wa Mkulu captured during a presidential rally
Gule wa Mkulu captured during a presidential rally | © Lisa Vintulla / Malawi News Agency
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An Introduction to Malawi’s Chewa People

Picture of Mphatso Katona
Updated: 12 May 2018
The Chewa people have a cultural, spiritual, and social background that distinguishes them from other ethnic groups in Malawi. When the name ‘Chewa’ is mentioned, what often comes in the minds of many people is a masquerade dance known as ‘Gule wa mkulu‘. Also known as ‘Bantu’, Chewa people have a population of about 1.5 million in Malawi and in neighbouring Zambia.

Originally, the Chewa migrated from Nigeria and Cameroon and settled in Zaire (today’s Democratic Republic of Congo) before coming to Malawi and Zambia in the 15th century. In Malawi, Chewa people settled in the districts of Dedza, Kasungu, Dowa, Salima, Nkhotakota, Ntcheu, Mchinji, and Lilongwe in the central region of Malawi. Chewa people differ from other ethnic groups of Malawi based on language and places of settlement.

Girls presenting their chewa culture at kulamba ceremony-pic by Lisa Vintulla
Young Chewa girls at a Kulamba ceremony | © Lisa Vintulla / Malawi News Agency

Language

Chewa people speak Bantu, which in Malawi is locally described as ‘Chichewa’. Chichewa is the country’s national language, which is predominantly used for communication in the media and education system among other platforms. Although other tribes, such as the Tumbuka, argue as to why Chichewa is nationalised, the language is still considered the official language of the people of Malawi.

Traditions

The Chewa are highly respected among other ethnic groups because they are perceived be people who know magic charms and use its powers to destroy the opposition. Their famous dance, Gule wamkulu, or ‘Nyau’, has been described as a ‘cult’, or secret society full of magic powers. The masked men of Gule wamkulu are considered to be ‘Zirombo’ (animals or spirits) and are greatly feared. The masks portray dogs, crocodiles, lions, or ancestral spirits, and are worn in graveyards or river streams far from the community. The masked men have names like Chazunda and Ng’ona (Crocodile). Kang’wingwi, another name, is well known for putting human faeces around his mouth and attracts flies wherever he goes. For one to belong to this secret society, they have to be initiated. Whenever people hear Gule wamkulu coming, they hide, or kneel and put money on the ground. Gule wamkulu is also regarded as a religious group and come out during presidential rallies, when a chief of the village calls for a festival, or when one of their members dies.

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Gule wamkulu captured during a presidential rally | © Lisa Vintulla / Malawi News Agency

Spiritual life

Chewa people are the believers of the god who they call ‘Chiuta’. The Chewa believes that they get in contact with the god who created all things through the spirits of their ancestors and the spirits of living animals. They believe Chiuta created all things on Kapirintiwa Mountain, located along the borders of Malawi and Mozambique. The Chewa also believe in immortality by upholding the faith that their departed ancestors still exist after death.

Social setting

Among the Chewa people, there are two predominant clans named the Phiri and the Banda. The former is well known for upholding kingship, while the latter are mainly associated with mystics and healings. Some Chewa people live in a traditional village made up of about 50 huts. Mostly, a village is made up of families that are somehow related by blood or marriage. Each village has a chief who rules over it.

The Chewa grow maize, vegetables, tobacco, millet, and nuts for food and for sales. They usually have fields away from the village where they plant a variety of crops. They also earn a living by fishing.

The king of Chewa people in Malawi, Mozambique, and Zambia is Kalonga Gawa Undi. Every year in August, Chewa people from Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique celebrate the Kulamba ceremony at their headquarters in Katete district in Zambia.

Chewa chief Kalonga Gawa Undi sits on kasusu during the kulamba ceremony-pic by Lisa Vintulla
Kalonga Gawa Undi, King of the Chewa people | © Lisa Vintulla / Malawi News Agency

Marriage

When a couple decide to marry, the man reports the matter to his ‘Mwini Mbumba’, or uncle, or a ‘nkhoswe’ (the head of the family). The uncle meets the bride-to-be’s uncle and discuss the marriage. Mainly, it involves the uncle of the man giving the woman’s uncle money, clothes or any valuables known as ‘Chikole’. Thereafter the deal is sealed.