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    Jess Brendan



      The Chewa are a Bantu ethnic group native to central and southern Africa living in the extreme eastern zone of Zambia, Malawi, northwestern Zimbabwe and Mozambique. They share many cultural features with their Bemba kinsmen to the west and are bear close relationship with people in surrounding regions such as the Tumbuka and Nsenga. Historically, they are related to the Bemba and they share a similar origin in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.



      The Chewa people pride themselves on being the largest indigenous group in Malawi with over 1.5 million of the 18.9 million population in Malawi and over 11 million scattered abroad. It is not a surprise that Chichewa, their language has been adopted by the Malawians as the official language.



      One peculiar feature of the Chewa people is their secret societies, called Nyau, mainly known for their masks as well as their agricultural techniques. They love to make use of the masks so much as they present organised dances known as “Gulewamkulu” during the Nyau secret society festival.



      In their culture, women have a special place in the society and belief, which means, the tribe gives prominence to women. They are recognized because of their ability to produce children in the lineage (Bele), which is an extended family of people related to the same ancestor. As a matrilineal society, inheritance of properties and land rights comes through the mother. The mother of the house own income from the sale of crops.



      Like most other African tribes, the Chewa tribe have a very rich culture which they still hold on to of which marriage is not an exception. Before any move can take place, the process must begin with the would-be husband and wife where the man must first express his marriage intentions with the girl he wants and make sure she accepts to marry him.



      However, if the girl accepts, which is normally after some resistance, it marks the beginning of the relationship. This process is known in Chewa as Kufunsira mbeta. According to tradition, it is understood that a woman is not supposed to accept love proposal from a man without little resistance. And if she does without little resistance, then the woman is regarded to be of loose morals.



      After both of them have agreed to get married, the next thing they do is to inform their parents of their intention. The relatives of the boy send a delegation to the parents of the girl with a message to request the girl’s hand in marriage. The delegation is traditionally known as Thenga.



      Discussions are not conducted unless the delegation first pays some money to initiate the discussions. This process is known as Chijula Mulomo, which literally means “The price for opening the mount”. The delegation usually consists of the uncle of the would-be husband and other relatives, not the direct father.



      The delegation is received by the uncle of the girl, accompanied by other elderly men of his side. When it is established that there is a relationship between the boy and the girl, then negotiations for engagement start in earnest. The negotiation process involves the bride price, known as Chiongo, which is debated until a reasonable amount has been agreed upon.



      Traditionally, Chiongo was usually paid in form of heads of cattle but nowadays, it can paid in form of cash because of the scarcity of cattle in the village. The payment of Chamlomo is a token of appreciation to the parents for bringing up their daughter.



      Also important to note is another another price that is paid known as Mkhuzi. The amount for this varies from one situation to another but according to tradition, it used to be one cow or bull. Literally, the Mkhuzi means a piece of cloth that is used for tying the stomach immediately after giving birth. This is the money paid to the mother of the girl as compensation for the painful experience she went through during the period of giving birth to the daughter who is getting married.



      Another important payment is the Chibanda or Fuko, which is money or cattle, (usually a heifer) to be paid by the prospect would-be husband. This is an amount paid to the family of the girl in appeasement of ancestral spirits so that the new family is not disturbed by the evil spirits. In completion of the negotiation process, a date is set for payment and wedding. Before the wedding can take place, at least half the amount must be paid.



      After the payment of the traditional rites, there will be processes to prevent the new bride from falling pregnant in a short period of time. The lady will be dressed in strings of beads around the waist (Mkuzi) while waiting for Mkangali, which is the last stage of a chief’s initiation ceremony in the Nyau cult. Without much process, the chief would summon a meeting with elders and plan for an initiation day. After setting a day aside, elderly women will be called and informed about the initiation ceremony.



      In preparation for the ceremony, lots of activities are involved which includes gathering firewood, preparing finger millet (mawere) and making of flour. In the meantime, the new bride is taught how to dance Chisamba as well as how she is expected to sleep with her husband, taking cognizance of what is expected of her in marriage.



      Early in the morning on the initiation day, the girl will be taken to the initiation place where counsellors known as Namkungwi, from all the neighboring villages had converged. These counsellors are summoned by the counsellor from the girl’s village with the aim of coaching the girl on cooking, sleeping, dancing as well as other traditional practices.


      Meanwhile, the husband-to-be is also put in a house with a counsellor traditionally known as phungu. There he will receive advices on the cultures of married people as well as taboos and how he is not supposed to have sexual intercourse with the wife when she is in her menstrual periods. Later, he will be summoned for rituals that will involve him laying facing the ground and the counsellors carrying him and throwing him around. This process is known as kuponyerana ngati mpira.



      Before the commencement of the initiation ceremony, the chief is expected to get namatula, a payment to the village chief seeking permission to conduct a wedding, and if this is not given, then the woman remains a spinster until another man who is interested can bail her out, thus displacing the first interested man.



      The initiation ceremony usually take three days to complete. The first day is called Chiuluulu, when the lady is dressed up to the waist, exposing bare breasts and on the head dressed in strings. The man is dressed in mtemwende, a piece of cloth like a nappy with a hat of a higher class on the head.


      After the three days completion of the rituals, the man and the woman will then be free to live as husband and wife in their matrimonial home.

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