Oral history holds it that over one thousand years ago, the Bantu speaking people of the area now known as Nigeria and Cameroon migrated to, among other places, the Luba area of Zaire, or what is now named the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Nyanja group of Bantu settled within the Luba area known as Malambo and conquered more lands from other Bantu peoples. Eventually, their central locality shifted from Malambo to the region of Choma; a vast mountainous and plateau region known today as northeastern Zambia and northern Malawi. In Malawi, the Chewa are predominantly concentrated within the central region, surrounding the capital city of Lilongwe, in areas such as Dedza, Kasungu, Dowa, Mchinjui, Ntchisi, Nkhota Kota Ntcheu, and Salima.
The Chewa believe that living things were created by God, who they call Chiuta. They believe this creation happened on the mountain of Kapirintiwa, which borders present day Malawi and Mozambique. To this people, ancestors and spirits of other living creatures play an important part till the present day and they carry out religious rites to be in constant contact with the living world, predominately through dance of those initiated to “Nyau” – a localised name for secret societies.
The “Gule Wamkulu”, literally meaning “big dance”, have become a sort of title that some secret societies of traditional Chewa religious practices. The Gule Wamkulu ceremonies consist of formally organised dances Admired by watchers, the dancers are praised for their remarkable physical abilities considered to be adept at their dance and as a result of their spiritual state.
Within the village, Gule may appear in small groups of 4 or 5 and villagers do their best to avoid any encounters. Gule are common in the afternoons, a strong incentive for tending to all business outside the home in the early hours. These secret societies have allowed for a close-knit kinship between members of the Chewa — and equally divided them from neighbour groups.
The Gule Wamkulu dance is performed at the headman’s requests in events such as weddings, funerals, or initiation rite ceremonies. According to local folklore, it is said that the Queen of England witnessed one of the traditional Gule Wamkulu celebration, and was so captivated she asked to take some home- a request that was unfulfilled.
Lifestyle of the average Chewa Indigene:
Within a Chewa village the chiefs are a central unit of rule. Typical homes have numerous commodities that are purchased or obtained through bartering while utensils like lamps, chairs, oil, salt, mats for sitting, pots and pans, and jewelry are commonly seen within the homes of some villagers.
Chewa rural life revolves around agricultural activities, where each family plants maize (corn), vegetables, and groundnuts – all of which are consumed within the family and only sold if there is excess. The only crop produced predominately for sale in Chewa villages in central Malawi is tobacco. Tobacco planting starts slightly before maize however, the two crops are produced during the same season.
Because of the physical structure of the village, most of the farmland is located on the outskirts, often requiring long walks to and from the fields. Because of this, there are generally small gardens, known as “dimba”, located nearby the home where vegetables and small amounts of maize are grown. If any of these crops are sold, the income usually belongs to the woman of the house.
Land ownership is determined by the village headman, and is constantly changing. With births, marriages, and deaths come changes in one’s land allotment. Sometimes a husband and wife will have their own land, while sometimes they will share, in which case the husband decides if and how to sell the excess. Traditionally, the Chewa were described as a matrilineal society, however the Chewa today include influences of both matrilineal and patrilineal leadership. Women and men are hired as Ganyu labour, and payment is usually made in maize, and is often given upon completion of a particular project.
When a couple decide to get maried, the man reports the matter to his ‘Mwini Mbumba’, local reference for uncle, or a ‘nkhoswe’ who is the head of the family. The uncle meets the bride-to-be’s uncle and they discuss the marriage. Mainly, it involves the uncle of the man giving the woman’s uncle money, clothes or any valuables known as ‘Chikole’. It’s a simple process that seals marriage deals.
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