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Zambian Cultural Heritage – Chewa People – Their History and Culture
The Chewa people of Zambia live in the Eastern Province of the country. The language of Chewa is Chichewa and the people who speak Chichewa are Malawi and Mozambique. The reason for this is that historically before the white colonial masters came to Africa, the Chewa people of Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique had a ruler – His Royal Highness Kalonga Gawa Undi. But when the colonialists came and created national borders, the Chewas were separated and found themselves living in three countries with different colonial masters. Zambia and Malawi fell under British colonial rule while Mozambique belonged to Portugal.
However, Chewa continued to recognize itself as one despite colonial rule and the country’s new borders. The traditional Zambian Chewa headquarters are in Mkaika, Katete and today ceremonies (especially the Kulamba Ceremony) are held annually that bring together the leaders of the three countries.
The Chewa people are known for their love of agriculture and in particular for their craftsmanship – the women for their skills in pottery and the men for their skills in making bamboo baskets, hoes, axes, arrows, reed mats and mats with palm leaves. Men are also good hunters and fishermen, and these skills are believed to bring honor to manhood. The Chewa are hardworking people who are known to despise any form of laziness, believing that it leads to the humiliating practice of begging.
The sacred places of Chewa
- The Royal Cemetery at the seat of Mano in Malawi
- Shrines at Msinja and Mankhamba
- Grave of Undi Chisakamzondi who dies while traveling in Mozambique
- Kaphirintiwa in Malawi, where rock markings resemble human and animal tracks believed to be the site of creation
- Ancestral graves at the traditional seat of Mkaika
The Chewa clans
The two main main clans were the Banda who were historically healers and mystics and the Phiri who were said to be the aristocracy. Other clans are:
- The Mbewe are known to enjoy the delicacy of eating rats (although the Phiri’s and Banda’s will also enjoy this delicacy)
- The Kwenda clan which comes from the word ‘mkwenda’ meaning ‘undresser’. The tail suggests that a man from the Phiri clan inappropriately undressed his sisters during the journey – the rest is history!
- The Mphandwe clan who are a branch of the Banda clan. The story goes that a man eloped with a woman from his clan (a shameful thing to do) and as a result wanted to be known as Mphandwe not Banda
- The Mwale clan from the word ‘kumira’ which means ‘to die’. The story suggests that there was a bloody fight between two groups of people because they shot an animal and couldn’t agree on how to divide the head.
- Linde clan from the word ‘kulinda’ meaning ‘to look’. This was the group that did not join the above fight, but instead guarded the dead body of the animal that was being fought over.
Leadership and political organization
Interestingly, the traditional Chewa social structure is matrilineal – property and land rights are inherited from mothers and it is the woman’s bloodline that keeps the lineage alive. The traditional Chewa leader is usually male, but descent is carried through the female side deriving its identity from the wife, and villages are made up of matrilineal relatives by marriage.
The overall leader of the Chewa is known as the Kalonga Gawa Undi who is in charge of all the Chewa chiefs who in turn supervise the village headmen. Kalonga Gawa Undi has the following meaning:
- Kalonga: “He who identifies and installs office in others”
- Gawa: “One who divides the land and shares wealth with others”
- Undi: “He who protects the citizens, holding them under his wings as a bird protects its young”
Those in line for leadership compete for their right to the presidency, but contrary to popular belief, this does not necessarily mean conflict. Wise chiefs will choose a grandson as their successor and send their other grandsons to create subordinate chiefs. In fact, this system has avoided major disputes for centuries.
The Chewa people will be offended if they are mistaken for Nyanja because it propagates the colonial misrepresentation of their origins. Although the Nyanja and Chichewa languages are similar, they are different and to say they are one and the same negates the validity of the Chichewa language.
Another taboo is mentioning, calling or writing the birth name of the follower of Kalonga Gawa Undi. The office of Kalonga Gawa Undi is a must see to never die. Before the Kalonga Gawa Undi is buried, his successor is chosen by the royal family and the birth name of his successor is ceremonially buried along with his ancestor. Hence the name of the present Gawa is simply Kalonga Gawa Undi XI.
This article is inspired by the book ‘Ceremony! Celebrating Zambia’s Cultural Heritage’. It is a wonderful and visually pleasing book that I would encourage you to pick up. I got mine from ZAIN in Lusaka, Zambia. It is published by Celtel Zambia PLC and Seka. Original photograph, Francois d’Elbee. Coordinating author, Tamara Guhrs. Editor, Mulunga Kapwepwe. Contributing authors, Akashambatwa Mbikusita-Lewanika, Prof Mapopa Mtonga, Mulenga Kapwepwe, Isaac Smogy Kapinga, Miranda Guhrs, Msatero Tembo, Matiya Ngalande and Joseph Chikuta.
Zambia encourages tourists to witness traditional ceremonies and you will find local tour service providers particularly helpful.
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