The Indigenous Chewa People

Ethnonyms: Chinyanja, Nyanja Countries inhabited: Malawi, Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe Language family: Niger-Congo Language branch: Bantoid

The text and photographs on this page are copyright by Amy Gough.

Chewa photograph. There are presently over 1.5 million Chewa throughout Malawi and Zambia, however the Chewa are not considered people of Malawi, nor people of Zambia, but people from the Nyanja group of Bantu. The history of the Chewa people includes a number of stories of fact, tradition, ancestral beliefs, and spiritual influence creating the modern day Chewa culture. Legend holds that over one thousand years ago, Bantu speaking people of Nigeria and Cameroon migrated to — among other places — the Luba area of Zaire, or what is now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Nyanja group of Bantu settled within the Luba area known as Malambo and conquered more and more land from other Bantu peoples. Eventually their central locale shifted from Malambo to the region of Choma; a vast mountainous and plateau region known today as northeastern Zambia and northern Malawi (formerly Nyasaland). In Malawi, the Chewa are predominantly concentrated within the central region, surrounding the capital city of Lilongwe, in areas such as Dedza, Kasungu, Dowa, Ntchisi, Mchinjui, Ntcheu, Salima, and Nkhota Kota.

In the 1700s various ethnic groups began to occupy Malawi. The Chewa people, according to tradition, have remained outwardly peaceful with these groups. Rather than battle other ethnic groups, the Chewa have chosen to distinguish themselves from other groups through region, language, and culture. Chewa, defined as "Bantu speaking people" and classified as the Nyanja group of Bantu, speak what is known in Malawi as "Chichewa". Although English has been the official language in Malawi since 1968, Chichewa has remained the national language, meaning present day Malawian culture includes significant Chewa influence. For the Chewa, this is empowering — meaning education systems, healthcare, publications, governing boards, and radio broadcasts all utilize Chichewa, opening a wide opportunity of exposure to an outside world. The Banda woman pictured dancing on the right, for example, has watched four of her children attend school in the closest major city.

Man-made borders are useless to people whose culture originates from descendants of a different type of unity. Perhaps the Chewa now consider their identity as Malawian and Bantu, or perhaps they have simply learned to fulfill the duties of a number of identities in order to better their own livelihood. Although Malawians demonstrate comparatively strong national unity, the Chewa have not lost their tribal unifications and divisions. Within the Chewa there exist various clans; cousins if you will. The Banda and Phiri clans, for example, represent some of the largest groups, evident through the popularity of this clan name as a surname. Traditionally, stories also hold that the Chewa themselves came from a merge of the Banda and Phiri clans.

In 1891, the Queen of Britain proclaimed what is now Malawi as a protectorate. Malawi received independence in 1964, and fell under the leadership of Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda and the Malawi Congress Party (MCP). Dr. Banda, a Chewa himself, declared himself president for life and ruled until 1994. Dr. Banda's leadership style had often been criticized for its similarities to dictatorship. He did, however, maintain peaceful relations with many non-African and African countries — notably South Africa. Taking no stand on the events permeating South Africa, Dr. Banda's leadership style created opportunities for many Malawians to venture outside Malawi in search of work. Since 1994 the country has remained under the leadership of Bakili Muluzi and the United Democratic Front, in what is titled a multiparty democracy. In addition to the Malawi Congress Party and the United Democratic Front, the Alliance for Democracy (AFORD) emerged after the country's democracy as a significant political party. The political boundaries are simplistically the south, central, and northern regions, with the central, Chewa, region predominately supporting the MCP.

Chewa Traditions

The Chewa believe that living things were created by God — Chiuta — on the mountain of Kapirintiwa, which borders present day Malawi and Mozambique. Ancestors and spirits of other living creatures play an important part in present day society by being in constant contact with the living world, predominately through dance of those initiated to "Nyau", or secret societies.

"Gule Wamkulu", literally meaning "big dance", have become a sort of title for secret societies of traditional Chewa religious practices. The Gule Wamkulu ceremonies consist of formally organized dances to admire the remarkable physical abilities of these individuals — considered to be adept at their dance as a result of their spiritual state. Informally, Gule Wamkulu, or "Gule" is a term associated with anyone who participates in the rituals of these secret societies. The peak season for Gule occurs in July, with young men dressed as ancestral animals, trees, or in masks of ancestral spirits. The Gule themselves are initiated through formal ceremony into this society. Gule are considered to be in 'animal state' when they are dressed in such attire, and are not to be approached. If one has the misfortune of passing a Gule on the road, traditional behavior consists of dropping a few coins for the Gule — never handing them the money directly for fear they will grab you and take you to the cemetery for ritual purposes. Generally, it is best to avoid Gule in informal situations. In their animal or ancestral state, they are unpredictable.

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 neighbor groups.

In a village known for its abundance of Gule's, I once made the mistake of making my way back home in the late afternoon. As the Gule's ran through the village, I ran too — into the opening door of a stranger. A local village woman who did not know me flung open her door offering her home as a sanctuary. Together we watched — unable to speak each other's language — as the Gule ran past her window. I understood that it is not only the Gule Wamkulu themselves who receive the feeling of community, and solidarity, but also they who provide such to the rest of us.

The following day I planned to leave the village, but villagers suggested I wait a few more days until the festivities of Gule's had passed. By doing so, it was anticipated that during my two-mile journey to the main road I would encounter fewer Gule's. In my urgency to leave, I summoned the help of a middle-aged man who had an 'exemption' from Gule harm. The man was lucky enough to own a bicycle and he traveled quite frequently to town. Because he was at risk for increased interaction with Gule, he had requested to witness the Gule ceremonies. After paying a small sum of money, he had become a sort of honorary Gule, to whom no harm would come. He had "bought the way". But he still would not accompany me on my journey to the main road. "I will take you in two days; I don't want money to take you now... wait two days and we will go". Take me in two days he did — and our trip was Gule free!

Formally, the Gule Wamkulu dance is performed when the headman requests such festivities, generally corresponding with weddings, funerals, or initiation rite ceremonies. The dances are a great source of celebration, and although the mystery and excitement still surrounds the presence of the Gule Wamkulu, the community reacts to their show with great giddiness and giggles. There are a number of traditional dances of the Gule Wamkulu, all performed for various events. The "Zilombo", or masked dancers, perform with extraordinary movements and energy, wearing elaborate traditional masks and attire. According to local folklore, It is said that the Queen of England witnessed a traditional Gule Wamkulu celebration, and was so captivated she asked to take some home; a request that was unfulfilled.

Chewa photograph. Chewa photograph. Masks worn by the Gule Wamkulu include thousands of different representations — generally each developed hundreds of years ago by unique tribes, and accented with their own individual touch - for example one accenting bright colors, one dark. Today, these masks, with their different origins, are part of what is now the Chewa culture.

The female version of Gule Wamkulu, called Chisamba, occurs for female initiation rituals. During this ceremony a woman is taken into a private room, and instructed by her elders of how to be a proper woman. The solidarity of these women does not diminish after the ceremony, but rather is rooted during this event. The celebratory Chisamba dance accompanies this event. Historically, a number of initiation practices have been involved — today these words of wisdom and celebratory event comprise the event.

The presence of Christian missionaries has resulted in large numbers of converts throughout Malawi — although this was not always the case. In the 19th century, converts to Christianity from all tribes were often asked to cut all ties with other Chewa. It is believed that Christianity among the Chewa has increased in part because of the Dutch missionary influence since the mid 1980's. However, the Gule Wamkulu, the Chewa language, and the Chewa traditions appear deep rooted among these people, and changing their spiritual beliefs doesn't appear to have taken away their traditional ceremony — maybe it's only taken away those willing to do so publicly.

Chewa Village Life

Within a Chewa village the chiefs are a central unit of rule. Village life is somewhat self-contained, although not independent. Typical homes have numerous commodities that are purchased or obtained through bartering. Lamps, chairs, oil, salt, mats for sitting, pots and pans, and jewelry are commonly seen within the homes of some villagers. Chewa communities cover a vast land area and individual communities have progressed at their own pace. Those near the main road, for example, have increasingly adjusted to outside influence while those closer to the lake have developed a dependency and connection to utilization of this body of water. Chewa photograph.

Chewa rural life revolves around agricultural activities geared towards increasing production of maize (corn), vegetables, and groundnuts. All of these crops are used for consumption, and any excess is sold either within the village or occasionally at the increasing markets scattered along the roadside. The only crop produced predominately for sale in Chewa villages in central Malawi is tobacco. Tobacco is started slightly before maize, however the two crops are produced during the same season. This time of year, during land preparation, planting and maintaining crops, and of course the tremendously important harvest, provide focal points for the year.

Because of the physical structure of the village, most farmland is located on the outskirts of the village, 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. Landowners are considered to be of higher status, however owning more land means working more land, and this often requires hiring additional labor. This informal employment consists of hiring neighbors to work as "Ganyu" or informal laborers. Women and men are hired as Ganyu labor, and payment is usually made in maize itself, and is often given upon completion of a particular project. Ganyu labor is essential to the functioning of the village, and creates a strong interdependency on one another.

Chewa photograph. Children are also a valuable source of labor, with young boys beginning to assist in farm activities around the age of six or seven. Young girls are also valuable to the functioning of these activities, as they are responsible for the laborious chores of fetching water, caring for younger children, helping their mothers cook, clean, take maize to the mill, and look after the sick. In addition, women and children laboriously process the staple crop of maize into the commonly eaten "Nsima". Nsima requires much preparation; first the maize is dried, sorted, pounded, and finally cooked into a pasty patty. Routinely prepared with whatever vegetables are available, Nsima is eaten with the hands and used as a palate with which to scoop up the rest of the meal. Shown left is an elderly woman, a proud grandmother or "Agogo", in her routine of pounding maize.

Since planting generally occurs around November, with the harvest seen near June, the days in between are filled with laborious work for adults and children. From June to October, however, the days are sometimes long and filled with much more free time. All households are required to spend a certain amount of time participating in activities that enhance village life — sometimes construction of the church, work on an elderly person's land, or simply assisting as instructed by the village headman. In today's modern day Chewa villages, the option exists to replace the community service hours with a simple payment to the village headman, intended as a contribution towards the community project. Aside from community service, some village women will engage in additional income generating activities, such as the sale of small goods (usually from the house garden), or occasionally crafted or handmade goods.

Chewa photograph. Men sometimes will seek outside employment, perhaps working for daily salary in the nearby tea plantations of central Malawi, or involve in making and selling bricks, which are burned in ovens like the one shown to the right. Often times, however, these months are filled with hardship. Households struggle to make sure their maize supply will last through these months, and to avoid the downfall of disease.

Formal village events generally include typical celebratory and mourning activities — birthdays, weddings, ritual transitions into adulthood, and the ever increasing funerals. All celebrations are elaborate, and it is at these events that the spirit of traditional Chewa culture comes to life — that is, the spirits of Chewa ancestors, and revered animals — come to life.


Within Malawi itself, children are provided free education — excluding uniforms, books, pens, paper, and other school supplies. Within rural schools the qualifications of teachers varies, with a recent emphasis on promoting a requirement for all teachers to be college educated. A majority of Chewa girls and boys participate in school activities when they are not involved in other activities. Children are not in school during the harvest time, as they are a valuable source of labor. Before planting, however, school is in full swing — often without many of the students. Predominately, male students are instead found participating in activities of the Gule Wamkulu. Chewa photograph. Due to the secretive nature of the Gule Wamkulu group itself, it is inappropriate for parents or teachers to scold children for not going to school during this time.

The picture on the left shows a group of young Gule Wamkulu celebrating their ancestry through costumes reflecting their spiritual relationship to the animal world. Just before planting season, the Gule Wamkulu presence is most abundant and the festivities are ablaze. In this village, not even the teacher, pictured below, could confront these students, her own students, about their absence from school that very day. Presently, schools do not formally consider the schedule of the Gule Wamkulu in curriculum design. Chewa photograph.

Chewa children are responsible for a number of important household responsibilities. They are also responsible for a number of cultural activities — and wouldn't consider rejecting these responsibilities! Since the arrival of free education, the numbers of children in school for at least part of the year has dramatically increased. In fact, children have even been graduating from high school.

What will happen now? In these villages, prestige is measured by the amount of maize you can produce. Finding employment often means leaving one's village for nearby urban havens. With an education, will these people be able to find work? Perhaps not in the village, but instead in the town. What then will happen to the village, and the culture that is carried on inside the village?

Photography and text © 2004, Amy Gough. All rights reserved.

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Citation and References

Gough, A. (2004), The Indigenous Chewa People. The Peoples of the World Foundation. Retrieved April 18, 2024, from The Peoples of the World Foundation. <>

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