Chewa and other Maravi Groups


LOCATION: Malawi; Zambia; Mozambique

POPULATION: 5.8 million

LANGUAGE: Chichewa; English

RELIGION: Protestantism; Roman Catholicism; traditional beliefs; Islam


The Chewa, one of the Bantu peoples, live in central Malawi. They are also found in parts of Zambia and Mozambique. Together, the Chewa and related peoples are known as the Maravi group. In the sixteenth century, the Maravi were the first group of Bantu peoples to move into present-day Malawi. The Maravi first settled at the southern tip of Lake Malawi. They then moved to different parts of the country. The group that migrated westward into central Malawi and eastern parts of Zambia came to be known as the Chewa.

The era of the European and Arab slave trade during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries nearly destroyed the Chewa. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Malawi was colonized by the British. It became known as Nyasaland. Malawi gained its independence in 1964 under the leadership of Dr. Kamuzu Banda, a Chewa from central Malawi. Dr. Banda ruled Malawi as a dictator for thirty years. In 1994 democracy was finally restored in a dramatic but peaceful transition. Dr. Banda lost the elections to the United Democratic Front led by Bakili Muluzu.


Malawi is a long, landlocked country in east-central Africa. About the size of North Carolina, it stretches for about 560 miles (900 kilometers) from north to south. The great variety of terrain, including mountains, plains, valleys, and plateaus, in such a small area results in dramatic variations in climate, soils, rainfall, and plant and animal life. The high Lilongwe Plains are the heart-land of the Chewa people and the site of Lilongwe, Malawi's capital.

The Maravi, including the Chewa, account for 58 percent of Malawi's total population of 10 million people (or a total of 5.8 million Maravi).


Nyanja is the main language of the Maravi. It evolved during the colonial era as the standard language of government and education. There are two main dialects of Nyanja. Chichewa is spoken in the central region of Malawi, where most of the Chewa live. Mang'anja is spoken in southern Malawi. Chichewa is understood widely throughout the country. English and Chichewa were made the national languages of Malawi by Dr. Banda's government. English is still the main language of business and government. However, few Malawians speak it. It is taught in schools as a second language.


Chewa storytelling and songs are central to their customs and beliefs. Much of their folklore dwells on drought, fire, famine, and rainmaking.

One of the central figures in Chewa myths is Mbona, a rainmaker among the Mang'anja of Southern Malawi. The story of this mythical hero resembles that of Jesus Christ. He was the only son of his mother, conceived without a man. Like Christ, he performed miracles (in this case, bringing rain in times of persistent drought). Finally, he was killed by his own people. The story of Mbona has developed into a sacred oral text.


The main religion among the Chewa is Christianity, brought by Catholic and Protestant missionaries in the nineteenth century. Most Chewa follow both Christianity and their own traditional religious beliefs. Their native religion involves a single supreme being. Also important is honoring the departed spirits of ancestors, or Mizimu .

One key aspect of traditional religion is the all-male Nyau secret society, which performs traditional rites of passage.


One of the major holidays in Malawi is Independence Day on July 6. Each year, roads in urban areas are decorated with the Malawian flag. In the daytime, there are political rallies and speeches by politicians. Many women wear the colorful Malawi Congress Party uniform or the current ruling party's yellow colors. The festivities are followed by a night of feasting and dancing. Another significant secular holiday is March 3. This is a day for remembering those who died during the struggle for independence. Prayers are offered in churches throughout Malawi, and somber music is broadcast on the radio.


Devout Roman Catholics and Protestants mark major life events, such as birth, marriage, and death, within the Christian tradition. However, in much of Chewa society, traditional rites of passage are still an integral part of growing up. Generally, Chewa and Mang'anja boys between the ages of twelve and sixteen are initiated into a semisecret society called Nyau , "The Great Dance." This association of masked dancers parades through the villages portraying the spirits of the dead. A Chewa man must belong to the Nyau society to attain full adult male status. During initiation, boys are secluded in the bush for instruction and discipline for about three days.

Girls between age nine and age sixteen undergo a series of puberty and initiation rites known as chinamwali. This may be a church-sponsored initiation ceremony that provides religious instruction, or it may be a traditional initiation ceremony, which can last as long as two to three weeks. Young girls are taught traditional customs relating to sexuality and reproduction. Usually the women of the village accompany the young girls into the bush. There they put them through a course of teasing and instruction. Each evening they return to the village for dancing and feasting.

Even in rural areas, weddings are increasingly being conducted in churches. For those who can afford it, the bridegroom wears a Western-style suit while the bride wears the typical Western white wedding dress with a veil.


To greet each other, men and women of the same age group shake hands vigorously. Hugging is not common in Malawi. When one receives a guest it is customary to prepare food, preferably a chicken. It is considered rude for guests to decline food, even if they have already eaten. A younger person is supposed to bow or look to the side, or even squat on the ground, when being addressed by an elder. Kissing in public is frowned upon. Before initiation, girls and boys are encouraged to play together. After initiation, they are supposed to stay apart until married. However, in urban areas modern dating is quite common.


The majority of the Chewa live in rural areas with little access to health care facilities, schools, or electricity.

Types of housing are determined largely by location and the availability of building materials. Huts are either circular or oblong with wattle (woven-stick) walls, plastered outside and inside with mud, and roofed with thatch. However, it is not unusual to find modern, rectangular houses in rural areas. These are made of bricks and cement, with corrugated iron sheets for the roof, timber doors, and glass windows. In urban areas such as Lilongwe, housing is in short supply. The majority of people are forced to live in shanty towns and other low-income housing.


The Chewa have a matrilineal kinship system. This means that inheritances are passed down through the female line. Children are considered to be members of the mother's lineage, and are thus under the guidance of maternal uncles (their mothers' brothers). Young people choose their own marriage partners. However, the marriage cannot be recognized as valid without the approval of the maternal uncles.

Fertility rates are very high. A woman can expect to bear seven children during her reproductive years. Children provide much needed labor in herding livestock and farming. They also serve as a means of social security in old age.

Divorce is quite common and rather simple. Polygyny, the practice of having more than one wife, used to be common. Now only about a third of Malawi males over the age of forty have more than one wife.


In urban areas, women usually wear a skirt and a blouse or a colorful modern dress. In rural areas, women commonly wear a loincloth tied around the waist, and a blouse. Men wear pants, shirts, shorts, and occasionally a suit. Middle-income professionals are always dressed in Western-style suits. Under Malawi's former government, women could not wear slacks, shorts, or miniskirts. Men could not have long hair. This dress code was repealed in 1994 under the democratically elected government of Bakili Muluzu.

12 • FOOD

The Chewa diet consists mainly of nsima, a thick porridge made from corn flour. It is eaten with a side dish called ndiwo, made from leafy vegetables, beans, and other ingredients. Nsima with ndiwo is usually eaten only at dinnertime. Pregnant women are forbidden to eat eggs for fear of bearing bald-headed babies.


Mtedza (Peanut Puffs)


  • ½ cup butter or margarine
  • 2 Tablespoons sugar
  • ¾ cup finely chopped peanuts
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 cup flour
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 to 2 cups powdered sugar


Preheat oven to 325° F .

  1. Beat butter (or margarine) and sugar together until fluffy.
  2. Add peanuts, vanilla, flour, and salt and mix well to form a soft dough.
  3. Roll dough into balls about the size of small walnuts.
  4. Arrange balls about 1-inch apart on a well-greased cookie sheet.
  5. Bake for 35 minutes.

While the balls are still hot, roll them in powdered sugar. Allow to cool on a rack. Roll cooled balls in powdered sugar again before serving.

Snacks can include roasted cassava, roasted corn, sweet potatoes, sugarcane, or wild fruits. Even wild insects such as roasted grasshoppers, flying termites, and caterpillar skins are enjoyed as snacks. Every year in late fall (around November) the parks in Malawi are opened for people to go in and collect caterpillars under the supervision of the park rangers. Full-grown caterpillars are collected. The caterpillar's insides are removed, leaving only the skin. The skin is dried in the sun. The dried skins are salted and eaten, like peanuts or pretzels. A recipe for another popular snack, mtedza (peanut puffs), is at left.


Malawi's education system is patterned after the British model. There are three tiers: primary, secondary, and tertiary. At the end of the four-year secondary school program, students take the Malawi Certificate Examination. Those with the top scores may then attend the University of Malawi. Literacy rates have improved over time. However, they are still very low by world standards. Only about a third of females and a little over half of males aged five years and over are able to read and write.


The Chewa have a rich music and dance heritage. Songs are sung at initiation rites, rituals, marriage ceremonies, and during post-harvest celebrations. There are puberty songs, praise songs, funeral songs, work songs, beer-drinking songs, and coronation songs for chiefs.

Several traditional dances are also popular among the Chewa, especially during weddings and other festivals. For example, mganda is an all-male dance performed by about fifteen men. They sing and dance in unison following a complex series of steps. The female counterpart of mganda is chimtali, usually performed at weddings. There is also the all-male Nyau masquerade dance at initiation and funeral rituals. The masked dancers are accompanied by several drummers and a women's chorus.

Makhanya is a dance for girls and boys (or women and men) to perform together. It may be performed at weddings, or upon the completion of religious rituals, or in the evenings just for fun. The dancers form two lines, a girls' line and a boys' line. The two lines face each other, while everyone sings and claps their hands. A boy dances forward to a girl opposite him. He tags her, and she then dances back across to tap a boy. He dances back across to the line of girls and the dance continues in this way.

Internationally recognized Malawian literary figures include poet Jack Mapanje, historian and novelist Paul Zeleza, and others.


Approximately 90 percent of the people in Malawi live in rural areas where subsistence farming is the primary economic activity. They grow a variety of crops such as corn (the staple food crop), beans, sorghum, peanuts, rice, pumpkins, cassava, and tobacco (the main cash crop). Only a quarter of the labor force are employed in urban jobs.


Soccer is the main sport throughout Malawi. The Malawi national team has won a number of regional championships. Every Saturday and Sunday, thousands of people converge on Civo Stadium in Lilongwe to watch various clubs play skillful soccer. Even in rural areas, soccer is the most common sport among school children. Basketball is also a growing sport.


Traditional dancing provides a source of entertainment in rural areas. In urban areas, young professionals flock to Western-style clubs and bars. Reggae, disco, breakdancing, and rap are popular in bars and beer-and dance-halls.

There are no television programs broadcast in Malawi. However, upper-income families may own a TV and VCR in order to view rental movies.


The Chewa have a rich tradition of basketry and carved masks. Large, intricate basketry masks known as Kasiyamaliro and Chimkoko are used in men's initiation rituals.


Malawi's fifteen ethnic groups live in relative peace and harmony with each other. Under the government of Bakili Muluzu, human rights conditions have improved. However, economic conditions, particularly inflation, have gotten worse because of drought in the early 1990s. Other contributing factors are economic mismanagement and corruption.


Lane, Martha S. B. Enchantment of the World: Malawi . Chicago, Ill.: Children's Press, 1990.

O'Toole, Thomas. Malawi in Pictures. Visual Geography Series. Minneapolis, Minn.: Lerner Publications Co., 1987.

Schoffeleers, Matthew J., and Adrian Roscoe. Land of Fire: Oral Literature from Malawi . Limbe, Malawi: Popular Publications, 1985.


Internet Africa Ltd. [Online] Available , 1998.

Southern African Dev'ment Community. [Online] Available , 1998.

World Travel Guide, Malawi. [Online] Available , 1998.

User Contributions:

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Great info on Malawi! Needed it for research paper! It's even cooler in Japanese! ^_^
the word or name Isam chewa word . If so what does it mean because me and my frendz are having an arguement on what language it is and wat does it mean?hope you will be of great assistance..
how christianity came in malawi coz islam is only a religion ruling in malawi
Note that this data, though very helpful, is 25-30+ years old. The Chewa Tribe is now thought by some to consist of as many as 15 million.

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