The Cultures of Malawi and Their Origin
Malawians are of Bantu origin comprising of various different cultural descents. The cultures of Malawi stem from different regions. Ethnic groups present in the country include Chewa, Yao, Tumbuka, Nyanja Sena, Lomwe and Ngoni. The country also consists of a small population of Asians and Europeans. Often referred to as the “Warm Heart of Africa” – Malawians typically live with extended families in village huts grouped together with a spirit of cooperation.
The Chichewa form the largest part of Malawi’s population, with its people referred to as Achewa. The language Chichewa is Malawi’s national language. The Chewa are divided into two clans, Phiri which is associated with kings and aristocracy and the Banda, associated with healers and mystics. They are considered to be from the Nyanja group of the Bantus. They mostly occupy the central and southern parts of the country. They were originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Chewa believe that all living things were created by God and the community is well known for their secret societies and masks called Nyau as well as their skill in agriculture. They have ceremonies called Gule Wamkulu, which are basically big dances associated with masks. Masks worn by the Gule Wamukulu were developed a long time ago by different tribes each with their own uniqueness which today form part of the Chewa culture.
People from this Malawian tribe are called the Ayao. They are mostly found around the southern part of Lake Malawi. The language they speak is Chiyao. This group originated from Mozambique in order to get away from the constant conflict between them and a tribe called the Makua. They clashed because of the wealth the Yao received through ivory and slave trade with the Arabs. They were the first community to use firearms in conflict. Due to their interaction with the Arabs, the Yao ruling class followed the Islam religion and adapted the practice of rice cultivation. The Arabs also provided them with sheikhs who helped in founding of mosques and promotion of literacy.
The people from this tribe are known as Atumbuka. Their language is called Chitumbuku. They originated from South Africa. The Timbuka fell victim to the invasion by the Ngoni. The conflict was about the ivory and slave trade which was controlled by the Arabs. They benefited from educational opportunities during the colonial period and have a relatively high percentage of educated people. This tribe believes in the existence of a link between dancing and healing.
The Atonga people are found in Northern Malawi. They speak the Chitonga language. They came from the north perhaps from the Maravi or Tumbuka people. They practiced fishing and had cassava as their staple food. They worked as porters or skilled and semi-skilled workers during the colonial days. The Atonga initially practiced the religion of ancestral spirits before the introduction of Christianity.
The Lomwe Tribe
People from the Lomwe tribe are known as the Alomwe and they form one of the largest four ethnic groups in Malawi. They migrated across the Mozambique-Malawi border and moved into the country towards the end of the 19th Century as a result of tribal wars in Mozambique. Their language is known as Chilomwe. They mostly live in rural areas and have farming as their main income generating activity. They are known for being talkertive and their belief in witchcraft and dead spirits.
The Ngonde and Nyakyusa
The people of this tribe are known as the Angonde and they speak Kyangonde. They originated from the north and settled near Karonga on the extreme north area of the country. Their centre is the sacred hill of the Ngonde.
Its people are known as the Angoni. They are originally from South Africa, where they fled in two groups escaping Shaka Zulu. The groups were led by Zwangedaba Jere and Ngwane Maseko. They speak the Chingoni language and the people are known for their meat eating culture and drinking of African beer.
People from this tribe are known as Asena and the language spoken by the group is Chisena.They are originally from Mozambique. It is believed that the Asena, in their fishing activities, use people’s eyes as a charm for catching more fish. For that reason, most people believe that the blind people around major towns south of the country are from the Sena tribe.
Where to visit to see Malawian culture?
The people of Malawi are known to produce very colorful art and crafts. They have many craft markets throughout the country. Visitors can view ancient paintings and traditional crafts can be found at the Chongoni Rock Art and the Kungoni Centre of Culture and Art.
Chongoni Rock Art
A lot of the farmer rock art in traditional Malawi as well as their cultural history and traditions can be found in Chongoni Rock Art. The rocks survived in their original state. The site is situated in central Malawi in a plateau area covering 126.4km2. The Chongoni Rock Art features 127 sites and contains paintings that depict the people’s rituals and initiation ceremonies. The area is a centre of traditional and religious ceremonies and the Chewa ancestors who were agriculturalists lived in the area in the late Iron Age.
The Kungoni Centre of Culture and Art and Mua Mission
The Kungoni Centre of Culture and Art, located in Mua, was established by Fr. Claude Boucher Chisale, a Canadian missionary in 1976. He devoted himself to carrying out research and subsequently preserving Malawian culture. It is an insightful and vibrant cultural centre where people get to learn more on the history of Malawi. In 2002 the Chamare Museum opened which beautiful depicts the three prominent cultures of Malawi, the Chewa, Ngoni and the Yao including their various rites of passage, religion and interactions. It has the Gule Wamukulu on display as well various paintings from local artists in the Art gallery. The Mua Mission also facilitates training for wood carvers who also sell their handicrafts and world renowned wood sculptures all over the world.
If you interested in discovering the cultures of Malawi on your next cycling holiday. We highly recommend visiting the Kungoni Centre. While on tour cyclists can stay at the Namalikhate Lodge – Five thatched en-suite chalets overlooking the Nadzipokwe river. Visitors can wander over to the Chamare Museum and Art Gallery showrooms for an interesting exploration of Malawian culture & history.