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Zambian Cultural Heritage – Chewa People – Their History and Culture

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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 the Chewa is Chichewa and Chichewa speaking people 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 one ruler – His Royal Highness Kalonga Gawa Undi. But when the colonialists came and created national boundaries, the Chewas were separated and found themselves living in three countries with different colonial masters. Zambia and Malawi fell under the British colonial rule while Mozambique belonged to Portugal.

However, the Chewa continued to recognise themselves as one despite colonial rule and new country boundaries. The traditional Zambian Chewa headquarters are in Mkaika, Katete and today ceremonies (in particular the Kulamba Ceremony) take place every year that bring the leaders of all three countries together.

The Chewa people are known for their love of farming and in particular for their craftsmanship – the women for their pottery skills and the men for their skills in making bamboo basketry, hoes, axes, arrows, reed mats and palm tree leaf mats. The men are also good hunters and fishermen and these skills are believed to bring honour to manhood. The Chewa are hard working people who are known to despise any form of laziness believing that it leads to the demeaning practice of begging.

The sacred sites of the Chewa

  • The royal cemetery at the Mano headquarters in Malawi
  • The shrines at Msinja and Mankhamba
  • The grave of Undi Chisakamzondi who dies whilst travelling in Mozambique
  • Kaphirintiwa in Malawi where marks in the rocks resembling human and animal footprints which is believed to be the place of creation
  • The ancestral graves at the Mkaika Traditional Headquarters

The Chewa clans

The original two main clans were the Banda who historically were healers and mystics and the Phiri who were said to the aristocracy. Other clans are:

  • The Mbewe’s known to enjoy the delicacy of mice eating (although the Phiri’s and Banda’s will also enjoy this delicacy)
  • The Kwenda clan which comes from the word ‘mkwenda’ which means ‘the stripper’. The tail suggests a man from the Phiri clan inappropriately stripped his sisters’ clothes whilst travelling – the rest is history!
  • The Mphandwe clan who are an offshoot of the Banda clan. The story goes that a man eloped with a woman of his clan (a disgraceful thing to do) and as a result wanted to be known as Mphandwe not Banda
  • The Mwale clan from the word ‘kumwalira’ which means ‘to die’. History suggests there was a bloody fight between two groups of people because they shot an animal and could not agree on how to divide the head.
  • The Linde clan from the word ‘kulinda’ which means ‘to watch’. This was the group who did not join in the above fight but instead watched over the carcass of the animal that was being fought over.

Leadership and political organisation

Interestingly the traditional Chewa social structure is matrilineal – property and land rights are inherited from the mothers and it is the woman’s bloodline which keeps the lineage alive. The traditional Chewa leader is usually male but the descendance is carried through the female side deriving its identity from the woman and villages are made up of matrilineal relatives by marriage.

The overall Chewa leader is known as the Kalonga Gawa Undi who is in charge of all Chewa chiefs who in turn supervise village headmen. Kalonga Gawa Undi has the following meaning:

  • Kalonga: ‘one who identifies and installs office in others’
  • Gawa: ‘one who allocates land and shares wealth with others’
  • Undi: ‘one who protects citizens, keeping them under his wings as a bird protects its young’

Those in line for leadership compete for their Chieftainship right but contrary to popular belief this does not necessarily mean conflict. Wise chiefs will select a nephew as their successor and send out their other nephews to establish subordinate chiefdoms. In fact, this system has avoided major dispute for centuries.


The Chewa people will take offense if they are mistaken for the Nyanja because this propagates the colonial misinterpretation of their origin. Though the Nyanja and Chichewa languages are similar they are different and to say they are one and the same denies the validity of the Chichewa language.

Another taboo is to mention, call or write the birth name of the successor to the Kalonga Gawa Undi. The office of the Kalonga Gawa Undi must be seen to never die. Before the burial of the Kalonga Gawa Undi his successor is chosen by the royal family and the birth name of his successor is ceremonially buried together with his forerunner. The name of the current Gawa is therefore simply Kalonga Gawa Undi XI.

This article is inspired by the book ‘Ceremony! Celebrating Zambia’s Cultural Heritage’. It’s fabulous and a visually pleasing book which I would encourage you to get. I got mine from ZAIN in Lusaka, Zambia. It is published by Celtel Zambia PLC and Seka. Original photography, 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’ll find local tourism service providers particular helpful.

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