Tribal traditions

Tribal traditions

A fearsome apparition

It wasn’t quite the place to be… initiation ceremonies for boys and girls in Malawi's village communities are private matters. Outsiders are not meant to see what happens.

So when Caroline appeared with her video camera during preparations for an initiation ceremony, the stir it caused was even greater than the ruckus created by the young men in wild beast costumes. Rushing up, they were a fearsome apparition.

In this video… You’ll see a scary lion (called a Mkango in Malawi). Nyau dancers dressed as lions and other wild animals appear at initiation ceremonies for boys and girls.

Myth and mystery

Nyau dance rituals are steeped in myth and mystery.

One young man, Lamitoni Masitala, says the Nyau dancers we can see are called Ajere. Normally they dance when initiation ceremonies take place. At other times, tradition demands that the Ajere must not be seen.

For funeral ceremonies the village has Nyau dancers called Amakaka.

Time in the graveyard

After their initiation, girls live together in a simba (house) where they are taught various things, such as respecting elders and taking good care of their bodies.

Boys live in the village graveyard after their initiation, to be with the spirits of the dead. How long they’re there for varies according to different tribal traditions.

Lamitoni readily reveals such detail. But as to what happens during an initiation, that remains a carefully guarded secret.

Diverse tribes come together

Tribal culture

In this video… Caroline and Joyce describe the different tribes in Malawi – and the tribes from which they originate themselves.

As in many African countries, there is no single culture or group of people in Malawi. More than ten different ethnic groups live across the country. Each tribe has its own history, culture and beliefs.

However, they all belong to the major African group called the Bantu. This ethnic group, speaking a variety of Bantu languages (such as Swahili and Shona), are spread across central and southern Africa and form around one-third of the continent’s population.

The Bantu-speaking Chewa are believed to have travelled from Zaire and arrived in Malawi between 1200 and 1500AD in search of land for their grazing animals. Because of their agricultural knowledge and well-organised system, they soon formed the main group. Chichewa (their language) is widely spoken in Malawi as the unofficial national language. English is the official language.

Examples of Chichewa

Moni – Hello, Good morning
Muli bwanji? – How are you?
Pitani bwino – Go well, Goodbye

It's a fact…

You may notice that the name of each language derives from the tribe’s name, usually with the added prefix of ‘chi’, which means ‘language’.

Other Bantu languages are also common. Chiyao is spoken by the Yao people who live along the southern shore of Lake Malawi. Chitimbuka is the language of the Timbuka people, based in the north. There is also Chilambya (spoken by the Lambya), Chilomwe (the Lomwe), Chisena (the Sena), Chitonga (the Tonga), Chingoni (the Ngoni) and Kyangonde (spoken by the Ngonde and Nyakyusa tribes).

But although Malawians hail from different groups, they also feel a strong sense of national identity. This is reflected in the following line of the national anthem: “Join together all our hearts as one.”