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LOCATION: Malawi;Zambia;Mozambique
POPULATION: 9,300,000 in Maravi group
LANGUAGE: Chichewa; English
RELIGION: Protestant; Roman Catholic; traditional beliefs; Islam
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 1: Mozambicans; Zambians


The Chewa, one of the Bantu peoples, live in central Malawi and spill over into parts of Zambia and Mozambique. Related groups such as the Nyanja and Mang'anja are found in southern Malawi. Together, the Chewa and related peoples are known as the Maravi group. Pushed by wars, disease, and other maladies from their original homeland around the Congo area, the Maravi were the first group of Bantu peoples to move into present-day Malawi during the early part of the 16th century. As a matter of fact, the name Malawi is derived directly from the term Maravi. The Maravi found fertile lands for settlement in the plains and valleys of central Malawi. Other Bantu groups such as the Tumbuka, Tonga, Yao, Lomwe, and Ngoni moved into Malawi long after the Maravi group had successfully established itself.

From their initial settlement at the southern tip of Lake Malawi, the Maravi began to disperse to different parts of the country. The group that migrated westwards into central Malawi and eastern parts of Zambia came to be known as the Chewa. Another splinter group moved into the Lower Shire valley of southern Malawi and became known as the Mang'anja. The era of the European and Arab slave trade during the 18th and 19th centuries ravaged the Mang'anja and the Chewa. Some areas in southern Malawi were completely de-populated. In the latter half of the 19th century, Malawi was colonized by the British and became known as Nyasaland. Malawi gained its independence from the British in 1964 under the leadership of Dr. Kamuzu Banda, a Chewa from central Malawi. Dr. Banda ruled Malawi as a dictator from 1964 to 1994, when democracy was finally restored in a dramatic but peaceful transition. Dr. Banda and his Malawi Congress Party lost the elections to the United Democratic Front (UDF) led by Bakili Muluzi, a former protégé of Dr. Banda.

President Bakili Muluzi ruled Malawi from 1994 until 2004 after two consecutive terms in office when he was replaced by his handpicked successor, Dr. Bingu wa Mutharika, in the general elections that were held in 2004. In 2002 he proposed an unpopular amendment to Malawi's constitution that would have allowed him to run for a third term, but this was abandoned due to demonstrations against him. During Muluzi's tenure as president, his administration was marred by scandal and corruption, particularly due to the sale of Malawi's reserves of maize to other countries shortly before the onset of a drought, which resulted in famine throughout the country. The millions of dollars realized from the sale of Malawi's food reserves have never been turned over, and it is widely suspected that it wound up in foreign accounts belonging to Muluzi and his supporters. Even after relinquishing power as president, Muluzi remains the head of the UDF. Soon after the takeover of government by Bingu wa Mutharika in 2004 a dispute between Muluzi and Mutharika arose. This resulted in Mutharika leaving the UDF and forming his own party, the Democratic Progressive Party, in February 2005. In contravention of the two term limit as stipulated in the constitution, Muluzi announced in March 2007 that he would seek the party's nomination as its presidential candidate in 2009. The constitution refers to a limit of two consecutive terms of five years per term. Muluzi and his supporters believe that this enables him to run again after being out of office for a term while the majority of the population believe he is barred from running as president for the rest of his life after serving the two consecutive terms. Sentiments are rife in Malawi to amend the constitution so the word “consecutive” is removed.


About the size of North Carolina, Malawi, an elongated land-locked country, is located in east-central Africa. It stretches for about 900 km (560 mi) from north to south and varies in width from 15 km to 160 km (9–100 mi) from east to west. The prominent geographical features include the spectacular Rift Valley occupied by Lake Malawi, Lake Malombe, and the Shire River; high mountains and plateaus; and high plains such as the Lilongwe Plains—the heartland of the Chewa people. Lake Malawi takes up nearly 20% of Malawi's land area.

The presence of mountains, plains, valleys, and plateaus in close proximity results in dramatic variations in climate, soils, rainfall, flora, and fauna. Because of the varied topography, the country experiences moderate and relatively comfortable temperatures throughout the year, ranging from a low of –9°c (15°f) during the cold season in June, to a high of 29°c (85°f) during the dry, hot season in October. The highest temperatures are found along Lake Malawi and in the Lower Shire Valley, which is only 70 m (230 ft) above sea level. In these areas temperatures can get as high as 38°c (100°f). Climate in the plateaus and high plains such as the Lilongwe Plains is mostly temperate.

Lilongwe, the post-independence capital city of Malawi, is located in Chewa-dominated central Malawi. Established in the early 1970s, Lilongwe has grown rapidly and boasts a population of about 744,400 people. In terms of ethnic composition, Malawi is a conglomeration of 15 different ethnic groups, with the Maravi complex (Chewa and Mang'anja) as the most dominant group. The Maravi account for 58% (or 7,540,000 people) of the total population of Malawi, currently estimated at 13 million people. Other significant ethnic groups include the Lomwe (18% or 2,340,000), the Yao (13% or 1,690,000), and Ngoni (7% or 910,000). However, Chichewa is also spoken in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Tanzania (where it is known as Nyanja or Chinyanja). It is estimated that the total population that speaks this language in these four countries numbers upwards of 9,500,000 with the majority (7.5 million) resident in Malawi. The presence of this language in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Mozambique is testament to the migration of the peoples of Malawi both during the pre-colonial, colonial, and post-independence era. During the pre-colonial era as Malawi began to fill up with people there was a Chewa diaspora into surrounding areas of Zambia and Mozambique. Once colonial rule was established, young Malawian men were encouraged by the British to migrate to Zambia and Zimbabwe to work in the mines and plantations there. The presence of a sizable population of Chewa or Nyanja speakers in the surrounding countries can be explained by these migrations.


During the colonial era, Nyanja was the unified and standardized language for government and educational purposes in Malawi (then called Nyasaland). It was and remains the main language of all the peoples who have been grouped together as the Maravi for historical and cultural reasons. Two main dialects of Nyanja are clearly identifiable: Chichewa, spoken in the central region of Malawi and extending into Zambia; and Mang'anja, spoken in southern Malawi. Chichewa has risen to become the alternate name for Nyanja; it is understood widely throughout the country and hence qualifies as the lingua fran-ca. English and Chichewa were decreed the national languages of Malawi during Dr. Banda's dictatorial rule. Although few Malawians speak English, it is the main business language and is used for official purposes in government offices and the private sector. English is also taught in schools as a second language. The persistence of English as one of the official languages of Malawi is largely due to the legacy of British colonial rule. In the post-Banda era, other ethnic groups are calling for the promotion of their languages, particularly Tumbuka, Yao, and Lomwe. These languages were suppressed and could not be aired on the only national radio during Dr. Banda's dictatorial rule in favor of Chichewa.

The pre-colonial dispersal of the Chewa peoples in various habitats and environments resulted in several dialects of the language. The Chewa people who settled along the shores of Lake Malawi and the banks of its outlet, the Shire River, referred to themselves as aNyanja, the “lake people”, and their particular variety of Chichewa came to be called Chi-Nyanja, or simply Nyanja, the language of the lake people. The Chichewa word for a large expanse of water is Nyanja. Th ose who moved into the interior, the area of tall grass, called themselves aChipeta, the dwellers of the savanna land. The word for tall grass (savanna) in Chichewa is chipeta.


The Chewa have a rich set of beliefs, customs, and practices, all of which are central to group cohesion and survival. Much of the folklore among the Chewa dates back to the era before the arrival of European settlers, missionaries, and Christianity, and the stories have survived the pressure from Westernization and Christianity. Central to the customs and beliefs is the rich oral narrative expressed in the form of storytelling and songs about daily conditions of life such as birth, death, growing up, gender roles, polygamy, and marriage. Given the fact that the Chewa are mostly rural and engage in subsistence agriculture for their livelihood, it is no surprise that their folklore also dwells on issues of drought, fire, famine, and rainmaking.

Perhaps 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 runs much like that of Jesus Christ. He was the only son of his mother, conceived without a man, and was persecuted and eventually killed by his own people after performing miracles in the form of successful rainmaking dances in times of persistent drought. The story of Mbona has developed into the Mbona cult, a sacred oral text.


The main religion among the Chewa is Christianity, which was introduced by both Catholic and Protestant missionaries in the latter half of the 19th century. It is estimated that 34% of Malawi's population is Protestant, while 27% are Catholic, 19% hold to traditional beliefs, and 16% are Muslim. Although many of the Chewa people were converted to Christianity, most concurrently adhere to both traditional beliefs and Christianity. Indigenous religion among the Chewa revolves around a single supreme being, called by various names such as Chiuta, Mphambe, Leza, Mulungu, etc., and the veneration of departed spirits of ancestors, generally termed Mizimu. It was therefore easy for the Chewa and Mang'anja to adopt Christianity, which seemed to have a similar structure to their traditional beliefs.

Traditionally, in times of calamity, the chief would offer sacrifices of beer, goats, fowl, and flour to the spirits of his ancestors at a special shrine, with all his subjects in attendance. It is not uncommon today for a Chewa to consult a traditional diviner, who might order the offering of a sacrifice in the form of a pot of beer or a chicken to avert personal calamity. One key aspect of traditional religion that has survived colonial and Christian prohibition is the all-male Nyau secret society, which performs traditional rites of passage.


One of the major holidays in Malawi is Independence Day on 6 July. Malawi obtained its independence from Great Britain in 1964 after almost 70 years of British rule. On 6 July each year, roads in urban areas are decorated with the Malawian flag. During the day, political rallies are held with speeches made by prominent politicians. Women are encouraged to wear either the colorful Malawi Congress Party uniform or the current ruling party's colors (blue for the Democratic Progressive Party or yellow of the United Democratic Front), and to perform traditional dances in stadiums for political dignitaries and all to see. It is indeed a joyous occasion followed by a night of feasting and dancing. One other significant secular holiday is 3 March, in remembrance of those who died during the struggle for independence. On this day prayers are offered in churches throughout Malawi and somber music is broadcast on the radio.


Devout Roman Catholics and/or Protestant Christians follow the Christian code of conduct in terms of baptism, marriage, and death. 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 12 and 16 are initiated into a semisecret society called Nyau, “The Great Dance.” It is literally an association of masked dancers whose masks come in all types, from wooden masks to basketry-manufactured animal likenesses, and who parade in the villages. The masked dancers portray the spirits of the dead who have returned from the grave to conduct initiation and funeral rituals. If a Chewa man has not been initiated into the all-male Nyau society, he does not command full adult male status. During initiation, boys are secluded in the bush for instruction and discipline for about three days. Each village has its own association, but membership gained at one village is acceptable at other villages.

Girls from age 9 to 16 undergo a series of puberty and initiation rites known as chinamwali, which are administered by elderly women instructors called anankungwi. In present-day Chewaland, one finds two types of girls' initiation, one that is church-sponsored and the other that is purely traditional. The church-sponsored initiation ceremony instructs girls in a Christian way. The traditional initiation ceremony, which can last as long as two to three weeks, teaches young girls traditional customs as they relate to issues of sexuality and reproduction. Usually the women of the village accompany the young girls into the bush and put them through a course of teasing and instruction, returning each evening to the village for dancing and feasting. Drums are used to create a rhythm for dancing and singing songs, some of which illustratively teach the girls the body movements performed during sexual intercourse. In the bush, the young girls are given advice about cleanliness and politeness. They are admonished not to enter their parents' bedrooms and to avoid their male friends because sexual relationships out of wedlock result in pregnancy and might lead to diseases such as gonorrhea and AIDS. It is only after the initiation that a girl becomes a woman. In traditional Chewa society, women are in charge of issues of reproduction and make a secret of it; men are never allowed to witness births and are never told how a child is born. On the other hand, men make a secret of death through their all-male Nyau secret cult.


To greet each other, men and women of the same age group will shake hands vigorously. Hugging is not common in Malawi. When a man greets his mother-in-law, he has to stay at a distance from her and greet her verbally; no handshaking between the two is allowed since they are in an avoidance relationship. A daughter-in-law, however, has a close relationship with her mother-in-law. When one receives a guest it is customary to prepare food, preferably a chicken, and it is considered rude manners for the guest to decline any food that might be served, even if he or she has already eaten. When an older person is talking to a younger person, it is considered rude for the younger person to look directly into the face of the older person. 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. It is considered an offense for boys and girls that have gone through initiation ceremonies to enter their parents' bedrooms or huts. When growing up, boys are discouraged from performing tasks that are considered women's business such as entering the kitchen, washing pots and dishes, drawing water from the well, or fetching firewood. Before initiation, girls and boys are encouraged to play together, but after initiation they should stay apart until married. However, in urban areas modern forms of dating are quite common.


Only 17% of Malawi's population is urban and very few of the urban population are Chewa. The majority of the Chewa live in rural areas in nucleated villages where subsistence farming is the primary economic activity. In rural areas there is little access to modern amenities of life such as health care facilities, schools, and electricity. Among the major debilitating diseases are malaria during the rainy season, bilharzia, intestinal worm infections, tuberculosis, measles, and, recently, the proliferation of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. It is estimated that over 16% of the adult population in Malawi is HIV positive. The general health of the population is poor, and the time spent being sick, attending curative services, looking after the sick, or attending funerals is very great for most of the people. Malnutrition of all forms and anaemia are also quite common. The primary cause of malnutrition is not a lack of food as such, but rather the prevalence of certain traditional customs and beliefs about foods, patterns of eating, food distribution within the family, sources of food for the household, methods of processing, and the general customs and value systems. The result of the poor state of health is manifested in the high rates of early childhood mortality. The mortality rate for children under the age of five currently stands at 178 deaths per 1,000 live births, and the infant mortality rate is estimated at 113 deaths per 1,000 live births. Life expectancy is low, only 46 years for men and 46.7 years for women.

There does not seem to be a particular pattern in the arrangement of huts in any given village. The arrangement of huts and the type of domestic architecture is determined largely by location and the availability of building materials. Generally, the Chewa and Mang'anja live in compact villages, which in the past were essential for defense against attack from other ethnic groups, such as the Ngoni and Yao, and occasionally from lions. The huts are either circular or oblong with wattle walls, plastered outside and inside with mud and roofed with thatch. It is not unusual to find a modern type of house in rural areas, built in a rectangular fashion using bricks, cement, and corrugated iron sheets for the roof, with sawn timber doors and glass windows. In urban areas such as Lilongwe, housing is in short supply and the majority of people are forced to live in shanty towns and other low-income areas. In the city of Lilongwe, journey to work for the low-income groups is mostly on foot, by minibus, or by bicycle. It is quite common for people to walk 10 miles round-trip to and from work every day.


The Chewa and Mang'anja are matrilineal in their kinship system. Descent and inheritance are passed through the female line. The marriage process is simple and involves the appointment of marriage sureties, called ankhoswe, with the maternal uncle as the principal sponsor. Although boys and girls choose their own partners, a marriage cannot be recognized as valid without the approval of maternal uncles. Residence is matri-local and the husband establishes the household in the wife's village. A father has no control over children born in a marriage, since such children are considered to be members of the mother's matrilineage and are therefore under the guidance of the maternal uncle.

Divorce is also relatively simple and quite common. A man can be divorced on a number of grounds such as failing to perform marital tasks, e.g., hoeing for his mother-in-law. Although rarely practiced these days, a successful son-in-law can be given a second wife if his first dies, or even while the first wife is still alive, as a gesture of gratitude for his satisfactory services. Polygamy, the practice of having more than one wife, used to be common, but its extent is hard to determine in contemporary Chewa society. National-level census estimates indicate that about 33% of Malawi males over the age of 40 have more than one wife.

Girls enter into marriage at a median age of about 17 years. Fertility rates are very high and a woman can expect to bear seven children by the time she goes through the 15–44 year reproductive age range. Having many children is considered to be very desirable since a man or woman with many children is considered rich, as are his relatives both by birth and marriage. More children serve as a means of social security in old age, and they provide much needed labor in herding livestock and farming.

In urban areas and even in rural areas, weddings are increasingly being conducted in churches and receptions usually follow soon thereafter, similar to marriage ceremonies in industrialized countries. 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.


In urban areas, women usually wear a skirt and a blouse or a modern colorful dress. The most common form of dress for women in rural areas is a loincloth tied around the waist, and a blouse. Men wear pants, shirts, shorts, and occasionally a suit. Middle-income professionals are always nicely dressed in Western-style suits. During Dr. Banda's dictatorial rule, there was a strict dress code where women could not wear slacks, shorts, or miniskirts, while men could not wear long hair. This dress code was repealed in 1994 under the democratically elected government of Bakili Muluzi. In spite of the repeal of the dress code, Malawi's clothing continues to be conservative. For women, this means skirts that do not show knees and do not fit too tightly. Malawians consider women's thighs to be suggestive, therefore they must be covered at all times.


The Chewa diet consists mainly of nsima (thick porridge) made from maize flour that is rich in carbohydrates and poor in protein. To compensate for the lack of protein in maize flour, nsima is eaten with a side dish called ndiwo made from a variety of leafy vegetables, beans, poultry, eggs, game, meat from livestock, fish, insects, etc. There are a number of beliefs, customs, and taboos that restrict certain categories of people, such as pregnant women and children, from eating certain side dishes. Because of these beliefs, diets may be unbalanced for certain segments of society, resulting in malnutrition. For example, pregnant women are forbidden to eat eggs for fear of bearing bald-headed babies. Like women, children are forbidden to eat eggs and rabbits lest they develop bald heads and twitching noses like rabbits. In most cases, children are fed on gravy and salt water with nsima, while the father and other males are given top priority—the best side dishes such as eggs and poultry. Whatever remains goes to the women. The wife is expected to look after her husband first, the children next, and herself last.

Nsima with ndiwo is sometimes eaten twice a day, at lunch time and at dinner time, but most of the time this main dish is offered only at dinner time since the mother is busy with other chores during the day such as farming, drawing water from the well, fetching firewood, and so on. In the interim, children have to make do with snacks such as roasted cassava, roasted maize, sweet potatoes, sugarcane, wild fruits, or wild insects such as roasted grasshoppers, flying termites, etc. Men, too, sometimes experience food restrictions such as not eating thelele, a slimy liquid-like vegetable, since it is believed that they can lose their virility. In urban centers such as Lilongwe, the high-income groups tend to have a diversified diet, while the low-income groups tend to be restricted in what they can afford.


In Malawi there are two major systems of education, namely, the formal and the informal. The informal or traditional system of education (see Rites of passage ), which is still very much a part of rural society, is encouraged by the government on the basis that it instills respect for tradition and culture. The formal education system is patterned along the British system, which consists of three tiers: primary, secondary, and tertiary. The students who do extremely well in the Malawi Certificate Examination at the end of the four-year secondary school program (and these are few in number) are then selected to attend the five constituent colleges of the University of Malawi. In recent years, adult literacy rates have seen dramatic improvements rising to 54% for females and 75% for males aged 15 years and over who are able to read and write Chichewa, English, or both languages. There is no national service for students in Malawi. Census data in Malawi indicate large gender differentials as well as regional disparities in educational attainment. For example, in 1987, for every 100 females in school there were 152 males. School attendance rates for all age groups are higher for males than for females.


There is a rich musical and dance heritage among the Chewa and the Mang'anja of central and southern Malawi. In traditional settings, songs are sung at initiation rites, rituals, marriage ceremonies, or during post-harvest celebrations. There are puberty songs, praise songs, funeral songs, work songs, beer-drinking songs, coronation songs for chiefs, etc. It is not uncommon to see women sing as they go about their daily chores. Women employ sung poetry as a strategy in defining and interpreting gender roles, especially as they concern a negotiation of their standing in society. Several traditional dances are also popular among the Chewa, especially during weddings and other festivals. For example, mganda is an all-male dance from central Malawi in which about 15 men form a troupe. Each of the dancers uses some kind of a local saxophone made from a gourd, and they sing and dance in unison following a complex series of steps. The female counterpart of mganda is chimtali, usually performed at weddings. A group of women dance in a circle with a drum in the center and seductively gyrate their hips, bosoms, and the like. There is also the all-male Nyau masquerade dance at initiation and funerary rituals. The masked dancers are accompanied by several drummers and a women's chorus.

In addition to the traditional dances, there is also the modern popular culture imported from abroad or from regional music centers such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Africa. This type of music includes reggae music, disco, breakdance, rap, etc., currently popular in bars and beer- and dance-halls.

During the post-independence era, Malawi in general has also seen the rise of a few internationally recognized literary scholars such as the famous poet, Jack Mapanje, the veteran historian and fiction writer, Paul Zeleza, and others who include Steve Chimombo, Legson Kayira, Chipasula, Rubadiri, and Felix Munthali.


Approximately 90% of the people in Malawi live in rural areas where subsistence farming is the primary economic activity, growing a variety of crops such as maize (the staple food crop), beans, sorghum, peanuts, rice, pumpkins, cassava, and tobacco (the main cash crop). The formal and informal sectors in the major urban centers of Malawi employ only a quarter of the labor force population. Evidently, as population continues to grow rapidly, land resources are becoming scarce and it is unlikely that the subsistence sector will continue to meet the needs of each household.


During the colonial era, the British introduced soccer to Malawi, and it is still the main sport throughout the country, especially in the urban areas of Lilongwe, Mzuzu, Zomba, and Blantyre. The Malawi national team is quite a force in southern Africa's soccer competitions and has on occasion won a number of regional championships. Soccer clubs compete for a number of prized trophies throughout the year. Every Saturday and Sunday, thousands of people converge on Civo Stadium in Lilongwe, and Chichiri Stadium in Blantyre, 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 major sport.


In terms of entertainment and other recreation activities, young professionals in urban areas flock to Western-style clubs and bars. In rural areas, girls and boys may perform traditional and modern dances in the moonlight to entertain themselves and other spectators. There is no television in Malawi, but upper- and middle-income families may own a TV and VCR. Individual families may thus be able to treat themselves to a rental movie.

For young boys and girls in rural areas there is a rich repertoire of games which keeps them busy all day and in the evenings. Among the most popular games for rural children are hunting small game such as mice and rabbits, hide-and-seek at night, tug of war, and many others. As one of the most cherished activities, hunting mice is usually a daylong group expedition for boys. This activity provides important skills for the future in terms of instilling hunting skills, building team cooperation, and providing a little food for each boy's household in addition to being fun and exciting. In rural villages hide-and-seek is played at night under bright moonlight. Rules prohibit hiding inside a house, and this adds extra excitement. Outdoors in the dim light offered by the moon, boys and girls in teams scurry and scamper around the village darting from place to place seeking better hiding spots, adding mystery, challenge, and enjoyment to the game for both hiders and seekers.


In spite of the fact that the Chewa of central Malawi are not known for their art and are rarely mentioned in art history literature, they do exhibit a rich tradition of basketry and carved masks, which includes two large and intricate basketry masks known as Kasiyamaliro and Chimkoko. These masks are used in initiation rituals for the men's Nyau secret society. In urban areas, one also tends to find a rich variety of wood carvings, oil paintings, and other beautiful works of art depicting various indigenous village scenes and daily ways of living, for sale to tourists.


Malawi has 15 different ethnic groups which live in relative peace and harmony with each other. Inter-ethnic warfare is rare and uncommon. During Dr. Banda's dictatorial rule, human rights violations were quite common. Persons suspected of being critical to Dr. Banda's rule were detained without charge or trial, tortured, and sometimes assassinated. Under the previous government of Bakili Muluzi and the current government of Bingu wa Mutharika, human rights conditions have improved somewhat and people seem to be freer in expressing themselves and in openly criticizing government policies. However, the economic conditions, particularly inflation, have gotten worse because of drought that hit the country hard between 1999 and 2003, economic mismanagement and corruption in government circles under Muluzi's government, and worsening terms of trade. During 2006–2008 the country experienced a bumper crop of maize due to good rains and government subsidized fertilizer distributed to needy small-holder farmers in rural areas.


In traditional matrilineal Chewa society women play a central role in cultural and economic activities. The land and the village belong to women. When a man gets married, he traditionally has to leave his village to reside in his wife's village, farm his wife's fields and beget children for his wife's lineage rather than his own. Should the marriage end in divorce or should the woman be widowed the property and children automatically go to the wife and her people and the man leaves his wife's village empty handed. However, since the advent of colonial rule many Chewa traditions with regard to gender issues have undergone transformation resulting in the lowering of women's status. It can be argued that the deterioration in the status of women among the Chewa is not a reflection of “traditional Chewa society” but rather something that came to Malawi via the contact with Europeans in the 16th century and subsequent colonization. The status and power of women during the pre-colonial period was far much healthier than it is today. There is a saying in Malawi that men among the matrilineal societies are forever grateful to the British for liberating them from the tyranny of the matrilineal code of conduct that was often in favor of women than men. In pre-colonial times, women played significant roles in economic, political and spiritual spheres of their communities. Women were often the most powerful spiritual figures, some became very powerful rulers of their territories as queens and paramount chiefs, and even today, they continue to play significant roles in producing food and propelling the Malawian economy.

Modernization and the ensuing social and economic transformation has brought about the erosion of the high status women used to enjoy in traditional settings. In the modernized society of today, they have been relegated to the position of “second class citizens.” In an era of HIV/AIDS women have experienced the brunt of the epidemic due in large measure to their deteriorating and unequal status to men. Today, women are often married off early without regard to their potential or actual educational achievement, and are generally not allowed to partake in economically gainful activities that might lend them a semblance of empowerment. Their economic and social vulnerability is often made worse by the lack of formal educational investment in them, which leaves them without access to information vital to their reproductive health and to knowledge and prevention of diseases such as AIDS. The sad truth is that women in Malawi tend to have smaller entitlement bundles than do men because they have lower wages and are not as likely to be highly educated, or to receive government assistance, or benefit from international aid programs. Women are frequently denied education beyond primary levels because they are primed for marriage rather than careers. They are subsequently constrained in their choices of occupation, and the areas of employment offering livable wages are especially scarce.

With reference to sexual activities, the Chewa had a detailed code of conduct that regulated sexual relations between men and women and sex between those of the same gender. Homosexuality, adultery, and bestiality (i.e. sex with animals) were forbidden and sometimes punishable by death. In present day Malawi, homosexuality is illegal under the penal code and considered an “act against the order of nature.” Foreigners caught in homosexual acts have been deported. Malawi nationals engaging in homosexual activities can and have been imprisoned or detained without charge or trial.


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—by E. Kalipeni