Lakeshore Tonga

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Lakeshore Tonga

ETHNONYMS: Chitonga, Kitonga, Siska, Sisya, Tonga, Western Nyasa


Identification and Location. The Lakeshore Tonga live on the western shore of Lake Malawi between Nkhata Bay and the Luweya River in the Northern Province of the Republic of Malawi. They are a heterogeneous people formed from at least four groups that settled the area in the late eighteenth century. The Lakeshore Tonga are not related to the Tonga who live in Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Mozambique.

This region of rolling grassland and wooded hills is intersected by the tributaries of the Luweya River and surrounded by Mtoghame Mountain to the north, the Vipya mountain range to the west, and the Kuwirwe and Kawadama mountains to the south. The climate is tropical, with a rainy season from November to May (average rainfall, 75 inches [185 centimeters]) and a dry season from May to November.

Demography. The Lakeshore Tonga population in Malawi increased from 50,359 in 1945 to 165,654 in 1998.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Chitonga language is part of the Manda group of the Central Narrow Bantu section of the Southern Bantoid part of the Niger-Congo family. Chitonga is related to both the Ngoni and Tumbuku languages.

History and Cultural Relations

The Lakeshore Tonga claim a distinct cultural identity and history, saying that they migrated from the "far north" a long time ago. However scholars posit a more recent and local origin similar to that of the neighboring Tumbuka and Cewa peoples, who are the descendants of ivory traders who settled in the country west of Lake Malawi at the end of the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century a powerful group of Zulus, the Ngoni, raided the countryside for food and labor, enslaving the local population. Slaves were raised as Ngoni and served in that army. In 1875 the slaves rebelled and fled back to their homes. They later defeated a Ngoni army in the Battle of the Chinteche River. During the period of Ngoni domination the local people lived in large stockaded villages, a condition that contributed to the formation of Lakeshore Tonga identity.

The first European missionaries arrived during the Lakeshore Tonga's conflicts with the Ngoni. David Livingstone passed through the country in 1861, and Doctors Stewart and Laws came to stay in 1877 and 1878, respectively. In 1881 they set up the Livingstonia Mission of the Free Church of Scotland in Bandawe. The mission school was well attended, and enrollment reached 1,330 by 1889, including 700 girls. By 1896 there were 30 schools teaching 4,361 students. The school produced white-collar workers, trade union leaders, and politicians who worked across southern Africa, establishing a pattern of migration to neighboring countries that has continued to the present time.

In 1888 the Lakeshore Tonga fought alongside the British against Arab and Yao slave traders. They signed treaties with Great Britain in 1889 and 1894 that established the British protectorate of Nyasaland. A district administrative system was set up in 1897, and the first tax collector arrived in 1902. The District Administrative (Native) Ordinance of 1912 led to indirect rule five years later under five principal headmen; however, there was no precedent for that type of hierarchical political system, and the British abandoned it in favor of a tribal council of thirty-two chiefs. In 1933 the Native Authority and Native Courts ordinances vested juridical powers in the traditional chiefs, further devolving political power. However, the British deemed the tribal council unworkable and broke it up in 1947. On 6 July 1964 Nyasaland became the independent nation of Malawi.


Most of the population is concentrated on the lakeshore. Hamlets (mizi) average two to six huts, and several hamlets form a village. Villages are the basic political units defined by their leaders; their actual physical boundaries are not clearly discernible. Families can choose among several villages to live in, depending on kinship, economic, political, and personal considerations. Headmen from different villages try to persuade kin to live with them to increase their following and power.


Subsistence. The local economy consists of fishing and gardening supported by income from outside wage labor. The staple crop is cassava, which is grown by women. It is served as a thick porridge (nsima) with a fish and vegetable relish (dendi) made of mushrooms, peas, or beans. Dendi also means "fish" and "well being." The only other meat consumed is chicken. The men in a village fish collectively and store their gear in the men's house (mphara).

Commercial Activities. Rice, maize, tobacco, and millet are grown for domestic and export markets. Several rubber and tea estates in the region employ Tonga administrators and workers.

Trade. The major export commodity is labor. At any time, about two-thirds of adult males work abroad, mostly in Zimbabwe and South Africa.

Division of Labor. Women work in the garden, and men fish and work outside the country for wages.

Land Tenure. In the 1950s, there was no shortage of land and the patterns of ownership were dispersed and vague. There are three types of land: cultivated (chikweta), fallow (masara), and bush (dondo). Fallow land can revert to bush, and disputes arise over whether a piece of land is fallow or wild. Localized lineages whose ancestors first settled in a location are called the "owners of the land." All men and women have claims to land through their maternal relatives. A family may live in one village and cultivate land in another.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Lakeshore Tonga are a matrilineal society. They distinguish between matrilateral and patrilateral kin: "on the woman's side" (kuchikazi), and "on the man's side" (kuchirumi), Matrikin are distinguished further according to whether they are lineally related through the female line or are nonmatrilineal matrikin, from one's mother's father's family. This distinction does not exist among patrikin, who are not recognized beyond the second generation. Patrikin do have some influence, in part as a result of the practice of virilocal residence. All that remains of clan organization is the use of surnames, which are shared with surrounding tribes.

Kinship Terminology. Terms are used to distinguish relatives, membership in a clan or matrilineage, and siblings. Only children and headmen are called by their first names; everyone else is addressed by surname. Genealogical depth is reckoned to the fourth or fifth ascending generation.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Formal marriages involve a go-between, negotiations, a betrothal payment, a marriage ceremony and the exchange of bride-wealth (usually just a down payment that creates a "marital debt.") One also can marry informally. Whether formal or informal, marriage sets up a debt relationship between the spouses' kin groups that can outlast the marriage, especially if children are involved.

The transaction of a formal marriage begins with a go-between who is sent by the headman of the suitor's village to "open the door" with a betrothal payment to the prospective wife's kin group. This is followed by negotiations over the amount of the bride-wealth, followed by the payment of a first installment and the exchange of a promissory note (kalata) for the balance (the balance rarely is paid). If the suitor is unable to pay the fees, which is usually the case, a member of his kin group will pay them for him. The one who pays the fees is called a nkhoswe, or attorney. The bride also has a nkhowse, usually her maternal uncle, who "eats" the payment and is responsible for her security and welfare. Attorneys are liable for marital debts.

A couple is considered informally married if they live together and have children. A relationship has been formed, and although no bride-wealth has been exchanged, it is only a matter of time before the spouses' respective kin groups come to loggerheads over marital debt. This usually occurs when the wife becomes pregnant, the couple divorce, adultery is committed, or a spouse dies.

The ideal form of residency is matrilocal, but patrilocal and virilocal residency also are practiced. Cross-cousin marriage (with one's maternal cross-cousin) is the preferred form because it creates a set of double loyalties to the village that strengthens internal cohesion and ensures that children will stay put. However, for this to work ideally, marriages have to be endogamous for generations, and this is rarely the case. More distant kin can still exert pressure on the children, who ostensibly are free to live wherever they choose.

Weddings can be big (zowara) or plain (mtimba). A big wedding involves dancing, the eating of beef, and gambling and attracts people from the surrounding villages. The mtimba is a more modest affair.

Domestic Unit. A household consists of a nuclear family. Women from each household tend a garden. Several related households form a hamlet.

Inheritance. In customary law property should go to the sister's son, but in practice sons also receive a share.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Hamlets and villages are made up of matrilineal and patrilateral kin groups. More than one matrilineage may constitute a village, although one is usually dominant. The matrilineage is the operative social unit, but individuals maintain a wide network of kin, including those on the father's side of the family. A high rate of divorce and remarriage adds to the multiplicity of potential kin ties. A form of institutionalized friendship (ubwezi) is practiced for purely political or economic purposes. For example, someone who lives in the interior will make friends with a lakeshore resident to secure a source of fish.

Political Organization. Traditionally, the basic political distinction was that between freemen and slaves (mkapora), who are people without kin. Although slavery has been prohibited, descendants of slaves continue to have low status because they have no maternal relatives to back them up ("nobody behind them," as villagers put it). The status of freemen is based on their link to the village headman: If the link is patrilateral then one is called "son of the village"; if it is matrilineal, one is called "owner of the land," which has higher status.

The village is the basic political unit and is led by a headman (fumu). The headman's position is inherited through the matrilineage, but his powers do not devolve exclusively from the lineage; instead they result from his personal influence and leadership skills. Villagers feel that "a chief without people is no chief." A headman gathers people through his ability to manipulate lineal and affinal kin ties, residency rules, rights to land, and marital debt. The headman engages in a "struggle for dependents" that ensures that his hamlet or village will remain a viable unit. In succeeding to office, he inherits a title, which is the historical name of the first chief of a village, the person who settled the land and established the village. The primary factor responsible for social cohesion is the dense network of relationships between individuals and small groups, which constitute Lakeshore Tonga society. Leaders also vie for official positions such as the district commissioner, native authority, subordinate native authority, and administrative headman.

Social Control. Headmen have always played a role as arbitrators and conciliators within the village. Outside the village are the boma courts of the Native Authority that are staffed by Lakeshore Tonga and apply traditional law. These courts have the power to arrive at a verdict and apply the appropriate sanctions. Funerals provide an opportunity for kin groups associated with the deceased to hold an inquest and renegotiate residency, land, and debt issues. Villages prefer to settle internal disputes informally in order to maintain a peaceful and unified front before the outside world.

Conflict. The Lakeshore Tonga are known to be quarrelsome and highly factious but rarely do they resort to violence. Every man is free to become a headman if he has the required ability and ambition. Conflicts arise over the strategies leaders use to increase the size and power of their lineages and villages. Tensions in the village occur between the dominant lineage and other lineages or sublineages, which struggle to increase in size and eventually form independent villages. Leadership and power come down to a struggle for dependents. The key to this struggle is the control over bride-wealth.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Christianity is the principal religion. The first mission was established in the region in 1877, and a school opened three years later. The school has been well attended since its inception. Traditionally, people believed in a supreme god, Chiuta, and worship ancestor spirits (mzimu). Some people continue to believe in sorcery.

Ceremonies. Female initiation rites (nkholi) involve a period of seclusion in the chief's compound, followed by a couple of days of feasting. Only the most prominent chiefs had the right to hold the initiation ceremony. Before the British arrived, the Lakeshore Tonga held colorful installation ceremonies for their headmen, with the more powerful ones donning red robes.

Arts. Dance groups (boma) are composed of young men from several villages and hold competitive dances (malepenga). The dances involve miming and the imitation of military drills. Dance groups are the only multi-village institution in Lakeshore Tonga society.

Death and Afterlife. Funeral are local affairs that bring together all the adults from neighboring villages. The adults maintain a vigil over the corpse, wash it, prepare the grave, and attend the inquest. More distant living matrikin and patrikin of the deceased also attend. The funeral is an opportunity for the deceased's affairs to be put in order. At an informal inquest, kin resolve issues of inheritance, residency of the surviving spouse and children, land rights, debts, and accusations of sorcery. The shaving of the heads of kinswomen marks the resolution of these issues and signals the beginning of the mourning period. If the marriage was virilocal, the husband's sister's son can "inherit" the widow, in which case she stays in the village; otherwise, she must return to her village of birth.

For other cultures in Malawi, see List of Cultures by Country in Volume 10 and under specific culture names in Volume 9, Africa and the Middle East.


Van Velsen, J. (1959). "Notes of the History of the Lakeside Tonga of Nyasaland." African Studies 18(3): 105-117.

(1960). "The Missionary Factor among the Lakeside Tonga of Nyasaland." In Rhodes-Livingston Journal: Human Problems in British Central Africa, No. 26: 1-22. Lusaka, Zambia: Manchester University Press.

(1961). "Labor Migration as a Positive Factor in the Continuity of Tonga Tribal Society." In Social Change in Modem Africa: Studies Presented and Discussed at the First International African Seminar, Makerere College, Kampala, January 1959, edited by Aiden Southall. 230-241. London: Oxford University Press

(1962). "The Establishment of the Administration in Tongaland." In Historians in Tropical Africa: Proceedings of the Leverhulme Inter-Collegiate History Conference held at the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. 177-195. Salisbury: University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland

(1964). The Politics of Kinship: A Study in Social Manipulation among the Lakeside Tonga of Nyasaland. Manchester: Manchester University Press.