The largest ethnic group in Malawi is the Chewa (or AChewa), a Bantu ethnic group with origins in central and southern Africa. The Tumbuka and Nsenga are close relatives of the Chewa as are other inhabitants in the region. They share a common ancestor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo with the Bemba, with whom they are historically linked. The Ngoni, who were of Zulu or Natal/Transvaal ancestry, also invaded a small portion of Chewa land, as did the Nsenga and Tumbuka. Nyanja is a different name that is frequently used in place of Chewa. Chichewa is the name of their language. The Chewa are primarily recognized outside for their masks, secret societies known as Nyau, and farming practices. The Chewa (like the Nyanja, Tumbuka, Senga, Nsenga, Mang’anja) are a remnant of the Maravi (Malawi) people or empire. There are two large Chewa clans, the Phiri and the Banda.¬† with a population of 1.5 million people. The Phiri are associated with the kings and aristocracy, the Banda with healers and mystics.


It is possible to infer from Chewa oral histories that they originated in Malambo, a place in the Luba region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, before migrating to northern Zambia and then the south and east into Malawi’s highlands. Before the first millennium’s conclusion, this settlement existed. They reunited in Choma, a location connected to a mountain in northern Malawi and the plateau of northeastern Zambia, after seizing territory from other Bantu groups. This is one of many various interpretations of the early Chewa oral histories. The first Chewa kingdom was founded either around or about 1480, and by the 16th century, there were two distinct political systems being maintained, one by the Phiri clan at Manthimba and the other by the Banda clan at Mankhamba (near Nthakataka). The Malawian mountain Kaphirintiwa is connected to the Phiri.The Portuguese had some interaction with the Chewa by the 17th century, when the “Malawi” state had been united. Despite not making it to the chiefdom’s interior, there are well-preserved records of interactions between 1608 and 1667. By 1750, many “Malawi” dynasties had established themselves in various regions of central Malawi, but the Chewa had managed to set themselves apart from their neighbors through language, the presence of distinctive tattoos (mphini), and a belief system based on nyau secret societies. The majority of Malawi’s tea estates were later owned by the Phiri nobles before being seized by the Malawian government in the early 1980s. The Dorington Family, who still hold the same tea estate today, are said to have brought tea to Malawi by planting it at the base of Mulanje Mountain. Then other European families arrived, including the Barrows, Conforzi, and Cathcart-Kay (English). The first tea estate owned by a Malawian was a government estate that was founded by Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda in the early 1970s. However the truth is that herbal plants used to create tea are native to the region¬†


In Chewa society and belief, women hold a significant place. They are acknowledged as the lineage’s (Bele’s) reproducers, an extended family of individuals connected by a common ancestor. Property and land rights are passed down through the mother in a matrilineal society. Bele translates as “of the same breast.” A family of dependents, or Mbumba, is composed of the children of the same mother or female (Lubele la achite). The elder brothers of the mothers are referred to as Nkhoswe; they are the stewards of the lineage and mentors to the sons of their sisters. When crops are sold, the woman of the house receives the proceeds. Every villager of good character may aspire to the role of headman (Mfumu), who oversaw the hamlet. Village chiefs (men and women) were under the authority of regional chiefs (Mwini Dziko), who in turn were under the authority of paramount leaders. Subordination means being willing to provide men during a battle and paying tribute on a regular basis.

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