The Lomwe (type of soil) people entered Malawi at the end of the nineteenth century. They came from the Eastern (Mozambique) side of Lake Chirwa and Mount Mulanje in the upper Lujenda River at a place called Monguru. They also occupied the area around Namuli Hill in North West of Mozambique. In this Lomwe land, the name Lomwe at the expense of Nguru which has derogatory connotations. It should however be noted that the word Lomwe is a blanket term which covers many sub-ethnic groups of the Lomwe, and these are;
The Lomwe found the Yao and Mang`anja in the southern part of Nyasaland (now Malawi). These names are named after their place of origin or settlement, for example;
- Mihavani- this word means sand. They were named because they built their settlement on sandy areas.
- Makuwa- this word means dambo or desert.
- Likukhu- this is a river in Mozambique. Therefore the name derived from their settlements along this river.
Reasons for their Migration
A. Political instability
The Portuguese cruelty forced many Lomwe's to migrate in search of peaceful areas.
B. Job seeking in Nyasaland
The British tea and coffee plantations offered a lot of employment opportunities; as such the Lomwe worked in these plantations. Furthermore, they also worked as either porters or mercenaries for the British settlers. Currently, the Lomwe are found in many parts of Southern Region in Malawi. Such areas include; Mulanje, Thyolo, Phalombe, Chiradzulu and some parts of Blantyre, Zomba and Machinga. Nevertheless, due to constant migration and the search for greener pasture, it is not proper to confine the Lomwe as occupying only to the Southern Region of the country.
The Lomwe practice matrilineal kinship system where descent is traced through the mother`s lineage. Thus, the daughters have the power to retain inheritance, more especially land, as sons go `out` and marry as a result they use the fields of their wives. However, the role of the uncle (the eldest sister`s brother) is highly pronounced. The Malume (uncle) takes the role of the marriage counselor (nkhoswe) to the married daughters and nieces as well as marrying sons and nephews. Not only that but also he has the power to settle minor disputes arising within the clan.
The Lomwe have an organized kingship or chieftaincy structure. It ranges from village headman or headwoman, group village headman, traditional authority up to paramount chief. The current paramount chief of the Lomwe is Paramount Chief Nkhumba of Phalombe District in the southern region.
The Lomwe are predominantly sedentary small scale farmers who own customary land. The main crops cultivated include; maize (corn), millet, sorghum, cassava, sweet potatoes, rice and a variety of legumes.
Rituals/Rites of Passage
1. Initiation Ceremony
Young adolescents undergo rites of passage called dzoma. This initiation ceremony takes place in winter, especially in the months of July and August. When the time is ripe, the chief is informed about the programme and names of the initiates and their families or parents who want their children to be instructed. When the day comes, the initiates are shaved in the morning and during sunset, they then enter into seclusion. The seclusion place is usually along a river or a stream. A thatched hut called simba or thezo is erected. The initiates do participate in the construction of the simba. The master of dzoma is called Nankungwi (instructor). He is responsible for all the affairs of the zoma.
The initiates are helped by akolozolo (helpers). These are people that have already been initiated. They bring food to the simba from home and also help with the instructions to the initiates. The initiate who registered first is called mwini simba (senior initiate). The initiates are called aphale. During this period, the initiates are instructed rules for acceptable behaviour as members of the society. Marriage and funeral rites procedures are also taught to the initiates. During the seclusion, their parents are expected to observe certain taboos, for example sexual taboos. They are not supposed to engage in sexual activities with their spouses during this period. This is to make sure that they remain cold (ozizira) as sexual activity would make them hot (otentha) and this can harm the child right away at the simba.
When a specified period elapses, the seclusion is declared over. The initiates are re-integrated back into the village. A day just before re-integration the simba is destroyed with fire. When `coming out`, they are clothed in new attire and are received to their respective villages and homes with jubilation, ululation and feasting. In the past, the seclusion could last up to three months but today it takes less than a month.
The initiation of girls is called chinamwali. The process and procedure is almost similar to that of boys only that this time around there is a female instructress (nankungwi). The coming of Christianity has harmonized the initiation processes and procedures into its doctrines and practices so much so that some of the instructions have been `screened` to suit the teachings of Christianity.
The whole initiation ceremony can be summarized as follows;
i. The departure of the initiates from the village is called separation.
ii. The period and time spent during the instruction is called liminality or transformation.
iii. Their return to the village is called re-integration.
Following the instructions, these adolescents are then regarded as mature members of the society. They can then participate in societal affairs for example their friends` initiation ceremonies and funerals.
As already stipulated in the beginning of this discussion, the role of the uncle takes the centre stage in this social affair. When a son or a daughter wants to marry or get married, the candidate consults his or her maternal uncle about this development and asks him to initiate the process. Then the paternal side meets the maternal side and arrange for an engagement ceremony. Of course this process follows after courtship period which is between the two partners. During the ceremony, usually a chicken is shared between the two marriage counsellors. This sharing symbolizes togetherness and the sharing of the would-be marital problems, for instance, together in both times of trouble and happiness. Under normal circumstances, the man leaves his village and joins his wife in her village. They are given a garden to cultivate and a place to construct their own house.
In a situation that a husband falls ill, the maternal uncle goes and informs the paternal side that `their person` is ill. Sometimes arrangements are made to move the husband from the wife's village back to his home. When there is funeral in the village, the chief is informed first before the bereaved start mourning. Later, relatives are informed. The mwini mbumba (head of the clan, especially maternal uncle) plays a greater role in this rite. When funeral preparations are over, the chief gives his condolence speech and the day of nsonjolo (final funeral rite). On the way to the graveyard, the bereaved family leads the funeral procession. On the third day after the burial, they gather to finalize the ritual. This is called kumeta (shaving). Some of the close relatives get their heads shaved this includes the widow or the widower. The shaving of heads has a symbolic function of purification. It emphasizes parting with the deceased. Death resulting from accident, for example road accident and suicide is treated in a different way. The funeral is not allowed to be placed inside the house, it is rather placed at the veranda (khonde), and burial takes place on the same day. During the whole period of mourning sexual taboos are observed by all the kin.
Among the Lomwe there is also constant interaction with the spirit world. Spirit possession among the Lomwe is called matenda amizimu (disease of the spirits). There are many local names denoting the `disease, for example; nantongwe, mtume, mpwesa, mutu waukulu. The most widely used word however is nantongwe.
Signs of possession
- Loss of consciousness
- Abrupt mood changes
- Loss of appetite
- Troubled dreams
A person might become possessed for a number of reasons. First, it may happen that there was a healer within the lineage who died some years ago and that he or she wants those healing powers to be inherited by the living kin. As such the ancestor identifies one relative to whom the powers can be transferred.
Dealing with Possession
When the above signs manifest themselves, a spiritual healer is invited to diagnose the patient. If the confirmation on possession is confirmed, then a healing ritual is arranged. This is done by a specialist called Nankungwi or sing`anga wa mizimu (healer of spirit related illnesses). This healer is a person who was possessed sometime ago and is a practitioner. A date is set for the healing ceremony and preparations are made, for example maize flower, millet, boiled chicken and other herbs are used.
During the ceremony, a person is given some medicine to drink and others are rubbed against his or her body. The names of deceased relatives are called and venerated. Former patients (those who once got possessed) are also invited to reinforce the healing ritual. Once the ritual is over, the patient is now regarded as sing`anga wa mizimu and he or she can treat spirit related illnesses as well as other diseases that require specific explanation. Thus the whole ceremony is to identify and accommodate the spirit. In this way there is vivid evidence that the Lomwe still believe in the spirits of their ancestors. The following paragraphs elaborate on the matter.
The Lomwe have got a variety of traditional dances that are used to celebrate special events during certain period of the year. Some of these dances are; Jiri, Likwata and Tchopa
This is a female dominated dance. The dancers move in a circle and the drummers are in the middle. One person leads the song and others follow. It is a performance done a day before the dance called tchopa.
This is the rain dance; it is performed with the aim of asking rain from the spirits of their ancestors. Oral tradition claims that tchopa has been performed for many years as far as the history of the Lomwe is concerned. In the event of the dry spell or draught, the chief and elders would gather and arrange for tchopa dance and offer sacrifice. The same practice has been passed on to the present generations.
Process and Preparations
In the event that one of the community members had a dream where by ancestors demanded a sacrifice or there has been a long dry spell, worse still the rainy season is due and rain is nowhere to be seen, tchopa dance is organised. The announcement is made in the whole area a month before the event itself. The village members contribute the relevant necessities including, maize flower, millet, sorghum, firewood, relish and also their labour is important during this period. The date is marked and people begin to prepare beer. The master of the event (omanga tchopa) is not supposed to take a bath until the whole event is completed. The sanction starts as soon as chimera (malt) is dissolved. When the malt or yeast is fully prepared, huge quantities of beer is prepared. The beer has two main functions. The first, it is used as sacrificial offering to the spirits of ancestors. Secondly, it is used for drinking by the village members and other invited quests.
Veneration of ancestors
A day prior to the dance, a sacrifice is made. The chief and other senior members of the community collect beer and maize flower and go under a certain tree called mpoza. They dig a small hole in the ground and pour the beer into the hole. The maize flower is then spread around the tree. Requests and apologetic words are then recited, once this phase is complete the chief and senior members return home. In the evening, a curtain raiser is performed. This dance is called likwata. This is performed at the same place where tchopa will take place the following day. The area where likwata takes place is known as the bwalo (open air ground). A small hut is also erected in the middle ground adjacent to bwalo where the drummers will be performing from. On the day of the dance, a large feast is prepared. This is to be partaken by many community members and invited quests. When people have taken food and beer and when the drummers are ready, they all set for the bwalo for the showdown.
The regalia are very diverse; however the most prominent ones are dried palm leaves that are worn around the waist, neck and arms, and maseche (shells) around the arms and legs. Other participants may put on worn out clothes and skins of animals. To add to this, participants will also have a dead animal on their backs, for example, velvet monkey, the skin of a crocodile or alligator, dolls (pseudo-babies). Dancers move in a zigzag way, interlocking within each other. The singing is never uniform, as the crowd is so large and drumming tends to dominate the air rather than voices.
During the dance, the chief occasionally spreads maize flower at the edge of the circle. This is to continuously ask ancestors to grace the event so that peace and tranquillity should reign supreme. On the same note, it is also imperative for all the active participants within the ceremony observe celibacy during the whole period, otherwise if one engages in sexual activity during this period he or she remains hot and this is believed to enrage the spirits of ancestors resulting in no rain as they refuse to accept the sacrifice. Apparently the signs of coming rain happen while people are still at the bwalo, clouds gather and a heavy down pour soaks the participants, nevertheless, dancers continue to dance. Sometimes, rain comes a few days after the dance.
Among the Lomwe, a number of taboos are practiced and followed. For example, a menstruating girl or woman is not supposed to put salt in relish. This is because it is believed that salt is a medium for the transferring pollutants. Since the menstruating person is regarded as being in a `hot` state, therefore adding salt to the ndiwo (relish) would cause a swelling and slimming disease called mdulo (cutting disease) to those household members who are relatively `cold` or not going through a menstrual cycle. At time the victims of mdulo vomit blood and find that their hair is thinning. Under the same rationale, a sexually active person is not supposed to touch a newly born baby or touch even touch a corpse.
- There are also many cases of witchcraft and witchcraft accusations among the Lomwe. This is of course not limited only to the Lomwe people, it is a wide spread phenomenon among many in Africa.
- Non-initiates are not supposed to view a corpse.
- If a dove or a duck perches without making any noise then the Lomwe speculate that a big misfortune or even death is about to befall on the village.
- When chameleons are seen fighting, the speculation is that there is going to be funeral within days.
- If an owl hoots nearby or on top of the roof of a house it means the following day there is going to be a funeral within the same village.
- Itchy hand symbolise money, whilst an uncontrollable blinking eyelid means that good luck is on its way.
- If a woman is feeling lazy around the house and has therefore not cleaned the house or swept the yard, this means that she will be to receiving guests. In concluding this discussion of the Lomwe it should be noted that there has been a movement to revitalise the Lomwe Cultural Heritage. This work is chaired by the current president of Malawi, Ngwazi Professor Bingu wa Mutharika. There is a centre for the Lomwe Heritage at Chonde in Mulanje District. Within the Centre a library and a school for Lomwe language can be found. Prospects are underway to establish a gallery that can house their entire tangible heritage.
The information expounded in this document does not completely exhaust all the cultural aspects of the Lomwe people. There is a lot that has to be researched and documented than what has been compiled. However, the above information summarises the major aspects of the Lomwe People who occupy majority of the southern region in Malawi.
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