Death & Funerals in Chewa Culture

Death and funeral ceremonies among the Chewa

Among the Chewa, death is something they never get used to despite being there for so many years.

In the past, when death involving people within the age range of 5-65 years occurred, there were usually a lot of issues to resolve. It came as a shock to many as culturally, the Chewa did not believe one could die below 65. The only acceptable deaths were attributed to old age diseases. Now, there is a general acceptance of death depending on the cause.

When the woman has a stillbirth, elderly people are suspicious. They believe this proves that the man was having extramarital affairs (amathyola thengo) when his wife was pregnant. When the woman is pregnant, the husband is supposed to provide her with all the necessary support. The man is supposed to answer on all complications related to the birth of the baby.

When the woman is pregnant, elderly people in the community dialogue with the husband. It is believed that if the man has extramarital affairs, it may lead to the death of either the unborn baby or the mother. So, the elderly people make sure that they provide proper guidance and advice to the man so that he remains loyal during the period his wife is pregnant. When the woman is pregnant, they inform the chief immediately in case something happens during the pregnancy. Therefore, it is a crime (mlandu) if the chief is not informed and the woman gets sick or dies.

When a death occurs in a village, a message is spread to neighboring villages by young men. Only those boys who know mwambowakudambwe (who have been initiated as per Chewa culture through gulewamkulu sessions) are qualified to meet chiefs of neighboring villages, reporting about death which has taken place in their village. The messenger is supposed to be ometa (literary meaning shaved but in context meaning the one who knows the Chewa culture). They usually move around in the evening, meeting village heads informing them about the death. Soon after arriving at the village head’s home, the messenger does not say anything until he offers a chicken to the village head. After that, the messenger reports the sad news.

The conversation goes like this:
Messenger: Tabwera, kwathukukwagwachauta, kwayipa? (I am here to inform you that we have lost one of us at home)

Village head: Oh, pepani. (Sorry)

Then the messenger proceeds with the details of the person who has passed on and advises them on any prior funeral arrangements.

The messenger is supposed to follow due process when engaging with the village head, following all traditional protocols that are taught at the Dambwe (the initiation camp for Chewa culture).

Meanwhile, at the deceased’s village, the chiefs will not officially allow people to start mourning the dead (kukhuzamaliro). The village head for the area is responsible for formally declaring death in the community. The declaration is usually done in the evening after thorough preparations of the dead body and ensuring that all related burial arrangements have been adhered to. So, before the village head officially declares the death of a man/woman, no one is supposed to start mourning. When the chief announces the death, having forwarded messages to all relatives and nearby communities, people at the funeral ceremony are now allowed to mourn aloud.

But if the death involves senior members of Dambwe, then his funeral is accompanied by gulewamkulu dancers. Dancers such as Kang’wing’wi (a type of gulewamkulu) and others move around. The Chewa also observed that the dead body in the coffin is placed differently according to the geographic areas where the Chewa are based. For some, the dead body is placed facing up, while in some areas, the dead body is placed facing sideways so that when they are buried, they face their original home. In this regard, when they dig the grave, they make sure that the hole is dug horizontally at the bottom of the pit where they fit the casket. In the past, people were using mats and not necessarily coffins as it is nowadays.

During the funeral ceremony, children are not allowed to move around and are forced to remain indoors because it is believed that children can have zilubwelubwe, (becoming hysterical). The children are not told that someone has died, but instead, they are told that they have moved out of the village and have gone far away from where it will be difficult for them or her to return. Even when one’s father dies, children are not informed that their father has died. Instead, they are told he has left to visit far areas. Only the elderly participate in funeral arrangements. Some of these practices, though, are diminishing due to various reasons.

Death of husband
Long ago, when the husband died, the widow was given a chance to choose among other men, usually brothers to the deceased, to remarry her. This practice was called “chokolo.” Remarrying the woman was done as a way of appreciating her good behavior. It was also done to help her to take care of the children. The woman could choose not to remarry. If the woman was not interested and there was no brother to the deceased interested in chokolo, the woman was allowed to leave the village following all protocols involved in Chewa culture.

This process is now no longer practiced. It was called kubwezera ng’ombe m’khola (literally meaning returning the cattle into the kraal).

The process of releasing the widow to leave the village and wishing her well in her next endeavors is called kusudzula. The woman is told that she is free to go since her husband, who was taking care of her, is gone. She is given a little money to wish her well and thank her for her behavior throughout the period she was in the community. When the woman has been released, she is free to remarry when she returns to her original home. However, before the widow is released, she is expected to put on a black headscarf (mpangowakuda) and a black wrapper at all times. This dress tradition signifies to onlookers that she has just lost her husband and that her late husband’s relatives have not released her. The widow is supposed to follow this dressing every day until she is officially released. This dress tradition is also a sign that she loved her late husband and is still affected by the loss.  She is not supposed to go out with other men or show signs of joy before she is officially released. Any joy could be misconstrued to mean that she had little love for her late husband.

Death of a village head
In the past, when the village-head died, they were buried at night or sunset. It was a practice among the Chewa people that the burial of the village head should not be rushed. This delay also showed that people respected the village head, and they loved him.  Presently, this tradition is not strictly adhered to because people travel long distances to attend the funeral, among other issues. Only in the typical rural areas are the village heads still buried at night or sunset.

Food at the funeral ceremony
When one dies, there are food preparations, including thobwa (locally brewed sweet beer) and other foodstuffs. Adzukulu (gravediggers) dig the graveWhen they have finalized preparing the grave, they come to the village to pick chitanda (the coffin) and take it to the graveyard. The graveyard is called mudziwokhalitsa (a place where one will stay for a longer period), and the grave is called nyumba, meaning a house.

Among the Chewa, food is usually prepared for gravediggers and others who have come to mourn the deceased. However, each clan coming to the funeral ceremony brings its food and provides it to those who have joined them. So, those attending Chewa funeral ceremonies are supposed to carry their food, which they prepare when they arrive at the village where the funeral ceremony is taking place. The Chewa believe that bringing food to eat at the funeral will prevent unnecessary pressure on the bereaved family.

In the coffin
When the deceased is a hunter, some of his tools are put together with him in the coffin. For the hunters, this includes nthonga, mkondo, uta (hunting tools). Similarly, with women, the tools they frequently use are put together with them in the coffin. In the past ages, it was taboo among the Chewa people to use the deceaseds’ property. Even the house of the deceased was immediately razed to the ground. Destroying the deceaseds’ property prevented people from remembering the individual who was staying there. They believed that the spirits would cause havoc if they used property that was used by the deceased.

Taking care of the graveyard
The village head, in collaboration with his nduna (ministers), sets a day once in a year to go and take care of the graveyard. Everyone in the village is supposed to join in clearing the graveyard together as one community. According to the Chewa tradition, the maintenance of the graveyard is a sign of love for the deceased. It also shows appreciation of the good works the deceased did while they were alive. At the family level, some are also allowed to take care of the tombstone of their relatives, which includes constructing tombstones and making sure that the place is clean.

Siwa (house where a dead body lies)
Women are the only ones allowed to stay inside the siwa (the house hosting the coffin) throughout the night. On the other hand, men sit outside the siwa. The coffin is known as Chitanda among the Chewa. When visitors come, they start mourning from a distance, and there is always an older person who welcomes the visitors, and after settling them down, they undergo malonje.  Malonje means briefing the visitor on the circumstances surrounding the death. Usually, they describe all the interventions they did to prevent death and all related experiences. The visitors also share how they received the message about the death.

Throughout the night, men set up a fire outside the siwa to help in lighting and keeping themselves warm. The fire also acts as a sign of alerting passers-by of the funeral ceremony in the village. The fire is significant as it allows more people to know about the funeral ceremony. Those passing by the funeral ceremony to other areas have to clap hands throughout as they are passing by. Those cycling have to come off the bicycle, and those wearing hats or caps have to remove them as a sign of respect at the funeral ceremony. Doing all this shows that one is deeply concerned.

When one dies far from his original village
When one dies while living or staying away from their original home, a team from the village where they have died carries the body to their original home. When they arrive, before anything else is done, the visiting team is supposed to fully brief the relatives, chiefs, and others what led to the loss of their son, brother, daughter, mother, or father… The visiting team is supposed to clearly say in detail what led to the death without hiding anything. If some points are not clear, people from the original home ask questions for clarity. Any distortion of information may lead to milandu (issues), which are presided over by the village head. So, after addressing all queries, all other processes follow, having understood what has led to the death of their relative who was living away for some time.

Missing a funeral ceremony
When a close relative is away and does not make it to the funeral in time, the relative, usually accompanied by others at the siwa (the house where the funeral ceremony is taking place), visits the graveyard where they are shown where their relative has been buried. But to do this, they are supposed to seek permission from the village head that they would like to visit the graveyard. Then the chief would then assign 2 or 3 young men to accompany the relative to the cemetery.

Kusesa (cleaning the siwa)
Kusesa is a word that describes the reconciliation process after burial and takes place two to five days after the burial. During kusesa, relatives of the deceased, among other things, attend to queries from individuals who had issues with the deceased, for example, a debt. It also provides a chance for relatives of the deceased to resolve any issues amongst themselves, but this is done in collaboration with village heads and other authorities within the community. If the deceased had outstanding debts, the relatives of the deceased, depending on the situation, agree to pay back the debt and resolve related issues that people had with the deceased. There is also general cleaning of the premises where the funeral ceremony was held. After kusesa, no one is given a chance to raise issues related to the deceased again.  If anyone does, relatives are at liberty not to give attention to the complainants.