There are eight steps of the Chewa Marriage process.
Step 1: “Kufunsira mbeta” –Marriage proposal
Step 2: “Malonje” (Initial meeting of uncles from the man and woman’s family).
Step 3: “Chikamwini” – (Informing the parents)
Step 4: Feedback meeting the groom’s uncles from the bride’s uncles
Step 5: “Kugwira chikamwini” (for the man) chitengwa (for the woman)
Step 6: “Chiwongo” (discussions on the fee or dowry)
Step 7: Informing the chief or village head
Step 8: “Mwambo wa M’banja” (family life lessons)
To have an in-depth understanding of the Chewa marriage process, we highly recommend you:
MARRIAGE PRACTICES AMONG THE CHEWA
The Chewa people, a Bantu ethnic group indigenous to central and Southern Africa, are the largest ethnic group in Malawi. They are also known as AChewa. Their language is called Chichewa. Phiri and the Banda constitute the two most prominent Chewa clans. The Phiri clan is associated with the kings and aristocracy, and the Banda clan is associated with healers and mystics. They constitute a population of 1.5 million people.
The Chewa people approach the rite of marriage cautiously, with young men and women avoiding getting married early. Usually, parents are not supposed to discuss issues related to marriage with their children as it is generally considered taboo.
In rural settings, boys and girls are brought up in their parents’ houses or made to live in adjacent huts, including kitchens. Later, when signs of puberty start showing, they are separated from their parents’ home and start living with fellow girls and boys. This separation allows them to learn about more issues associated with adulthood, including marriage. Boys are generally not supposed to start shaving their beards while living in their parents’ homes.
Boys sleep in what is known as mphala (a house meant for boys of the same age range), while girls sleep in what is known as gowelo (a house for girls of the same age range).
For the boys, sleeping in a mphala allows them to openly discuss growth, marriage, and other behavioral issues among the youth. The girls sleep in the gowelo to freely discuss issues relating to their development and marriage. It gives room for these young adults both to be knowledgeable and reliable in their communities. This tenet also helps young men and women to know “Umunthu,” otherwise known as Ubuntu, among other tribes in Southern Africa. Umunthu means being responsible for the action one takes as an individual.
Among the Chewa ‘mtsibweni’ or malume (uncle to the boy) has the responsibility to oversee the upbringing of his nephew and make sure that he is growing according to Chewa culture and is taking full responsibility within the family as he grows up. Essentially, mtsibweni provides advice and counseling, catering to the boy’s needs and monitoring his growth.
For girls, azakhali (aunt) is responsible for giving advice and ensuring that all their needs are taken care of. She also monitors her growth and actions in the community.
When the uncle notices that the boy is grown up and is showing interest in girls, he usually confronts him, threatening him with words like “women are dangerous, and can burn you.” Such phrases are typically ambiguous but vital in preventing the boy from indulging in teenage sex and getting married at a tender age. He cautiously interacts with girls and women in the community as a result.
Even if his peers joke with the boy that he is now grown up, he gets angry, arguing he is still young – all this due to the uncle’s influence intended to delay the boy from getting married early. This delay prevents chisawawa (disorder) and, as such, among the Chewa, men and women are socially distanced. In churches, at funerals, and other gatherings, they sit separately due to the theory or teaching that women can destroy or burn men. Among the Chewa, boys and girls are not supposed to engage in sex before marriage, hence all the tricks to socially distance them from the opposite sex.
Among the Chewa, there are different ways of getting married, including an arranged marriage. Though the practice is now fading away, the Chewa practice arranged marriages. When the uncle notices his nephew is ready for marriage, he arranges with some elderly men within the community to try to influence him to marry the girl the uncle and other older men and women in the community have agreed to. Traditionally the Chewa marry msuweni (cousin) as there is a belief in keeping the clan together. This tradition is called kusunga mtundu (not allowing clan members to marry outside their own). Through this belief, they want to keep relations closer.
When the boy has been introduced to his cousin or any girl within the community whom parents and relatives of the boy know very well and would want the boy to marry, it is not obvious the boy or the girl will accept the arrangement.
Additionally, the elderly men and women would arrange for the two to sleep in one house for a night. When the sun rises the following day, some elders would check if the two had engaged in sexual relations. When they notice that nothing happened due to fear by the boy, the older men, through his uncle, would organize briefing sessions to inform the boy who the woman is so he should no longer be afraid of girls and women. There is a common belief that women “bite” among the youth, and no one dares to say contrary views. Due to this belief, boys and girls do not rush into marriage and, as a result, they usually marry at the age of 30 or 35.
Further, parents and uncles (eni mbumba) (the owner of the children) are always eager to have their boy or girl find a suitable marriage partner. While some of these practices are diminishing, they still form part of the youth’s path to getting married among the Chewa.
Step 1: “Kufunsira mbeta” –Marriage proposal
Among the Chewa, when a man proposes marriage to a girl, it is not obvious that they will get married immediately. There is a process that involves uncles, aunties, parents, chiefs, and other influential people in the community. At first, when the man meets the girl, the man says, “Chemwali ndakukondani, n’kadakonda ndithu n’takukwatirani,” meaning “Lady, I love you, and would love to marry you.” Despite being interested in the man, the lady doesn’t say “yes” at the first proposal from the man. The man has to justify his position several times before the girl nods to the proposal. At this point, some men give up thinking the girl is not interested in them.
According to the Chewa culture, it is wrong for the girl to accept a marriage proposal at first contact with a man. The girl has to delay acceptance so that she is viewed as “strong,” not desperate, not simple, and someone men can fight for.
Accepting the proposal at initial contact with the man is a sign of weakness in the girl. It signals she is “cheap.” On the other hand, if the man fights back to win the girl after a delay in accepting a proposal, it signals a strong marriage. It also shows that the man is resilient and strong enough. Further, it assures that even if they face challenges in marriage, both will be strong enough to handle issues.
This process is called “kufunsira mbeta,” meaning marriage proposal. When the girl finally accepts, the man gives the girl chikole (something physical which the lady or a man can show others that she is engaged). Popular items used as chikole include mikanda (jewelry), cloth women usually use to wrap over their heads, and other material things. Giving the lady chikole indicates that the man is serious about marrying the girl and prevents the girl from being approached by other men for marriage proposals. When another man approache the lady, she shows the chikole to block him from continuing his advances.
The man and the woman exchange “chikole” during the “kufunsira mbeta” or marriage proposal stage.
Step 2: Malonje (Initial meeting of uncles from the man and woman’s family).
Once the girl accepts the proposal, she advises the man to inform her uncle about it. As stated earlier, among the Chewa, the uncle is considered mwini mbumba (owner of the children in the clan). When the man arranges to visit the uncle of the girl, he does not go alone. At first, he has to inform his uncle about the girl he has proposed marriage to. The boy narrates to his uncle all the characters of the girl he has loved and would like to marry. When the uncle accepts, a team of not less than three, comprising the young man, his uncle, and another relative but not his parents, visits the girl’s home so that these two sides know each other well. When they arrive at the girl’s uncle, her uncle will also not be alone – he is usually joined by other relatives of the girl but not her parents. So when the boy’s team arrives, they engage in discussions called malonje (introductions and welcoming remarks).
So after typical greetings, the team from the man’s side, led by the uncle, introduces the issue, which goes like this:
Malume ake a M’nyamata (boy’s uncle): Takupezani,
Malume a Mkazi (girl’s uncle) : Zikomo, takulandirani.
Malume a mwamuna: Tambala wathuyi anaonapo msoti pano, ndiye kubweraku?
Malume a Mkazi: Oh, Zikomo koma tikudziweni kaye mukuchokera kuti?
Malume a mwamuna: Ife tachokera m’mudzi wa Kaanyenda ku Mchinji, tambalayu ndi mwana wa a Banda, ndipo ine ndi malume wake, awa ndi a malume ake ang’ono. Tele nkhani yomwe tabwelera ndi ya msoti umene tambala wathuyi wapeza m’mudzi wanu uno.
After the team from the man’s side has made the introductions and made clear the aim of their visit, the girl’s uncle briefly puts the conversation on hold and goes out to call the girl. The girl is not part of the initial conversation until her uncle has called her to be present. The young man, too, despite being part of the team, stays quiet during the conversation. Only his uncle does all the talking.
When the girl enters the room where the discussions are taking place, her uncle asks the team from the man side if she is the one they are talking about. If she is the one, the girl’s uncle then asks her if she also knows the people from the man’s team. The girl has to clarify where they met and confirm if she agrees with the marriage proposal. Her uncle then tells the team from the man’s side, specifically the man, that it is good that they have opened up about their relationship and have introduced it to eni mbumba, which culturally is right. At this point, the engagement is accepted by uncles from either side.
Throughout their relationship, the man is not allowed to visit the girl’s house alone; neither is the girl allowed to visit the man alone. At all costs, the man is supposed to be joined by his brothers or fellow youth in the community. Similarly, the girl is supposed to be accompanied by her friends when visiting the man. This chaperoning prevents the two from engaging in sex before marriage.
Mostly, the two visit each other on Sundays. The man is usually joined by at least two of his brothers, while the girl prefers her sisters or friends depending on the situation. The two chat in an open space. The girl makes sure that she prepares food for her man and the people who would have accompanied him to see her. The hospitality is also reciprocated when she visits the man.
“Malume ake a M’nyamata” (boy’s uncles) and “Malume a Mkazi” (girl’s uncle) meet at the latter’s homestead to kick start the formal marriage proceedings.
Step 3: Chikamwini – (Informing the parents)
As the relationship matures, and the two have about a year to get married, ankhoswe (intermediaries) meet to organize the marriage processes. As part of the marriage process, the uncles from the two families, through the azakhali (aunt), inform the girl’s parents and the man’s parents accordingly. Initially, parents are nervous, especially about the behavior of the potential partner of their daughter or son.
“Azakhali” (aunt) informs the woman’s parents about the woman’s intentions to get married
Step 4: Feedback from meeting the groom’s uncles from the bride’s uncles
Once the parents have been informed of the marriage proposal, their feedback sets out the next steps of the marriage process. After consulting with the parents, “Azakhali” takes the feedback to the uncles, who then arrange another meeting with the suitor’s uncles.
Step 5: Kugwira chikamwini (for the man) Chitengwa (for the woman)
As part of addressing these fears among parents, the man is required to spend one or two months at the home of his would-be parents-in-law working hard, participating in all family chores to show his potential in raising their daughter. This initiative is called chikamwini, a man who works at the girl’s parents’ home intending to marry the girl and show his potential to raise their daughter. The man participates in many household chores, including farming, hunting, and making tools usually used at the household, e.g., mats. Chikamwini is more like a probation period since parents assess if the man would be able to take care of their daughter, especially feeding and dressing her. Furthermore, this is an opportunity for the parents to appreciate the behavior of the young man.
When the man returns after kugwira chikamwini for one or two months, they assess his performance.
The man performing “kugwira chikamwini” at the future in-law’s homestead
Similarly, the girl is supposed to go to her future husband’s parents’ home and spend some time participating in all household chores. Girls participate in kusinja, kukonola, kupanga mphale (processing flour manually), cooking, and other household chores. Then the man’s parents also assess how the girl has performed and then approve the marriage process to continue if they are satisfied. This tradition is called chitengwa, meaning a girl working at her man’s parents’ home to show her potential in supporting the man if they get married.
The woman performing “kugwira chikamwini” at the future in-law’s homestead
Apart from this process, the two families critically analyze each other regarding their behavior, relations, and means of survival. The behavior of parents, aunties, uncles, and other relatives also can cost the marriage and consequently lead to the two suspending their plans for marriage. If there is no nkhokwe (maize silo) at the man’s home, it implies that they do not harvest bumper yields. Parents and uncles of the girl are worried about this, and this can sometimes lead to the termination of the marriage process. If the girl’s home is full of noise, disagreements, fighting and shouting at each other, the man’s parents and uncles will be apprehensive, and this can also lead to the cancellation of the marriage process.
Step 6: Chiwongo (discussions on the fee or dowry)
If all these processes are done correctly, and both sides are still in agreement with marriage, they then discuss chiwongo (the fee or dowry which man pays the girl’s uncle to marry her). The uncle of the girl usually charges Chiwongo. It ranges from five goats to more. It is not a payment for marrying the girl, but more like a token of appreciation to the girl’s parents that they raised their child well and that the young man has now found a good wife in their daughter. But the charges are also dependent on the behavior of the girl. The charges are much higher if she is a virgin, has good behavior, and works hard. On the contrary, the charges are lower if the girl is lazy and has a bad history.
After discussing how much they will pay, the man then mobilizes fellow young men to help him construct a house so that when he is finally married, he will have a house of his own to stay with his wife. A marriage ceremony is only possible when the man has constructed the house since he is not supposed to marry while still living in his parents’ house.
Step 7: Informing the chief or village head
The village head is given chigwira m’manja (literally meaning what the hands have touched), ensuring they are well aware of the marriage processes. The chief should fully be in support of the marriage processes if the whole arrangement has to work. The village head is duly informed about the engagement, and if they delay informing the chief about this process and the village head discovers or learns about it on his own, they are ordered to pay a chicken or a goat as a fine.
SOON AFTER MARRIAGE
Step 8: Mwambo wa M’banja (family life lessons)
Soon after getting married, the two are introduced to Mwambo wa M’banja, meaning family life lessons. Fellow men engage the man to advise him on how to serve his wife well, while the girl also participates in similar sessions with older women. This process is led by the uncles or aunties of the two newly-weds. To test if the man is not impotent, elderly women give a piece of cloth to the woman who has just married, which she uses when sleeping for the first time with her husband. Secretly, the following morning older women, popularly known as ntchembere among the Chewa, check the piece of the cloth to trace any signs relating to the potency of the man. So, through this secretive process, older women can tell if the man can make the young woman pregnant.
The uncles are the ankhoswes (mediators) in Chewa marriages. The control of all family matters is with the malume (uncle). The ankhoswe‘s role is to make sure all is going well in the marriage, and if there are issues, one has to report to their uncle, not parents.
Parents receive reports of resolved issues. This relationship explains why among the Chewa, uncles could pay school fees for their sisters’ children leaving out their children as it is believed that uncles are the real owners of the children (eni mbumba).
Dealing with impotence
FISI (HIRED MAN)
Hiring fisi means agreeing with another man to have sex with your wife to make her pregnant following the impotence of the owner of the wife. When there is no child in the house, due to the man’s infertility, they hire fisi (hyena), which means engaging another man to have sex with the woman to get her pregnant. But it is very secretive such that no one can know that a man is hiring fisi. Even the fisi does not show off; he makes sure he keeps it secret. The marriage is not terminated by any means due to the presence of fisi. This arrangement is accepted as long as the involved parties have agreed. The hiring of fisi, though, is fading out due to issues of HIV/AIDS.