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The History of Chewa people of Malawi

The Chewa (or AChewa) are a Bantu ethnic group found in Malawi, Zambia and few in Mozambique. The Chewa are closely related to people in surrounding regions such as the Tumbuka and Nsenga. They are historically also related to the Bemba, with whom they share a similar origin in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As with the Nsenga and Tumbuka, a small part of Chewa territory came under the influence of the Ngoni, who were of Zulu or Natal/Transvaal origin. An alternative name, often used interchangeably with Chewa, is Nyanja. Their language is called Chichewa. Internationally, the Chewa are mainly known for their masks and their secret societies, called Nyau, as well as their agricultural.
There are two large Chewa clans, the Phiri and Banda, with a population of 1.5 million people. The Phiri are associated with the kings and aristocracy, the Banda with healers and mystics.

Oral records of the Chewa may be interpreted to refer to origins in Malambo, a region in the Luba area of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, from where they emigrated into northern Zambia, and then south and east into the highlands of Malawi. This settlement appeared sometime before the end of the first millennium. After conquering land from other Bantu peoples, they regrouped at Choma, a place associated with a mountain in northern Malawi, and the plateau of northeastern Zambia.

This is one of a number of different interpretations of the early oral records of the Chewa. The first Chewa kingdom was established some time before or after 1480, and by the 16th century there were two systems of government, one maintained by the Banda clan at Mankhamba (near Nthakataka), and the other by the Phiri clan at Manthimba. The Phiri are associated with the Malawian mountain Kaphirintiwa.

By the 17th century, when the 'Malawi' state had been unified, the Portuguese had made some contact with the Chewa. Although the Portuguese did not reach the heartland of the chiefdom, there are well-documented records of contacts between 1608 and 1667. By 1750, several 'Malawi' dynasties had consolidated their positions in different parts of central Malawi; however the Chewa, had managed to distinguish themselves from their neighbours through language, by having special tattoo marks (mphini), and by the possession of a religious system based on the nyau secret societies. During colonial time British and Portuguese missions have converted many to Christianity but at least one fifth (20%) of all Chewa are Muslims today. Despite the influence of Christianity and Islam a good number of Chewa still hold to their ancestral belief system.


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