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Chewa (Nyanja) of Malawi

Population: 3,038,500
ROP code: 107548

Location. The central area for the Chewa people is Lilongwe, Dowa, and Ntchisi, with many more living in Mchinji, Kasungu, Ntcheu, Salima, Nkhota Kota, and Dedza. As the Chewa are the largest ethnic group in Malawi, some are scattered throughout the country, but they live primarily in the Central Region.

History. The ancestors of the Chewa lived in what is now Zaire. They migrated to Malawi in the fourteenth or fifteenth century. The Chewa chiefs have been the traditional rulers of Central Malawi for many years. The first President of Malawi after independence from Great Britain in 1964, Dr. H. Kamuzu Banda, was a Chewa.

Identity. These people refer to themselves as Achewa (The Chewa People) and resent being referred to as Nyanja. The word "Nyanja" means "lake" and refers to the broader range of peoples who also speak Chewa as a first or second language.

The Chewa are Negroid people of average size. In the past, the women scarified themselves, but this is now seldom done. As Malawi is 85% rural, most of the Chewa people live in the many villages of Malawi.

Language. The Chewa (Chichewa) language uses the Roman alphabet and is closely related to other Bantu languages. The language is not only spoken in Malawi, but its use spills over into the bordering countries of Zambia, Tanzania, and Mozambique.

Chewa and English were made the official languages of Malawi in 1968. Because Chewa has become the common language in the Lake Malawi area, it is often called Nyanja (from Chinjanja, meaning "Language of the Lake").

Many smaller tribes like the Ngoni, traditionally speaking a Nguni language like Zulu, now speak Chewa/Nyanja as a mother tongue. No one really knows the percentage of the Nyanja speakers in Malawi that are Chewa and Mang'anja.

Political situation. Malawi became a multiparty democracy in 1994. The three major political parties are somewhat aligned along regional lines with most of the Chewa people identifying with the opposition party that formerly ruled Malawi.

Customs. The major life events of weddings, births, and funerals are very important in Chewa customs. These are often accompanied by traditional dancing and beer drinking. Nyau dancers form a secretive cult for men who dance at initiation rites and funerals.

Young Chewa boys grow up enjoying hunting for small animals and playing bawo, a game like chess. Young Chewa girls play house and are soon helping their mothers with domestic chores.

Religion. The Chewa have traditionally worshipped the spirits of their ancestors, but ancestral worship is being replaced by Christianity as the dominant religion among the Chewa. However, in times of sickness or worry, most Chewa people will still visit the local herbalist or traditional doctor for herbs or magical potions to cure their ills or solve their problems.

Christianity. Dutch Reformed missionaries from South Africa began a Christian witness in the Chewa area of Malawi in 1888. The Chewa have come to be among the most responsive people in the world to the Gospel. They have received missionaries gladly and are very bold in sharing their faith with others.

At least three-fourths of them would claim to be Christian. Evangelicals would make up at least 15% of the Chewa population (similar to the Maravi Nyanja people). Missionaries in Malawi report that the responsiveness of the Mang'anja people is a major reason why Malawi usually ranks in the top ten countries in the world in most church growth indicators.

Registry Of Peoples code: 107548

This people's country: MALAWI
Major languages:
Chewa, Nyanja, Tumbuka, Yao, Lomwe, Sena, Kokola, Tonga, Ngoni, Nkonde, and English
Official languages: Chewa and English
Capital city: Lilongwe 

People names: Chewa, Nyanja
Countries where present: Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique
Language: Nyanja (These people call the language Chichewa.)

Froise, Marjorie. World Christianity: South Central Africa. Monrovia, California: MARC, World Vision International, 1991.

Lindgren, N. E. and Schoffeleers, J. M. Rock Art and Nayu Symbolism in Malawi. Limbe, Malawi: Malawi Government, Department of Antiquities, 1985.

Ntara, Samuel Josia. Tr. W. S. Kamphandira Jere. The History of the Chewa. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag GMBH, 1973.

Pachai, Bridglal, ed. The Early History of Malawi. London: The Longman Group Ltd., 1972.

-----.   Malawi: History of the Nation. London: The Longman Group Ltd., 1973.

Rafael, B. R. A Short History of Malawi. Limbe: Montfort Press, 1985.

Additional sources for statistics were the Malawi Census, Britannica Encyclopedia, World Bank Report, Survey of Handicapped Persons in Malawi, the National Statistical Office projected to the current year.

Sam Upton
Orville Boyd Jenkins
August 1996
Revised and first posted 15 April 2004
Last edited 19 August 2005

Copyright © 1996, 2004 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.

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