Famous Cultural Practices in Malawi

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Cultural practices in Malawi defines the uniqueness of every Malawian. Malawi has people from different tribes that are embedded with different cultural practices. This includes people from all districts and regions of the country. By definition, a cultural practice refers to the manifestation of a culture or sub culture, especially in regards to the traditional and customary practices of a particular ethnic or other cultural group. Some cultural practices in Malawi include, polygamy, wife inheritance, bonus wife, kupimbila, residence in marriage, just to mention a few.


1. Polygamy (mitala, mita, impali, chipali)

What is polygamy?

This is a practice by which a man marries more than one wife with or without the  consent of the first wife. It was known as chipali among the Sena, impali among  the several ethnic groups in the northern parts of Chitipa and as mitala among most other ethnic groups in Malawi.

The most common form of mitala is by having two or three wives although in some areas in the Northern Region some  men could have as many as eight wives.

The wives may or may not stay in the same compound but they almost always lived in different houses. It was indicated that some wives in mitala fend for themselves while others contribute their labour for growing a cash crop, the proceeds of which are usually controlled by the husband.

Reason why people practice polygamy

People opt for mitala or are found in such unions because of a host of reasons including    the following: The first wife might fail to bear children yet the husband desperately    wants children. The husband wants to have many children as a status symbol, and he marries several women to produce those children for him.

Having many wives is a sign of wealth and the envy of the society. The man finds it prestigious to marry more than one wife. For chiefs, having many wives creates an aura of respect around their chieftaincy.  For men who are wealthy and philanthropic, it may be a genuine need to share their wealth with many women.

The husband marries another woman or other women as a form of punishment to the first wife for her unruly behaviour. In other words, marital problems such as miscommunication, and problems due to the husband feeling that the wife no longer looks beautiful, and/or is cunning, nagging or lazy, may force the man to marry other wives so that he has ‘peace of mind’.

The tendency by some men to produce children out of wedlock forces them to marry the mothers of such children to save face. Culture dictates that men should have many wives, that is, some men are merely following what has been the norm since time immemorial. Some men take up the responsibility of looking after the wives of deceased brothers and their children.

Bereaved women might accept such marriages because they need someone to assist  them in looking after their children. Some men fail to sexually restrain themselves for       one year or so as might be required of them after a woman has delivered. Women enter such marriage to look for wealth.

2. Wife inheritance (Levirate, Chokolo, Kuhara, Impyana, Anjala akupita kufa panyumba, Kulowa kufa

What is wife inheritance?

In this practice, when a husband dies, his brother, cousin, or nephew inherits the surviving wife. Wife inheritance takes place in a community. Among the Yao in Mangochi, among the Chewa of the central region and Lomwe and Amang’anja   in Mulanje, wife inheritance is generally a thing of the past while amongst the Sena, marriages of kulowa kufa are fewer now than in the past. From research, most youths had not witnessed any chokolo in their life time. The practice, although in general decline, was said to have been quite widespread in all the three  districts covered by this study in the north.

Among the Sena, the man chosen to inherit the wife does so after performing kupita kufa, which is discussed under death rituals below. Among the Yao, the   Lomwe, and the various ethnic groups in the North, the contract is usually entered into after kusudzula (formal dissolution of marriage after a husband’s death) discussed under death rituals below.

If there is more than one man interested in inheriting the surviving wife, in most    areas the men are requested to present their luphatho (Sena term for gifts) or any symbolic gift before the lady. The lady then chooses the luphatho or any such gift  presented by the man that impresses her most who thereafter becomes her husband.

In the northern part of Chitipa, it was established that at times a man and his wife would agree in advance on who would inherit her when he died. This arrangement is called chilongo. In the event that the husband dies leaving behind a pregnant wife, the chosen brother is expected to take the pregnant sister-in-law as his wife.

However many men run away from such arrangements because their primary interest is to have sex with the inherited wife and the pregnancy does not offer that immediate opportunity. In such cases, the wife can lodge a complaint before the chiefs.

Malawi popular cultures

                       Reasons why people practice wife inheritance

Studies found that some women entered into such marriages because the husband’s family forced them. Threats to the effect that the woman would lose her property and children or suffer from certain illnesses that could lead to her death if she refuses such a union were cited in a number of sites as the most common mode of coercion. Sometimes, it was learnt, chiefs and elders take part in forcing the women into chokolo.

Some of the main reasons why wife inheritance is practiced are: some women enter into chokolo because they fancy the brother to their deceased husband. This was said to be common when the husband’s brother is wealthy or when the brother was ever used as fisi in the family.

To make it possible for the deceased relative(s) to inherit the property left behind by the deceased, if he is believed to have amassed property.  To offer security to the surviving wife.

Some interviewees, especially men, argued that chokolo offered women some security as the late husband’s relatives can easily assist her and her children in a family union. It was indicated that the arrangement affords the children the opportunity to continue growing up in a family setting with a father figure, which was considered desirable for proper upbringing of the children.


  1. Bonus wife (Hlazi, Mbirigha, Isakulwa, Nthena)

What is bonus wife?

In this practice, the husband is given a younger sister or niece of his wife to take as his second wife. The girl is sometimes enticed by the sister to join her in her marriage or encouraged by aunties and parents to enter the union.

Sometimes the husband initiates the process himself. He may encourage his wife to entice her younger sister or niece if he lusts after her. At least in some areas in the south, the man prepares luphatho in the form of a basket of maize flour and one chicken which is taken by the wife herself to her parents to ask for the sister’s hand in marriage. If the parents accept the luphatho then the formal processes of paying for the bride price is instituted, and finally the young sister joins her sister as a second wife.

Why Bonus Wife is practiced

The purposes of nthena or mbirigha include the following: Sometimes parents offer a mbirigha as a sign of gratitude to the son-in-law who is regarded to be very generous or takes proper care of their daughter and the parents themselves.

To bear children for the husband if the elder sister is barren or has stopped bearing children because of advanced age.  If the husband is rich, the wife may want to protect the wealth by letting her younger sister join her so that the man does not marry elsewhere. At times the older sister can invite her young sister in order to have someone with whom to live in the event that the husband dies.

  1. Kupimbila/ Kupawila

What is Kupimbila/Kupawila?

This is practiced in the northern parts of Chitipa where the girl’s parents get into debt and as payment for the debt they offer the daughter in marriage to the creditor. The girl can be as young as 9 years old and the man could be as old as 40 years or older. The girl in this situation ends up attaining puberty while staying with the husband. The girls, it was established, stick with this arrangement because they are threatened that some curse would befall them if they tried to run away.

A variation of kupawila in Mzimba takes place when parents eye a male tenant on an estate who is hard working and shows high prospects for doing well financially. The parents can ask the tenant to do some piecework for them at their house. At the end of the service, some parents claim that they cannot pay for the services rendered but can instead give the tenant their daughter. In such cases, the tenant is not asked to pay lobola.

Another form of kupawila is when parents send girls as young as 9 years old to stay with a rich man. The parents and the rich man would already have agreed and money or cattle would already have changed hands. The child would be oblivious of the arrangement that her stay with the rich man is going to graduate into a marriage.

It was also cited in both Chitipa and Mzimba that a variation to the practice of kupawila, involves an arrangement by which parents of a boy and those of a girl become very close and in an attempt to strengthen their relationship arrange that their children should grow to marry each other. In the end they force their children into marriage. This is similar to a practice found in some areas in Chitipa where people seek assistance of birth attendants to determine the sex of the unborn child. The girl child born in such circumstances is then pledged to another family before it is born (kutomera).

Kutomera may also involve an old man offering to marry a girl when she is still at a tender age. This offer is made through the parents of the young girl. Generally the man/boy periodically provides gifts for the young girl. This kind of kutomera cuts across all the ethnic groups in the southern region.

In both Chitipa and Mzimba guardians are marrying off girls especially orphans to relieve themselves of the burden of looking after them. In the end the guardians benefit by getting lobola.

In both Chitipa and Mzimba, kupawila and its various derivatives were condemned. In the Southern Region too kutomera was thoroughly condemned. Among the reasons for their rejection, the following were advanced: The girls involved are invariably very young and therefore not capable of making independent decisions in matters of marriage. In other words such girls are not given an opportunity to choose their marriage partners.

In Kupawila the girls are forced to suffer in silence for a debt they did not have a part in incurring. Other members of the family in which the girls are married, especially the older wife and sons take advantage of the naivety of the young wives to subject them to abuse. The research established that these girls are molested frequently. A member of a male FGD at Tutulane in Chitipa gave as an example from his own experience with this practice when his father took as a wife, a girl who was younger than him.

In the era of HIV/AIDS, the girls are not protected from the disease since they marry older men who might already be infected. The practices, it was learnt, encourage young wives to seek sexual satisfaction elsewhere in the event that the aging husbands are unable to satisfy them, which behaviour is likely to expose them to the scourge.  The girls are deprived of the opportunity to obtain some education which would help them live an economically rewarding life in future.

  1. Residence in Marriage

Studies established that ordinarily the residence for a couple is determined by the manner the marriage was contracted. In societies where lobola is used to formalize marriages women are supposed to live in their husbands’ homes while in matrilineal societies men are supposed to leave their home to live in their wives’ homes. The two systems of residence are called:

Chikamwini/ Kusendwa and;

 Chitengwa (Uoloka, Kuyilwa ku nthengwa, Insendwa, Ubweghi, Ukesenda)

Chikamwini refers to a practice by which a man marries and settles in his wife’s home village. chikamwini was quite common in the communities in the Southern and Central Region (except for the Chewa of Mchinji and Dowa) but very rare in the Northern Region.

In the areas where chikamwini is not practiced, such men who go into chikamwini are made fun of by fellow men and the community at large. Those few men who practice it are not regarded as real men – they are not yet married in the eyes of the society. They are actually regarded opepela (useless men). Chikamwini is regarded very unusual and oftentimes couples in this type of residence are advised to settle on a piece of land that is away from the core village.

In areas where chikamwini is the norm, it is practiced for the following reasons: the custody of children in marriage vests in the woman’s family hence children have to grow up in the woman’s home. The son-in-law has to help his parents-in-law (especially if they are old or incapacitated). This help can be easily provided if the man stays close to these parents. The man may want to show that he is capable of supporting his wife and her extended family.  Women are usually given land by their parents in the matrilineal setting, so the couple takes advantage of the readily available land.

In the areas in which chikamwini is not the norm, it might be practiced because of one of the following reasons: When children in the family keep dying at the husband’s village, there rises the need to live away from that village, and the woman’s village is one alternative.  When the wife does not get along with the husband’s relatives, she might encourage her husband to move to her home area.  When the husband is not getting along with his parents and relatives or he is failing to pay lobola, he can escape all this by living at the wife’s village.  Lack of adequate arable land in the man’s village.

The term Chitengwa is used liberally to refer to a practice by which, upon marriage, the woman leaves her village to live in her husband’s home village. This marriage system is contracted after following the required processes of asking for a hand in marriage and making some kind of “payment,” in the form of cash and or livestock, by the man’s family to the woman’s before the man can take the woman to his village. No payment for chitengwa was reported in Mangochi and Mulanje where albeit chitengwa was becoming popular among the youth. Chikamwini was more predominant.

In the north, this payment is called lobola, which has already been discussed above. Once this has been paid, children born in this marriage belong to the husband’s family. Among the Sena, the payment of the bride price (chuma cha maloolo) is known as kusemba or kuloola while among the Ngoni of Ntcheu it is called chiwongola nsana which can be two goats and five chickens.

Among the Ngoni of Mchinji, more especially those of T.A. Mlonyeni, it is referred to as nthakula while among the Ngoni of Dowa (T/A Msakambewa) it is known as chiwongo. In some areas of Mchinji such as T.A. Mkanda, it is referred to as chimalo.

In patrilineal societies where Chitengwa is the norm there are several reasons for practicing it. These include:

  • To confirm the fact that thewoman, after getting married, belongs to the man’s side.
  • To enable the man to exercise his full independence of his parents-in-law.
  • To signify that the man is in full control of the woman.
  • To ensure that children born to them will also belong to the man’s side.

In areas where ordinarily chitengwa is not the norm such as among the Chewa and the Ngoni of Ntcheu, Mchinji and Dowa, the reasons advanced for practicing chitengwa include:

  • Women must assist parents and relatives of the husband.
  • The Chewa of Mchinji observed that men born in that village/clan are the owners of that village and the ownership cannot be given to a stranger (mkamwini).
  • To keep wealth such as land and livestock in the clan.
  • The practice gives the man authority as the head of the family.

In the Central Region when a woman who was taken to chitengwa without following proper marriage procedures dies at the man’s place, relatives of the man will go and announce the woman’s death at her home village at night. Once the announcement has been made, the messengers will run back to their village as fast as possible to avoid being captured and killed by her relatives.

Relatives of the dead woman’s husband are requested to pay a goat as a fine for having taken the woman away without proper marriage procedures. This fine is called mtupa. It is only after the fine has been paid that arrangements for the funeral of the dead woman can begin.

  1. Jando; What is Jando?

Jando refers to circumcision for boys. sometimes boys as young as 6 years of age underwent this initiation rite. They are confined at a place called thedzo, tsimba, msasa or zoma depending on the particular locality. The boys who had undergone the initiation are called aphale and those who had not are referred to as alukhu. The period for the initiation differs from place to place but ranged from two weeks to two months.  This place of confinement is located away from home, usually near a river or dambo.

A day before the boys go to thedzo, their parents prepare a chicken, money and some flour for the village head as a way of asking for permission for the initiation to take place. They also prepare some more money and flour that are given to the Ngaliba (the one who administers the circumcision on the aphale at thedzo) and Nakanga (counselor) who is sometimes simply called namkungwi. He is the overall in-charge of the aphale for the period of confinement.

When the date and time for the initiation has been set the boys’ parents are advised to abstain from sex for the whole period that their boys are at thedzo. Even the village head suspends sexual activities for this period. This abstinence from sex is known as kuwelama in Mangochi. Parents whose first born son is at the thedzo, are further advised never to talk to anyone for the period in question, for fear of talking to a ‘hot’ person, that is, one who has had sex during the period of abstinence. There is a common belief that having sex or talking to any person who has had sex may cause an illness called tsempho on their boy at thedzo and he may eventually die.

As soon as the aphale go to thedz,o the ngaliba of the thedzo buries charms, which are in a form of a supa (small guard used for rituals) and some flour, at the centre of the thedzo to protect the whole area from witchcraft. Ngalibas are expected to be conversant with acts of witches/wizards. In Muslim areas, sometimes a Sheikh comes to pray for the initiation at the thedzo. Then the ngaliba circumcises the boys.

The circumcision differs from one locality to another.  In some places the circumcision involves cutting of the membrane that connects the foreskin and the inner part of a penis.  In other places, this involves cutting off the entire foreskin with a knife.

The knife is locally called yoduma whose Chichewa equivalent is yoluma (the one that bites). In some other places the knife is called simba mkaliye nyama, which in Chichewa translates to mkango ukadye nyama (the lion should eat meat). Yet in other places the circumcision involves cutting off the foreskin using the Ngaliba’s fingernails. Soon after the circumcision the Ngaliba leaves the thedzo for home and the nakanga takes over.

In some areas the Nakanga mixes the foreskin from the first initiate and that from the last initiate with medicine. The concoction is put in water that the boys drink. This medicine is said to help the boys to overcome homesickness. And the Nakanga with his vice called Chitonombe and the guardians of the aphale at thedzo called lombwe take charge of the aphale.

Reasons Why Jando is Practiced

They start to teach them about good traditional manners. The instruction is usually done through songs that are characterized by obscene language. The boys spend a good number of days naked and without bathing at the thedzo to allow the sores to heal.

In addition to providing them with basic information about girls like menstruation and their own sexuality, the boys are advised, among other things, on the following: not to have sex with a woman in her monthly periods or when she has just given birth or aborted. They should not fear dead bodies but that instead they should be attending funerals. Respect for elders. Take care of the sick and the aged.

The purpose of carrying out circumcision for boys is to protect them from hurting themselves when they have sex with a girl.

When the boys are about to be released from the thedzo they are given thobwa la mankhwala (medicated sweet beer) called mthibulo to make their manhood strong. Mthibulo is prepared with chimera (fermented cereal) whose fermentation is facilitated by urine from the wife of the ngaliba of the particular thedzo.

The boys are finally released from the thedzo, and gather at the Village Head’s house. While the boys are there, any married couple in the village is identified to prepare “hot” food for the boys to eat. To prepare this “hot” food, the couple is expected to have sex at mid night. After that they wash their private parts. The water used for washing is used to prepare the food for the aphale.  Once the aphale eat this food they also become “hot”, and their parents and the village head are now free to resume sex.

The boys are then released to go to their respective homes after their parents have paid the nakanga some money which they call subaheli, to redeem them.

Once the boys undergo circumcision they are considered mature and are actually advised to have sexual intercourse with any girl as soon as they go back home from thedzo. This is called kutaya/kuchotsa/kupungula mafuta or kuminitsa (spilling/removing/reducing oil or blowing out).

The mthibulo mentioned above is actually said to prepare the boys for this sex. The boys are encouraged to do kutaya mafuta in order to avoid tsempho that they may get once they start playing, or sharing food, with other children who, or whose parents had been having sex during the period the boys were at the thedzo.

The belief is that if the boys do not have sex their penises would shrink and become too small for sex. This medicine and belief is similar to what was found in some areas in the Central Region where boys are given traditional herbs known as mtela when they have shown signs of puberty which is manifested through, for example, change of voice, growth of a beard, and the experience of “wet dreams.”

They are advised to have sex with girls often to release some “energy” in them otherwise they would experience frequent “backaches.”


  1. Bernard
  2. Sharon
  3. James cheyendeyende
  4. Mbumba
  5. JAM C

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