The Chewa People


The Chewa or Chichewa (Chuas, Achewa, Ancheya, Masheba, or Cewas) are the larg-est ethnic group in Malawi and the third-largest ethnic group in Zambia. The Chichewa number around 57 percent of the total population of Malawi and total over 1.5 million in Malawi and Zambia. They are a Bantu-speaking people, and their language is called Chicewa, Chinyanja, or Banti.

The Chewa arrived in the region of Lake Malawi in the 15th century and was part of the Maravi or Mravi chieftaincies that eventually merged into a state; Lake Malawi is a corruption of Lake Maravi andwasnamedsobythe Portuguese.In the 18th century, the Portuguese believed the Chewa controlled a vast empire, though this seems to have been born more of rumor than solid facts.

The Chewa created at least one king-dom, Undi, and the leadership benefited from the trade routes from the interior that passed on to Zanzibar. North of Undi, the territory was divided into hundreds of chiefdoms that fell victim to the Yao, another Bantu people who lived to the east of Lake Malawi. Internal warfare among the Chewa, including the larger, more organized kingdom of Undi, supplied the Yao with war captives sold as slaves. Trade was not only in slaves, but in locally grown and woven cotton cloth.

The Chewa were peaceful and thus suf-fered from slave-taking raids by the Arabs, the Portuguese, and the Yao. In the 19th century, the Nguni, fleeing north from Shaka Zulu, also fell on the Chewa, taking some as slaves. From 1600 to 1870, the Chewa were subjected to war-fare from the expanding Luba, Bemba, and Luyi from the north and the southern Nguni Bantu pushing north from Natal in South Africa. After 1856, the Bemba were supplied with guns by Arab traders from Zanzibar and, together with the Nguni, they devastated the Chewa.

Although contacted by the Portuguese in Mozambique in the 17th century, Portuguese ideas of the Chewa were rather negative. They were described as being “heathens very barbarous, and great thieves .. . Their mode of speaking is in a loud harsh voice” (Wills, 51). Subjected to slave raids, it was not until British missionary David Livingston’s travels through what was then called Nyasaland that the Chewa were absorbed into British ambitions in Africa. Between 1884 and 1900, the British in the “scramble for Africa” secured their control over Nyasaland in 1891. Originally called the British Central Africa Protectorate, the name was changed to the Nyasaland Protectorate in 1907.

The Chewa are settled agriculturalists and grow crops of sorghum, maize, beans, and rice. Droughts in the 1980s greatly affected the rural population, and many have left to find jobs in the cities. British and Portuguese Christian missions have converted many, but at least one-fifth of all Chewa are Muslims today. Despite the influence of Christianity and Islam, a good number of Chewa still hold to their ances-tral belief system. Traditional belief cen-tered on a single creator god called Chiuta or Chaunta, who made all living things on Mount Kapirintiwa that exists on the border of Malawi with Mozambique.

Most Chewa lived in densely compact villages managed by a hereditary village chief and a council of elders. Historically, the Chewa did not form into a single cen-tral state, but remained, for the most part, divided into hundreds of independent chiefdoms even after being attacked by more centrally organized peoples.British and German troops were engaged during World War I on Lake Malawi and along the land frontier between their colonies.

Though the British quickly put the one German boat operating on Lake Malawi out of commission, the Germans held a strong position on the land frontier until, in 1915, the British victory over a much larger German force in Nyasaland did much to boost the British image in the region. The last major German-British encounter along the northern shores of Lake Malawi took place after the armistice in Europe was signed and the German com-mander agreed to surrender a few days later.

Moves toward independence began in the 1950s, and more and more local peo-ple became involved in the administration of Nyasaland. Many were educated in British schools or in the United States, and in 1944, the Nyasaland African Congress Party was founded, which later changed its name to the Malawi Congress Party. In 1953, Great Britain consolidated all three territories of the two Rhodesia and Nyasaland, which gave more support to the independence movement. In 1961, the Malawi Congress Party won a majority in the elections and Hastings Banda was appointed prime minister. Nyasaland won full independence in 1964, and in 1966, Hastings Banda became the first president of Malawi. Banda ruled Malawi until 1994, when he was removed from office.

John A. Shoup

Further Reading

Gough, Amy. “The Chewa.” http;// .jsp (accessed May 3, 2010).

Stokes, Jamie. “Chewa.” In Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Africa and the Middle East. New York: Facts on File, 2009.

Taylor, Scott D. Culture and Customs of Zam-bia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006.

“Tribes and People Groups: Chewa.” The Africa Guide. (accessed May 3, 2010).