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Initiation Ceremonies in Mbewa Village

Written by CorpsAfrica/Malawi Volunteer Ms. Deborah Kamanga

For the past two weeks, I have been going to bed or waking up to the sound of people singing or chanting. On the first night, I thought maybe there was a funeral; or wedding nearby because that’s usually about the only time that people sing or chant in this community. Day after day, I kept hearing these “noises” and I was convinced that this was neither a funeral nor a wedding because these ceremonies usually do not last for so many days.

One fateful morning, as I was sweeping outside my humble abode, my “closest” neighbor came out of his house (closest in terms of the distance from his house to mine). As we were conversing, I decided to ask him about the music and chanting which had almost become a daily routine. He laughed and told me that this was the season for initiation ceremonies in the community and that’s what people had been celebrating for the past two weeks or there about. I was curious because I had limited knowledge about initiation ceremonies, plus I had never been to one. Furthermore, most of the information I had was on initiation ceremonies amongst my tribal people; the Chewa, and I regarded this as a moment for me to learn something about initiation ceremonies amongst the people in my host community; the Lomwe and this blog post will be highlighting a few things that I have learnt about these ceremonies, from my neighbor and some other members of the community.

In Mbewa village, which is my host community, initiation ceremonies take place most of the times within the month of August and mostly when the local primary school is on holiday. These ceremonies are organized for both male and females starting from 10 years old going upwards. Parents of the prospective “candidates” pay some money to the Group Village Head notifying him/her of the up-coming initiation ceremony for their child. Another stipulated amount is paid to the “Namkungwis”; these are people responsible for training and teaching people at the initiation camps. In addition to this, more money is paid to the church which the family belongs to, this is because the initiation ceremonies in this community are organized by different churches and each church has their own mode of operation. However, some of the things are common to all the initiation ceremonies regardless of the denomination. Parents are expected to buy new clothes for their children which are meant to be worn on the final day of the ceremony. In addition to the new clothes, they are also expected to prepare food like rice, nsima, chicken and thobwa (A local drink brewed from either maize or sorghum), which they serve to the children and other guests.

These initiation ceremonies are considered as rites of passage to adulthood and at the camps, the children are equipped with knowledge on adulthood. The girls are taught what women are expected to do in the society and how they are expected to carry themselves in the society. For example, the girls are taught that crying during funerals is their duty, thus they have to master the art of crying. A fake dead body is brought to the camp each and every day, this is done to reinforce the girls’ level of sympathy. In addition to this, the girls are also taught how to “please” their husbands after they get married. Ironically, at the boys’ camp, the boys are taught the process of childbirth and how to know when a woman is pregnant. The significance of this is the fact that the man is the head of the family thus should have extensive knowledge of the woman’s body.

Most members of the community especially women and young men take part in these ceremonies by singing and dancing on the final day of each ceremony. One would be surprised at the level of enthusiasm displayed during these dances especially the famous dance called “Ngole” whereby women and men get to dance together. I was curious to watch this dance as it seemed as if everyone was excited and talking about it, so I went to the nearby church square when I heard the songs on a Saturday morning. It was quite exciting to see how people were dancing together regardless of age, sex and marital status. One woman came up to me and asked me to join in the dance, but I laughed it off and gave a lame excuse about how I was a terrible dancer, when deep down I just couldn’t stand the massive dust that was emanating from the “dance floor”. I asked the woman if she had any children who had ever attended the initiation ceremonies and I was shocked by her answer when she swore she could never let any of her children attend these ceremonies and that if she knew better, she would have never attended one herself. My level of curiosity was once again heightened and I wanted to know more about why she felt that way, so I asked her if she would mind explaining further. She replied with a simple sentence of: “aunt, palibe chabwino chilichonse chimauzidwa anawa, kumangokhala kuwalaula ana, ine sindingabetse ndalama yanga ata!”  (Aunt, there is nothing good taught to the children and they use a lot of obscene and abusive languages, I wouldn’t waste my money for that at all!).

I wanted to probe further but refrained from it as I didn’t want the woman to think I was prying. I wish I did probe further and I wish I learnt more. However, one day at a time and every day is a learning moment so I believe throughout the remaining time of my service year, I still have a lot more to learn about these initiation ceremonies and I will be sure to write more on this topic. Until then, Adios!!

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