African Poems

Oral Poetry from Africa

Tag: Malawi (Page 1 of 2)

The Iron Sheets

A ChiChewa song from the southern region of Malawi about the perils of matrilocal marriage. The singer has married into “a women’s village”, Njenjema, where the land is inherited through the female line and everything is controlled by the wife’s family. He, however, has worked in the mines of South Africa, and has invested his savings in a house with a corrugated iron roof. The marriage ended in divorce and he lost his investment when the chief presiding over the traditional court ruled the sheets of iron must remain for the sake of the children. The song is by Edwin Sankhulani and was recorded at Njenjema in August 1982.

At Njenjema, do not dare
At Njenjema, do not dare…

Maize has a Market

A spirit possession song from the southern region of Malawi, sung in chiChewa and opening for the outsider a window on the sufferings of a society where children had, and have, only a 50% chance of surviving infancy. For women like Effie Musa from whom this song was recorded in August 1982, witchcraft practiced by one of her neighbours was the only plausible explanation.

Maize has a Market
Sorghum has a Market..

More Vimbuza Songs

Vimbuza is a spirit possession ceremony practiced by the Tumbuka people who live in eastern Zambia and northern Malawi. In Vimbuza ceremonies women who are believed to be possessed by wrathful spirits are given free reign to express their anger about members of their family and the community who have ill-treated them. Their complaints are attended to and they are rewarded with gifts in order to allow the angry spirits to leave in peace. See also Vimbuza Songs that we’ve posted previously.

Tumbuka women have mixed feelings about their husbands going to work in the South African gold mines. The following spirit possession songs express some of their complaints…

Lament (Ngoni)

An Ngoni song from northern Malawi, sung at girls’ initiation ceremonies. The Ngoni were driven into exile by Shaka Zulu’s conquests, and this song presents Shaka’s achievements from the point of view of people who suffered from them.

Zwide was the chief of the Ndwandwe whom Shaka defeated in 1818 (see the poem Shaka). Soshangane, who established his own kingdom in southern Mozambique, was originally one of Zwide’s generals. See also the poem The Dirge of the Warriors’ Widows.

It is because of Zwide, chief of the Soshangane people
That though I lie down I cannot sleep…

Prayer for Rain

A ChiSena prayer to Chauta (God) from southern Malawi. The prayer is led by an elder, with the people responding in chorus.

Chauta we beseech you, we beseech you!
You have refused us rain, we beseech you!

Think Carefully of this Path

A chiSena funeral song from southern Malawi on the theme of equality in death, for rich and poor, black and white.

This path, yes, this path, yes,
think carefully of this path, o-ye

Vimbuza Songs

The Tumbuka people live in eastern Zambia and northern Malawi, their homeland split by the border drawn by the British in 1890. But forty years before, the Tumbuka had suffered an earlier invasion, by Ngoni people fleeing the rise of the Zulu nation in south-east Africa. After many wanderings, the Ngoni settled in the Tumbuka heartlands, bringing with them a new cattle-based economy, new patterns of settlement and new systems of marriage.

A century and a half later, with the British long gone, Tumbuka women living in the Lusaka city compounds, still resent this earlier invasion. Tumbuka marriage had been matrilocal, men living in their wives’ villages, and land inherited in the female line. Taking wives from among the Tumbuka, the Ngoni demanded they lived in the husbands’ homesteads, subject to the control of the patrilineage, and forced to accept polygyny.

Over the decades, Tumbuka women have protested vigorously against this “slavery”. The form of their protest is called Vimbuza, a ceremony in which women are exorcised of the angry spirit believed to be possessing them. The possessed women are astonishingly arrogant, complaining bitterly about family members who have ill-treated them in songs to which no one can respond. They are rewarded with gifts, and with promises that their complaints will be attended to.

Individually, the songs can appear to be narrowly focussed. But the range of grievances is wide and, taken together, a consistent over-arching theme appears, in a general complaint about Ngoni overrule, about patrilineal marriage, about polygyny and the effects of labour migration. While the Ngoni boast about migration and conquest, and while the Tumbuka men are nostalgic for their pre-Ngoni empire, the women’s songs present an alternative history, an alternative vision of how life should be lived. They look back to a time of stable and harmonious relationships, when freedom from poverty, disease and spirit possession were guaranteed by the matrilineal extended family.

The following song was sung by NyaChisi, at Chimpeni village, Lundazi district, Zambia, on 25 March 1975. The references to “Orphans” and later “guarded wanderers” are powerful descriptions of how Tumbuka wives felt themselves to be outsiders in their Ngoni husbands’ homesteads.

We, today’s orphans,
We, today’s orphans…

The Earth does not get fat

A very old Ngoni poem from Malawi. This was a poem traditionally performed at weddings, but became popularly sung at other occasions such as church meetings. The refrain, ‘the earth does not get fat’, refers to the earth constantly consuming the dead.

The earth does not get fat.
It makes an end of those who wear the head plumes

A Man With a Hat On

A ChiTumbuka girls’ song from Malawi, containing some amusing satire on western dress.

A man with a hat on, I say no:
How should I know he is bald,

I Heard a Bell

A ChiLomwe girls’ song from Malawi, popular as a pounding song (sung by women using mortar and pestle to pound grain to flour). The bell is a bicycle bell.

I heard a bell ngili-ngili at the corner:
I thought it was my boyfriend, the son of Chipo,

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African Poems