May 13, 2005
What Tribe Are You From?
“What tribe are you from in America?” Is a question that we get asked occasionally. The tribe system is so ingrained in their society that many Malawians do not understand how a culture can operate without it.
Every person in Malawi comes from a village. Every village is connected to a tribe. There are dozens of tribes in Malawi. They include the Lomwe, Chewa, Yao (central region), Tumbuka (northern region), Manganja and Sena tribes. Each tribe has its own geographic region, language, customs, traditions and native dances. Malawi’s official language is Chichewa because the former President for Life, Hastings Kumuzu Banda, was from the Chewa tribe and forced everyone to learn his mother language. When you are introduced to someone here, they will often say, “I am Tumbuka.” There is very strong self identity with the tribes and villages.
This week we got a wedding invitation. It reads:
“The Likoto family of Namode Village in Ulongwe, Balaka jointly with the Nyundo family of Sangaya Village, T. A. Mpana, Chiradzulu with pleasure invite you to the wedding of Douglas and Joyce…”
When Douglas decided to marry Joyce, he had to ask her mother’s brothers for their permission. In the North, a prospective groom would ask the bride’s father for permission. In the South, no dowry is required, but up in Mzumzu, a bride-price is common.
After their marriage, if Douglas and Joyce decide to live in the city of Limbe and raise their children there, their children will still be considered to be from Sangaya Village, because that is where their mother is from. In Northern Malawi, the children would be from their father’s village (patriarchal pattern). The person who is responsible for the family’s welfare is the Village Headman. The Village Headman obtains his position by heritage. He is born into the Head Family. Because Southern Malawi has a matriarchal system, the Headman can be, and often is, a woman.
If, at some future date, Douglas and Joyce have marital problems, her maternal uncles would be the first people asked to help solve the dispute. If the family is unable to help, the couple would go to the Village Headman. If she was unable to mediate successfully, the Group Headman would be consulted. This person is responsible for 5 to 10 Villages. If he is unable to resolve the problems the couple is required to appear before the Traditional Authority (T.A.), otherwise known as the Chief. This person is in charge of 30 villages. The Angoni Tribe has even one more level of hierarchy – a Paramount Chief. (This may be because they have a reputation and history of being a very warlike tribe.)
This form of government is so ingrained in the culture here that it has become institutionalized. The Village Headman, Group Headman and Traditional Authority are all paid a small salary by the government to carry out their duties.
Malawians will tell you that the Headmen have a lot of power. They allocate farmland and have great power in influencing villagers’ political affiliations. They have lists of people that they are responsible for, and are always working to improve the schools, water supply and roads in their areas.
When we tell some Malawians that we do not have tribes in the United States, they are often puzzled. The Chiefs and Headmen take care of so many aspects of life, that they wonder how our society can operate. We tell them that we identify ourselves by the place that we were born in or live in, and that we have politicians who handle most governmental issues. They almost always roll their eyes and shake their heads when we tell them that.