At this Malawian festival, natives celebrate their first king chosen for owning a hoe

Mildred Europa Taylor October 02, 2018
Gonapamhanya --- NationOnline

For Christians, this may look like the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, according to observers.

But for the people of Tumbuka ethnic group of northern Malawi, the event is the climax of the Gonapamuhanya Cultural Festival, in which they celebrate the grand entry of the Chikulamayembe (paramount chief) into his headquarters to lead them in commemorating their first ruler.

Gonapamhanya was the first king or Chikulamayembe to settle at Bolero in Rumphi District in Northern Malawi, where the Chikulamayembe chieftaincy resides today.

To welcome the paramount chief, garments are spread on the road and others will cut branches of trees and spread them on the road for the chief to walk on.

At this Malawian festival, natives celebrate their first king chosen for owning a hoe

Paramount Chief Chikulamayembe —

The crowd at the venue cry out ‘Hail our chief! The highest of authority in our land!’ while others ululate, according to local media.

Gonapamuhanya Cultural Festival, which is celebrated in September every year, attracts a host of dignitaries including government officials, politicians, foreign dignitaries and chiefs from surrounding areas.

The Tumbuka settled in Malawi in the 15th Century after migrating from Timbuktu in Mali. Living in the then Nkhamanga Kingdom, they occupied a small territory and each settlement was dominated by a certain clan group including the Luhanga and the Mkandawire clans.

The Tumbuka had no strong centralized political system and there was no taxation or tribute, according to historical accounts.

Then entered the Balowoka people in around 1770. These were a group of traders, led by Kakalala Msawira Gondwe from Nyamwezi, who visited Nkhamanga because they had heard stories of plenty of ivory in the territories west of the lake, due to the abundance of elephants.

The Balowoka long-distance traders brought cloth, European beads, cones shells, sea salt and exchanged them for ivory, animal skins, dried meat and other food products.

Through that, they gradually gained economic and political power over the indigenous people.

According to the trade theory, Mlowoka, a wealthy trader came into the area to conduct trade, obtaining ivory and leopard skins from the local people in exchange for clothes, beads and hoes.

Oral tradition has it that Mlowoka made friends with local chiefs such that he could bring them gifts and this enabled him to establish a conducive environment for trade while marrying from powerful family clans such as the Luhanga and Kumwenda (these families dominated the central Nkhamanga plain which was rich in elephants).

It is documented that the hoes that he was distributing were a very valuable resource for the local people hence they loved him.

This made Mlowoka be honoured with the name of Chikulamayembe, a corruption of the Swahili words ‘chukuwa jembe’ (take a hoe), to mean the distributor of hoes.

“When we settled in Rumphi, the Tumbuka there were farming without hoes. But, as Swahili-speaking people, we said chukuwa jembe. But the Tumbuka could not understand us. They thought we said ‘chikulamayembe’. That’s how our name came into being,” the paramount chief of the Tumbuka said in an interview.

He explained that their chieftaincy came without waging war with any tribe.

“Our chieftaincy came on a silver platter. The Tumbuka gave us the chieftaincy because we came with hoes, soap and jewels. We never killed anyone,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Balowoka also married local women which made them have good relations in the area. When Mubila Luhanga, Mlowoka’s father in law and ruler of central Nkhamanga plain died, Mlowoka’s son, Gonapamuhanya was enthroned as king.

Gonapamuhanya, described as a stout, jolly and a man fond of fighting, essentially became the first king or Chikulamayembe (which became the title of his chieftaincy) to settle at Bolero.

After settling among the Tumbuka, Gonapamuhanya married Nyaluhanga, but the two did not have any children.

He then married Nyakumwenda with whom he had several children. According to studies, none of Gonapamuhanya’s children took over power and his nephew, Kampungu, had to be installed as a leader.

No reason was given for this odd transfer of power but historians believe Gonapamuhanya’s children were too young to be chiefs. Kampungu would later be killed by Pitamkusa, Gonapamuhanya’s eldest son who later ascended the throne, bringing back the patrilineal system of inheritance to political power.

The Balowoka rule among the Tumbuka lasted from 1775 to 1855, due to the invasion of Ngoni of Mmbelwa of Tanzania, who took many Tumbuka people as captives and killed the then Chikulamayembe.

The British revived the Chikulamayembe chieftaincy in 1907 to help them to administer northern Nyasaland (Malawi) through the system of indirect rule. There have been only three Chikulamayembe chiefs since 1907.


At this Malawian festival, natives celebrate their first king chosen for owning a hoe

Walter Change Gondwe (Left) started acting as leader of the Tumbuka in 1969 when his father got sick — Twitter

Walter Change Gondwe (the current paramount chief) started acting as leader of the Tumbuka in 1969 when his father got sick, and later assumed office fully in 1977.

During the Gonapamuhanya festival, recounting of history, traditional dances, beer drinking and other merry-making activities are some of the highlights.

The climax is the entry of the Chikulamayembe who is carried on a special throne on an ox cart (though now sometimes sits on a chair at the back of a pick-up) pulled by men to the place of activity.

Gonapamuhanya cultural festival is aimed at uniting clans whiles celebrating their cultural identity. However, it was marred in 2017 after opposition parties clashed at the venue.

At this Malawian festival, natives celebrate their first king chosen for owning a hoe

Clashes at last year’s festival — Malawi Freedom Networks

Ahead of this year’s event on September 29, Chikulamayembe warned political parties against wearing party regalia as his outfit will not want to witness a repeat of last year’s disturbances.

At this Malawian festival, natives celebrate their first king chosen for owning a hoe

The Paramount Chief of the Tumbuka “Chikulamayembe” with his wife — WikiVisually

“We were greatly disturbed last year. We hope we will have peaceful celebrations and we don’t want any violence this year. No one should come in their political colours,” said Chikulamayembe.

Last Edited by:Nduta Waweru Updated: October 2, 2018


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