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Chewa influences in the arts



I have quietly noted the influence of people of Malawian origins in the arts of virtually all the countries in the Southern African region today. In this instalment, I will only work with two interesting cases in one country to illustrate my view. The Chewa people who have roots in Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique are now found in all Southern African countries. Outside their countries of origin, most of them are in South Africa and Zimbabwe, where their parents or grandparents migrated as labourers. I notice that Chewa people have participated in many liberation movements in the region. Their names are found within the ranks of Frelimo, Zanla, Zipra, ANC and others. Their role in the politics, sports and arts of the region is also very difficult to ignore. If you check names of many teams during the COSAFA tournament, you will see it yourself. Their official population outside Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique have not been properly established in a region where migrant labour was and is still a huge economic reality. They have however kept in touch with their traditions through constant journeys back home or through song and dance. A true Chewa man or woman is simple, generous, joyous, daring and resilient. Researches reveal that Chewa is interchangeable with Nyanja. Some documents even reveal that “Chewa people speak a language called Chinyanja.” Their ultimate origins are the Luba-Lunda kingdoms in Zaire from where they wandered southwards. Sometimes languages like Ngoni, Nsenga, Nyasa, Peta, Maravi, Chikunda… are considered to be Chewa/Nyanja dialects. But the Chewa people have intermarried everywhere they have gone, showing that Africa is their home. Their story is told in songs, poetry, and sculpture etc across the region, showing how they have transcended space and time beyond their lands of origin. Spiwe Mahachi-Harpers’s novel of 2012, “Footprints in The Mists of Time,” is based on the life and times of generations of migrant African labourers who settled in Southern Rhodesia before it became Rhodesia and subsequently Zimbabwe. This novel traces about four generations of workers of Malawian origin, beginning with Bhaureni Nyirenda’s journey from Nuhono village in the Nkotakhota District of then Nyasaland in 1899 to settle at Southern Rhodesia’s Patchway Valley Mine in Gatooma District. You move from Bhaureni to his son Masauso, through to grandson Chakumanda and great grandson, Mavhuto (in the present day) and their wives, children and neighbours who are variably from Northern Rhodesia and Mozambique. This book is a welcome alternative to dry history that tends to work with facts, maps, figures and diagrams. Their voices talk about the treacherous journey from Nyasaland to Southern Rhodesia on foot through Mozambique, drifting slowly in different droves and waves of various sizes. This is a story about the oppression of people and their consistent dehumanisation on the farms and mines, leaving the conscious reader with a suggestion that Africans have travelled a very long road of suffering. This is a story about the anxieties of people brutally isolated and trapped in localities far away from their original homes. Sometimes they drift without finding an anchor and with no ability to return to the source. This is a story that defines the nature of colonial exploitation in Southern Africa. This book reminds me most of Alex Huley’s Roots, that well known saga of an African family in American slavery, in demonstrating that all people displaced by capitalism become chattels and not humans. And the process of being turned to an animal begins when your tormentor makes you doubt the humanity within yourself. Pushed out of his village by the desire to work and be able to return and pay taxes, Bhaureni Nyirenda realises while in Southern Rhodesia that: “I was nothing and nobody but just a lifeless limb detached from the rest of the body. There in the village (Nyasaland) I also left behind my soul, without which I felt empty and hopeless, like a piece of dead wood cast adrift in a river and left at the mercy of the forces of nature, to sink or float.” He leaves behind a wife and children and is never able to return to them even when he thinks he might return soon and very soon. The Southern Rhodesian mine system sucks him, never giving him enough to survive and retrace his steps. The return journey would be as tragic as the first journey because one does not want to return with nothing to show-off. On the other hand, the migrant labourer is reminded by fellow black people of Southern Rhodesia and, ironically by the white men, of not belonging to Southern Rhodesia. They are derisively called mabhurandaya or mabwidi who come from the compound and no sane person should befriend or marry them. Their destiny is the mine cemetery which is just a junk-heap. This novel reminds me of Edward Kamau Brathwaite’s poetry in ‘The Arrivants and Mother,’ in demonstrating that all displaced people survive on memory stored in both the mind and the genes. The migrant community re-enacts home through language and culture. Their stock names are meaningful: Ganisani, Chimwemwe, Mavhuto, Masauso, Mpinganjira, Chakumanda and others. Knowledge is handed down from father to son and the mine compound becomes encyclopaedic. Towards the end of the four generations, there is a search for roots. A dying grandfather says to a grandson: “The urge to journey back to Malawi is much stronger now than when I was younger…You, Mavhuto, can retrace the footprints of your great grandfather back to the warm heart of Africa (Malawi)… only animals fail to trace the trail of their births through the ages. Do not misunderstand me and imagine that I wish you to go and bury yourself in some remote rural village in Nkhotakhota. Far from it. I just wish you to go and reconnect with the land of your fathers and lay to rest the souls of the dear departed who mourned everyday for their loved one until they too died in despair. After that you can go and settle anywhere you wish beyond the horizon” And then he makes an even bigger argument: “I am very proud to be of Malawian origin but I think those of my people who have been here for close to four generations should no longer be regarded as foreigners as if they are expected to pack their belongings…they have been here…going round and round in circles…” This massive book asks you to read slowly; forward and backwards to cross check on a name and to clarify a date or a relationship. It is going to be an important novel for Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique and Malawi. ‘Footprints’ is Spiwe Mahachi Harper’s third novel after ‘Trials and Tribulations’ and ‘Echoes In The Shadows’. The author is a trained teacher and holds a degree in French Culture and Civilisation. Currently, she stays in the United Kingdom, dividing her time between Zimbabwe and that country. The novel boasts of a whopping 181 008 words and is now the longest novel by a Zimbabwean! It is a show of sheer immense narrative tenacity and talent. In music, an album called ‘Chewa Hits’ from 2005, redone about three times since then, by Nicholas Zakaria has been equally successful outside Chewa territory. It is a whole Chewa album being produced away from Malawi and Zambia, mainstream Chewa speaking territories. Born at Zimbabwe’s Belgownie Estate in the Mazowe farming area, musician Nicholas Zakaria’s origins are in Malawi and he is fluent in Chewa although it is not established if he is exactly Chewa. On stage, Zakaria’s dance is not a dance at all. These are ordinary up and down rhythms of one who knows the source and centre of sound. He plays his lead guitar as if he has never listened to it himself and would rather go away and dig in the garden instead. But beneath it, all you see is a very private pride and that mischievous Chewa man’s satisfaction that says I play not because I have no other things to do but because I like it. ‘Chewa Hits’ is a compilation of twelve Chewa songs from Zakaria’s major albums of his music career. On most of his albums, Zakaria had always included several songs in Chewa. This has continued since his founding of the Khiama Boys around 1984. Chewa Hits is very historic in that it is one of the very few all-Chewa-song albums outside Chewa speaking territories. This despite the fact that most Sungura gurus like the Chimbetu brothers, Somanje brothers, John Chibadura, Amon Mvula, Ephraim Joe and others could sing fluently in Chewa even if some of them might not have been strictly Chewas. Most of these musicians, like Zakaria, grew up on the Zimbabwean mines and farms where their parents were ordinary labourers. Influenced by the Rumba rhythms from their countries, played by their parents, they evolved a kind of Zimbabwean sub-Rumba now known as Sungura. These young banjo-playing musicians migrated to Salisbury (now Harare) from the farms and perfected their guitar playing whilst working as the so-called garden boys. These young musicians, including Zakaria, almost always congregated in the African township then called Gillingham. Gillingham could have been convenient because of its proximity to Salisbury’s leafy suburbs where these lads found employment easily. It is also not surprising that sometimes the Sungura drums and bass guitars of Zakaria and others are distantly reminiscent of the mbarure, the drums for the Gule Wamkulu a tradition from Chewa regions. It is important to realise the role of art in showing the syncretism of human traditions. In a recent interview Zakaria admits that he was once a Gule dancer and that nobody matched his dancing prowess. However he sadly thinks that he now ‘sees the emptiness and meaninglessness of it all’ because he is now a Christian. This is sad because Gule Wamkulu ‘the big dance’ is central to the identity and culture of Chewa people. Considered a secret society, the dance is only a tip of the iceberg because beneath it is a whole community coming together to learn about the traditions, wisdom, history, medicines, secrets… passed down the line since Luba-Lunda. The Gule is considered to be in mythical animal state when fully dressed, something akin to the egwugwu of the Ibo people of Nigeria. Of course the Gure has been both abused by some insiders and misconstrued by the condescending outsiders. Zakaria’s ‘Chewa hits’ album is generally prayerful and sometimes very sad. Although very implicit, these songs capture the loneliness of the migrant labourer far away from home, relatives and ancestors. The hottest one, an all time hit, is Zomvelamvela, meaning ‘what you hear through rumours.’ In October 2020 Zakaria released a new video on this song on YouTube because it has been released once more as a single. In that song, the persona calls for reunion with his ancestors and the source of his being. He feels thrown out of the family circle and even forsaken:
      “Makoro anga rero rino mwanditaya
        munditayira chiyani, chifukwa chochoka mzomvelamvela?
        Ine pokara ndichita ngati mwana wamasiye
        Ine kurira, kurira siku riri ronse.”
But the sadness does not end there, as this album is dorminated by the crying and weeping motif. The titles of some of the songs here tell it all: Kudandaula, Ndili Kulila, Ambuye Yesu. In ‘Ndiri kurira’ the persona regrets the time he has spent looking for charms to improve his image and wealth. Maybe the most soulful song in this album is ‘Ndili Kundandaura’ that records the migrant labourer’s constant struggles with poverty and segregation. The sad thing is that even with or without the luck charms he cannot get out of the vicious circle. Chewa, like all African languages carries eternal poetry which can be enjoyed even for its sake:
     “Ntawi imene ndinataya kufika pakari pano
Ndiribe kantu kari kose. Ndine wosauka. Azin’anga azin’anga Mwanditayila ntawi Ayeye ndiri kurira.” The idea that Zakaria is a devout Christian comes out clearly too as most of the songs seem to find answers in Christ and prayer. Zakaria’s music can easily pass as gospel music. There is also belief in self-worth and human dignity – Ulemu, which is the reason why most of them left home in order to look for in foreign lands. There are teachings about establishing a family and building a home as in Akalongosi and Ayudhe. These two cases alone show the influences of Chewa people in the arts spaces beyond originally Chewa countries. Memory Chirere

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