The initiation rites for girls take place in the village or a place close by it. This is because, among the Chewa, a matriarchal society, it is the woman who is the real owner of the village.
When a girl is close to the age of puberty, the head of the family chooses a female tutor for her (nankhungwe), who must accompany her during the entire time of initiation. When a girl begins to menstruate, she informs her maternal grandmother or an elder sister who will, in turn, inform her mother, ‘Mwana wanu wakula’ (“Your daughter has become an adult”). The mother then informs her husband.
The girl – now called an mnamwali (pl. Anamwali) – begins a time of confinement, which lasts until she has had her period. She has to stay in a special hut, together with her tutor, who teaches her about the change that has taken place in her body, about sexuality in general, the matter of reproduction and about the behaviour society now expects of her. Meanwhile, the mother of the girl sends the village head a chicken and some maize flour, informing him that her daughter ‘has become an adult’. Once her menstruation is completed, the girl returns to her usual life and her ‘private’ initiation is considered complete.
The solemn public initiation – chinamwali – strictly speaking, will not take place for some months yet, when all the girls of the village who have become adults around that time have to undergo a prolonged ‘process of initiation’, characterised by rites and myths which will make them new people, recognised as mature and accepted into the ethnic group as full members.
Once the day to begin the chinamwali has been agreed, the initiation teacher goes from house to house and gathers all the girls due to be initiated. They then all go in procession, heads bowed and eyes looking down, to the tsimba, the initiation hut. Before going inside, by way of rejecting childish ways, the anamwali strip off all their clothes. The period of confinement lasts five days, the same as a normal menstruation period.
The initiation teacher, assisted by some women, now gives her instructions, in a formal manner now, on all aspects of the girls’ new status as mature women, ancestral customs and the norms of conduct that every adult Chewa is expected to follow. However, the instructions, as a whole, are imparted to the girls especially through dances and songs, the latter composed in a language filled with symbols known only to initiate women.
During the night of the second day, the girls and their tutors go to the village headman where they show off the dances and songs they have learned. The headman gives them the pwindabwi to drink to give them the strength to face the trials of the following days.
They again dance before the headman, believed to be the intermediary through whom the spirits grant fertility. Then, all the girls lie down on the ground, one alongside the other and are covered with a cloth used to wrap the dead. They remain absolutely motionless for some moments and then their bodies slowly come back to life. Being careful not to uncover themselves but with movements that leave no room for doubt, they simulate the sexual act. The meaning of the rite is that the girls have died to childhood and are reborn mature and capable of generating life.
On the morning of the third day, each tutor moulds a clay cap with the figure of an animal on it and places it on the head of her mnamwali. Then, using a small pot in which natural dyes have been mixed, they decorate the body of the girl with spots of various colours, almost making her become like the forest animals.
The initiation teacher, armed with a bow and arrow, imitates the hunt. Here, too, the gestures are eloquent: from now on, the girls will be ‘prey’ for young men who will hunt them to make them their wives. From this moment on, their main duty will be that of starting a family as soon as possible and having children, thus helping to perpetuate the life of the group.
To symbolise the high social status gained through initiation, each tutor takes her mnamwali on her back and carries her to visit the homes of the village where the members of each family greet her like a ‘grown up’ and offer her gifts.
When they return to the initiation hut, the anamwali are subjected to the shaving of their heads. Together with their hair, the ‘new women’ must throw behind themselves all childishness and sulking that might be in a child but not in a mature woman.
When the ‘new birth” is complete, the girl chooses the new name by which she will be called after the chinamwali. From this point on, the attention of the community is focused on forming the character of the girls and this takes place through the teaching of good manners and publicly correcting faults found in each one of them. This public accusation/correction takes place in front of the house of the headman and all the village inhabitants take part in it.
The girls lie prostrate, face down in front of the people to show their willingness to accept correction. When night falls, the anamwali are ‘visited by the spirits’. These are represented by masked men, members of a secret society called Gule wamkulu. The girls dance with the ‘spirits’, until they are rescued by the tutors or family members by paying a small sum of money. The words of the songs invite the young women to respect at all times the spirits of the ancestors and the ancestral traditions of which they are the guardians.
The character-forming process continues the next day, the last day of the chinamwali, when the instructors and tutors take the anamwali to their respective homes. There the master of ceremonies asks the parents if they have any other corrections to make, even in matters personal and not known to the public. When the girl has asked pardon for her previous faults, the mother lies down beside her and places herself over the womb of her daughter. In conclusion, the parents and the master of ceremonies take the girl inside the house where they dress her in a new dress and adorn her with earrings, necklaces and bracelets. Having first covered her with a multi-coloured cloth, they take her outside.
Amid cries of jubilation, the nankhungwe removes the cloth so that all can see her in her new-found splendour as an ‘adult woman’ and full member of the group. The initiation ends with a great feast and a common meal prepared by the girls’ mothers to solemnize the most important day in the lives of their daughters.
Initiation for boys, instead, takes place in the forest where the ‘spirits’ are believed to live.
They are cut off from their families for a period of one week. The initiation ceremonies are carried out at the grave yards. The grave yards are considered sacred places and people do not necessarily go there anyhow without the authorization of the chiefs. As for the rivers or streams the selected area is marked so that nobody goes there during the ceremonies.
Among other things, during the initiation period, these children are trained on how to respect the elders and their culture. After going through the initiation, the boys changes their names in terms of how people will now be calling them. For example, if the boy was called ‘Banda’ by his surname before initiation, he will from now on be called ‘O Banda’ meaning ‘this man is now old enough to be respected’. After one week of initiation these boys come back home as changed persons. Now the Gule Wamkulu dance can be performed. (R.M.)