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Culture of Malawi

Malawi is often called the “warm heart of Africa.” because of the warmth and friendliness of the people. Malawians typically live with their extended families in huts that are grouped together in villages. A spirit of cooperation prevails as family members share both work and resources.  Though under the impact of modernization, Malawi’s traditional culture is characterized by continuity as well as change, and the traditional life of the village has remained largely intact.

The most important article of clothing a woman owns is her chitenje. A chitenje (plural “zitenje”) is a piece of fabric sold in 2 meter increments and worn over her regular skirt. This outer, wrap-around skirt serves as an apron.   Zitenje are generally brightly colored, and bear designs of everything from abstract patterns to portraits of famous people. For very special events, church groups, sewing circles, and other groups purchase zitenje in matching patterns, from which they have elaborate dresses made. Wearing “Chitenji” in occasions is an important Malawi tradition among the women. This fabric is used extensively by the Malawi women for making elaborate dresses.


The staple food in Malawi is nsima (nsee -ma), which is a thick maize (corn) porridge. The porridge is molded into patties and served with either beans, meat, or vegetables in a tomato-and-onion sauce, collectively called ndiwo (ndee 3 -wo). Malawians also eat rice, cassava, and potatoes.  Basically put, the keystone of any Malawian meal is starch in generous quantity, and the “relish” is sparse and only intended to add flavor.

Malawians consider food essential to hospitality and go out of their way to feed a guest, even if they have very little to offer. If it isn’t a regular meal time, they’ll get some nsima and ndiwo from the fire for the guest to have an early (or late) meal. If it’s dinner time, the guest is shown an extra courtesy by being served first, followed by the man of the house, then the women and finally the children.
As nsima is eaten with the hands, everyone washes in a communal bowl before and after the meal. Once again, the guest washes first and so on. There is no shame in eating until you are full. In fact, guests will often be encouraged to eat more and then more again. Custom dictates that a guest be served so much food that he can’t finish everything on his plate.

Arts and Tradition

Malawi is made up of many diverse tribes, and those tribes vary considerably in their beliefs, music, dance, customs, even in the ways they build their houses.One of the most distinctive features of Malawi culture is the enormous variety of traditional songs and dances that use the drum as the major musical instrument.Among the most notable of these dances are ingoma and Gule Wamkulu basically meaning “the big dance”. This is a very secretive religion.   Gule dancers believe that they are able to summon the spirits of animals or dead relatives. There are over 150 Gule Wamkulu characters, each with a specific story and purpose

Another popular form of dance practiced in the villages is Chitalele which is mostly performed for entertainment on full-moon nights by young girls, but is also used as a form of inter-village competition. Teams of girls travel to neighboring villages to see which village has more talented dancers. Unlike Gule Wamkulu, which is mostly performed to percussion accompaniment, Chitalele involves call-and-response songs and syncopated hand clapping performed by the dancers. Dances might call for participants to perform various movements in unison, or center around a pair or individual performing in the center.

“Performed by the Chewa people of Malawi, Mozambique,  and Zambia, the Gule Wamkulu is a dance that accompanies initiation ceremonies, weddings, funerals and the installation of chiefs. Male dancers wear full costumes and masks made of wood and straw, expressing a great variety of spiritual and secular characters.”


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