As we are approaching August and schools nearing close, elders in different districts are preparing for initiation ceremonies for the year. Known as chinamwali in Chichewa, these are ceremonies that ‘initiate’ one from being a child to an adult. This is a practice done by most cultures, but most common in the southern region of Malawi. As I am in the quest of learning more about the different cultures in Malawi, I wanted to share this piece. Although widely covered, I still wanted to share the evil side of initiation ceremonies even though they remain practiced.
From a young age, I knew about the existence of initiation ceremonies. As a matter of fact, when I had clocked twelve years of age, women from my grandmother’s church had approached her. They had asked her to send word to my mum that I be taken to the village and join the ceremony that was taking place that year. To them, I was ready to be initiated as a woman. This was even though I had yet to start my menstruation. They did not care, to them, I was old enough to be advised (kulangidwa).
Obviously, both my grandmother and my mum refused. They knew the problems of such initiation ceremonies and did not want to subject me to it. Am I glad they refused to hand me over, yes I am. But, as an information junky, I wish I had first-hand information of the things that happen at such ceremonies. However, I still asked around the women around me and they were kind enough to share valuable information.
What I share will mostly be based on the things that happen in the southern region.
of initiation ceremonies
As part of the culture, young boys and girls must be advised when they are seen as old enough. Harriet Chanza of the World Health Organization once said that “there is nothing like an adolescent. You are either a child or an adult.” Which happens to be the harsh truth in Malawi. Once a girl starts her menstruation, regardless of age, they are taken as a woman. If a boy’s voice becomes hoarse, they are taken as a man.
That is the harsh reality in a lot of the rural areas in Malawi.
In August, as schools close, advisers also known as anankungwi, camp in the outskirts of villages ready for the initiation ceremonies to begin. Most often they build camp closer to rivers, that way they are closer to a body of water to help with things like cooking, cleaning wounds, and more.
Often, on the last day of school, songs erupt from such camps. All the women I talked to said that they are often catchy songs that are used to attract kids to the camps. Those that are coaxed follow the music and end up joining the ceremony.
In such rural areas, children are taught about such practices from when they are young and grow up wishing they are old enough to join them. The common lesson at these initiation ceremonies is how they can sexually satisfy their partners. In both the boys’ and the girls’ camps, they are taught different sexual positions so that their partners remain happy.
In the girls’ camp, they are mostly forced to try these positions on each other. In the boys’ camps, they are forced to circumcise.
Circumcision happens without the existence of health practitioners. Often, these young kids have their wounds exposed to bacteria, creating bigger problems. Considering they go to these camps without any change of clothes or blankets (mind you, the initiation ceremonies happen during winter), they contact diseases.
If a child dies at such initiation ceremonies, the anankungwi would swiftly bury the child and continue with the event. On the day of release from the camp, parents would notice that their child was missing from the group and then hold a funeral. The anankungwi would not be held accountable for the death of the children as it is part of their culture.
Parents also fear something else. When the kids are released back to society, they come back with a change of behavior. Most would come back ready to drop out of school and get married.
Oftentimes, the children are told to start having sexual relationships. Girls are told that they would have bloated tummies if they do not sleep with a man and their skins would dry out. Hence, they would go around looking for older men to have sex with.
It also comes at a price to parents. Parents whose kids have joined the camp are asked not to sleep in the same room, and not have sex during the course of the initiation ceremony. Women are asked to cook while seated and have their legs crossed. If such is not followed, they would cause a child to be sexually inactive (kusempha).
different types of initiation ceremonies
In the southern region, they have different types of initiation ceremonies:
- Chidonti: common among the Lomwe tribe. This type of initiation ceremony only offers advise to children as they are being initiated to adulthood.
- Chilangizi: this is done by church elders from different churches. It is often done at the church and not in the outskits of the village
- Jando: common among the Yao tribe and the Islamic community. These are the ones that enforce circumcision of boys
initiation ceremonies in recent times
They are still common in the rural areas, however, some have had to change. Considering that boys would die in such camps, police started arresting the advisors in the camp. They were accused of seeing the health of the child deteriorating and not seeking any medical attention.
Recently, it is known that when the initiation ceremonies commence, health facilitators visit them to circumcise the boys and give them counseling on how to care for their wounds. They are accompanied by the police who also check the conditions of the camp.
Regardless, they offer children big harm. They allow pedophiles to easily prey on children. Thus creating bigger problems for the girl-child.
All in all, it is a tradition that seems will be around for a long time to come.
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