In Malawi, getting engaged is quite different from the one-kneed question-popping and ring-exchanging of many Western cultures. Here, two people are considered officially engaged only after completing a traditional engagement ceremony, known as Chinkhoswe in the central and southern regions of the country and Malowolo in the northern region.
The Malowolo Customs of Northern Malawi
A Malowolo ceremony occurs when both a boy and a girl tell their families about their plans to get married, but there is no big celebration as there is with a Chinkhoswe. A date is set for both families to meet, to get to know each other and to agree on the bride price, or lobola. This price can be either in the form of cash or cattle. In most cases the amount set depends on the girl’s level of educational – the more educated she is, the higher the bride price. During this cultural ceremony, only close family members are allowed to attend. The boy may choose to pay the bride price straightaway or may pay in installments. Either way, the two are then considered engaged.
The Traditional Chinkhoswe Celebration
Although traditional Chinkhoswe celebrations have always been big in Malawi, nowadays people prefer small gatherings and invite only close family members and friends. After the girl and the boy have informed their families about their intention to get engaged, a day is set for family representatives from both sides to get introduced and agree on the date of the engagement ceremony. Once the date is set, the families inform their village chiefs about the engagement after presenting them with money or live chickens. Preparations for the engagement may then begin.
It is usually the girl’s family that assumes most of the responsibility for the planning; the venue for the celebration is often at the girl’s home. In advance of the festivities, women pound maize to make flour for the traditional dish called nsima and prepare a traditional drink called thobwa. Traditional dance rehearsals begin and new clothes for the young couple are bought.
The night before the engagement day, relatives and friends from both families dance all night and drink thobwa as a way of showing their happiness. The next day, the women rise early to prepare food for the guests, a major undertaking as the event itself is often open-door rather than invite-only – anyone who knows the betrothed or any of their family members is welcome. In most cases the ceremony begins soon after lunch and there is always a lot of singing, dancing, eating, drinking and giving of kwachas, the local currency of Malawi, to help the couple with their wedding preparations.
A Game of ‘Guess Who’ and a Ritual Exchange
During the ceremony, the parents from both sides are introduced to the guests, after which a representative from the girl’s family (usually an uncle) is asked to stand just before the boy arrives. When the boy enters, he is with three or more friends and the girl’s uncle is asked to single out the groom-to-be. This is a demonstration of the girl’s family’s familiarity with the boy. Women from the girl’s side are then asked to accompany her in. She also arrives with four or more girls, but all of them are covered from head to toe in matching pieces of cloth called zitenje. The boy is asked to point out his bride-to-be from this group of girls without the girls uncovering themselves. If the boy is not able to identify her on his first try, the women watching tend to sing jesting songs to tell him he has lost the game!
After the boy has found his fiancée-to-be, the family representatives from both sides commence a ritual exchange of chickens. Relatives from the girl’s side take a hen and those from the boy’s side take a cockerel, swapped as a symbolic demonstration that the girl is now part of the boy’s family and the boy part of the girl’s. Later on, a whole roasted chicken is shared with tall family representatives, confirming that they will help the couple with all their issues. The representatives then share the chicken with other relatives who also agree to help settle issues in the new marital home.
Engagement ceremonies are a fascinating glimpse of traditional culture in Malawi’s villages, but times are changing. Perhaps due to Western influences, people also organise ring ceremonies during which the boy gives his bride-to-be a ring as a symbol of commitment between them, a gesture that makes their engagement official.