28 January 2011

Zimbabwe: Unpacking Chinamwali Female Initiation

MANY people tend to loosely refer to the female initiation cultures in Zambia and neighbouring countries in East and Southern Africa, as "chinamwali".

Along with this misnomer are misconceptions that the culture is only associated with sex, especially bed-dancing.

In fact, Chinamwali is a term used in the eastern parts of Zambia while other areas have their own terms and usually their own methodologies.

Tribes from the eastern region where the term Chinamwali is used include the Ngoni, Chewa, Nsenga, Kaunda and Tumbuka.

Perhaps the most revealing of them all is the Chewa, who are in abundance in Zimbabwe's mining towns.

The schooling of a young girl (Chinamwali) starts when she has her first period.

She identifies a woman, who is not her mother, to be her Nyampugu or guardian and give her a token in the form of a gift.

Then the Nyampugu finds a house in the bush where the teachings are conducted and everyone in the village knows that there are secrets being taught inside the house, and this only adds to the sense of intrigue.

The girls are taught to be clean and to have respect and to manoeuvre through marital problems.

Drumming and singing are audible from the outside, but the lyrics themselves are layered with metaphorical significance and do not give up secrets knowledge until they are "unlocked" by the Nyamkungwe (initiation mentors).

At the beginning and end of the period of confinement, the initiates are required to perform some dances in the public arena.

The public dances also operate on multiple levels of meaning.

The apparent literal meaning of the dances and song is enough to provide content and scenario for the audience but the dance will have an additional, deeper meaning and this will be revealed to the initiates in the secrecy of the hut.

During the dances, the initiates have to maintain a level of separation from everyone around by not making eye contact with everyone else.

While in the hut, a girl who wants to go to the toilet is escorted out with a chitenge covered over her head.

The house where the girls are kept is like a womb that will give birth to them when they are ready; secrecy is kept at all costs.

The fact that women are seen to own such knowledge ensures their power and status in society, and thus the knowledge is kept alive throughout generations.

Lessons during Chinamwali take place behind closed doors, and there Mama Nyangu (Queen mother) and her daughters re-enact some of the songs and lesson of the maturity rites.

The Bembas from the Northern province also celebrate the girls' maturity by a ceremony called Chisungu ceremony.

When the NaChisungu (girl) has her first menstruation, female relatives are informed at once.

The Chinsungu is one of the most important ceremony for the Bemba.

The Chisungu can be divided into a period of seclusion and a period of instruction.

The ceremony is conducted by the NaChibusa (woman in charge of the ceremony).

She is the one who gives the lessons to the girl.

The colours used on these Chisungu rites are white, red and black.

North Western province has many tribes and interesting ceremonies and among them are Luvale from Zambezi.

The Luvale celebrate Likumbi Lya Mize ceremony every year in August.

They have what they call Makishi, which are a set of rites for women as they are also for boys.

In this ceremony, there are several representations of women characters, although most performers are men.

The result of the makishi is the moulding of the "pwevo", the ideal womanhood.

Traditionally, she has always flaunted succulent breasts, although nowadays she wears a bra.

She represents perfection, with her grace and good manners.

Mwanapwevo, her younger version, charms crowds with her gymnastics. She represents younger women, usually teenagers.

Her acrobatics can be astounding, especially the dance between two poles.

And then there is inambunda (old woman -- the mother of all the makishi) who is the one who takes over the teaching from women, instructing boys and girls in moral and social issues, especially respect for elders.

Ceremonies for boys are also popular in Zambia.

People from the North Western province the Lunda around the town of Mwinulunga also celebrate an important ceremony for the boys.

The boys are not left out as they do some lessons as well.

The purpose for the boys' initiation is to instill tribal values like obedience, discipline, politeness, kindness, loyalty, respect and endurance of hardship in life.

During the ceremony, boys are not allowed to wear any clothes but put on fibrous clothes around their waists called inzombu.

Hunting skills and sexual instructions are also taught.

The boys are circumcised in groups, at the age of seven to 10 years before they reach puberty.

A long time ago, the boys used to stay and be taught for the all year in the bush, but nowadays they only stay at the makanda, the initiation school, for two to three months in the bush because of other commitments like school.

The Lunda also have an initiation for girls at the age of 12 to 16 years.

This is where they prepare them for marriage and maintaining personal hygiene.

They are instructed by an experienced elderly woman called inkong'u who always has small girls who assist her called Kososwelu.

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