Msinja, Malawi’s Ancient City (I)

The Project Malawi website describes Lilongwe as a place that “was a simple trading centre in the late 1950s, having spawned no famous leader, recorded no historic event, and having no entries in the book of facts that would highlight its background.”

This, at best, is only a half truth, for you do not need to go further than 50 kilometres south of Lilongwe City and two centuries behind to find the bustling religious city of Msinja, located in one of the valleys at Dzalanyama Range of mountains.

At its peak, Msinja exuded great magnificence, prompting the Oxford Reference (The Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature) to describe it as a place where the central figure, the Makewana (the Mother of Children), “slept on a bed of ivory tusks”.

The Msinja religious shrine may be dated to as early as 13th century when the Chewa arrived in this part of Africa. As a religious city, Msinja functioned as a centre of national worship for the Chewa people. Carlos Wiese, a German official in the Portuguese service, described the shrine at Msinja as “the Mecca of the Maravi”. This was because all the Chewa chiefs from Zambezi in Mozambique, Lwangwa in Zambia, to Kasungu, Lake Malawi and beyond, made their annual pilgrimages to Msinja to pray for rains and posterity in their homes. Msinja was a very popular and busy city. In 1830, Gamitto, a Portuguese traveller, noticed some commercial activity taking place at Msinja. It is also reported that David Livingstone visited Msinja in 1867.

Scholars such as W.H.J. Rangeley (1952), Samuel Nthara (1945), Matthew Schoffeleers (1973), William Emmet McFarren (1986) and J.W.M. van Breugel ((2001)  have provided comprehensive  impressive accounts of  the history, and the events that took place at Msinja.

The history of Msinja begins with the religious events at Kaphirintiwa Hill which is very close to Msinja. The Chewa believe that when Chiuta (God) created the earth, the human beings, animals and Chiuta himself landed on a rock at Kaphirintiwa Hill. The rock was still molten when they alighted there and they  left their footprints or tracks on the molten rock. These human and animal footprints are still there today at the Kaphirintiwa rock.

Upon discovering Kaphirintiwa creation hill, the Chewa wanted to live there as a consecrated place. Later, Kaphirintiwa became too sacred for their comfort. Therefore, they relocated to a nearby place, at Msinja and decided to live there. At Msinja, the people dedicated a middle-aged woman Makewana to the service of Chiuta as their priestess and prophetess. Makewana had five to eight maidens known as Matsano who cooked and carried water for her. There was also Kamundi Mbewe who was Makewana’s ritual husband. He was also responsible of assisting Makewana in offering the sacrifices at the Kachisi (temple). Chingala Phiri had special duties, making sure that all was in order and fine at Makewana’s house.

Msinja city was well designed. At the centre was the temple where sacrifices were offered. The temple was served by various functionaries or officers. Five officials, who included Makewana, formed the nucleus of Msinja city. They lived at the centre of the city very close to the temple. Other functionaries lived in 11 villages that surrounded the city. These villages were similar to what we now call locations or residential areas. 

The difference was that whereas the locations in the modern cities are occupied by people from different ethnic groups doing different duties, the villages at Msinja were occupied by related family members or dependants. Each village had particular function or responsibility to do for Msinja city.  The headship of each village was hereditary in that a member of the family succeeded and inherited the functionary name of the village and the assigned duties the deceased village head was responsible. The functional names are accompanied by the Chewa  clan names  Phiri,  Banda, Mbewe, Mwale, Mphadwe, Kwenda, Nkhoma.Winston Kawale is a senior lecturer at Mzuzu University and Joshua Chienda is a printing service provider and a social commentator.


…to be continued

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