Unmasking the Chewa king

If one is to meet the Queen of England, there is special etiquette that has to be followed. According to ABC News, the queen’s guest is supposed to wait for her to extend her hand. No kissing on the cheek, hugging or touching her in any way is allowed except when you greet her.

Among the Japanese, it is customary to bow as a sign of respect to elders and those in authority. According to Japan Guide the level of bowing varies according to superiority in terms of age, authority and status.

Senior Chief Lukwa sits on the floor as he addresses Kalonga Gawa Undi and President Peter Mutharika at State House
Senior Chief Lukwa sits on the floor as he addresses Kalonga Gawa Undi and President Peter Mutharika at State House

Those that have visited the Kulamba Festival, which is usually held at Mkaika in Zambia, would notice that all subjects of Kalonga sit on the floor while he sits on a chair.

For those that are not familiar with Chewa customs, it was shocking to see Senior Chief Lukwa and former vice-president Justin Malewezi seated on the floor while President Peter Mutharika and Kalonga Gawa Undi were seated on the couch.

According to Malewezi, who is Gawa Undi’s adviser, it is customary for Chewa subjects to be seated.

“However, those that are not his subjects are exempted from this. They are offered a chair,” said Malewezi.

This was more apparent when American jazz musician and composer Earl Klugh visited Malawi in September 2013.

The famed jazz legend had a chance meeting with Kalonga Gawa Undi and, although he was exempted from the royal etiquette of sitting on the floor with legs straight in front as the Kalonga sits head above everybody else, Klugh insisted on observing courtesy as per tradition.

“He [Klugh] was told of the custom and that he was exempted, but he chose to follow the custom when he didn’t have to. After the greeting Gawa invited him to sit on the couch with him. He said the sense of respect for elders is one thing the world can learn from our culture,” said event organiser Q Malewezi, who witnessed the event.

In most cultures, a handshake is a form of courtesy, but with the highest Chewa chief, you do not shake his hand unless he offers it to you.

“He chooses who to shake hands with. I am his adviser, but I have never shaken his hand. It is an honour to shake the Kalonga’s hand. So, you only shake his hand when he extends his hand,” he explains.

Kalonga Gawa Undi surrounded by his subjects at Senior Chief Chadza’s wedding
Kalonga Gawa Undi surrounded by his subjects at Senior Chief Chadza’s wedding

Those that have watched Chewa functions know that the Kalonga speaks through his advisor and it is only during rare occasions that he speaks directly to his audience.

“There are very rare occasions when he personally speaks. But if it is a Chewa function, such as a wedding, a funeral or at the Kulamba, he will speak through an adviser,” says Malewezi.

According to Malewezi, the Kalonga does not eat in public, unless he is invited to a public high-profile dinner or lunch.

“But, in a Chewa setting, he does not eat in public and he eats alone,” says Malewezi.

However, there are other forms of customs that signify courtesy and respect for elders and other people of authority on a lower level compared to the Kalonga.

“When you meet an elder or you are having an audience with him, you are supposed to kneel for women and squat for men. You can bow to show respect for men and women can lower their limbs like they are about to squat and get back up [kuteyama],” said Malewezi. 

 

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