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Women in Malawi’s history: Rose Chibambo


Makewana's Daughters

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Mrs Rose Chibambo was born on 8th September, 1928. She was the founder of the Women’s League of the Nyasaland African Congress, and went on to become Malawi’s first female Member of Parliament. Her name is often associated with the Nyasaland State of Emergency of 1959, during which she was arrested two days after giving birth to her fourth born daughter. She is also often mentioned with reference to the Cabinet Crisis of 1964 in which she was accused, along with several Cabinet Ministers, of rebelling against Malawi’s first President, Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda. She went into exile and returned in 1995. In this discussion with Timwa Lipenga, she talks about an aspect that is rarely focused on in discussions about Chibambo; her childhood during the 1930s and 40s. Excerpts:

Rose Chibambo

T.L:  I have noticed your earlobes have holes, not like the tiny piercings for those who wear earrings. These holes are quite big. Is there a story behind them?

These earlobes were a sign of identity that you are a Ngoni. After piercing, you had to put in something. They used to put in a reed. The man who used to do it would cut some small reeds to put into the earlobe, because blood would be coming out. So you put the reeds in so that the lobe doesn’t close. The reeds would stay in until the lobe heals. Then the hole remains. So when the hole gets smaller, you change reeds, put in a bigger reed. You keep on changing, to make the hole bigger. Because the idea was that it must be big. At the end of it, you put in a….nyanga ya njobvu…an ivory bracelet.

They used to shape it in such a way that it would fit here (gestures to the ear) and make you beautiful.

So boys and girls would do this?

Boys didn’t put in reeds, it was only girls. Boys would use  what was known as vikono, more like a bracelet. The cutting was very painful.

What did he use?

He used ka knife…a very sharp knife; mxamati.

So that was the reason my father didn’t want me to do it. He said, ‘No, you should not cut it.’

So how did you do it?

I had to sneak out of the house. I did it secretly. My friends were laughing at me. My age-mates had all done it, and they were laughing at me.  Without kuboola[piercing], they would mock you.

But that was beauty in those days. Very important. So because my friends kept on laughing at me, I said, ‘Ah, why should I remain alone? Then I sneaked out, early in the morning with others. Because the man was not at our village; it was quite at a distance, and you had to be there early in the morning, when it’s still cold. My father didn’t know.

I went with my friends, then they cut me. I came back. And now blood was oozing.

Mother  saw it, ‘Where did you go? Who did it? How did you go alone? But you know what Dad said about this. Oh, you will see.’

And when my dad saw it, he said,  ‘Who did this?’

And he knew the man. Said, ‘I’m going to scold him. I told you not to do this. Now why did you do it?’

I said, ‘My friends were laughing at me.’

So then he kept quiet. He didn’t go to the man to scold him. My father understood that it was really just me…that man was innocent.

So that’s how I had these piercings. My father said, ‘Don’t put in anything,’ he wanted them to close up. I said no. I didn’t want them to close up. Ya. So it used to be real beauty.

You could only do it, say, from ten up to…round about twelve. If you were older than that, they would refuse.

…..  …….

My relationship with my grandmother  was quite good…the women used to eat together, we used to go to Grandma, all of us. We would sit together with Grandma, my mother and us, the children. We would eat together.

In my time, that’s how it was.

My grandmother was not very much a story-teller. But where you go wrong, she would only give you instructions. She would only give you instructions that that’s not the way how we do things, we do things this way.

One strange thing that happened: at that time, I think I was about…I must have been around eight years old or so.  I was coming from my mother’s house, it was now late in the evening. Coming to sleep at my grandma’s.

I was walking from my from my mother’s house, going  to my grandfather’s house…because the village was so big, and my grandmother’s house was in  the middle.

So I would walk from my mother’s house, which was at the end of the…sort of at the corner of their whole village, because in Ngoni, you would live here…we used to build our homes in circles, really a circle; the first row, second row, third row, and according to the families. So that in the right end, …the kraal would be there. Where the kraal is, the gates of the kraals would be facing the bush, so that when they [the cows] come out, they just go. And then, the kraal…of course it wouldn’t be far from the people’s home…but whereever it ends..the kraal, there are no houses this side.

But on the end of the right-hand side  there are people who are izinduna. And on the left too, it’s the izinduna. So that at the middle are the owners of the village.

And the role of the izinduna?

The role of the izinduna is to give advice to the village headman. Whenever anything happens , if there’s anything that has happened, or someone wants to reach the village headman, he has to go through these people. He will have to explain to them what has happened, they are the ones who will explain to the village headman.

So one day I was walking from my mother’s house, going up to my Grandma.  As I was walking, right in the middle, from the east, there came….It was dark…I saw something like a big ball, very large, and it went with a sound, du-du-du-du, it went. The whole area was just light. The light went round and I ran. I just exclaimed, ‘We-e-e!’ I ran, went into my grandmother’s house.  But I saw it moving , going up, going up, until to the east, west. And it went with a big sound.

I went and…I just went in the house. I ran…fell down, just said , ‘Ah.’ After some time, then my grandmother said, ‘What has happened? ‘ I couldn’t talk. She said ‘Hey, wena, what has happened?’

Then I explained, I said, ‘I’ve seen a big light, a big ball, but it gave a great light. I don’t know whether it is the moon, it’s falling, I don’t know what it is.’ I was so surprised.

So the following day, some people said…they were talking about it other villages too, they were talking about it. They said, ‘Ah, yes, we saw the…something like a light.’

I don’t know what it was… it was like something had dropped from somewhere. Up to this day I can’t explain what it was. But this was one of the miracles that I saw during my time. Said, ‘Ah, it is dark, now what is this here?’ So I thought kuti ah, I don’t know. But it frightened me.

…..

You know, I would also say that my father instilled the sense of education in the children of his brothers. And he made sure… he was paying school fees for them.  He was actually the second-born  in his family. He came from a family in which his father  had married extra wives―and there were children in those families.

So even after he had gone for his education and he had come back, my father made sure that his brothers, even though they were married,  must also go to school, so that they can learn how to read the Bible and write.

Quite an influential man.

He was. He was, really.

So, what I’m getting from this is that you said the children of his brothers…were these children also staying with your family at the time?

It was a village. It was  such a big village…. you have never seen… we were from the Ngoni clan. So in those days the Ngonis, the villages were so big. His father had six wives. So in all these families, there were children.  My father took these children as his responsibility.

Now, with my mother, my mother was just a very good housewife, but she was also able to read and write. She could understand English. She  had lived with an uncle who was a cousin of her father. That uncle of hers was one of the people who also had early education, and he used to work in the Mandala shops. So she used to live with him, and he made sure that she went to school and she was able to read and write.

What do you remember about her? Was she a disciplinarian…?

Eh! She was. (Laughs). My mother was a disciplinarian. That is very true. She was. Very strong. (Laughs) In most cases, you know, as girls in the villages, we would…sometimes… in the areas, we used to have dams. Natural dams.  Then it was a habit of girls that some certain times, we would like to go and swim, go and bath…then we would all be there, swimming and so on.

But in most cases, my mother would not allow me to go and join a group of my fellow girls to go  and do that. She had her own ideas why she didn’t want me to go there. But once she sees me, because by the time we come back from there, our eyes are red, and with the drips of water (Laughs) we never used to have towels to wipe ourselves. It means you are coming out of the water…the water is dripping…(laughs)

And everyone can see that-

Although you try (laughs) so that by the time you get home everyone could see kuti ah ah, this one has been to the river, to a dam. So by the time I got home then I would pretend  I hadn’t been anywhere. She would say, ‘Ah, why are your eyes red?’

Then I wouldn’t answer, because she had warned me before not to go to these natural dams. Then I would keep quiet. And sometimes she would whip me.  Mmm. She was very…she never stood any nonsense. No.

Very strong character, so I had to follow her instructions. I would say…I listened, I obeyed.(Laughs)

 

A NOTE ON EAR-LOBE PIERCINGS

 

          The following stories show some of the perspectives on ear- lobe piercing among the Ngoni:

 

‘Everybody used to have those piercings; my parents, my grandparents. You know how we missed it? In 1949, I was only five, so they said no. They sent us back, they said, ‘You’re too young.’ They used to have a very sharp knife; mxamati. But I had vikono; those were like iron bracelets, although you could bend them, unlike iron. People would wear vikono on their arms, and sometimes around their necks. It was beautiful. Some weeks ago, we were laughing at how some men would actually use fuko, a snuff box…they would fit it into the earlobe and be moving around, especially if the man had no place in which to keep the snuff.’ [1]

 

‘In contrast with the neighbouring peoples, the Ngoni had no  facial or body markings, and it was the pierced ears which showed that they were true Ngoni. In the days of warfare, captives, especially boys and men, were forcibly made to have their ears pierced….

Children of Ngoni families, as also these others, chose their

own time to have their ears pierced, though sometimes their

father or father’s sister or father’s mother reminded them

that it was about time. It was nearly always soon after the

second teeth had come, and children who delayed having it

done were taunted by their fellows: ‘You, are you afraid,

my age-mate? See my ears already have bone in them.’ This

was a reference to the round plugs of bone inserted when the

hole was large enough. A bit of thread was put in at first,

then a small bit of grass, then a fine reed, and finally a bone

plug. Ear piercing was always done in the cold weather so that

the lobe of the ear would heal quickly. It was carried out by

a leading woman of one of the Ngoni families, who watched

the children to see how they took it. They knew it was a test

of courage, and however much they were afraid it would hurt,

they stood like little statues during the operation, with a face

as set and expressionless as when they were being beaten.  [2]

 

There is  also the story of Chanda mukulu, wife of a Ngoni chief, Mperembe Jere during the mid-nineteenth century. She is said to have had piercings so large that a hand could pass through them. [3]

 

 

[1] Interview with Professor Boston Soko. 9th October, 2014,  Kaning’ina, Mzuzu.

[2] Margaret Read, Children of their Fathers: Growing up among the Ngoni of Nyasaland, New Haven: yale University Press (1960) pp. 89-90.

[3] D. Gordon Lancaster, ‘Tentative Chronology of the Ngoni, Genealogy of their Chiefs, and Notes,’ The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 67 (Jan-June 1937) p. 81.

4 Responses

  1. Ernest says:

    interesting story.. sheds lights into the past

  2. Susan says:

    Intersting read about culture and innocent childhood mischeif

  3. In fact, one of the more notable clubs emerged from the halls of Chancellor College, University of Malawi affectionately nicknamed Chanco. The Malawi Writers Group was formed in 1970 during one-party rule and produced the first collective of writers to attain international recognition.

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