By Winston Kawale, Senior Lecturer, Mzuzu Univeristy.
The “Project Malawi” website describes Lilongwe as a place that “was a simple trading centre in the late 50s, 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 thirteenth century when the Chewa arrived in this part of Africa. Msinja as a religious city 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, and 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 animals 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 5 to 8 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 eleven villages that surrounded the Msinja city. These villages were similar to what we now call locations or residential areasThe 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 headman was responsible.
The functional names are accompanied by the Chewa clan names Phiri, Banda, Mbewe, Mwale, Mphadwe, Kwenda, Nkhoma.
The logical order of the functionaries at Msinja was as follows: In order to acquire materials for various projects, Matsimbe Kwenda used charcoal (masimbe) in the smelting furnaces to manufacture iron materials such as hoes, axes, knives and other iron materials.
Using the iron materials, Kampini (hoe handle maker) Phiri made hoe handles, and Njiraamadzi Nkhoma was able to cut poles, grass and bark ropes for construction purposes, a kind of Director of Procurement and Supply.
Using these construction materials Mkwerera (the climber) Phiri constructed, thatched and repaired the Temple and other huts.At the Temple, Tsakambambe Nkhoma kept the shrine clean by clearing or sweeping the ashes, the grass, and the weeds inside and around the Temple.
Kabzyikho (cup cleaner) Mphadwe kept the pots, the cups, and all other utensils used at the Temple clean.. When people came with their offerings to be sacrificed, Masanda Nkhoma inspected all the animals and chose those without blemish for sacrifice. Using a club (nthungo) or spear, Kanthungo Nkhoma slaughtered the selected animals.
When Makewana received a message from Chauta, she instructed Tsang’oma (the drum beater) Mwale to beat the drum which was in the Temple. The Chewa acquired the drum from the Kafula, the original residents people in Malawi, when they were running away from the Chewa warriors.
The drum was known as Mbiriwiri because the sound of the drum meant that there were tidings (mbiri) and that the people were summoned to hear the tidings.Upon hearing the drum, Malemia (one who travelled tirelessly) Mwale travelled to all the Chewa chiefs countrywide summoning the people to Msinja.
This could take some months for him to reach all the Chewa chiefs. To enable the people coming to Msinja cross rivers and streams, Kasanja (one who places across (kusanja) logs or timber over the river) Mphadwe constructed bridges across River Dyampwe and other streams.
He also constructed or mended grain bins.
When the chiefs arrived at Msinja, Chiwala Banda was in charge of food and accommodation for these chiefs. Chiwala was usually a woman.Criminals at Msinja City were sent away to a nearby Makumbi prison village. Msokomera, one responsible for continuous flow of prisoners (kusokomera) Kwenda was in charge of the village, a kind of Prison Commissioner.
These criminals were responsible for preventing or extinguishing firebreaks or wildfires in the Msinja City. They also worked in the fields producing food for the people in the village and for the visitors. It is said that the people in the village did not work in the fields, they got their food produced by the criminals in the Makumbi prison village and also from the offerings the people brought at the Temple for sacrifices.
Unfortunately this busy Msinja City is no longer there. The Ngoni raiders destroyed it in 1870. Many people were killed but some like Makewana, Tsang’oma together with the drum, and others escaped. Some of those who escaped returned to Msinja.
They attempted to rehabilitate the shrine and Msinja, but they were not successful. Only a small shrine is still maintained there by the people from the surrounding villages.
It is our considered view that as the Ministry of Tourism considers constructing some cultural villages in the country, one could fittingly be constructed at Msinja. In reconstructing Msinja there can be several chalets erected.
One chalet can be for the Temple in which the Mbiriwiri drum could be placed. The other chalets can be for Makewana, for the Masano, for Kamundi, and for Chingala. Thereafter, there can be 11 villages surrounding the Temple. Each village may have about 5 chalets. The villages may represent each of the functionaries that had specific responsibilities in Msinja City. Roads can be constructed to connect the villages.
Each chalet and village can have someone appointed to explain what the functionaries at each chalet and village did. The people from the existing villages can be engaged in this exercise. The information these people may give will provide rich Chewa cultural and historical information to the tourists and to posterity. In this way the reconstruction of the Msinja Cultural City will create employment for the local communities.
The local and international tourists who will patronise the historical and cultural city can experience unique memories of the Chewa past. It will also promote tourism which will earn the country foreign exchange from visiting tourists.