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Chiefship and Politics in the Mlanje District of Southern Nyasaland

  • R. L. Wishlade


Mlanje is an Administrative District in the Southern Province of Nyasaland. It is densely populated compared with other parts of Central Africa, having a population of 209,522 in 1945, which represented a density of 138 per square mile. The population is tribally heterogeneous, and was composed, in 1945, of 71 per cent. Nguru, 21 per cent. Nyanja, and 5 per cent. Yao people. The Nguru are the most recent arrivals, having immigrated into Nyasaland mainly during the present century. The term Nguru is used to refer to the representatives in Nyasaland of a number of tribes inhabiting that part of Portuguese East Africa which Lies to the east of Nyasaland; these immigrants call themselves Lomwe and in Mlanje are mainly Mihavani and Kokola. The Nyanja are the indigenous inhabitants of the area, who were living there before the invasion of the Mangoche Yao during the nineteenth century. Although they are linguistically distinct, the social organization of these three groups is markedly similar, and there has been a great deal of intermarriage between them, particularly between the Nyanja and the Nguru. No one of them is in sole occupation of a continuous stretch of territory, even the smallest residential groups are often tribally heterogeneous, the similarity of the social organization enabling Nyanja to be absorbed into Nguru hamlets and vice versa. For this reason it is impossible to use a tribal unit as a unit of reference in a discussion of the political organization of this area.



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page 36 note 1 Census Report for Nyasaland, Zomba, 1945.

page 36 note 2 Livingstone records that at one time the people of this area were subject to a paramount chief ‘Undi’ who ruled over the area from the River Luangwa to Lake Shirwa, but that this ‘empire ’ had been dismembered before the middle of the nineteenth century. Livingstone, D., Narrative of an Expedition to the Zambezi and its Tributaries, and the Discovery of Lakes Shirwa and Nyassa 1818–1864, London, 1865, p. 198.

page 36 note 3 The term‘Native Authority’ is not used in the same way in Nyasaland as it is in Northern Rhodesia where it refers to a council of chiefs from one ethnic group. In the Southern Province of Nyasaland every government-recognized chief and his councillors are known as a ‘Native Authority ’. For the Northern Rhodesian position see, for instance, Colson, E., Marriage and Family among the Plateau Tonga of Northern Rhodesia, Manchester, 1958, p. 11.

page 36 note 4 See Macdonald, Duff, Africana—The Heart of Heathen Africa, London, 1886, vol. i, pp. 147–8.

page 37 note 1 See Mitchell, J. C., The Political Organization of the Yao of Southern Nyasaland, African Studies, vol. viii, no. 3, September 1949, pp. 141–59. In that article Mitchell is mainly concerned with the Machinga Yao of the Zomba and Fort Johnston Districts. The political organization of the Mangoche Yao, who are represented in the Mlanje District, is, however, similar, although Mlanje has been the focus of a greater amount of Nguru immigration than the Machinga Yao areas, and this has had repercussions upon the present organization of the Mangoche Yao.

page 37 note 2 Ibid.

page 37 note 3 There are a number of examples of new chieftain ships having been formed in this way. Duff Mac Donald cites the case of Nkanda, whose descendant is now recognized as a Native Authority in Mlanje, and who was previously a village headman under Kumpama, but rebelled and set himself up as a chief in what is now Mlanje District: Duff MacDonald, op. cit., vol. i, p. 32.

page 37 note 4 Murray, S. S., A Handbook of Nyasaland, Govt. Printer, Zomba, 1932. See also Mitchell, J. C., The Yao Village, Manchester, 1956, p. 43.

page 37 note 5 Mitchell, loc. cit.

page 39 note 1 Fortes, M. and Evans-Pritchard, E. E., Introduction to African Political Systems, 1940, pp. 1516.

page 39 note 2 I have taken this term from Cunnison, who uses it to describe a relationship between offices, which is expressed in kinship terms representing an actual relationship between the incumbents of these offices at some crucial point in their history, usually their foundation. The original kinship relationship is expressed as existing between succeeding incumbents of the offices regardless of the personal kinship relationship existing between them. See Cunnison, I., History on the Luapula, Rhodes-Livingstone Papers, No. 21, London, 1951, pp. 35–34.

page 43 note 1 E. Colson, op. cit., p. 35.

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  • ISSN: 0001-9720
  • EISSN: 1750-0184
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