Driving from Johannesburg to central Malawi via Tete, Mozambique, in 2006, I remember paying particular attention to the landscape. I pondered the challenges of entering someone else's country without knowing much about what lay ahead. At the time, I was doing my doctoral research and reading the diary of a Portuguese military officer, Antonio C. P. Gamitto (Reference Gamitto1960 ). Gamitto crossed the Maravi Empire searching for King Kazembe in the Democratic Republic of Congo before the Ngoni raids in the nineteenth century. The Maravi were mentioned by travellers as early as the seventeenth century, but Gamitto's accounts were the first to refer to the Chewa (Cheva) people.
Where do the ancestors of the Chewa come from and how did the Maravi Empire come to be? These are two of the central questions Yusuf Juwayeyi seeks to answer in Archaeology and oral tradition in Malawi, and they are fascinating topics in which the scholar of Chewa Culture inevitably becomes immersed. Structured in 14 chapters, the book presents an informed account of Malawi's early historical and archaeological research, featuring the work of J. Desmond Clark and Gadi G.Y. Mgomezulu, among others (Chapter 1), and the origins and dispersal of material culture linked to the Chewa and their ancestors. Integrated into this study is one of the most intimate legacies that Indigenous people pass on to their descendants: their oral traditions, which were (and are) transmitted through stories, songs, visual media, dance and music. The complexity of these narratives has often been distorted by Eurocentric perspectives when they have been recorded on paper; their temporal sequencing poses a challenge to a Western linear logic of events in terms of matching oral traditions with material evidence unequivocally.
Combining archaeological evidence, oral traditions and early documents, Chapters 2–4 delve into the origins and migration of the Chewa, a matrilineal group, illustrating the intricacy of kinship, political alliances and rivalry between secular and religious forces within the Maravi polity. In his narrative, Juwayeyi utilises concepts that archaeologists commonly deploy; the discussion of these in Chapter 5 could usefully have been brought forward to introduce these ideas better. While it provides a good summary of archaeological methods, Chapter 5 lacks coverage of pressing contemporary theoretical and interpretative concerns.
I was surprised by the lack of reference in the volume to rock art as a critical source of archaeological evidence in addition to the stone tools, ceramics, bone and metal artefacts. Despite the promise of the cover artwork, the rock paintings of Malawi are given only one or two pages and not enough to reflect the extensive research on these, and their connection to the Chewa's origins and early history is not fully explored. This is made more surprising by the fact that in 2006 the Chongoni Rock Art Area was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Some rock art sites have been linked to Nyau, but most are associated with another crucial Chewa religious institution: the Chinamwali female initiation. Despite being related to Makewana, Mwali and the Banda clan (pre-Maravi), which the book mentions, Chinamwali's role in the Maravi Empire is not explored. Some of those rockshelters, and other archaeological sites in Malawi, are close to villages whose involvement in reconstructing the past is of interest to archaeologists, a point noted by Juwayeyi. More importantly, this collaboration is crucial for the sites’ protection, an endeavour that my colleagues from the Malawi Department of Museums and Monuments have been carrying out for many years, and the necessity for a new integrated management plan for Chongoni was recognised in a UNESCO capacity-building training event that I led in 2020.
Chapter 6 introduces the Iron Age archaeology at the southern part of Lake Malawi and provides a helpful discussion on ironworking technology and the ceramic sequence of the area before turning to the oral traditions collected by Samuel J. Ntara (Juwayeyi's primary source), which maintain that Mankhamba, the headquarters of the Maravi, was located in the Mtakataka-Mua area, 40km east of the Dedza-Chongoni highlands. After an extensive survey, the author excavated 56m2 of a large mound, the results of which are detailed in the volume, and four other units where rescue archaeology was undertaken, which are unfortunately not presented for comparison.
Juwayeyi's excavation of Mankhamba between 1988 and 1991 undoubtedly provides unique data, and these are reported in Chapters 7–11. The discussion of material culture, including local ceramics, iron objects, glass beads, Chinese porcelain, ivory, copper, cowrie shells and glazed ceramics, offers a sense of daily life for the Maravi, and of the extensive long-distance trade that they had with groups both within and outside of Africa. A few additions would have enhanced discussion of the excavation: clearly locating the stratigraphic profile for example, and better illustrations of the excavation; more reference to anthropological research on animal symbolism amongst the Chewa and other groups in analysis of the faunal assemblage, following the work of Brian Morris (Reference Morris2000a, Reference Morris2000b) would also have been useful. The expanse of the settlement remains unclear and it will be interesting to see if that can be determined by future work.
The last three chapters offer a stimulating examination of the author's ideas regarding the extent and demise of the Maravi Empire and suggest future research directions. They also contribute to understanding of the trading practices between the many groups north and south of the Zambezi River, as well as the role of slavery there. The Chewa's early history reveals not only their interactions and conflicts with other groups, but also their internal rivalry. Juwayeyi concludes that future scholarship must include the archaeology of other ethnic groups in Malawi. The Chewa ancestral territory also extends into Zambia and Mozambique, beyond the borders imposed by Europeans. Thus, I would advocate a regional approach involving researchers and traditional authorities from countries where Chewa history has been investigated (e.g. Antonio Rita-Ferreira's (Reference Rita-Ferreira1966) work in Mozambique).
It is to be hoped this book inspires more collaborative opportunities for generating new data on such a captivating subject. This will require the development of new academic programmes to train young Malawian archaeologists. The most recent initiative of this kind, which I had the opportunity to teach at Nguludi in 2010, was cancelled shortly after I left. Despite my initial reservations, there are many aspects to admire about this volume, including its audacity in intertwining oral traditions and archaeology.