Friday, May 24, 2024

The Nexus of Chikwati Terminology in chiTumbuka and chiChewa Languages


By Mwizenge S. Tembo, Ph. D.

Emeritus Professor of Sociology


In traditional subsistence farming in the villages of rural Eastern Zambia among the Tumbuka, harvesting enough food during the rainy season for the family meant many things. Besides harvesting such foods as maize, peanuts or groundnuts, beans, and peas in April and May, the women of the family dried and stored many green vegetables. The vegetables grew to their peak in February and March at the height of the rainy and growing season.

This article will describe what is chikwati, how and why it was traditionally created and its uses. The use of chikwati among the Tumbuka will be contrasted with the use of the chikwati term and its meaning among the Chewa people of the Eastern Province of Zambia. The article will end on a compelling philosophical discussion that I hope the reader will find intriguing at the minimum.

Preparing dry vegetables

During the growing season in February and March in rural Zambia, women will collect any or some of more than a dozen green vegetable. These may include, nyungu pumpkin leaves, nkhunde or mutambe pea leaves, bondokotwe leaves, kabata leaves, chekwechekwe, and bilizongwe leaves. The women will collect these and often boil them for just a few minutes in large containers or clay pots. They will then drain the water from vegetables from the pots, spread, and dry them in the sun on large reed mats or mphasa for a few days until they are bone dry. In modern days, the dry vegetable may be stored in dry containers of all types including metal tins, plastic butizas, and carton boxes.

Among the Tumbuka, the dried vegetables were traditionally stored in a chikwati to maintain and preserve their freshness and flavor for a long time and often until the next growing season which was from December to March.

Making of Chikwati

The woman went to the nearby bush and collected a large number of wide masuku tree leaves. She also fetched some tree fiber from the muyombo tree. Once at home in the village, she spread out a reed mat on the ground. She laid down thin strings of fiber crisscrossing each other the first 5 or 6 long slices of the muyombo fiber or nyozi. She would then carefully lay down a number of the first leaves of the masuku tree. She could then put the first few handfuls of the dry nyungu mphangwe leaves on the masuku leaves. At that point she lifts the leaves with dry vegetable into a medium size clay pot with the fibers stick out onto the ground. Slowly and methodically wedges each of the many masuku leaves down into the sides between the fiber string and the inside of the claypot.

After carefully wedging in the fresh set of masuku leaves, she pours in the dry vegetables until the pot is almost three quarters full of the dry vegetables. She then wedges in the last top masuku leaves which then cover the round shape. She then gently ties the nyozi string fiber to enclose all the dry vegetable into the round small or big shape which is called chikwati. The woman can make ten to 15 of these vikwati each one with a different or the same vegetable or she can even include dried wild mushrooms. She can place these vikwati for safe storage on top of a shelf or can simply tie them hanging to the roof of the kitchen.

A few months later during the dry season from June to November or deep into the next early rainy growing season from December to early February, the woman may want to cook some the dried vegetables for the nshima meal. She will shift some of the dry masuku leaves from the chikwati creating a small hole. She will then drain or collect the required amount of the dry vegetables to cook. She may cook them with fresh raw peanut powder known as nthendelo or she could simply cook the dry vegetables adding plenty of water, onion, tomatoes, cooking oil, and salt.

Most of the young population today may not be familiar with or may dislike the taste of dry vegetables. But these vegetables have their own distinctive strong scent, flavor and taste for which one may have to develop the appreciation. This author certainly tremendously enjoys eating these vegetables and always remembers take some with me when I return abroad. The author’s late mother use to always dry some for him which he picked up when he returned abroad from Zambia. These dry vegetables are available today if you go to any markets that in the compounds of all cities and towns in Zambia.

chiTumbuka and chiChewa Linguistic Variation of Chikwati

In chiTumbuka language, the primary meaning of chikwati is the container that a woman creates in which she stores the dry green vegetables including wild dry mushrooms. Chikwati in this sense is a noun. There are additional meanings in chiTumbuka which is the verb kwata which has two meanings: first, kwata is to create as when one makes up a story and second, kukwata or to kwata is the process of creating the chikwati or any creative work or making up a story. In actuality kukwata then is a process of creating something out of nothing or something that did not exist before.

In chiChewa, chikwati is a noun which means marriage. Kwatira is a verb which means to marry. Kukwatirana is a verb which means to be married to each other. Kukwatana is another variation of getting married to each other. Kukwata however has two meanings: first, it means to be married; the second is a much deeper graphic meaning which is rarely used in public which means sexual intercourse. Kukwatana then has a much deeper graphic meaning which you will not encounter in formal chiChewa or chiNyanja dictionaries. How did the author become aware of these deeper graphic meanings?

Nexux of Chikwati in chiTumbuka and chiChewa

The reason I became aware of these different meanings is when I was 8 years old in 1962 or 62 years ago when we lived North of Chipata near Mugubudu Stores at Mafuta School where my father was teaching at that time. My young siblings encountered different aspects of chiChewa on the playground with other Chewa children or when we overheard drunk men and women walking by the road engaging in careless sexual talk. My parents often used the term kukwata in a strictly chiTumbuka term of being creative or telling falsehoods. My parents were not aware that the term kukwata was used in chiChewa in both marriage and in the graphic but sensual sexual sense. This caused us children to sheepishly run away to a safe distance from my parents and we would giggle about these double meanings when my Tumbuka parents used the term kukwata among themselves during often heated normal but otherwise friendly marital arguments.

In recent times, I am asking myself and the reader, is there a nexus between chikwati in chiChewa and in chiTumbuka? Does this term share a common linguistic historical foundation as both being bantu languages? Does chikwati exist in many of the 72 indigenous Zambian languages? In philosophical terms I am inclined to think that the term “marriage” as understood in English might be too simplistic when defined as just a union between man and woman. In terms of the verb kukwata in chiTumbuka, could it mean that marriage is really a creative process in which we continuously creatively create something out of nothing? Did the Tumbuka and others thousands of years ago realize that marriage is like the making of chikwati among the Tumbuka? Is it a process in which you carefully collect all the ingredients and then create something new that can last for a long time binding couples with lasting love and devotion?


  1. To marry in Chichewa is “kukwatira,” marriage is “ukwati;” wedding is “chikwati.” “Kukwata,” or “kukwatana” are sexual terms. There is a term “chikwatu” though, (“u” at the end, not “I”) the same storage for dried vegetables and mushrooms.

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