Growing Up Sexually





Index Africa Malawi Chewa


Featured : Lake Nyasa, Chewa, Yao, Ngoni; ®Nyakyusa


Boys and girls play at husband and wife outside the village, including trial matings. The Chewa “believe that unless children begin to exercise themselves sexually early in life they will never beget offspring” (Ford and Beach, 1951:p190). Hodgson (1933:p138)[1], on the Chewa: “[…] the marriage may be contracted long before the girl is old enough for consummation, and in such a case she must abstain from intercourse with any other man, just as though the marriage had been consummated. If, however, she is married before she can know her mind, and subsequently refuses to have intercourse with the husband when approaching puberty, she is not held to the contract”. Winterbott and Lancaster (1965)[2] mention sexual teachings by an older woman during the seclusion period after menarche. Traditionally, Chewa girls were generally married “within a few months of reaching puberty (i.e., between twelve and fourteen years of age)” (Phiri, 1983:p260)[3]. The breaking of the hymen is an integral part of the puberty ceremonies of a Chewa girl (Hodgson; Gordon and Brelsford, 1950:p219[4]; Phiri, 1998:p131)[5]. The ritual intercourse was performed by an unknown man, or, if married, by her husband. After marriage, specific sex instructions were given, emphasising techniques “for pleasuring her future husband”. Kaspin[6]:


“The purpose of male initiation is to turn boys into sexual men and predatory members of Nyau [secret society, religious / moral universe], a simultaneous transformation that takes place when they are led for the first time into the Nyau meeting place […]. Female initiation is the complement of male initiation, for its purpose is to turn girls into succulent meat. This takes place at the “tree of maidenhood” (mtnego wa namwali), synonymous with the bush, where girls receive instruction on the protocols of womanhood” (p43).


Gregersen (1983:p199)[7] states: “The Cewa believe that if a girl does not copulate before she starts to menstruate she will die. Cewa specifically encourage childhood copulation when children are playing house. If by misfortune a girl has not been deflowered by puberty, he hymen was forcibly ruptured in a prescribed way”. As with other Central Bantu tribes, it was customary in the past for girls to be betrothed before puberty, from which date only “limited sex relations were permitted between the couple, but the girl must not be deflowered until the initiation ceremony, which was held as soon as possible after her first menstruation” (Rangeley, 1948:p41; Mair, 1951:p106; 1953:p88)[8]. Mission teachings condemned early betrothal, sex play before marriage, and the initiation ceremony, and fixed at minimum age for sexual intercourse (p107). This would coincide with a belief that full intercourse with an uninitiated girl led to sickness of a supernatural origin.












Janssen, D. F., Growing Up Sexually. VolumeI. World Reference Atlas. 0.2 ed. 2004. Berlin: Magnus Hirschfeld Archive for Sexology

Last revised: Sept 2004


[1] Hodgson, A. G. O. (1933) Notes on the Achewa and Angoni of the Dowa District of the Nyasaland Protectorate, J Royal Anthropol Instit Great Britain & Ireland 63, Jan.-Jun.:123-64

[2] Winterbottom, J. M. & Lancaster, D. G. (1965) The Chewa female initiation ceremony, Zambia (Northern Rhodesia) J 6,1:347-50

[3] Phiri, K. M. (1983) Some Changes in the Matrilineal Family System among the Chewa of Malawi since the Nineteenth Century, J Afr Hist 24,2:257-74

[4] Lancaster, D. G. & Brelsford, W. V. (1950) Hymen and semen ritual among the Chewa, Int J Sexol 3,4:219-24

[5] Phiri, I. A. (1998) The initiation of Chewa women of Malawi: a Presbyterian woman’s perspective, in Cox, J. L. (Ed.) Rites of Passage in Contemporary Africa. Fairwater: Cardiffe Academic Press, p129-45

[6] Kaspin, D. (1993) Chewa Visions and Revisions of Power: Transforma tion of the Nyau Dance in Central Malawi, in Comaroff, J. C. & Comaroff, J. L. (Eds.) Modernity and its Malcontents: Ritual and Power in Postcolonial Africa. Chicago, Ill. [etc.]: The University of Chicago Press, p34-57

[7] Gregersen, E. (1983) Sexual Practices: The Story of Human Sexuality.New York: Franklin Watts

[8] Rangeley, W. (1948) Notes on Cewa tribal law, Nyasaland J 1,4; Mair, L. P. (1951) Marriage and Family in the Dedza District of Nyasaland, J Royal Anthropol Instit Great Britain & Ireland 8,1/2:103-19; Mair (1953), op.cit.