Asing’anga – Plural of sing’anga, the most common term in Chichewa term for a traditional healer.

Azungu – Plural of mzunga, the Chichewa word for foreigners; often applied specifically to whites, but extended out to include other non-blacks.

Blantyre – Largest city in and commercial center of Malawi. Located in the Southern Region, Blantyre was named after the birthplace of Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone.

Boma – Administrative center of a district within Malawi, from the Swahili word for “fortress.”

Chewa/Nyanja – Malawi’s largest ethnic group. The Chewa live primarily in the Central and Southern Regions of Malawi.

Chichewa – One of the two official languages of Malawi (the other is English).

Chilomwe – Language spoken by the Lomwe ethnic group in southern Malawi and in Mozambique.

Chinamwali – Initiation ceremony for girls among the Chewa.

Chitumbuka – After Chichewa, the second most spoken language in Malawi, used primarily by peoples in the Northern Region of the country.

Chiyambi – A beginning.

Chitenge – A cloth wrapping often worn as a skirt by women. Also used as a backpack and a method for carrying children at either the back or breast.

Chitumwa – A “charm pouch” into which traditional medicines or charms are sewn. Often worn on the body, or placed in a house or yard (or automobile) for protection from curses.

DC – District Commissioner. Government official responsible for administration of a district. There are 27 districts in Malawi.

Edzi – AIDS.

Galimoto – Automobile.

Gule Wamkulu – Literally “big dance.” A sacred dance performed by Chewa men wearing masks. Often associated with the Chinamwali initiation ceremonies for young women, or with the funerary remembrances of important individuals. Only members of the secret Nyau society may dance the Gule Wamkulu.

Kachaso – A traditional alcoholic drink, used among the Chewa in conjunction with the Gule Wamkulu dance.

Kaphirintiwa – Mythical name for Mount Dzalanyama, which is believed to be the place where humans were first placed on the earth by God.

Karibu – “Welcome” in Chichewa and many Bantu languages.

Khasu – A tool shaped much like a hoe, but with the strength of a shovel, and often used as such.

Kufunsa – Chichewa for “to ask.”

Kukhulupirira – Chichewa for “to hope” and “to believe.”

Kukumbukira – Chichewa for “to remember.”

Kumvera – Chichewa for “to obey” and “to believe.”

Kuperekeza – Chichewa for “to accompany.”

Kutola – Chichewa for “to gather.”

Kwacha – Malawi’s monetary unit. In 1997, when these stories began, there were 17 Kwacha to the US Dollar; in 2001 the exchange has hovered around 60 to 1.

Lilongwe – Capital city of Malawi. Located in the Central Region, roughly equidistant from the northern and southernmost borders of the country.

Litchowa – The “tail switch” used by many traditional healers as a symbol of (or device for channeling) power. Usually consists of the tail of an animal (or hairs from a tale) such as a cow or horse. Medicines are often sewn into the handle and spells may be cast on the entire litchowa. In everyday practice, non-medicinal litchowa are used to ward off insects.

Lomwe – Ethnic group located primarily in the southernmost areas of Malawi and the surrounding areas of Mozambique.

MCP – Malawi Congress Party. For thirty-three years this was the only political party allowed in Malawi. Its leader was the now deceased dictator Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda. It is now challenged for power by various rival parties, chief among them the UDF (United Democratic Front) and, AFFORD (Alliance For Democracy).

Machemba – Mountain and forest reserve in southern Malawi. Located north of Mulanje.

Magini – According to one source, epilepsy, but possibly a spirit disorder that shows symptoms similar to those of epilepsy.

Maluwa – flower.

Mang’anja – Ethnic group located primarily in the Southern Region of Malawi.

Mankhwala – Medicine; often referring to traditional plant medicine or mankhwala azitsamba.

Maso amanthongo – An eye disorder with symptoms including swollen red eyes, eye pain, and pus.

Matenda – Illness.

Matepwe – A village north of Mulanje; near to Migowe and Machemba Mountain.

Matsenga – Sorcery.

Matola – Transportation. Usually referring to a haphazard system of trucks, cars and minibuses that operate without regular schedules or routes. Passengers pay a fee and find space wherever they can.

Michese – Mountain in southern Malawi; separated from the Mulanje Massif by the Fort Lister Gap. Reputed to be habited by spirits, and known as place of strong magic and powerful plants.

Migowe – Town in southern Malawi, located north of Mulanje. Largest town in territory of TA Nazombe.

Misala – Lunacy.

Mitengo – Plural of mtengo.

Mizimu – Spirits.

Mpoza – Annona senegalensis. A tree that is apparently well revered as a link to the spirits, as numerous healers make offerings to mpoza before looking for plants.

Msonkhano – A meeting or gathering.

Mtengo – Plant that is considered useful to Malawians. Often refers to trees (which are always useful as firewood, and often for other purposes as well), but may include other plants used for eating or medicine.

Mtondo – A large wooden device used for pounding maize into flour. Usually a hollowed out log about a foot in diameter and two feet tall.

Mulanje – A massif or mountain range in southern Malawi containing the country’s highest peak (Sapitwa 3000m) and housing many tea estates. Also the name of the administrative region covering the southern half of the Massif, and the city housing that administration.

Mutu wakugwa – A type of headache that is associated with symptoms similar to those of epileptic fits. More common in women than men.

Mwali – The spiritual leader of the Banda clan of the Chewa, she unites with the God of the Sky who takes the form of a snake (Thunga) in a process that brings about rain.

Mzungu – A foreigner. Most commonly applied to whites, but also used for other non-blacks.

Namtongwe – Another name for (or variety of) Mutu wakugwa.

Nansula – Barrenness. Most healers seem to apply this to women, but some include men in the classification.

Napolo – A large flood that comes down from the mountains during or after heavy rains. The term has mythical associations, as the flood is considered to be a living, willful creature, often envisioned as a dragon or serpent.

Ndirande – A large township outside of Blantyre. Named after the mountain that it surrounds.

Ngoni/Angoni – Ethnic group located primarily in the Northern and Central Regions of Malawi. The Ngoni are ancestors of an offshoot Zulu tribe, who came to the area around Lake Malawi and conquered numerous groups there in the 19th century.

Njala – Chichewa for “hunger” or “starvation.”

Nkhalango – Forest.

Nkonde – Ethnic group living primarily to the north of Lake Malawi.

Nsembe – Offering to the spirits (or place set aside for this offering). Often of maize flour, but potentially of one kwacha coins or other objects with symbolic importance.

Nsima – Chief staple food of Malawi. A thick porridge made of maize meal and eaten with the hands. Preferably topped with a relish of some sort for flavor.

Nyanja – See Chewa/Nyanja

Nyau – Secret society of the Chewa whose members dance and keep the traditions of the Gule Wamkulu.

Panga – Machete.

Paw paw – Papaya.

Phalombe – Name of a region in southern Malawi, and also the town housing the regional government offices. Located just north of Mulanje and divided into two sections by the Phalombe River.

Sing’anga – The most common term in Chichewa term for a traditional healer.

TA – Traditional Authority or Chief in charge of a portion of a district. The TA is appointed by traditional means and is the primary liason between the traditional and governmental authority structures in the country.

Thanthanyelere – A tree used by many healers for various remedies.

Thunga – See Mwali.

Tonga – Ethnic group living primarily in Malawi’s Northern Region.

Tumbuka – Most prominent of the ethnic groups populating Malawi’s Northern Region.

Ufa – A finely ground grade of maize flour.

Ufa wa nsembe – Offering of flour to spirits.

Ufiti – Witchcraft.

Uko – Over there.

Ulendo – A journey.

Usipa – Small, sardine-like fish caught in Lake Malawi and dried on racks before being eaten.

Yao – Ethnic group living primarily in the Southern Region of Malawi. The Yao are generally Muslim.

Zirengo – A very broad disease category that might be associated with madness, bewitchment, or sorcercy. Usually inflicted on the patient by someone else or by angry spirits. There are many types of zirengo.

Zirombo – Wild animals. Often used with reference to the animal basketry masks used in the Gule Wamkulu.

Zomba – Third largest city in Malawi. Former capital and still sometimes seat of the parliament. Zomba houses the administration of the University of Malawi and is home to Chancellor College, the main branch of that university. Located in the middle of the Malawi’s Southern Region.

Zungulira – Chichewa for “spinning.”


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