Sitting in a circle. To chat, to exchange news, to joke and laugh. Chewa people enjoy staying together, strengthening family bonds and meeting new friends. To share food and drinks is so important. The role of beer is seen as the cement of the community, the ‘ferment’ of unity.
The Chewa proverb says, ‘Chibale n’kuyenderana, mowa n’kumwerana – brotherhood is to visit each other as beer is to drink together’. Among the most important occupations in daily life, beside ritual or family duties, is the Chewa favour ‘kuchezas!‘, to chat. The quality of being ‘wochezeka’ – approachable, ready to chat – is one of the most valued in Chewa culture.
To be ‘ochezeka’ refers to a person who is pleasant and able to laugh and joke. The ability to open the mouth and show the teeth through a smile reveals an openness of heart, a straight forward intention which allows you to know where you stand. The same smile reveals also a genuine concern without pretension, a man who is not self-centred and aloof, who has time to spend with others.
Such an attitude is the opposite of selfishness, it is much appreciated. It is expressed in long prayers, celebrations lasting several days, vigils around the fire or at moonlight, feasting and communal beer drinking. Numerous occasions can be found within the family group or in relation to village life such as reconciliation ceremonies and shaving ceremonies, initiation ceremonies, marriage, commemoration of All Souls’ Day, the clearing of the graveyard (dambule), particular gatherings for the discussion of family matters, joyful returns or visits of close relatives.
They sit in a circle, chat, exchange news, discuss, joke and laugh. Such occasions are an opportunity for all to strengthen family bonds, brotherhood and friends, to be reconciled, to meet new faces and renew contact with friends and relatives of all.
They share food, maize porridge or meat. They sit on the ground, in small circles. In silence they wash their hands in a common basin, one after the other, men first. The basket containing the maize porridge and the plate containing the meat are put on the mat at the centre of the circle.
Everybody, in turn, in an atmosphere of discipline and silence stretches his right hand towards the porridge and makes a small ball by rolling it in the palm of his hand. The ball of porridge is then dipped in the sauce plate containing the meat and put into the mouth without touching the lips. The Chewa meal is a ritual through which the joy and spontaneity are as it were regulated by rules of politeness and discipline. The feelings of the individual are subordinated to the discipline of the group. The end of the meal is marked by a last washing of the hands in the common basin.
The meal is a deep sign of sharing in as far as the community partakes in the same dish: the maize is pounded by all the women together to produce flour for the porridge. The meat sauce stresses the value of friendship at the expense of a precious animal.
The atmosphere of silence and reconciliation of the traditional meal expresses, for the Chewa, a deep communion with common principles beyond and above individual feelings. The meal is normally short. It is conceived more as a ritual ‘starter’ for the real celebration still to come. It is meant to regain strength and to lay down the foundation for the main course: the maize beer, the real festive food.
The proverb says: ‘Brotherhood is to visit each other, beer is to drink together’. The Chewa also have another proverb: ‘mowa n’chimera’, beer is ferment.
The role of beer is seen as the cement of the community, the ‘ferment’ of unity. Brewing beer is a difficult undertaking which needs the protection of the spirits and ritual ‘coolness’.
The complete process lasts five consecutive days. During this period, maize and millet grains are cooked with water and mixed at a later stage with a portion of fermented maize and millet which give the beer its strength. The evening of the fourth day, after the ferment has been added, the beer is ready to be drunk even if it is still warm. Most of the ritual which involves singing and dancing throughout the night happens during this particular eve as drinks are already available. The following day is the fifth official day for the celebration and the official drinking day.
The rules for distribution of the beer are as a complex as those regulating the family system. Hierarchy must be respected. It is a test to one’s own openness, the guests are expected for later but a certain quantity must be available so as not to offend the neighbours, the passers-by … because the ‘visitor is like dew’.
When the expected guests have come, they sit down in a small circle, men and women alike. Normally the women will tend to form their own segment of the circle. Beer is brought in a big clay pot and put at the centre or on the edge of the circle.
Empty calabashes will be brought filled from the main pot and circulated around the group. The person who has brought the beer will first kneel down and taste the beer as a sign of polite welcome and a sign that the beer is free of poison. This gesture is called to ‘remove witchcraft’. Then the calabash goes round from mouth to mouth. Each one receiving and giving back to his neighbour with an elaborate ritual of politeness introduced by the word ‘wawa’, ‘please receive’. The person to whom the calabash is given also answers ‘wawa’, ‘welcome’.
Besides this particular rule, that of thanking the owner of the beer before departing, the sharing of beer is far less ritualised than the meal. Formality gives way to cordiality and spontaneity. The tongues are loosed as the quantity of beer increases. Inhibition disappears, voices become loud and noisy. Somebody bursts into song while somebody else stands up and starts a dance. It is like a spark that sets fire to the entire group. Singing and dancing take over from the conversation. Now people remind each other of their folklores, their traditions, their history and the rules of life that bind them together.
The atmosphere is noisy and joyful. The place is dusty and hot. The strong smell of beer mixes with that of sweat. People are happy they are together and they relax; they let off steam and forget their problems and difficulties. Their hearts are light. The ferment that makes beer makes the time run fast. In sweat, they sit and drink the hidden pot put aside to remove the hangover and slowly lead them back to daily routine as before.
Something has changed however – their lives are renewed, their hearts are wide open, their minds are more disposed to meet the demands of the community. Their communal sharing of food and drink is seen as ancestors’ blessing poured over them. Beer is really the expression and the power of their openness and cohesion. As the proverb says: ‘beer is really ferment’.