The Journal of African History

Research Article

Some Changes in the Matrilineal Family System among the Chewa of Malawi since the Nineteenth Century

Kings M. Phiria1

a1 University of Malawi

In its ideal form, the Chewa family system is supposed to place considerable emphasis on the mother right, the avunculate, uxorilocal marriage, husband's subordination to wife's kin, and importance of female children as future reproducers of the lineage. In practice, however, there are a number of factors which have tended to mitigate the impact of these tendencies in the system, as far as men or husbands are concerned. Attention has been drawn to the fact that a number of important changes in the marriage contract, family residential patterns, exercise of domestic authority, and control or custody of children, have been the result of historical developments. There is therefore a need to understand these developments, even if the changes in the Chewa family system to which they led have not brought about a complete transformation of the system.

Several of these historical developments have been reviewed, as well as the features of patriliny to which they have given rise in several parts of central Malawi. They include the growth of the slave trade in the nineteenth century and the opportunity which this gave to some lineages to acquire women who could be married virilocally; the intrusion of patrilineal peoples like the Ngoni which increased the incidence of virilocal marriage and patrilineal descent; the spread of certain Christian missionary teachings that are in conflict with matrilineal principles of family organisation; and such developments of the colonial period as labour migrancy and cash-cropping which often impinged on relations between husband and wife and family life in general.