Chitipa thrives in linguistic diversity: ‘Ukwiyisya kwiza’

A group of men gather around a pool table in one of the drinking joints at Chitipa Boma to pass the afternoon hours away. They come from various places, works and businesses.

Chitipa Town – a place that revels in its diverse languages
Labels on some bicycle taxis in Chitipa

It is an everyday routine for them to assemble around this game and the passion attached to it, is almost indescribable. No one can take it away from them.

And there is something special about this passion: its expression. It is the passion that is expressed in words from different languages ranging from wakomaa (you have killed it) to watimba (you have hit it) when one makes an audacious hit on a ball into a hole.

One day, six men from different tribes spoke different languages over this game. By the look of things, they understood each other well, but this reporter stood in awe to this interaction of diverse cultures and the prevailing linguistic tolerance.

“It may confuse you when you are new here but you get used to it and start to grasp some of the words in different languages,” says Harvey Silwimba, a hardware dealer at Chitipa Boma.

Chitipa is a linguistically rich district in Malawi. It has more than 13 different languages and tribes in its five traditional authorities (T/As) of Mwene-ulambya, Mwenemisuku, Mwenekameme, Mwenewenya and Mwenekawonga.

There is nothing that makes this district so unique than its linguistic diversity. The beauty of it is that all these people and languages are active in various socio-economic activities and that this diversity is no barrier at all.

Bicycle taxi, popularly known as Cargo here, is one of the business ventures thriving in this environment. The names and expressions labelled on various bicycles often associate or identify the owners with their tribes and languages.

Sampling through labels on some bicycles at Chitipa Boma, one goes through a journey of moral lessons and fun.

For instance, take an expression like Ukwiyisya kwiza. This is Chilambya whose equivalent meaning in English is when you are at the top never despise those below you.

“When some people do well in life, they treat others as useless. They forget that nothing is permanent in this world. It is better to be humble even when you are rich or poor,” says 21-year-old Kefasi Kanyika from Kasinde Village in T/A Mwene-ulambya.

Kanyika is Lambya by tribe and speaks Chilambya. Ukwiyisya kwiza is a label on his bicycle taxi.

Moses Mkandawire from Kameme Village in T/A Mwenekameme goes for Tulibaga Ingalumo Transport. It is a Chinyika expression which means that one day we will find those ahead of us, a similarity to the biblical expression “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” It also resembles Chilambya’s Ukwiyisya kwiza in meaning.

Mkandawire is Nyika by tribe and he also identifies himself with his language through this expression on his bicycle.

There are so many expressions in different languages that one can come across among cyclists in Chitipa. Other languages and tribes include Chindali (Ndalis), Chinamwanga (BaNamwanga), and Chibandya (BaBandya) just to mention a few.

Swahili language also finds space in trade and business here. This is a dominant language in neighbouring country Tanzania. One cyclist, who did not want to be named, plies his business with a label “Yamungu mengi” which means what comes from God is plenty.

While many decide to be identified with their languages and tribes, there are also exceptions. Some go for other languages apart from their own.

Lyson Mutindiya, 26, is Ndali by tribe and is a competent user of Chindali, Chitumbuka and Chichewa. The young man from Mwenesenga Village in T/A Mwene-ulambya choose to go the English way with “No money no love” as an expression on his bicycle while Griniwelo (Greenwell) Simukonda goes for “God is full of gress” (or grace supposedly).

Not only do these languages flourish in bicycle taxi business. They do so almost everywhere; in shops, cars, motorcycles and drinking joints just to mention a few.

In an age when some languages are disappearing faster than ever in human history, Chitipa seems to be preserving its plurality of languages. This preservation is triumphing in a dynamic environment under advancements in various development activities.

The coming of the tarmac road four years ago opened up the district to so many people and their cultures. The infrastructure development in terms of personal estates is flourishing here and agricultural trade is becoming huge too.

Despite these tremendous changes, one thing has remained stable and that is its languages. While the social and economic contribution of these diverse languages is difficult to measure, there could be a significant exchange of knowledge and ideas.

Scholarly studies usually advance the creativity and innovation argument in highlighting the importance of linguistic diversity.

“Places with rich linguistic and cultural diversity have access to more varied knowledge, ideas than places with few languages and cultures,” argues Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, a Danish linguist.

In a study titled “Why should linguistic diversity be maintained and supported in Europe?” Kangas states that the main commodities produced in an information society are knowledge and ideas transmitted through languages and visual images.

“In such a society those with access to diverse knowledge, information and ideas will do well in creativity. In commodity production, creativity precedes innovation and investment follows creativity,” she says.

Chitipa is not in Europe but the evolutionary and maintenance processes that languages go through are somehow similar in most places.

It is quite difficult to establish the level of creativity-innovation value borne out of the linguistic diversity in the district, probably because of a lack of research to create a body of knowledge related to the same.

But one clear fact is that the diverse languages are entrenched in a number of socio-economic activities here. If this linguistic diversity can flourish through passion in a cue sport played on a table, imagine a sport of a big following like soccer?

And for the first time in the history of soccer in Malawi, there will be a team from the district playing in the top flight TNM Super League.   It is Chitipa United which emerged champions in the Simama Northern Region Football League.

There is a possibility that the team will register players from different parts in the district and neighbouring districts like Karonga and Rumphi.

It is highly probable that in 11 players, the team would be sending 11 different languages into the field of play. This, surely, would be another remarkable diversity in unity thriving in development through sport.

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Dyna Ketelina
Dyna Ketelina
7 years ago

Chitipa is a great district. The place has been behind for long because of the bad roads which are being improved now

Kennedy Lweya
Kennedy Lweya
7 years ago

Excellent piece. We are simply the best. Watch this space, in the next 5 years Chitipa will be one of the most thriving places for business in Malawi. Our interconnectedness with Zambia and Tanzania, and DRC/Burundi gives us a unique geopolitical advantage for business. What is needed is for our government to construct to bitumen standard a 23 kilometer stretch of road from Chitipa Boma to Mbilima (at Songwe river) which will facilitate trade with Tanzania. If this is done, this border town would be one of the greatest sources of revenue, through taxes, for government. Come do business here.… Read more »

7 years ago

That’s a good article.

honest simeye
honest simeye
7 years ago

thats the way hpw people live in cp formaly known as forthill ,,

Esau Mkisi
Esau Mkisi
7 years ago

This is quite good and positive story for Chitipa. Thank you for this good analysis of the findings and observations. You really searched and understood the behaviours of the different people plying their trade at the boma
Next time you go find out more about their favorite meals

7 years ago

This is a very interesting and stimulating story. I just feel that, beyond the ‘feel good effect’, it does not tell us exactly how we harness the diversity as an important element of development in Malawi, let alone social progress. I feel that the reasoning behind this is the many assumptions that the writer makes, which would benefit a lot from expounding. A good example is the 11 players that are probably representing 12 languages…I guess the question is, “so, then, what will a team with 12 languages be able to accomplish?”

7 years ago

Wonderful story. I will visit Chitipa soon.

7 years ago
Reply to  Kafwafwa

Wonderful indeed. I have heard that in Chitipa each village has literally its own language.
One reason for this could be that the district has been isolated for a long time. And even within the district the Chitipa hilly terrain has isolated communities for a long time. This has given room to every family having its own language.
Looking forward to watching Chitipa United FC here in Lilongwe.

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