Romantic Love Among the Tumbuka People

If you live in the Western world, you have seen many Hollywood romantic movies and read romantic novels, you probably believe one thing: the best way to express love and romantic feelings is through flowers, kisses, a card, a letter, very expensive ring,  and especially a romantic dinner by candle light. You might also believe that love and romance may not exist in other non-Western cultures. After all, aren’t marriages in these non-Western cultures miserable and practically between strangers since they are arranged? Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only do single young men and women have choices, romantic love often blooms. The only exception might be that the romantic love starts and is expressed differently from the West.

Take, for example, among the Tumbuka tribe of Eastern Zambia in Southern Africa. The single young women in the village are known as mbeta and they all sleep in the nthanganeni; a house or hut for young single women. On the other hand, young single men are known as jaha and they sleep in the mphala; a hut for single young men. When the time to seek a marriage partner comes, a jaha (young man) will dress at his best and walk often for miles to a village where he knows there is a particular mbeta; young woman he either knows or has heard about through the grape vine to be attractive and eligible for marriage. Once he arrives at the village, he is shown nthanganeni (single women’s hut) and word quickly travels around that he has come, say for Jane. There is tremendous excitement in the village as children are sent and gleefully scramble to fetch Jane who might be bathing and drawing water at the river. Once Jane learns that there is a Jaha waiting for her in the nthanganeni, she goes bonkers with sheer excitement and anticipation. How is she going to do her hair? What dress will she wear? Is he handsome? Will she like him?

Once the two see each other and if their chemistry is just right, it might be love at first sight in which case electrical sparks will fly. But quite often they may find there is no mutual attraction and either one of them could back off. But if there is attraction and she accepts the proposal, the period of romantic love and courtship begins. This is the period of romantic love which is full of drama and has many legendary stories among the Tumbuka people.

Because the two lovers cannot stand being away from each other, there have been kusomphola (elopements). Depending on the distance between the villages, he might visit her practically everyday. The two of them are allowed to spend hours alone in the nthanganeni (single young women’s hut). They enjoy and experience kufwasa. Meals, often of delicious chicken, are served to the two lovers by the woman’s family. Since any sex is traditionally taboo before marriage, the romance is even more intense and blissful. Stories say that lovers stare and gaze into each other’s eyes lovingly, smile, act silly with one another, and playfully feed each other. Passers-by can hear loud hearty laughter, conversations in low tones, giggling, and silence. Giggling, noisy, and snoopy kids are shooed away from outside the hut so that the couple can have privacy and kufwasa. When the man departs later in the evening, she escorts him. The lovers might exchange chikole; a personal possession as a symbol of commitment and love for one another. The woman might give him her bangle, bracelet, her ear ring, her scarf, and perhaps traditionally most intimate, one strand of brightly colored beads from inside her waist or mkanda. The man might give her his white well pressed handkerchief, or a chithumwa (small charm or love object he made he might always carry in his pocket)

Among the Tumbuka, romantically involved young women are known to become absent minded, to stare blankly into space as they go about doing chores, to lose appetite, to be tearful and lonesome. Some young women compose songs dedicated to their lover. The women sing the song while pounding corn with a pestle and mortar.  Young men in love might sing the composed song during the traditional dance such as mganda and fwemba. One such a song by a young man is featured in my novel The Bridge when two romantic characters visit the village. Young men in love might be miserable and restless everyday and can’t wait to travel to the other village to visit their lover. They might persuade their lover to skip the stalled wedding arrangements and instead elope in defiance of custom, elders, and community. The romantic lovers are constantly teased by their friends and relatives.

The Tumbuka language poem below is dedicated to such romantic encounters:


Kanakazi  Kotowa :Beautiful dainty woman

Kanakazi kabvwala
Diresi ya cikasu
Na maluba ba swesi
Kanakazi kageza
Cisko cili bilibili
Sisi lili ng’ani ng’ani
Kanakazi kayaya

Kanakazi kakwenda mnthowa
Koluta ku ungano
Na Agogo bake banakazi
Kanakazi kabvwala
Tenesi zituba
Kanakazi kanibeka
Maso bithu bakumana
Kamwetuka Namwetuka
Cimwemwe ca soni
Karabiska kunyake

Mtima wane wagunda
Makongono ghazizila
Thukutila paka paka
Kanakazi kanimwetukila
Agogo bake badangila
Wauka uli Tiyezghe
Mazgho ghane ghanjenjema
Nauka makora a Goodson
Kanakazi kayaya
Kanakazi kotowa

Kanakazi nkhakumana nako
Kumise usiku kuvimbuza
Kukhonde kwa nyumba
Zanga kuno Tiyezghe
Mupenja vici aGoodson?
Nikoleko bele
Kanakazi kayaya kotowa
Kanakazi kafika pafupi
Nakakola pawoko
Cikumba ciri tofutofu
Ciuta wopanga uli kanthu kawemi?
Mazgho koyoboya mobelebeska
Ghakunifundiska mumtima
Imwe a Goodson nilekeni ine
Nkhupenja yayi
Zanga kuno nikoleko bele nawe
Ine nkhopa nthumbo
Nthumbo ungatola kukolako
Waka bele na lubunda
Kanakazi kayaya kotowa
Kanakazi kayimilila

Nakakola mulubunda
Iwe Tiyezghe nkhukutemwa
Ndiwe wotowa
Kanakazi kabelebeska
Imwe  aGoodson kuyoboya
Nthana yayi
Kanakazi kayaya kotowa

Kanakazi  Kotowa  English: Beautiful dainty woman

The dainty woman
Is wearing a yellow dress
With red flowers
Dainty woman bathed
Her face is beautiful
Her hair is shinny
Beautiful dainty woman

Dainty woman is walking in a path
She is going to church
With her grandmother
Dainty woman is wearing
White tennis shoes
Dainty woman looked at me
Our eyes met
She smiled I smiled
The smile of  shyness
She looked away

My heart pounded
My knees feel weak
I sweat
Dainty woman has smiled at me
Her grandmother walked a few yards ahead
Good morning Tiyezghe
My voice is trembling
Good morning Goodson
Dainty woman
Dainty woman is beautiful

I met the dainty woman
At night at Vimbuza dance
Behind the house
Come here Tiyezghe
What do you want Goodson?
I want to touch you
Dainty woman is beautiful
She walked closer to me
I held her by her wrist
She has soft skin
How does God make such a good thing?
She talks to me in whispers
My heart  is warming
Goodson would you leave me alone?
I do not want
Draw closer I want to hold you
I am afraid
How can you be afraid
From my merely touching you
Dainty woman is beautiful
Dainty woman stood there

I held her
Tiyezghe I love you
You are so beautiful
She whispered softly
Oh, please Goodson,
Don’t talk to me this way
Dainty woman is beautiful