Top 10: Things I Say Alot in Malawi



This is a new series because top 10s are all the rage.


Having been in Malawi for almost nine months, I have become comfortable with how to negotiate everyday life in the major language of Chichewa, a bit in Chisena and even a very small amount in Portuguese, all languages native to the southern region of Malawi in which I live.

Culture dictates a lot about the way conversation flows and the ways situations are framed in the mind in response to contextual linguistic cues. Chichewa is a reflection of the Malawian people and thus culture: the language is caring, sincere and community driven. The simplicity of Chichewa to convey meaningful dispositions is quite delightful.

Chichewa doesn’t have the extensive (read: exhaustive, perhaps even tiring) lexicon that English does. Chichewa is an emotional language, derived from the communal experience of life hearkening to the very intimate tribal past of the Bantu heritage from which it derives.

Inflection, context and audience all play a part in any language.

These are words that I find myself saying often and why they are special to me (in no particular order):

  1. “Bo bo!”
    Pronounced: BO-BOIn it’s varying uses, ‘bo bo’ can be used in a bunch of circumstances. Most often it is used as an informal greeting between men, akin to a “What’s up, man?”. This word is used among men of similar age or younger and should never be used in a formal setting or with customary authorities like chiefs (unless you are real good friends and it becomes appropriate but still heed caution).

    The versatility of the word comes when it is best translated as ‘good’ as in, “You sleep well?” “Bo bo.”

    It can be used as a flirtatious word between a man and woman given the inflection used.

    This is the most common way for children to greet me as I move past them, usually with a thumbs-up gesture jutting out.

    Also, ‘Bobo’ is a strong liquor found in a plastic satchet in the southern region that costs about twenty-five cents for little over two standard shots.

    “Shap” is another variation of this term.

  2. “No, I’m not married and no I don’t have kids.” (in Chichewa)In Malawi, it is a cultural norm to marry young and start having kids. In many ways it is a sign of the start of adulthood and thus, the freedom and recognition from others that this milestone denotes.

    At 25, I’m behind the curve by at least a half decade. Though I feel totally secure in not having a wife or kids at this time in my life, Malawians are flabbergasted at such an idea.

    “Why? Are you gay? Can you not produce kids? Do you not like children? Do you not like Malawian women? You aren’t supposed to cook — take this woman here and she will cook you nsima and do laundry. … You aren’t a man yet.”

    And so it goes.

    This is probably the hardest aspect of day to day life because I have to answer these questions daily. I have men bringing their sisters over to marry them off, the chief telling me that if I shave my beard, I can take any woman in the village and offers for prostitutes.

    It’s a daily barrage.

  3. “Zikomo.”
    Pronounced: “ZEE-KO-MO”Zikomo is used in many ways, especially in expressing gratitude, praise, when entering a place and as a greeting.

    Its accepted versatility among different tribal languages in Malawi is helpful because the phrase denotes being grateful, pleasant and welcoming. These are characteristics that surpass culture, much like a smile or laugh — it is a universal gesture of being content and in good company.

  4. “Choka!”
    Pronounced: “CHO-KA”Choka is a directive that is meant as a very cutting, harsh and demanding term meaning ‘go away!’ or ‘be gone!’.

    The speaker of the word can dictate the seriousness of the directive by inflection and tone.

    This word is most commonly used with pesky animals, between quarreling children, with drunkards and people with ill intentions like thieves.

  5. “Basi.”
    Pronounced: “BAH-SEE”Best translated as ‘nothing more’, ‘enough’, ‘that is all’ or ‘stop’.

    This word denotes closure, a stopping point or expression of displeasure with ones’ actions.

  6. “Tiyeni.”
    Pronounced: “TEE-YEN-EEMeaning “let’s move”, it is a phrase used when traveling or when action is desired.

    I find it interesting that Chichewa uses the verb ‘move’ instead of ‘go’ (as in “let’s go”). Yes, ‘let’s go’ is used just not as often as ‘let’s move’. We move in Malawi, we don’t go.

    When leaving a place, one says “I’m coming” instead of “I’m going.” It is this subtle courtesy that shows how people oriented Chichewa is. It can be a day, a week or a lifetime but you are coming, to be seen again rather than going, with no precept that you will return.

  7. “Ndatentha.”
    Pronounced: “NDA-TENT-HA”Meaning “I am hot”, I find myself either saying it out loud or to myself often.

    Malawi is a sub-Saharan African nation. The climate is sub-tropical. There are two seasons: hot and wet (which is still hot, just more humid). I find myself bucket bathing often not because I’m necessarily dirty but just to cool down for 45 minutes. I didn’t sleep in my house for two and a half months because the tin roof of my house turns it into an oven.

  8. “Ndakhuta.”
    Pronounced: “NDA-KOO-TAH”Meaning “I am full”, it is an expression used when you have had plenty of food and are satisfied.

    Malawians love to share the experience of eating with one another. Much of the time of a rural Malawian is spent negotiating their next meal — from working in the field growing food, gathering firewood and preparing the ingredients to fetching water from the borehole and actually preparing the meal over a fire — Malawians love food. It is so ingrained in the culture because it takes the whole family to prepare a meal — for instance, mum is cooking, pa is in the field sowing and the children are fetching water and firewood.

    Here, folks are connected to their food unlike America and other Western societies where everything comes in sterilized, fancy packaging and everyone is more than three times removed (or more) from the source and processing. Everyone here is a butcher and a farmer and a chef.

    If you say this phrase, Malawians will insist you are not full and that you should have more food. It’s like saying no to a European when they offer tea — you just accept the damn tea and that is the end of it.

  9. “Vinani!”
    Pronounced: “VEE-NON-EE”Meaning “Dance!”, this is a directive I say a lot because music and dance are such integral components to Malawian culture. I dance A LOT here (I’d probably sing too if I knew the songs in Chichewa well enough).

    Can you imagine if you were a U.S. Congressman and you showed up in your constituency for a townhall meeting to address community issues and upon your arrival, you witness a large group of people dancing and singing? And rather than call Secret Service for extra back up, you exit your convoy and find yourself dancing off in front of the crowd for the next twenty minutes? No you can’t?

    I pose this as a juxtaposition of the culture of dance and music in Malawi to that of America. Government officials in Malawi do this and it isn’t ‘weird’ or ‘taboo’ — it is completely normal and expected (and dare I say fun?). Dancing brings people together.

    Too lighten the mood, I often say this phrase to kids and proceed to do a quick jig. For kids that often have never seen a white person, it allows me to befriend them by letting down my guard long enough for them to determine that I’m not a threat.

    Catholic congregations here would be considered eccentric (and perhaps blasphemous) Protestant churches back in the States. Singing and dancing with contemporary and traditional instruments is a part of the African-Catholic liturgy. Frankly, it is a breath of fresh air but I digress.

  10. “Sorry, sorry.” (in English)There is such a thing in Malawi as “Chichenglish” — an portmanteau of Chichewa and English.

    A lot of words in Chichewa are a derivative of Malawi’s colonial past. For instance, ‘BOMA’ which generally means ‘government’ in Chichewa, is a colonial-era acronym meaning “British Overseas Military Attachment”.

    English is an official (formal) language in Malawi and is taught starting in secondary school. A lot of words co-mingle between the two languages. ‘Sorry’ happens to be one of them.

    If you are walking and trip over a rock, expect to hear “sorry, sorry.” If your relative passes away, “sorry, sorry.” If your plans don’t work out — you guessed it — “sorry, sorry.”

    Malawians say it quickly, adding a charming effect to it. Americans find it funny the way it is said and under what circumstances. What isn’t funny is the sincere reason behind it being said: because this is “the warm heart of Africa”, the folks here live up to their warm and caring nature — it is always said genuinely.

I enjoy studying the intricacies of this beautiful language. It is definitely not something I’m sorry, sorry about.

Thanks for all the fish!

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