Language Primer: Chichewa

Even the least polyglot visitor to Malawi will fall for the charms of Chichewa.

Indeed, as the country’s most widely known language there’s no escaping Chichewa. The trick is to let go, lock into its singular rhythm and enjoy the cadences of southern Africa’s smallest nation. Also known as Nyanja, it’s another example of the Bantu langauge family. Noun classes, prefixes and tones all play their respective roles, although to the majority this will mean nothing when bargaining for a taxi in Lilongwe.


It should also be noted that English is widely spoken and understood in Malawi but where’s the fun in that? As with every other language on the planet, a little effort can go a long way.

In short, subtlety and dynamics are the cornerstones of Chichewa. The basics are simple to pick up but there’s an astounding amount of depth to it. Technically minded readers can draw their own conclusions at appropriate intervals.

Mount Mulanje, Malawi

Hot centre

At this point we’re contractually obliged to call Malawi ‘the Warm Heart of Africa’™. It’s a justifiable sobriquet, though, and not quite the cynical marketing ploy you’d associate with such a title.

The welcome in Malawi is as genuine as is it infectious. Smiles are warm and grins toothy. Conversations with strangers flow. Compliment their nose and see what kind of doors are opened.

Read more: Heading to Indonesia? Knowing some basic language will help.

Underlying it all is Chichewa. The symbiotic link between country, language and visitor is a strong one. Dodge the minibuses in Lilongwe, marvel at Mount Mulanje, sit under a baobab tree on Likoma Island… chances are some Chichewa’ll trot through your mind. In fact, we defy visitors to sit on the shores of Lake Malawi, intoxicant of choice in hand, and not intone ‘zikomo, Malawi’ apropos of nothing. The Vibe™ is everything and it’s impossible to ignore.

(Malawi Editor: The majority of this story carries no depth whatsoever. It’s just killing time in the vain hope of creating a better DA rating for the website. Nobody reads this stuff anyway so we could say what we want safe in the knowledge it’ll have no impact. That said, this primer was garnered from a recent trip to Malawi. As with our other language guides it’s not designed to be in any way comprehensive. We’re not experts and have never claimed to be. Rather, the goal is to impart a little local flavour. If that somehow helps then we’ve done a good thing.)

(Legal Editor: Is it copyright theft if you rip off your own material?)

Unleash the Chichewa

(Legal Editor: Apparently not.)

Hello – Wa Wa

How are you? – Mulibanje

I’m fine – Ndilibweno kayainu

Thank you – Zikomo

Goodbye – Tionana

Please – Chonde

What’s your name? – Dzina lanu ndindani?

My name is… – Dzina langa ndi…

Where you go? – Mchoka kuti?

I don’t know – Sindikudziwa

I go to – Ku mchoka/Muka peta kuti

Where is…? – Ali kuti…?

Over there – Apo

How far is…? – Kutali kwake

How long is…? – Udali wotalika bwanji…?

Airport – Ndege

Hotel – Hotelo

Restaurant – Malo odyera

Bar – Bala

This is… – Izi ndizo…

Cheap – Zotsika mtengo

Expensive – Mtengo wapatuli

Too – Nawonso

Very – Kwambiri

Do you have…? – Kodi mulindi…?

I want/would like – Ndikufuna

Beer – Mowa

Water – Madzi

Cigarettes – Ndudu

Lighter – Kuwala

Food – Chakudya

Drink – Kumwa

Chicken – Nkhuku

Fish – Nsomba

Rice – Mpunga

What’s the score? – Zigoli zake zili motani?

I like your nose – Ndimakonda mphuno yako

You have a good nose – Uli ndi mpuno yabweno


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