Safeguarding of Nkhonde, Tumbuka and Chewa proverbs and folktales

Dates of implementation
30/06/2016 - 16/06/2017
Malawi National Commission for UNESCO
Main project page


  • Document the proverbs of the Nkhonde, Tumbuka and Chewa peoples, thus contributing to the safeguarding of these groups’ oral expressions.
  • Increase intercultural understanding.
  • Develop associated materials for educational activities.



In 2012 Paramount Chief Chikulamayembe (Tumbuka), Paramount Chief Kyungu (Ngonde) and Traditional Authority Chadza (Chewa) requested the assistance of the Malawi National Commission for UNESCO via the Oral Traditions Association of Malawi to document their proverbs and folktales. The chiefs noted that parents were no longer sharing these oral traditions with their children and that a lack of related learning materials in schools and libraries further hindered transmission. They observed that this decline was correlated with a perceived disappearance of certain positive cultural values and customs. While the government had listed the proverbs and folktales in their national intangible cultural heritage (ICH) inventory, their detailed documentation was outside the scope of the inventory and thus required further work. The chiefs’ request provided an opportunity not only to document an important element of Malawi’s ICH, but also to build capacity to inventory oral expressions among members of the Oral Traditions Association of Malawi.

Objectives and Activities

The project was organized around three main objectives: increase the number of researchers capable of documenting ICH, safeguard the proverbs and folktales via their documentation, and transmit the ICH elements to young people.

Ultimately, four researchers and six assistants were trained in community-based ICH inventorying methods. In addition, three experts were guided in the development of Kyangonde, Chitumbuka and Chichewa language dictionaries, meant to enrich the inventories and subsequent safeguarding activities.

Fifty-nine informants were interviewed and recorded as part of the inventory, resulting in the documentation of 156 proverbs and 153 folktales. Audio-visual recordings were transcribed and translated by three language specialists from the Centre for Language Studies at Mzuzu University. The project team then compiled the documentation into a series of three books on Nkhonde, Tumbuka, and Chewa proverbs and folktales, which include transcriptions, meanings, usage and English translations.

Five hundred copies of each book and accompanying dictionaries were produced and distributed to libraries throughout Malawi. The project team then worked with the National Library Headquarters to introduce a storytelling program for transmitting the proverbs and folktales to children. Originally, the project had planned to reach ninety children, but the sixty-day program was so well attended that 210 children eventually listened to the storytellers’ live performances.

Lasting Impacts

The successful storytelling program at the National Library continued after the project’s completion through a partnership with Rei Foundation Limited and the library’s integration of the program into its annual budget. The library also reported a positive unintended consequence of the program: more children are looking at books in the library as they wait for the storytelling sessions to start, helping to foster a reading culture among local youth. In 2019, the National Library announced plans to expand the storytelling program to libraries in the southern and northern regions.

Community libraries now all have copies of the books and dictionaries, exposing more people to the proverbs and folktales. For Nkhonde, Tumbuka and Chewa community members, this means having direct access to learning materials that can help reinvigorate their local transmission. And for Malawians of other heritage, the dictionaries and translations can assist with intercultural understandings of the oral traditions and value systems of the Nkhonde, Tumbuka and Chewa peoples.

Finally, the researchers who were trained are now able to train others. This should help build the capacity of the Oral Traditions Association of Malawi, allowing them to document other oral expressions across the country and further contribute to the nation’s ICH safeguarding efforts.


  • Ten researchers trained in community-based inventorying methods.
  • Three experts trained in indigenous language dictionary development.
  • Documentation of 156 proverbs and 153 folktales through audio-visual media.
  • Three books containing the texts of proverbs and folktales in their original languages with accompanying English translations published and disseminated to libraries.
  • Dictionaries in the three local languages published and disseminated to libraries.
  • Establishment of a storytelling program at the National Library in Lilongwe.


Ms. Chimwemwe Sumani

Role in the Project
Ms. Sumani has been the Information Technology Specialist and Head of ICT, Audiovisual and Culture Departments for the Malawi National Library Service (MNLS) since September, 2009. She served as technical personnel for the UNESCO project’s activities in Malawi. In addition to her computer and networking responsibilities, she is committed to collecting, digitizing, documenting, and disseminating the valuable and rich tangible and intangible cultural heritage of Malawi.

Why The Malawi National Library Service Storytelling Program?

“Folktales are central to the customs and beliefs of the people of Malawi. When I was 6 years old, my family and I happily sat around the fire listening to folktales told by my Mother. This oral tradition is all but vanishing in recent years due to the advent of technology—TVs in my case, aging of community figures who can deliver live performances as well as changes in lifestyle… This is what made us start storytelling sessions at the library, with an aim of bringing it back to life.”

“Basically, a storytelling session encompasses an array of activities that enhance children’s knowledge of traditional African Storytelling. Children answer the W3H questions who, what, when, and how to analyze the narrative structure. The narrator tells 3 stories per session.”

How has the program grown?

“At first, we used to go and collect the children from different points around the city. Now they come to the library on their own and the number of children per session has been gradually increasing from 20 to 250. We document every storytelling session to preserve it for the next generation.”

To read the full testimonial from Ms. Chimwemwe Sumani download the project testimonial document: English.

Mr. Ephraim L Gwazanga Nkhoma (Storyteller)

Role in the Project
Mr. Nkhoma is a Storyteller at the National Library Services Headquarters in Lilongwe, Malawi.

How did you become involved with the National Library Services’ Storytelling Programme?

“It was in 2015 when the Malawi National Library Services advertised for Storytellers. I applied, got shortlisted, called for the interviews, attended the interviews and, fortunately for me I got successful. Thereafter, I was offered the task of Telling Stories to children of different ages at the Malawi National Library Services Headquarters in Lilongwe, the Capital City of Malawi, from 1st August 2015 to date. Since then, I bring three Folktales per Session to the children.”

What led you to become a storyteller?

“I come from a Christian family, and I spent most of my childhood with my Maternal Grandparents who were both strong and dedicated Christians. Each evening after our last meal, my grandparents could take turns in telling us different Stories about human character, animal behaviour and language, nature and so forth.”

“They also had herds of cattle and goats, chicken, dogs and orchard. Many times they could also use what they had to tell us different Stories so that we, the Grandchildren, could easily understand their Storytelling. In each Storytelling, they made sure the Stories were so exciting so that we could participate or take part in the Storytelling. As such, each one of us developed the desire to listening to Storytelling from our Grandparents and anyone who could be able to tell us Stories.”

“But we were also given the condition of reporting back to them how many people we had shared the Stories we learnt from them. Sometimes we could also be asked to meditate the Stories which they had already told us just to test our memory status. At the end of each Storytelling, we could be asked questions and lessons learnt from each Storytelling. Because of this, we were able to keep the Stories and narrate them. And for me that’s how I became a Storyteller. My family background has it.”

Can you describe a typical Storytelling Session at the Library ?

“Yes. In March 2017, within the Storytelling I told a story in which I mentioned three characters which made a King’s Daughter get healed from a very long illness when nobody expected her to recover. The characters were:
‘PITA’ meaning ‘GO’

“The children liked this story very much and asked me to repeat it during the next Storytelling Session. And since then especially those children who listened to that Storytelling, chose to address or nickname me as ‘AGOGO BWEREZANSO’ meaning ‘GRANDPA REPEAT’. In that Story they learnt that even an honest smile can heal a person as it happened with the King’s Daughter.”

To read the full testimonial from Mr. Ephraim L Gwazanga Nkhoma download the project testimonial document: English.

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