What Does Pamtondo Mean?

Pamtondo refers to ‘women at the mortar’ pounding maize into the flour. Nsima, Malawi’s staple food is made from maize flour. Before the arrival of maize meals, and in the rural areas at present, pounding maize was one of two ways to make flour, the other being stone grinding. Because of the communal nature of maize pounding, a whole female culture exists around this task.

In rural Malawi, where maize mills may be far or unaffordable, women commonly still pound maize at the mortar (pamtondo). In the process they sing blues, folk, or other songs. The blues, ‘gossips’ (tinawauza kuti chikomekome chankhuyu mkati muli nyerere (we told her handsome is as handsome does), laments, work songs, songs of joy associated with females and their concerns are, given these concerns and cadences, easily shown to have found their way into male composers’ credits. A good example is Makolo (Parents) by Mitoche Brothers’ Band. The opening couplet tells us that this is definitely a song by a female:

Ine dzulo ndalota ndikupita kumadzi mtsuko wanga m’manja.

(In my sleep I dreamt I was going to the river, my pot in my hand).

Nditafika kumadzi ndamva zina pachire waka waka.

(Once at the river I heard something move in the bushes)

Ine kuti ndiyanganitse ndangoona nyalugwe pachire watulukira x2

When I looked at the bushes, I saw a leopard emerge.

Ine kuti ndithawe walankhula nyalugwe amai musatawe

When I tried to run the leopard spoke: ”Madam don’t run away!”

Ine ndadabwa kulankhula nyalugwe amewo ndimalaulo

I was surprised, a talking leopard, what a miracle. Mitoche Brothers Band, 1992).

Now leopards may recognise human gender, but, in Malawi, men, in normal times, generally do not make a habit of carrying mitsuko (water pots). Towards the song’s end the composers literally tell us where the song came from:

Pamtondo pamenepo; amai akusinja…

[That’s the sounds of the mortar, as mother pounds maize… (Mitoche Brothers, 1992).

Kubik (1974: 26 – 29) in his study of the Kachamba Brothers, gives Donald Kachamba’s inspirational sources as ‘other records’, ‘other music’ and pieces from ‘own compositions’. Although acknowledging that Daniel’s ‘form and content’ mostly correspond to traditional usage’, Kubik does not, despite the example below, allude to a possible pamtondo source for some of Daniel’s songs:

Anthu ali pano mayo misece awa! Ndinke kumadzi mayo alinane, kunkhuni nayo alinane! Ndatopa ine ndikapume ine

(People here! Mama mia! How they gossip! If I go to the river, they are with me; to fetch firewood, they are with me I am tired, I should go and rest)

Osinja nasinja, ophika naphika, oimba naimba, olila nalila Chisoni mayo ndadabwa ine! Ndatopa ine, ndikapume ine!

(The pounders pound, the cooks cook, the singers sing, those who cry cry. I am tired, I should go and rest) (Kachamba quoted in Kubik (1974).

This discourse, when examined in the Chewa, has clear and predominantly female themes, phrasing and concerns. Gossip aside, most of the activities described here are, given Kachamba’s Nyanja social background in the Chileka area of Malawi, associated with females. Another all-male group, the Mikoko Band, preferred to sing a pamtondo song unaltered from the female stance:

Mai wanga chindibalire sanandimenye, nanga amunanga mundimenyera chiani? (My mother, since birth, never hit me, so why do you, husband, hit me? (MBC, 1988).

In 1989, the Kasambwe Brothers’ Band cited their father as their main influence! But as the Kasambwe pound away on their songs Ndilibe ambuye, Asuweni aBanda or Chibale kumayenderena the maternal influence is clearly more obvious and pervasive. Kundinyasa poyenda, a song deeply steeped in traditional causality, shows this particularly well:

Kundinyatsa poyenda anthuwa aziti ndiyawo yawo

Kodi chiani mai aNankhoma inu masiku ano ife tadabwa

zachitika usiku tili kugona zaululika usana ndaziona

Ifenso ife tinkhadabwa tilikugona anthu pepe ndi manja

kuli kulota thupi kunjenjemera, m’mawa kukacha thupi ladwala

Mwatonyanya abale anzanga inu, chikondi chanu…

(It disgusts me when people walk in such a way that others say ‘there they go!’

What is it mother of Nankhoma? I am surprised these days

What happened last night when we slept is revealed in the afternoon, I have seen

We too were surprised when we slept,

While dreaming, the body was trembling, morning dawned, the body was ill…

This is too much, my relatives and friends, your kind of love…) Kasambwe, 1992)

The discourse would, though not necessarily, also appear rather too sophisticated for the (then 16 and 12 year olds) Kasambwe duo to compose. However, such discourse, as can be gauged from its tone, phrasing and content, is, in the Malawi context, more female than male in gender.

The transitional years from 1992 to 1994 were, as during the fight for independence, also characterized by an appropriation of female music and resources for the ‘common good’. However, in contrast, the transition to democracy also saw women’s energies split between those for and those against a multi-party dispensation. In this common causes fight, gender rights did not attain priority.

A number of attitudinal shifts have been noted since the multi-party era dawned in 1994. There was an initial aversion to any reminders of mbumba women and music.

However, even before the end of 1993, the originally male dominated United Democratic Front (UDF) sought and succeeded in recruiting and channeling female activists into praise singers. When women sought an independent voice, it became, because of the potential power of the female constituency, problematic. Many of the senior female politicians, like their male counterparts, had been publicly complicit with Malawi Congress Party (MCP) culture. In the transitional phase this powerful group either kept faith with the Banda’s MCP or went over to the multi-party activists. These considerations were associated with elite economic and class issues; the leadership of the MCP mbumba had been elite urban women. Those who became associated with the multi-party activists were perhaps over anxious to assert their new ‘democratic’ credentials, by ‘praising their new leaders’. Hence in the new Malawi political culture, females continue to be associated with singing political songs.

Thus by November 1994, a German doctor could observe of the UDF women, ‘The same, but yellow!’ Instead of MCP mbumba the female political body had split into three major parts red mbumba (MCP), yellow mbumba (UDF) and the Alliance For Democracy’s blue mbumba. The DPP later appropriated the blue clour. In this split lay party, ideological, economic and largely male ethnic and power political considerations which were not of obvious advantages to the gender issue.

The potential power of the female economic and political voice, judging by musical grievance, is shown by the fact that Ethel Kamwendo’s  Zilikudula became, towards the end of 1994, one of the first songs to be ‘banned’ by the ‘free’ MBC as it pointed out price rises in the wake of the new regime:

Before elections you said problems will be reduced

Poverty will be reduced, now what is this?

Everything is now expensive, no jobs

Money is in short supply; corruption is increasing) (Kamwendo, 1994).

Yet far from witnessing a channelling of their musical power for gender discourses a consolidation mbumba praise culture has developed and taken root, again using appropriated and re-appropriated traditional songs and lyrics, reminiscent of the MCP era. The cultivation of this process by post-Banda political leaders, male and female, using presidential patronage, and, it must be stated, public approval and, often, delight, into a lovable art form, is embodied by the cult status of a lady who became famous for her rendition of:

Lya! Lya! Lya!  aMuluzi amenewo! (Hark! Here comes Muluzi!)

But even she and others were soon serenading Bingu wa Mutharika, the next presideny. By the time of the 2009 elections, the DPP mbumba, now a seductive bright blue was moving the Malawi electorate back to MCP culture, albeit with a new ngwazi with:

Angwazi sendera, sendera! (On the move with the Ngwazi!)

The mbumba dancing continued under the first female president, Joyce Banda. In a recent video, some of the Muluzi and Mutharika leading ‘voices’ were clearly recognisable.

Such is the inventiveness of women at pamtondo and beyond – and the cyclicity of life.