Unmasking the nyau

Gule Wamkulu is a prized Chewa culture recognised as intangible heritage by the United Nations agency for cultural preservation, UNESCO, in 2014. It is performed by men who belong to the secret society of the nyau. Our reporter, JACK ZIMBA, who attended the Kulamba ceremony of the Chewa, gives insight into the society and the centuries-old culture.
THEY strolled into the arena, howling and barking like wild animals, their bodies smeared with mud and their faces covered with masks, to perform before an enchanted audience during the Kulamba traditional ceremony.
The Kulamba brings together the Chewa from Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia at Mkaika in Katete, where Chewa chiefs – 292 of them, representing over 10 million people – pay homage to Kalonga Gawa Undi, king of the Chewa people.
Without doubt, the highlight of the ceremony is the nyau, who perform Gule Wamkulu (or the great dance) in various costumes and masks. There is a certain reverence for the masked men among the Chewa.
In fact, to the Chewa the nyau are not human beings at all, but creatures – creatures of the underworld representing spirits of the dead.
As they paraded in the arena, the masked men portrayed all sorts of characters, from a dumb-looking cop to a pretty girl with long legs (stilts), a pair of oxen and even a motorbike-and-rider, all in one. Some characters were funny-looking others surreal, but they were all otherworldly.
Some performed dare-devil stunts on poles high above the ground, while others toyed with large angry snakes, pulling and lifting them by the tail and placing them around their necks, much to the astonishment of the crowd.
There were gasps in the crowd as one man repeatedly slammed a sledge hammer to break a large stone placed on the head of one of the creatures.
As if that was not painful enough to watch, the creature got another big stone and, lying down, placed it on its chest and the man with the sledge hammer swung into action, crushing it.
But the star of the moment was the graceful makanja, a five-metre tall creature from Malawi, who strolled into the arena and sat atop the roof of one of the shelters. He was so tall he could have plucked the flag from the flag pole without any effort.
Some from the crowd offered the tall creature money in appreciation. After the performance, the creatures disappeared to their secret place and would emerge again as ordinary men.
But whoever the men behind the masks were, nobody could tell. This is because the nyau is a secret society, and those who belong to the society do not talk about it.
However, one man hesitantly agreed to talk, but only with assurance his identity would not be disclosed.
“I’m scared because I don’t know what will happen to me,” he had told me.
I can only refer to the man by a pseudonym, so I called him Gabby.
I met Gabby with a small band of performers from Chadiza district. He was somewhat sad because his gule had not been selected to perform on the big day.
Gabby was initiated into the secret society when he was 15 years old. He is now 35.
“I decided to go to dambwe (the school that initiates young boys into the nyau) and become a nyau because it is part of our culture as Chewas, and because my fore-fathers were into it,” he said.
Gabby was inspired to become a nyau by his own father, who also belonged to the secret society. He said his mother also encouraged him to go.
“I used to admire him a lot,” Gabby said of his father, who is now late.
As a small boy, Gabby also used to feel left out on Sunday evenings when his friends went to perform in the village, dancing while the women sang.
But he was scared to go to dambwe.
“I was scared because I didn’t know what happened there,” he said.
But then he said the attraction to join the nyau was so strong that he could not resist. And so the herdsboy, who had dropped out of school, finally gathered courage and joined.
There were five other boys in Gabby’s group, all of them of the same age group.
He said he found a lot of young men and boys already initiated into the nyau, who welcomed him.
The boys were taught various life skills and how to respect elders. But they were also inducted into Gule Wamkulu.
Gabby’s desire was to become a makanja, the nyau on stilts.
“I admired makanja very much and that is the only nyau I wanted to become,” he said.
But he would soon learn that becoming a makanja was not easy.
After trying hard and failing, Gabby sought juju (black magic) to help him.
“There was a man from Mozambique who was a very big nyau and good with medicine, so I went to see him one night and he gave me some charms. It was very far, but I went and had to kneel and beg him for it,” he said.
Gabby believes one cannot be a makanja or gologolo (the pole dancer) without using black magic.
He said because of competition between various groups, some resort to sorcery to sabotage their opponents.
According to Gabby, sometimes makanja or gologolo has fallen while performing because of juju from their opponents.
“That happens a lot,” he said.
Gabby said the charms he got were for protection from his opponents.
But then, the charms had a bad “side-effect” on him.
“Whenever I slept and there was gule somewhere, even in a faraway village, I would dream about it. I would hear the drums in my sleep and I would wake up and go and perform, it did not matter whether it was in the middle of the night and it was raining,” he said.
The use of black magic scared Gabby.
“I was scared because I thought it might teach me sorcery,” he said.
He discarded the charms, burning them. And that was the end of his dream to become makanja.
Today, Gabby only plays drums for others performing gule wamkulu, but he still goes to dambwe.
“If possible, every Chewa boy or man should go to dambwe and enter the society of the nyau,” he said.
But there is now a lot of emphasis on formal education for the young ones in the Chewa kingdom. There are now strict rules from Gawa Undi not to admit school-going children into dambwe, and the nyau are not allowed to perform near schools,
Will education erode this culture?
“No, it won’t,” said Jason Kamanga, who is publicity secretary of the Kulamba traditional ceremony.
“We have not digressed from what our ancestors taught us from one generation to the other,” he said.
And according to Mr Kamanga, there are still many Chewa boys and young men who desire to join the nyau.
“This culture is not dying but growing,” he said.
Nowhere is Gule Wamkulu bigger than in Malawi.
“Nyau is like eating nshima in Malawi,” senior Chief Lukwa from Kasungu district told me.
“There is something about the nyau that is very attractive, that is why even other tribes are now coping from us,” he said.
But there, too, the culture is undergoing reforms. Children under 15 years are not admitted into the dambwe.
“Before, young ones from 10 years used to be forced to join nyau, but now because of education, we don’t allow that,” the chief told me.
Chief Lukwa said the practice was affecting education for boys.
The chief denies the use of juju by the nyau.
“It is just art,” he said.
Gule Wamkulu has been around for centuries, but despite changing times and modernity and the influence of Christianity, in the rural areas it is still attractive among the young ones.
About 40km from Katete, near the mountainous border with Mozambique is a village called Chingaipe, in Chief Kawaza’s area.
Here, I found adults talking excitedly about the new initiates – 19 boys were having their first experience at dambwe.
Drums could be heard from a distant, secluded place at the end of the village.
Parents gave their sons two chickens each and mealie-meal to eat during the initiation.
After two weeks, the boys will come out as men, and will perform Gule Wamkulu, carrying on a treasured culture of the Chewa people.

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