MAYENGO NYIRENDA, Chipata
AT THE foot of Mpangwe and Kangarema hills in Katete district, multitudes of people are today converging in unity as masked men perform Gule Wamkulu (great dance) at the Kulamba traditional ceremony of the Chewa.
The annual ceremony attracts traditional rulers from 137 chiefdoms in Malawi, 33 in Mozambique and 42 in Zambia and about 1.7 million Chewa devotees.
The Chewa people have managed to preserve their native religion whose rituals are showcased at the ceremony that fascinates both local and international tourists.
The Chewa doctrine has it that men, women, animals and all living things were created by God (Chiuta or Chauta) at Kapirintiwa, a mountain on the boundary between central and western Mozambique, during a thunderstorm.
As a result of the downpour, the landâ€™s hard surface softened, but as it hardened again, their footprints remained engraved in the rock.
While Chauta remains the creator God, the spirits of men and wild animals join in everyday life through the Gule Wamkulu, where masked forms represent wild animals, human beings and spirits of the dead.
The Chewas believe that the living and the dead are in constant communication through dances that take place at initiation, funerals.
The Kulamba traditional ceremony was at one time banned by colonial masters but was later re-instated and the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has since inscribed Gule Wamkulu on its list of the intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity originally proclaimed in 2005.
As per tradition, Paramount Chief Kalonga Gawa Undi XI is, during the ceremony, expected to ask his subordinate chiefs from Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique to give an account of how they have managed the affairs of the chiefdom over the past several years.
According to the Chewas, â€˜Gawaâ€™ means the distributor or giver of land on which all Chewa people from the three countries live today, and â€˜Undiâ€™ means to protect.
On the other hand, â€˜Kalongaâ€™ means the one who installs subordinate chiefs. In short, Gawa means the one who gives out land and Undi means the one who protects subordinates.
Kalonga Gawa Undi is head of all Chewa chiefdoms and takes care of all the installations of Chewa traditional rulers in Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique.
For those doubting Zambiaâ€™s unity and love, the Kulamba traditional ceremony is the place to be today and witness one of the 73 ethnic groupings uniting the country in a special way.
In every part of Zambia, the predominant tribe in a region hosts a traditional ceremony where they showcase their beliefs and cultural traits and Kulamba is one such event.
Todayâ€™s ceremony is being graced by President-elect Edgar Lungu and thousands of Chewas as well as tourists are expected to attend the colourful rite.
Kulamba organising committee acting chairperson Lucas Phiri said this yearâ€™s ceremony is unique as gates to the main arena were opened three days before the main event today.
Mr Phiri said the change in the programme this year has been dictated by calls from concerned local and foreign tourists to have many activities prior to the main event today.
â€œThe ceremony is not only for the Chewa in Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique but all the people are free to come and explore the mystery behind the Gule Wamkulu, among others,â€ he said.
Oral and written history state that the Gule Wamkulu dates back to the great Chewa Empire of the 17th century.
Despite the efforts of Christian missionaries to ban the Gule Wamkulu, it managed to survive under the British colonial rule by adopting some aspects of Christianity.
What tourists need to know is that Gule Wamkulu is a secret cult, involving a ritual dance practised among the Chewa in Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique. It is performed by members of the Nyau brotherhood, a secret society of initiated men.
Within the Chewaâ€™s traditional matrilineal society, where married men play a rather marginal role, the Nyau offered the means to establish a counterweight and enhance solidarity among men of various villages.
Young men are initiated into adulthood and get them ready for the performance of Gule Wamkulu at a secret place where women and children are not allowed to go.
When the initiation ceremony is done, which is locally called Kumwela, the newly initiated members get ready to perform the Gule Wamkulu.
It is also believed that once one is initiated into Gule Wamkulu, they are not allowed to reveal anything to anyone about what happens at the secret place called Kudabwe.
Gule Wamkulu, also known as Vilombo meaning world of beasts, is performed in the season following the July crop harvest, but it can also be seen at weddings, funerals and during the installation or death of a chief.
Tradition further has it that these facts play a particular character expressing a form of misbehaviour but at the same time teaching moral and social values while dancing with amazing energy, amusing and hair-raising the audience as representatives of the world of spirits and the dead.
During the Kulamba ceremony, the government normally highlights development projects being undertaken in mountainous Katete district and other parts of Eastern Province.
For example, over 10 solar powered milling plants have been installed in Katete over the past 18 months and five of them are already servicing the local people, a development that has cheered many Chewas in the district.
Paramount Chief Gawa Undi is also expected to take advantage of the occasion to commend or challenge the government on timely or late distribution of farm inputs.
Additionally, the message of peace in the post-election period is expected to be emphasised by both President Lungu and the supreme Chewa traditional leader so that Zambia continues to be an oasis of peace in the region and Africa as a whole.
There is no doubt that hundreds of tourists will trek to the foot of the rocky Mpangwe and Kangarema hills to dance to the rhythm of Gule Wamkuku in Katete.
MAYENGO NYIRENDA, Chipata