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Malawi. Gule Wamkulu. Dance of the Spirits

The ‘gule Wamkulu’ is both a secret cult and a ritual dance performed by people wearing character masks or disguised as animals, who represent the world of the spirits. This ritual performance, which is aimed at preserving traditional values, is practiced among the Chewa people on various occasions.

Among this population, as in the majority of African societies, the spirits of the ancestors play a key role in all aspects of the individual and collective life. This group believes in the existence of a Supreme Being, a good god that created all living things and that cares about human beings.

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The Chewa people are an agricultural based society, whose survival depends on water, that is why, they see the abundant annual rainfalls as the main evidence of God’s care for humanity. Different names are used for God in the Chewa society, but the most recurring is ‘Chiuta’, literally meaning “the great bow or rainbow in the sky “, which reflects the concept of God among this community; Chiuta emerges, in fact, as the Creator, the giver of rain, the source of life.

Intermediaries between Chiuta and men

Chewa society is guided by a system of ancient rules which regulate the relationships in the community according to hierarchy. These rules state that individuals are not allowed to speak directly to the head of the tribe. Intermediaries are in charge of communication between the people and their head and the other way round.

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The same rules are applied to the relationship between God and men: Chiuta is not supposed to address human beings directly, nor they him. Intermediaries are needed again, and the best suited for this role, in this case, are the spirits of the ancestors, because as “spirits” they are between Chiuta and men, and as “ancestors”, they are interested in the matters of the tribe.
The Chewa people believe that Chiuta has authorized the spirits of their ancestors to donate
the tribe the gifts of life such as fertility, prosperity, etc. The spirits of the ancestors are seen as guardians of traditional customs, and can also cause misfortunes and disease to punish those who do not behave according to traditions.

Big dance

The ‘gule Wamkulu’ (big dance) ritual include songs and dances performed by masked individuals disguised as animals. It is a symbolic representation of the invisible spirit world performed for various events, such as initiation ceremonies, healing rituals, funerals, and so on.

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From time to time, the spirits are believed to visit the people of the village to renew their links with them. On those occasions, they drink beer with the adults, to symbolize sharing. At the end of the meeting, the spirits remind people of the values and rules of life given to them by Chiuta.
Masked dancers and other members of the ‘gule Wamkulu’ perform several songs and dances aimed at praising the observance of traditional values and at ridiculing anybody who deviates from them. Each mask and animal figure represents a type of behaviour. For example, the yellow mask (Kuli-yere) represents the good man who behaves honestly, and who is loved by everybody. While a red mask with a single horn represents men who practise witchcraft, whom everyone should stay away from.

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A black and unattractive mask (Kwakana) reminds that men are supposed to love the others, despite their look, because there is something good inside of everyone. The spirits encourage individuals to stay on the path marked by Chiuta. Compliance with the traditional values, in fact, guarantees Chiuta’s blessing and protection against all kinds of misfortunes.

Bastion of tradition

The ‘gule Wamkulu’ is one of the main symbols of traditional religious and social principles among the Chewa people. This symbolic ritual therefore also represents the opposition to any change that may alter the social order given to the tribe by Chiuta through the spirits of the ancestors. However, the vast majority of the population does not object adhering to this secret cult, even when it is, sometimes, contaminated by external elements deriving from the Christian religion or Western education. (F.C.)

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