Malawi. Journey Into The Chewa Cultural Heritage.

Malawi is a country with over 10 tribes each with different cultural traditions and beliefs. Historically almost all Malawian tribes migrated from somewhere else with the indigenous ‘Akafula’ or ‘dwarfs’ being the original tribes.
The Chewa tribe is the country’s largest, accounting for 34.1 percent of the 16 million people.  The second biggest tribe is the Lhomwe, 16.3 percent and the third and fourth largest tribes are the Yao and Ngoni with 13.1 percent and 12.9 percent respectively. The ‘Akafula’ population is almost less than 1 percent and most of them fled when the Chewa tribe was conquering the land from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where they are said to have fled from war.

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The Chewa tribe just like any other tribe in Malawi has several cultural beliefs which they have had for centuries. Some of the things Malawians will be identified with are traditional and cultural dances, marriages, funerals and worship.
The Chewa tribe speaks Chichewa as a language and Chichewa and English have remained the national languages since Independence from the British in 1964. The former President, the late Dr. Hasting Banda, himself a Chewa by tribe, introduced Chichewa in the schools. Almost all the Chewa tribe is in the Central Region of Malawi.

The Gule Wamkulu

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.

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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 also.
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.

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The Chewa people believe that Chiuta has authorized the spirits of their ancestors to donate the gifts of life such as fertility, prosperity, etc., to the tribe. 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.
The dance Gule Wamkulu (‘great dance’) is the bridge between the living and those who are dead. The people involved in the dance are believed to be communicating with the ancestral spirits as part of the religion. The Gule Wamkulu ritual includes 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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Masked dancers and other members of the Gule Wamkulu perform several songs and dances aimed at praising the observance of traditional values. 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. A red mask on the other hand with a single horn represents men who practise witchcraft, whom everyone should stay away from. A black and unattractive mask (Kwakana) reminds that men are supposed to love others, despite their looks, 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.
The Gule Wamkulu dance was and is a secret cult which the Chewa people highly respect. The people who perform this dance are only those who have been initiated into Nyau. The dancers are all men who have been initiated and initiation is voluntary.
When a Chewa chief dies the type of Gule Wamkulu is different from others. Njobvu (elephant)  is the type of Gule Wamkulu at the funeral of the dead chief such as the Traditional Authority (T.A), but it is not the only Gule Wamkulu at the chief’s funeral. There are other smaller Gule Wamkulus such as Jere, a tribal name and Kasiya Maliro (funeral escort). (R.M.)


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