In the small Chewa village, death has come; the bam-owl has announced it by its call. The myth of the blue-headed lizard, the messenger of death has become true. Time has come to perform the last ritual of passage, the burial and the commemoration ceremonies.
The body has been washed, the hair shaved. The corpse is dressed and adorned with beads. The arms are stretched and tied alongside the body, the legs are also tied by the big toes. The body is then covered with a big cloth, normally white: the colour of death. The face is left uncovered so that people may see the deceased, the head near the door. Strips of this same cloth are often found around the head and the arms of the relatives in order to show their unity with the deceased. When everything is ready, the chief of the village make the solemn proclamation of death. All the people assemble in front of the house and suddenly start to moan and cry very loudly.
If the death occurs too late to have the burial on the same day, the people will keep vigil. Everybody will be there around the house of the deceased. The Gule wamkulu, the greta dance, will be performed during the night in front of the hut.
In the early morning, at the beating of the drum, the young men of the village go to the cemetery to dig the grave. The head of the family will indicate them the place. Normally each village has its own graveyard far away from the village. It is a thick bush, a replica of the sacred grave, the dwelling of the spirits. The grave is oriented east-west. The body will be laid with the head towards the west, the direction of their home country before entering Malawi.
In the morning a group of ‘kampini’ spirits, messengers between men and the spirit world will come around the funeral house, making strange noises. They are sent by spirits to show their grief and sorrow. They lament and go around the house in a circle.They stay till noon. When the grave is ready, messengers are sent to the chief and the one responsible for the funeral with these words: ‘the new dwelling of the deceased is ready’. After the grave diggers come back to the village accompanied by ‘Chadzunda’, the leader of the spirit world.
Upon arrival Chadzunda enters the house, goes and touches the head of the deceased as a sign of grief. In his own capacity as head of the spirit world, he also takes possession of the spirit of the deceased. During this time, the chief invites the relatives to pay their last respects to the dead. After that the body is rolled up in a mat and is carried out of the house, the head facing the road. The chief says a few words before the body is taken away in procession to the graveyard. Arriving at the graveyard, the coffin is put down on a certain place near the grave called the ‘place of rest’ where the close relatives will say goodbye for the last time.
The kasiya maliro dance around the coffin in order to show that he takes the deceased on a long journey to the ancestors’ world. The coffin is then taken to the grave, where two men stands to receive the body. When everything is over the community in a single file with a maracas player at the both ends of the procession run fast while forming a circle around the grave and sing the song of kalulu (the hare) which opens and closes every Gule wamkulu performance.
At the end of the ceremony, all those who have taken part in the funeral, leave the graveyard and go straight away to the stream for the ritual washing. Phwindabwi roots mixed with chanzi roots (stinking roots), pounded, are mixed with water to chase away the evil influence of death, the persisting memories and bad dreams. The family then come back to the funeral hut for another night of vigil, of quiet, in order to allow the community to adjust to the event. A fire is lit for the occasion, its smoke is meant to lead the spirit to the ancestors’ world. That same early morning, the men of the village will go together in silence to the graveyard to build a small roof on the grave that becomes the new house of the deceased, as part of the village of spirits who form a community of their own. The building of the new house in the cemetery replaces the ghost house in the village which will be destroyed after a year in order commemorate the enthronement of the spirit into the spirit world. Death calls for a change of home, now ‘the cemetery’, in order to inaugurate, with the living, links of a different superior nature.
The same day, the spirits (kampini) come again to console the bereaved, as well as the following day, till noon, night included. This time, the spirits will witness the shaving ceremony of the whole extended family and close friends. They all shave their head mutually in order to mark the end of the period of grief for the less close relatives. They can now go home and resume their normal life. The very close relatives, on the contrary, will go on with the prescriptions till three months after the burial. The commemoration ceremony will then mark the final transformation of the deceased into an ancestor and end the taboos. The shaving ceremony for the bereaved shows their closeness to the deceased. While the body of the deceased is decaying, slowly leaving the last link with the earth and entering ‘ancestorhood’, so is the community learning to live without him as a man and seek his help as a benevolent spirit. Shaving is a sign of a change of status for all, the deceased as well as the community. Then the widow will be given a special funeral cloth to wear till the end of the three months to show that she is tied by the taboos.
At the end of the third month, the luminal period is over, beer is brewed, and food is prepared (beans and meat). The spirits will come back to give a hand for the occasion.
The ceremony marks the bursting of the body, the most important stage of his transformation. He has become soil and therefore less linked to his earthly existence. For the relatives, it also means the bursting of the taboos and prescriptions. This second shaving ceremony will mark the end of the mourning period. The funeral cloths, showing grief, are going to be burnt and their ashes thrown in the river. The water will take away the grief and also the memories.
The final stage of the commemoration will take place during the dry season, roughly a year after the burial: the last shaving rite. This celebration will mark the solemn closing of the mourning period for the village and the widow in particular. The final stage will bring the family back to a full normal life. The shaving of the woman only will promote the widow to a new status: that of a free woman and likewise for the man. From now on, the widow/widower will be entitled to remarry if they wish. The mud house will be pulled down. The roof will be burnt and the mud walls will burst open, letting the rain and weather finish them completely. Then, the spirits and the villagers will feast and dance. Again, men and spirits will come back together, this time around a calabash of beer to celebrate the enthronement of one of their members into ‘ancestorhood’. As an ancestor, the deceased will now continue to live for the community.
Many of these cultural beliefs, however, are being eroded by modern life and the current generation seems to be increasingly distant from the older generation.
For fear of losing the tribal identity, the Chewa has founded the Chewa Heritage Foundation (CHEF), the aim of which is to save the culture from being wiped out from the midst of the Chewa. “Cultural identity is on the verge of extinction”, warned Alick Kayembe, a Chewa and one of the leaders of CHEF. “When we talk about Gule Wamkulu or funeral ceremonies the young seem ashamed about it. They are not interested in being associated with any cultural tradition”.
Kayembe pointed out that not all cultural beliefs are wrong, “they are part and parcel of our history. Gule Wamkulu, for example, is part of the Chewa culture and it does not make someone a sinner to participate in it or to become initiated”. The CHEF is fighting to change that perception and is now on a campaign to protect and preserve the Chewa Heritage. “Let us preserve our culture but we should be mindful of the fact that times are changing. Culture is dynamic and should change with time. There is no way it can remain static. The CHEF will find it hard to convince the youth to follow the culture that has been followed for generations. It is not easy to convince them to embrace something that is theirs and yet a distance away from them,” concluded Kayembe.