Through out southern Zambia, western Malawi, and northwestern Mozambique, the Chewa tribe practices ritual dances performed by a secret society called Nyau, a brotherhood formed by initiated male members. In 2008, UNESCO designated their Gule Wamkulu, or Great Dance, as part of the “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.”
Originating in Zambia, the Chewa tribe and self-proclaimed violent, warring culture slowly spread through southern Africa into Tete, Mozambique and areas of Malawi. Chewa is a traditionally matrilineal society, meaning property and power are passed through women and family lineages are traced through their female heads. Because of this, the Nyau was established to offer an opportunity for married men to attain status and create solidarity across villages. Highly revered and highly secretive, initiated members are forbidden to disclose their participation. Revelation of society secrets or community initiations of practices are subject to violent punishment.
Historically, the Nyau primarily served to initiate young men into adulthood, using the Gule Wamkulu to celebrate the harvest, funerals, weddings, and the inauguration and/or funeral of a village chief. While the Nyau and Gule Wamkulu still exist today, many of their practices and performances have been gradually co-opted by tourism and politics.
Much like what was seen in post-contact USA with the Ghost Dance and other cultural practices throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the Portuguese and Christian missionaries in Mozambique tried to ban the Nyau and the Gule. Both were strictly prohibited in Tete province until the mid-1960s, demonstrations of the brotherhood punishable by death. Local residents reported that the Nyau only survived by adopting aspects of Christianity and integrating them into their ceremonies…an impact that can still be felt today despite the lifted ban and the national liberation from Portuguese rule. Living in a time to focused on globalization, we often do not realize the pervasive presence of colonization and colonialism in the contemporary world. It is real and there are still reparations to be made.
One of the largest carry-overs of colonialism among the Nyau and within the Gule can be found in their physical appearances. Prior to colonial contact and Western influences, clothing and masks were made entirely from natural materials sourced locally from trees, river beds, flora, mineral deposits, and more. Wood from the Mbwaba tree was carved into masks, the fibrous bark of the Nyanda tree was separated and softened to make clothing, monkey bean (also called feijão maluco or crazy bean) roots were ground into a fine powder to make green pigment, river sediment was burned to make yellow, and ashes or other pounded roots were used to change or deepen colors. Pigments were mixed with water or oils, egg being added to establish permanence through an air-drying process. It should be noted that once dancers assume their roles within the Gule, it is disrespectful (to say the least) to refer to them as humans as they are now portraying spirits or specific characters. This makes it challenging, if not impossible, to ask questions about masks and clothing worn during the Gule as it assumes they are dressed in some sort of costume or disguise.
While the Nyau are present in Chitima, the information in this post and the following photos come from a rare interview at a Gule Wamkulu with the Chewa king of the Zobue region. Due to the secretive nature of the society, photographs are not typically permitted during these ceremonies; special permission was granted by the king and the local Nyau leader.
Click on any of the below images to enlarge and read their captions: