The Great Dance

 Gary Morgan (i)

Gary and his wife Susanna spent two years in Malawi, assisting a cultural center and museum at Mua, a Catholic mission near the southern end of Lake Malawi. They worked with a priest and anthropologist, Father Claude Boucher, a French Canadian who has lived over 40 years in Malawi.

Image of Mask

In the two years at Mua, many streams of traditional African culture flow around us, as changeable as the nearby Nadzipokwe River. Sometimes a slow trickle, at other times a flood. What is at first a novelty becomes part of our daily lives, never taken for granted but no longer alien. The lives of village Malawians are still so closely fused to the cultural roots of their past that past and present meld effortlessly. It is the future that provides uncomfortable doubts.

For the Chewa people, as for the Ngoni and Yao, culture expresses itself in music, song and dance, as well as the plastic arts. In the great dance, the gule wamkulu, all of these elements are woven together as a dense tapestry of belief, spirituality and artistic creativity. The gule wamkulu continues today to be a part of the lives of most Chewa in Malawi, even those who live primarily in the larger towns. Urban dwellers retain their rural contacts, and many will manage their crops back home, still growing a significant part of the maize that they consume. Village ties may be weakening for some but most urbanites will head home to the bush for the big events of their lives – deaths, births, marriages, initiations - all emanate from the village, where the ancestors once lived.

To understand the great dance, one must understand a little about African traditional religion. For the people who are Bantu, and that means most of the southern Africans, a common thread to traditional beliefs is the concept of an afterlife set within a village not unlike the villages that dot Malawi today. With death, the individual moves from the land of the living to the land of the ancestors, that is in many ways a parallel universe to this life. In becoming an ancestral spirit, or mzimu (plural mizimu), the villager loses his mortal weaknesses as well as his sensual capacities. There is no hunger, disease or death in the ancestors’ village, but neither is their birth, physical comfort in the touch of a loved one, or sexual joy. The ancestors are corporeal spirits, watching over the living and sharing in the successes and failures of the family they have left behind.

Image of Mask

In an hierarchical sense, the ancestors are also somewhere on the way towards God. God is a concept common to traditional African belief, and tends to be a distant figure, mostly concerned with big picture stuff, as much a master of the universe as the Wall Street bankers and stockbrokers before their recent embarrassing fall from grace. For the Chewa, God had created the world, people and all other living things and had even lived with humans for a while, before leaving them behind in disgust. Living mortal lives apart from God, people return closer to his domain after death. The ancestors take on a roll of intercessor with God on behalf of the living. God’s direct involvement tends to be in delivering rain, the single main determinant of life. For the Chewa, this reflects a direct descent from Banda beliefs with their rain shrines and spirit wives. The ancestors are petitioned to put in a good word with God for rain, but can also deliver benefits on their own volition. Happy ancestors mean a happy village, with food, no epidemics of disease or civil unease. Unhappy ancestors can create many problems, including illness, bad fortune and on occasion death. Deaths are more often caused by specific spirits, nasty buggers who stalk the night alone and angry. These spirits called ziwanda (singular chiwanda) are the remains of people who moved to the dark side in life. They are the spirits of witches.

The ancestors expect the living to live their lives by a set of moral codes called the mwambo. This set of values dictates how one should behave to others in the community. The community is paramount and all individuals must subsume themselves to the common good. The mwambo applies to most aspects of life and has ramifications for how one exercises authority, interacts with people in a courteous way, cares for a partner and family, caries out work responsibilities, shows respect for the elders and the ancestors, engages in sexual activity (when and when not, how and how not), and how one should be assisted to pass to the ancestors on death. In all of these things, the ancestors have a view and it tends to be a conservative view. Overall, life should continue as it was for those who lived before. If it was good enough for the ancestors, it is good enough for the living.

And that is where gule wamkulu comes in. The dancers of the great dance are not merely, or even primarily, entertainers, although they certainly are that. They are the representatives of the ancestors and they are in the village to convey a message. Or rather, a plethora of messages as each dancer has its own story and own relevance to contemporary village events. At installations of chiefs, initiations into adulthood for boys and girls, funerals and commemorations for the departed, the gule dancers arrive and deliver their messages from the other side. Each character has a song, each a dance, and the drummers know the beat for each dancer. There is some prescription to the appearance and performance of each but also a fair degree of artistic and creative license, so that each avatar of a character is a unique creation. And there are countless hundreds of characters.

The individual dancers will usually wear a carved mask, most often made of wood but sometimes of other materials. The most common dancer, Kapori, has a head cover of feathers. Masks are crafted by carvers who have particular skills in mask making. The visages are normally painted, and the colours will have some contribution to the story of the character. Red is often a sign of a stranger or a volatile, dangerous individual. Black can suggest evil, such as a witch, but it may also represent an ordinary local Malawian. The masks are informed by human and animal features, some clearly one or the other, but many demonstrate syntheses of the anthropomorphic and the zoomorphic. You will see the features of antelopes, hippos, rhinos, elephants, hyenas, crocodiles and monkeys. There are fish and fowl. Eyes wide open or closed as slits. Gummy mouths or bristling with cruel sharp teeth. And there are the horns, so often the horns. Horns reflect power, sometimes power that is used responsibly but more often power that is ill gained and even more dubiously applied. Short horns, long horns, twisted and straight horns, horns made of tree branches and horns made of horn. One of my favourites of the gule pantheon is Chimbano, part crocodile, part bull. His long snout is lined with white teeth and from his head sprouts two long curved horns. There are even a few characters inspired by trees. Outside of Africa, there hasn’t been a really good dancing tree since Birnam Wood arrived at the walls of Dunsinane(1).

As well as a mask, characters wear costumes that disguise the identity of the dancer. The costume may be as simple as mud smeared over the body and a short loincloth. In days past, some dancers were naked, but the Christianisation of Africa has militated against such ‘obscenity’ today. More complex costumes include skirts of shredded fertiliser bags, and armlets and leglets of the same material. It is hard to imagine gule prior to fertiliser bags. These costumes would have been made of shredded bark or other vegetable fibres, far less durable than the modern plastic mesh. There are also outfits that cover the body, arms and legs, made of tatters of any sort of material, rainbow suits of rags. If there is any couture that symbolises gule wamkulu to me, it is the tatter suit, flung about with the movements of the dancer, a blurred kaleidoscope of colour in a halo of dust.

On the day of a community event or ritual gathering, somewhere in the forest, away from the prying eyes of women and children, there is a sheltered grove where the dancers will don their costumes. This is the dambwe, the dressing ground. It is frequently located near a graveyard, where the mizimu are most active. As the day is warming up, and the drummers are checking the tension of their drum skins, tuning the instruments by heating them above an open fire, the first of the dancers may arrive at the village. They will waft in from the bush, sometimes quietly, sometimes with a whoop or animal like grunt. Some will move about the village briefly, but away from the bwalo, the dancing ground. They are heading to the liunde, the ‘back stage’ for the event. It is from here that most will erupt onto the bwalo, one after the other, in clouds of dust, sweeping the ground with their feet, waving clubs or spears or axes about, chasing the women who scream and laugh, run from the spectre, and then turn and follow him, joining the dance. The women are the vital energy of gule. Without them, a dancer would be just that, a performer of a dance. With the women, the dancer becomes an intersection point between the worlds and between the sexes, the conveyer of wisdom, the focus of the village and all who reside in it.

For the de Laurentis drama, there are the structures. Originally woven from grass and reeds over a bamboo frame, the large structures are more often now made of hessian or fertiliser bags. Containing one man inside, or up to twelve, the structures are largely inspired by animals and take on the shape of various bizarre zoomorphs. Perhaps the most ancient of them is the antelope, Kasiya maliro, the mother figure of the Chewa. Shaped something like a symmetrical vase with a head and tail, she dances by spinning. Her shape is redolent in that symbolism of womanly fertility, the cervix. Small structures like Kalulu, the hare, can run about quickly with one man inside. Large structures like Ndomondo may have six or more dancers within and, not surprisingly, must move carefully about or would be weapons of village destruction. Njovu the elephant symbolises the authority of the chief, and dances with a man in each leg. Thus we know that “the elephant has four hearts”.

I remember well on the occasion of the commemoration of a local chief of great stature, chief Chitule, who had had died the previous year, the elephant appears. Njovu is becoming more and more rare, the cost, time and patience of its construction deterring the younger men from committing to its preparation. Doug Curran, a Canadian photojournalist who has established a reputation for high quality photography of gule dancers, sponsors the elephant on this occasion. Money talks in the African village as it does in the streets of London or New York. Doug needs some good photos of the great beast but the day is wearing on and the light has begun to wane. No sign of the elephant. Doug looks worried. I watch him head off towards the liunde. He returns ten minutes later, face red, livid with anger. “Two of the dancers are pissed. I had to pay another two to take their place, God damn it.” Such is the way of village life and gule. There are no certainties. The elephant may have four hearts but it can also be legless. Today, Njovu finally appears and does us all proud. Slick and black, with long white tusks, the great animal moves around the bwalo to the applause and glee of the massed villagers. An elephant in the village will always create a stir.

Each gule wamkulu character has its dance, song and drum beat. Each has its message to the village. They may appear dangerous and threatening, which is very much the intention in their design. An alternative name for the dancers in the generic is zirombo, meaning wild animals. Yet their advice is based on conservative community values. They advocate for hard work and patience, honesty and generosity, loyalty to parents and family, and faithfulness in marriage. They condemn the venal, the promiscuous, the avaricious, the violent, the philandering, and the lazy. Fundamentally, they assert the importance of living life as did the ancestors and to maintain the solidarity and harmony of the community. The worst sort of behaviour is anti-social behaviour as it threatens the integrity of the community. And the worst sort of anti-social behaviour is witchcraft. Ironically, gule wamkulu was seen itself as a barbaric and degenerate form of witchcraft by the early white settlers and missionaries to Malawi, yet the gule characters preach much the same sermons as are to be heard in a Christian church. Most ironically of all, gule has been an opponent of witchcraft for centuries before white preachers made their own belated stand against the dark art and condemned gule wamkulu as its manifestation.

The great dance is the public face of the nyau, or male secret societies of the Chewa. On initiation to manhood, a Chewa boy becomes both a man and a member of the nyau. He learns the secret of gule, how the characters are derived and how they are made. He learns the coded language about the great dance. Only an initiated man should know these things. Once, revealing any of the hidden language of the nyau to a non-initiated person was punishable by death. Indeed, there are even gule characters that originally performed only at the funeral of someone who had betrayed the code of silence and who had subsequently been killed by ‘wild animals’. In gathering the stories and meanings of the great dance, Father Claude had to be initiated into the nyau, an interesting notion given the past, and even current, attitudes of the Catholic Church towards the gule wamkulu and secret societies. He would often have to meet his informants away from their home villages. These men gave, and continue to give, the information to him because they trusted him, and he has attempted to honour this trust by treating the secrets with respect and circumspection. It is a narrow line to walk between documenting this invaluable cultural heritage for future generations and belittling it through its improper communication.

It is sometimes said that secrets can fracture trust and unity. In the Chewa village, there is a shared value in keeping the secrets of gule wamkulu. The great dance is an exercise in bonding, more than in separation. It may appear that the men have dominance through their nyau societies, but it is the women in the Chewa matrilineal system who hold power over property and inheritance. The gathering together of the community for major rituals such as initiations of boys and girls, funerals, commemoration of the dead, and inauguration of chiefs and village elders gives the opportunity for the people to share in food, beer and the dance. Gule is as much a bonding process for the living as it is a reinforcement of the views and presence of the dead. In hard times, as they often are in Malawi, it is a comfort to share in grief and celebration.

Chewa creation story In the Chewa creation story, Chauta or God comes down from the sky, bringing with Him humans and all the animals. Their footprints are still visible in the rocks on Kaphirintiwa Mountain where they first arrived. They all settle on earth and live in harmony, a veritable Garden of Eden, until humans upset the tranquillity by discovering fire and thereby ravaging the land. Concurrently, humans start to hunt and kill the animals for food, and the peace of earth is shattered in the resulting conflagration. God is horrified and retreats to heaven, climbing back to the sky along the web of the spider. He leaves humans behind in the now defiled world, and they only come close to Him again after death.


(i) Gary Morgan is director of the MSU Museum.
(1) Macbeth, Shakespeare.

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