Gule Wamkulu literally translated “the big dance” is both a secret cult and ritual dance practiced among the Chewa people living in Malawi, Zambia, and Mozambique. It is performed by members of the Nyau brotherhood, which is a secret society of initiated Chewa men. The Nyau at some time believed that they could communicate with the world of the dead or spirits; this was act was called ‘pemphero lalikulu’. Within the Chewa’s traditional matrilineal society, husbands played a rather marginal role so that the Nyau offered a means to establish some kind of counterweight and solidarity among men of various villages. Nyau members are responsible for the initiation of young men into adulthood, and the performance of the Gule Wamkulu at the end of the initiation procedure to celebrate the young men’s integration into adult society.
Gule Wamkulu is performed in the season following the harvest in July, accompanying initiation ceremonies but also weddings, funerals, and the installation or the death of a chief. On this occasion, the Nyau dancers wear costumes and masks made of wood and straw, representing a great variety of characters, such as wild animals, spirits of the dead, slave traders, British colonialists, white missionaries as well as more recent figures such as the honda or the helicopter.
Each of these figures plays a particular, often evil, character representing certain forms of misbehavior in order to teach moral and social values to the audience. These figures perform dances and artistic movements with extraordinary energy, partly entertaining and partly scaring the audience as representatives of the world of the spirits and the dead. Mask carvers may either be professional or occasional artisans.
There is evidence that Gule Wamkulu existed during the great Chewa Empire of the 17th century. Despite the efforts of Christian missionaries to ban this practice in Chewa communities, it managed to survive under British colonial rule by adopting some aspects of Christianity. Nowadays, even if the matrilineal system has lost its social significance, Nyau societies, and with it Gule Wamkulu, are still very much alive and Chewa men tend to be both members of a Christian church and a Nyau society.
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