It has been attacked, condemned and dismissed as pagan worship, but in spite of the assaults, Nyau is still alive and well. Some people who are members of the cult also belong to established religions. Does it mean Nyau and religions such as Islam and Christianity share the same bed? Bright Mhango explores the issue.
To a homegrown Ngonde man, Nyau is a dance by people in masquerade regalia, but take say Group Village Headman Gilbert Mongo who heads Mongo Village in Nathenje, some 25 minutes outside Lilongwe; he has grown up with Nyau and knows it like the back of his hand.
Nyau in simple Wikipedia terms is a secret society of the Chewa, an ethnic group of the Bantu people from Central and Southern Africa. Literature says Nyau was there as far back as the 17th century. When Europeans came, despised and labeled demonic, but Nyau is still alive and well.
The Chewa believe that life exists within their ancestors and those not yet born, as well as the living. The Nyau beliefs include communication with those who are dead, or their spirits, calling this act pemphero lalikulu (â€œGreat Prayerâ€).
Chewas believe in the presence of God in everyday life, and that God is both male (in the sky) and female (in the earth).
Words for God include Chiuta, the great bow or rainbow in the sky and Namalango in the earth, like a womb, where seeds germinate and is a source of new life. The spirit worldâ€™s symbolism is presented at the Gule Wamkulu(â€œBig Danceâ€), which incorporates mwambo (â€œtraditionsâ€), masks, song, dance and rules. Nyau incorporates sophisticated reverse role-playing, proverbs, mimicking and satire in performances.
Primarily, the Nyau perform their masked dances at funerals, memorial services and initiations (for girls: Chinamwali). Each dancer represents a special character relating to the mask or animal structure he wears. The zilombo (â€œwild animalsâ€) are large constructions that cover the entire body and mostly represent animals, and the masks worn over the face are primarily ancestral spirits.
Can Nyau live inside the Abrahamic religion or what Islam would call ahl al-kitab, that is, Christianity and Islam and Judaism? Is Nyau demon worship as the colonial missionaries said?
Group Village Headman Mongo boasts of producing the best Nyau from his village, some with names as scary as the masquerades themselves; names such as Kambulumbundeâ€¦
Mongo says one can be in the Nyau cult and still be a Christian because Nyau is just a way of life, a way of passing down culture and tradition to the young.
â€œItâ€™s not about witchcraft; that was then, itâ€™s now just purely for passing down tradition. We teach our children to behave, for example, that they should not enter their motherâ€™s bedrooms, that they should keep secrets and behaveâ€¦,â€ he said.
Nyau cult members get organised at hideous graveyards, and that is still just tradition? Yes, insisted Mongo who he said there is nothing hideous that happens apart from the place itself.
Mongo said as far as he is concerned, a Christian can be in the Nyau cult
But Sheik Juma Shilawi, who does his salaat at Nathenje Mosque, said Islam and Nyau culture cannot be in one set.
â€œIt is not permissible in Islam. Nyau members call it a religion and you know Islam believes in one God and thus cannot side with Nyau because that will make two Gods,â€ said the youthful sheik.
Nkhoma CCAP Synod has most of its catchment area embedded in the Nyau practicing areas. Nation on Sunday asked the churchâ€™s general secretary Levi Kachipapa what the official stand of the church is on Nyau.
Can one be a Nyau member and a Christian?
â€˜Noâ€™ was both the expected and actual answer.
â€œAs a church, we have no any association with Nyau. If our member joins Nyau we discipline him,â€ said Kachipapa.
He said since Nyau members take themselves as a denomination, the two cannot cleave because CCAP is also registered as one.
Kachipapa also alleged that the beliefs, language and connotations inside the cult are not up to godly levels, citing the example the idea of Nyau being taken as a god.
Well, most people from villages in the Nyau belt insist that Nyau masquerades are not people even though sometimes they have feet showing and their characteristics evident. They say the masquerades are beasts fished from a mystical pond.
â€œItâ€™s like what is quoted in the Bible in Exodus 32 where the Israelites forced Aaron to make an idol. God did not like the idea of elevating the idol to a god and that is what Nyau does. That is why when you tamper with Nyau, you get into serious trouble,â€ said Kachipapa.
Kachipapa was quick to point out that the church does not condemn Nyau in its messages because it focuses on preaching Christ.
â€œWe do not preach against Nyau, we preach Christ and we believe that in so doing people that hear the message of Christ and they will not go and join these other groups,â€ he said,
African religions such as Nyau have given Christianity a tough run since it arrived in Africa. In the 1920s, missionaries actually wanted Nyau banned because its opposition curtailed Christianityâ€™s smooth spread.
There are some scholars and Chewas who insist that the Nyau tradition is a blameless way of life and that one can be a Nyau recruit and still be a Christian. These scholars say the tradition is just a victim of Western propaganda.