My first encounter with gule wamkulu (the great dance) was back in the 1960s when my father was pasturing Kongwe congregation in Dowa district. Gule wamkulu is a secret society institution of the Chewa people of Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique.
I heard strange noises outside the manse (the pastor’s residence) and inquisitively ventured outside to find out what was happening. I was four years old then. As soon as I emerged from the house and stepped into the path that led to Msochi Village (situated to the west of Kongwe Mission), I noticed two weird looking characters that looked anything but human, pointing and swearing at me. Totally frightened and confused, I ran back into the house and hid.
I was later told that the two characters were akapoli. Kapoli is a two-legged character that smears ash all over its body. Some gule wamkulu characters are four or even multiple-legged.
An interesting gule wamkulu character is the tall, two-legged makanja, who walks on stilts. Two makanja characters from Kasungu were the darling of the people at Kamuzu Stadium in Blantyre during independence celebrations in the 1980s. They would initially sit on the football ground, almost unnoticed by anybody. Then they would slowly crawl to one of the goal posts, and holding it by the crossbeam, would suddenly rise and stretch themselves to their full heights, completely dwarfing everybody else on the pitch, to the thunderous applause of tens of thousands of people on the stands. With their tall, thin, wooden legs they would toss a ball around the pitch, attracting more applause.
One morning, as I was driving to Likuni in Lilongwe, I noticed a tall character majestically crossing the road in the distance. It was a makanja, and it was in the company of a few shorter characters plus about a dozen people. Instinctively, I stopped to give the strange entourage the right of way. These characters tend to always have the right of way on our roads.
Characters that would scare a four-year old to death, like what happened to me at Kongwe, or induce an instinctive response, as happened on the way to Likuni, can easily be harnessed for a good cause or can be abused to gratify selfish and evil motives.
I recently read a newspaper article which stated that gule wamkulu was being used in some areas to mobilise school-age children to go to school. If the type of characters that swore at me at Kongwe demanded that every child should go to school, I do not see any child staying at home.
Kalonga Gawa Undi, the Chewa king, under whose jurisdiction all gule wamkulu camps fall, has stated numerous times that it is his wish that all Chewa children should go to and remain in school. He has not mentioned which method should be used to keep children in school. People use their own innovation to employ gule wamkulu to achieve this.
I also read with dismay an article that said gule wamkulu characters were preventing children from going to school in Neno district. That to me is retrogressive. Use of gule wamkulu in this manner is a show of power that does not benefit anybody.
Schools came to this country with missionaries. As a result, the gule wamkulu institution, which did not embrace Christianity, stood opposed to anything to do with formal schooling, which was perceived to be an extension of missionary efforts to convert the indigenous people to Christianity.
We live in a different world now. Everybody, regardless of their faith, needs to go to school. Modern society will not deal too kindly with anybody who has not attained some level of education. Gawa Undi himself is holder of a master’s degree. It is foolhardy, therefore, to use an institution under Gawa Undi’s jurisdiction, namely gule wamkulu, to preclude deserving children from school. It is totally unfair and counter-producrtive.
We need to search within our indigenous knowledge reserves to discover how we can best use traditional institutions such as gule wamkulu to help create the modern state that we want Malawi to be.