Among the Chewa culture, Gule wa Mkulu is a serious matter.
Officially recognised by Unesco in 2006 as a heritage dance, Gule wa Mkulu, also known as Nyau, mostly mimic wild animals (vilombo) and display energetic dance skills. With sophisticated footwork, the characters fling dust all over the dance floor while responding to specific and intertwining drumbeats. It is a very secretive dance commanding utmost ritual apprehension.
To qualify for membership into Gule wa Mkulu, young men undergo an intensive one month initiation procedure at the Dambwe (a secret initiation place, usually at the graveyard where they receive a moral code of conduct) and the dance is performed upon their graduation as celebration of their integration into the adult society.
Chewas are traditionally a matrimonial society which demands that men play a rather fringy role. Some schools of thought suggest that the dance was hatched as a means to establish some kind of counterbalance to this arrangement.
Initially, the dance was performed during funerals, installation or death of a chief and sometimes weddings.
Gule wa Mkulu managed to survive colonial forces to suppress it and is still relevant, at least in so far as chairperson of the Chewa Foundation (Chefo) Southern Region chapter and Chewa history follower Dyson Gonthi is concerned.
“Gule wa Mkulu is still very relevant and it is a solid foundation where the Chewa heritage is built on. A real Chewa is identified by Gule wa Mkulu and this is where personality is shaped. In fact, if someone has not been initiated into the Dambwe [camp], they are regarded as half-baked and immature,” he says.
Gonthi explains that in those days, an uninitiated man could not even be sent out on an errand. A stiff punishment and hard labour awaited someone who comes or is brought to the Dambwe with a track record of unruly behaviour or causing some kind of trouble in the village.
“Such people are whipped all over the body while naked and lying down on their belly. They are made to take a very cold bath at dawn, are smeared with an itchy stuff with hands tied on their back so that they are unable to scratch,” he explains.
According to him, in the past, one could be put into a pit and have soil poured over them up to the neck level as part of the punishment for bad behaviour.
“If one resisted the punishment, they would get killed and the death wasn’t announced,” Gonthi says.
Gonthi also underscored the significance of traditional charms and witchcraft in Gule wa Mkulu, saying they are used to guard against ill-minded people and all negative elements aimed at frustrating and suppressing the dance.
“Let me state that Gule wa Mkulu is a very attractive dance and it has a special appeal to people of all manner of backgrounds. Nyau characters have a unique magnetic pull that makes everyone to pay attention, and this causes some people to be envious and they try to play games. So to wade off such elements, we do practice a bit of traditional charms,” he explains.
This is clearly evident in characters such as Gologolo, who climbs and dances on top of very long and small pole as well as the lanky Makanja.
“That is the epitome of Chewa traditional charms at work. In some areas, they will show you a Nyau character that dances on top of an open pit without falling inside. People are also advised to stay out of sight when they see any Gule wa Mkulu character as a matter of respect because nobody is allowed to play around with it.
“Rubbing shoulders with a “wild animal” is disrespectful to the Chewa culture and one can face untold consequences,” says Gonthi.
He explained that Gule wa Mkulu has a stratified hierarchy in that some characters are regarded more senior and influential than others.
“The large zoomorphic basketry character called Njobvu is the most important Nyau as it represents important ancestors such as chiefs or senior members of the Dambwe who passed away long time ago.
“Then there is the Chadzunda with a deep, fearsome voice which represents law and order. It brings wisdom because it is the most ancient; this character looks old and frail but embodies a tradition (mwambo),” he explains.
Chadzunda, Gonthi says, displays a lot of love and acts as a medium for rain and fertility.
“Then there is also the ruthless Kamano (with exposed teeth) who is believed to smear itself with human excretion and attacks anyone in sight without being provoked. The purpose of releasing a Kamano character is to gather people together during funerals or any function sanctioned by the chief of the village,” says Gonthi.
Group village head (GVH) Mdauma of Lilongwe affirms that Gule wa Mkulu is a unifying force for the Chewa people.
“Vilombo bring us together in times of death and celebration; the characters represent our ancestors who have come to instruct us in proper behaviour. The mystery and intrigue that surrounds Nyau helps to instill this,” says Mdauma.
However, the village head says not all Nyau characters are fierce.
“There are some like Maliya (perhaps a corruption of Mary) representing a kind-hearted female ancestor. She is the mistress of the girls’ initiation. She is also responsible for teaching girls and women the proper clapping pattern or rhythm for Gule wa Mkulu.” says Mdauma.
Nonetheless, both Mdauma and Gonthi separately corrected the misconception that Gule wa Mkulu is a religion, saying it is rather a cultural and traditional practice that should be respected and followed by every Chewa regardless of creed.