Tom Varley was raised in the Zimbabwean bush. He has a long history of filming and photographing wildlife and scenery in Israel, Southern Africa and Zimbabwe, particularly in his home town of Victoria Falls. Check out this amazing video that truly captures the heart of a Zimbabwe Safari.
An oldie, but one of our favorites! A baby elephant stuck in a well. A frantic mother crazed with worry for her offspring. Anyone could relate, but these very human emotions came from the bond of an elephant baby and her mother. This video shows a team from Amboseli Trust for Elephants, in Kenya, who tried to save the baby elephant and arrange the emotional reunion.
In various parts of Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique, the spirits of the ancestors take on corporeal form and dance for their living descendants. Not just to entertain, but also to inform, to chastise and to guide. The forms they take are varied and spectacular, and the occasion of their portrayal is called the gule wamkulu – the great dance.
I first saw the spirits dancing at a lakeshore hotel years ago. It was a spectacular piece of dinner theater and, of course, the dancers were paid performers but it had a power and immediacy that I have not forgotten in over a decade. But there is much more to the gule than mere tourist entertainment.
The dancers prepare weeks in advance by carving masks and making the outfits in secret. These are not thought of as costumes, but as actual spirits, each representing a character that fulfills a purpose or delivers a message. The masks may not be seen by uninitiated people, and the dancers must keep their identity secret, compartmentalizing their daily lives from their parallel existence as spirit dancers. The outfits are stored in secret places, and the dancers change far from the village in the forest before making their way from the relative wilds to the civilization of the village.
1. Kasiya maliro spins to the frenetic beat of drums.
2. Mbaula allows people to make food on his burning head, but he uses his pseudo generosity as a way to impose obligations on others.
3. A wooden sculpture takes the form of the giver of life, Kasiya maliro. The intricate forms within depict Chewa rituals.
4. Chadzunda and his wife Maliya’s dance illustrates the sanctity of intramarital sex.
But possibly the most important, ancient and interesting mask is that of Kasiya maliro – Mariya’sanimal counterpart. The name means “the one who accompanies the corpse to the graveyard,” but it is very much a symbol of life not death. Kasiya maliro is represented by a stylised antelope, but that’s just there to hide her real nature from the children – and the uninitiated. The antelope is depicted as the tiniest head and tail on top of a huge inverted uterus and vulva. I didn’t spot it at first and, when Father Claude explained it to me, he admitted that it took him a long time to work it out, too. I guess for a Catholic priest that’s not so surprising. Kasiya maliro is the universal feminine, the womb of the world and of the tribe. She is the giver of life, and she is there at every important ritual, including death and the initiation of both boys and girls.
A black-faced mask topped by a pot of smoking coals. Another dance I witnessed was that of Kalulu – a cute but strange hare that symbolizes the chief, and represents desirable qualities like boundless energy, the willingness to serve, and the ability to listen as indicated by the large upright ears. This is in stark contrast to Mbaula – a complex character portrayed by a fiercely-horned, black-faced mask topped by a pot of (real) smoking coals. Mbaula dances around, giving gifts, and even allows people to make popcorn on his head, but this generosity is a deception to hide his true character. He is really after power, someone else’s wife, undeserved wealth, or all three. This mask appeared only in the 1980s in response, some say, to the despotism, acquisitiveness and sexual incontinence of Malawi President Kamuzu Banda. In fact, many of the masks are used as a satirical mirror, and have an overt political message as well as a covert moral one.
But some, while still communicating a serious message, are just adorable. I fell in love with Chilembwe, a cute, hilariously funny roan antelope character displaying some of the best physical comedy I have ever seen. It had the crowd falling about with laughter at the Kulamba ceremony.
Dances are held for many different purposes such as initiations, funerals, the appointment of chiefs, the interpretation and treatment of spirit possession and placation of the ancestors. Gule can be used to guide or reprimand the community or specific people who have behaved contrary to accepted custom. That’s where characters like Mbaula come in, and there are others that warn against sexual infidelity, theft, domestic violence and the abuse of magic. The ancestors are very conservative, and demand adherence to a strict moral code in terms of interpersonal relations, distribution of resources, succession, inheritance, gender issues and sexual norms.
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