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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.
Chadzunda, a key characters in the gule wamkulu, is the ancestor of all the other characters.
‘Gule wamkulu is a cosmic celebration of life and death,’ says Father Claude Boucher (Chisale) of Mua Mission. ‘It comments on and influences issues affecting society – materialism, dispossession and inequality – and reflects the rich cultural heritage of the Chewa people.’ The rituals, traditions, taboos and social etiquette portrayed by the gulu represent and document mwambo – the moral code laid down by the ancestors.It wasn’t long before Father Claude started questioning the Church’s policy.
It’s worth noting here that ancestor veneration as practiced by many African tribes is not ancestor worship. The ancestors are respected, remembered and – when they have something important to communicate to their descendants – heeded, but not worshiped. This common misconception may be one cause of the long-standing conflict between Christian missionaries and the gule. The refusal to allow converts to take communion unless they relinquish all links to gule being one example. This was the situation that greeted Father Claude when he arrived at Mua Mission in 1967. But it wasn’t long before he started questioning the Church’s policy of accepting other African traditional practices while demonizing the gule. Questioning led to understanding; understanding led to acceptance; and acceptance led to his becoming initiated into the gule wamkulu. In the intervening years he has documented over 400gule characters, and collected and preserved well over 200 masks.
1.Mua mission chapel.
2. In some interpretations of Chewa spirituality, Mbona, the rain diety, often takes the form of a snake and speaks through his wife, Salima.
3. Father Claude Boucher (Chisale) has been initiated into the gule wamkulu and taken the name of the Chewa family, Chisale.
Keen on gaining a deeper understanding of the gule and its significance, I visited Mua Mission. I’m not sure what my expectations were, but the reality vastly exceeded them. Beautiful brick buildings with spectacular sculptures and frescoes depict the history, culture and values of the local Chewa, Yao and Angoni people as well as that of the Catholic Church – and if you think combining all that into one harmonious whole is a tricky feat, you’re right. But somehow they have. I chatted to Boucher in a vain attempt to understand in a day what he had taken four decades to internalize, and probably the most important thing I learned is that it is almost impossible for a verbal-dominant westerner like myself to fully grasp the pre-literate symbolism of a society as old as the Chewa. But I think I have achieved a vague comprehension.
Superficially, gule dancers can take four basic forms. The oldest and most traditional being a naked man smeared with ash or mud – representing death – and wearing a mask. As norms changed, a loincloth was added but the look remained much the same. More recently the ash or mud has been replaced by a full costume of tatters – long strips of colorful rags that symbolize the clothes of the dead. And then there are full costumes that consist of a solid structure that may be supported by one person or by two people as with Mkango the lion, made up in the familiar form of the pantomime horse. It is a bit scary, as it rushes around roaring, but it’s also kind of whimsical and quirky.
There are literally hundreds of forms, or masks. Some are in the shape of animals, some are roughly humanoid, and some are bizarre and outlandish. What they have in common is that they are all deeply symbolic and can, in almost no instances, be taken literally. And new ones appear rapidly in response to changing situations – two of the more recent are Barack Obama and Ebola.
I watched a performance of the gule with Father Claude on hand to explain what was happening. The most important dancers are Chadzunda – the father of all the gule characters – and his wifeMaliya or Mariya. Chadzunda’s mask is a fearsome black visage with wrinkles and missing teeth signifying his great age and wisdom. He limps into the Bwalo, but is revitalized when he starts dancing with his young and lovely wife. Mariya’s character has clearly been influenced by the missionary history of Malawi. She is represented as of European origin, and is – strangely considering her Virgin Mary connections – sensual and seductive as she dances with Chadzunda. While it is true that the gule represents traditional conservatism, it does move with the times. Mariya’s dancing and devotion to Chadzunda represent both feminine submission and a protest against polygamy.
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.
Dancers strike fear and awe into a Zambian crowd as they dance with pythons at the annual Kulamba gathering.
The dancers also perform at important ritual and political events, like the Kulamba. This is a gathering of Chewa people from all over Malawi, Eastern Zambia and Western Mozambique to pay homage to Gawa Undi, the king of all the Chewa. Dating back hundreds of years, this is a real “gathering of the clans.” But it has changed somewhat in nature and is now complete with busloads of people, buckets of beer, ephemeral markets selling anything from Kariba kapenta to Chinese widgets, political glad-handing, long sycophantic speeches, loud music, hot sun, dust and spectacular gule dance.
The journey to the Kulamba was perhaps more instructive than the actual event. We got a lift from Lilongwe to Zambia with the acquaintance of a friend, a minor but ambitious politician. Stopping off en route, he surprised us by handing out thousand-kwacha notes to a succession of pretty girls that, recognizing his car, came up to the window to greet him. I was reminded of Mbaula, and made a mental note to jump out the car if his head caught fire.
Before we left Lilongwe, we had chatted to a few people about the gule, and were surprised at their response. The waiter who served us in a popular coffee shop said, ‘They are bad. They rob you and beat you up, and cut you with pangas.’ And the coffee shop owner nodded in agreement. Was this attitude a result of the ongoing demonetization of the gule by the churches and mosques, or was there something more to it, I wondered. Well, I was soon to find out.
Gule dancers arrive at the Kulamba gathering in Zambia.
On the way to Zambia, as we neared the border, we came across three men walking down the road. Clad in dirty loincloths with their skin smeared with ash, they wore unelaborate but sinister Hannibal Lecter-like masks. And they each carried a panga and a big stick. Their body language was aggressive in the extreme, and there was nothing quirky or whimsical about them. I – jokingly – suggested to Andrew, who is usually a rather intrepid photographer, that he hop out the car and take a pic, and he refused, wisely realizing it would be akin to walking up to a pride of lions for a whisker-sharp close-up. These were so obviously not nice guys – and they clearly were not real gule either – but they used the combination of fear and anonymity offered by the masks to commit crimes against the community. And the worst part is that many people, like those we chatted to in the coffee shop, don’t understand the difference. The ancestors would not be amused.
Writing by Jennifer Stern
Imagery by Andrew Brukman
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