Nyau is a secret society whose membership is usually open only to the Chewas in central Malawi.
The tribe is mainly known for Gule wankulu, or Nyau -- literally its “big dance,” performed by masked men called spirits. It’s restricted to the men of the Chewa ethnic group.
Dyson Gonthi is the director of Chewa Cultural Heritage and Development, a group seeking to promote and preserve local culture.
Drawing of Nyau dancer at Museum of Malawi, Blantyre.
“We [perform] Gule wankulu when we want to install a Chewa chief, during the death of a chief, even at times when the chief commemorates something special that happened in his village," says Gonthi. "So I can agree, there is no relationship with Christianity because [the dance] is [alleged to be] full of evil spirits.”
The dancers, who are sometimes naked, are called “spirits.”
“If he dances while naked you don’t laugh, you should not look surprised, you must take it normally," he says. "If you look surprised, annoyed or disappointed, anything can happen to you through Juju or charms. It [is] a dangerous dance.”
Gonthi says incorporating the Gule wankulu dance into Christmas celebrations will bring what he calls “sanity” into the traditional practice.
“We want to get rid of the charms, and the way we talk, because we sometimes use obscene language." says Gonthi. "We also want to avoid looking naked. And doing away with [using the dance] as punishment when somebody misbehaves in the village, and we take an opportunity to .... even put him to death.”
Gonthi says during Christmas celebrations dancers are encouraged to compose songs that glorify God, as opposed to those with obscene and seductive language.
But Christians say involving the dance into Christmas celebrations is an insult to Christianity.
Davison Makhole is the deacon of the Nyasa Mission of Evangelical Church of Malawi in the commercial capital, Blantyre.
“We commemorate Christmas [as] the day we believe Jesus was born," explains Makhole. " When we come to Nyau, it is basically the cultural belief which is very different from teachings of Jesus; theirs is associated with evil.”
Gonthi quotes the Bible as saying Jesus came for everybody.
But Makhole is not convinced.
"“Of course, yes. Jesus Christ was born for everybody, including the Nyau people," he says. "But in most cases, they use charms in their dances. For example, the Nyau dancer can dance on the string [or rope suspended above the ground without falling down]; can we call that science?”
Makhole says the Chewa should renounce their traditional beliefs and join Christianity, rather than mixing the two.
The Chewa ethnic group is found in some parts of Mozambique and Zambia, as well as in Malawi. History says the tribe originated in the 15th century in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The paramount chief of all the Chewas is Chief Undi, who lives in Zambia. In Malawi, the first president, Hastings Kamuzu Banda, was a Chewa. Under his rule, Nyau dancers were accorded special respect at his political functions, and the language of the Chewas – Chichewa – became the national language.