For the past 43 years, Silaji Yusuf from Traditional Authority Bwananyambi in Mangochi District has been performing Beni dance in various functions.
Now aged 57, Yusuf has managed to visit several districts within Malawi where he has performed Beni dance during various occasions.
His most memorable moment is when he performed in front of Malawi’s founding father Hastings Kamuzu Banda during the opening of Mangochi District Hospital in late 80s.
However, Yusuf said he has nothing to show as a clear economic benefit gained from performing Beni for about 43 years.
Yusuf said throughout his performing career, his group has not had a fixed charge for their performance. Instead, it is people organising the functions who decide how much to pay them.
“Our trade is not regulated; hence we don’t have a fixed price for a performance. People give us any amount they want and in most cases the money we get is minimal,” he said.
Beni is one of the most-sought-after traditional dances in the eastern part of Malawi and beyond.
It is generally performed by Yao people. Beni dancers use costumes which are similar to military attires — in resemblance to soldiers who are said to be the original Beni dancers.
“When soldiers returned from war, they used to organise Beni dance to celebrate with their wives and relatives. Only men were allowed to dance while women were only allowed to spice up the dance with vocals,” said Yusuf.
The dance was later adopted by non-military locals who started performing whenever there was celebration such as weddings and initiation ceremonies.
Beni remains one of the interesting dances on the local scene such that when former president of Libya, Muamar Gaddafi, saw some Malawians performing during his visit to the country, he got excited and he invited some Beni dancers to perform at a state banquet and other functions in Libya.
One of the people who went to Libya, Nema Chinawa, remembers fondly how they were respected and appreciated in Libya — unlike here at home.
“In Malawi, traditional dances are not taken seriously just like it is with other countries. When we arrived in Libya, we were accommodated in good hotels and we were being given a lot of money every time we performed. The Libyan government organised several events for us to showcase our skills and we impressed,” he said.
Nema said when they returned from Libya, they received several invitations by different international organisations to perform in Libya and other countries but only a few of those managed to materialise before the group disbanded.
Just like other African countries, Malawi has a rich heritage of traditional dances which, if well packaged, can easily improve the country’s tourism on the global scale.
For instances, the Central region has Gule Wamkulu as one of the most popular traditional dances whose cornerstones remain unknown to many outsiders. It is considered as a secret cult for Chewa people such that it is hugely protected.
Chiwoda or Chimtali is another traditional dance performed by women in the South and Central regions, mostly during celebrations. In this dance, men are restricted to drumming in most cases.
Likwata dance is mostly performed by old women usually during initiation ceremonies.
Likwata has no written songs. Instead, women sing the lyrics in a free style way, touching some sensitive areas, which they want girls or boys to understand during their initiation ceremonies.
In some cases, women use the Likwata dance to advise young ones or mock their husbands indirectly for some mischievous deeds within their communities.
M’bwiza is very popular and in South and Eastern part of the country. In western countries, they call it ballroom dance and is performed by men and women in pairs.
Across all tribes in Malawi, dance is an important element of cultural expression during various ceremonies. In all these cases masks and other costumes made from animal skin are a common theme in traditional dances in Malawi.
Paramount Chief Kawinga believes that Malawians have, for a long time, been deprived of an economic right which they could have realised through traditional dances.
Kawinga argues that many local people in rural areas could have been earning decent livelihoods if government regulated and promoted traditional dances as a business in the country.
“In Malawi, there is no event that will go without some traditional dances performing. This has been a common practice for a long time. But most of these dancers are paid little money because they do not have power to bargain for better fees,” said Kawinga.
He suggested designation of one village or location in a traditional authority area to be host of a traditional dance festival where patrons pay.
“In Machinga, we have the Malape pillars which can be turned into a huge place for traditional dances. Local people can be trained on how to entertain and perfect their dances for visitors. This can be a very good source of income for locals and the country,” he said.
Currently, the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Culture has included in its strategic plan traditional dances as one of the unique Malawian features which will be packaged to add value to the tourism sector.
Minister responsible, Michael Usi, said his ministry has already started realigning traditional dances by among other things holding dance competitions. In Zomba and Mangochi, for instance, best traditional dance groups are being awarded monetary prizes of up to K200, 000.
“Through this arrangement we want to empower local people for them to start taking traditional dances seriously. In the same direction, we want Malawians to start paying traditional dancers the same way they pay musicians when they invite them to perform,” said Usi.
He added that in line with the strategic plan, the ministry will be training local people on how best they can package traditional dances to make them attractive to tourists.
“Elsewhere traditional dances are a huge part of the tourism sector. This is the direction our ministry has taken because we need to give reasons which can influence people to choose Malawi over other countries,” he said.
He said his ministry is currently consulting on the best ways of regulating the traditional dances so that people hiring them can be guided by the law on the minimum amount of money to pay them.
“We cannot be paying musicians a lot of money yet we are paying traditional dancers peanuts. We will make the sector profitable for ordinary Malawians because this is the direction which this government has taken to ensure that locals are benefiting from their talents and skills,” he said.