Relevance of gulewamkulu in society today
Green faced, carrying a bunch of dry grass – set on fire, it comes on the dancing floor. The dance moves are well mastered, but for a stranger, it is a puzzle that despite the burning bunch of grass moving, the masked dancer is not showing any signs of being affected by the fire, let alone being burnt.
That is ‘Wamtentha moto mwana wa masiye’ a Gulewamkulu character from Gwirize village, Traditional Authority Pemba’s area in Salima. For those not in the know, this is an ordinary nyau dancer, just like the rest of them. But the villagers – at least those interviewed – know the story behind the act.
“This act is about the rights of children especially orphans. If you listen to the song that the women are singing, then you will realise the act is advocating for children’s rights. The chirombo [Gulewamkulu dancer] is displaying that there are some cruel people who torture orphans in their custody; it is not uncommon to encounter such situations, and when the Gulewamkulu dancers sing and dance, they want to advocate against such violence,” says Noah Chana, Coordinator of the Gwirize Cultural Village and dance group.
Listening to the song, one is mesmerised by the way women and men blend their message with the drum beat and hand clapping. The steps of the Gulewamkulu dancer are even in tune with that, so are his actions as he spreads the fire around his body, but not getting burnt.
It is a surprise though that this thing is happening and the dancer shows no sign of pain.
“That is what Gulewamkulu is, the ‘big dance’; the dance of our ancestors, the Chewa. We showcase unimaginable things and that is why we call this a spirit dance, it is not an ordinary dance,” Chana says.
As he narrates this, the dancing is getting to more entertaining levels and mood.
‘Wamtentha, wamtentha iweee, wamtentha de, mwana wamasiye;
Eya eya, nkhanza zoyipa izo, wamtentha wee, mwanawamasiye, yeeee yeee!
Then there is another Gulewamkulu dancer – a character called Watayachikwanje, black faced with a big head.
“That gule is also advocating against violence, this time around it is domestic violence. Watayachikwanje is imploring men who beat up their wives to stop the practice, stressing that you don’t run a family by beating a wife, let alone hurting her with a panga knife,” Chana says.
There was excitement among the women present as those singing songs sang against domestic and gender based violence – to be precise, the tendency of men beating up women.
“Tell them, tell the men, we are tired of their bad habit!” exclaims one of the women present, as the dancer masters his steps, nodding in agreement to the women’s sentiments.
Many more women and children join in ululating, appreciating the talk and the do.
“It is a fact that our dance and cult is somehow an outlet in the villages, where important messages are put across. Those who do wrong are also exposed to the public, this is done to shame them in this case men who beat up their wives,” says Chana, boasting that the cult is no longer a secret which has made it easy to reach out to those who are not members of the cult.
He also talks of another chirombo that has just hit the dancefloor. This one, by nature of its looks and songs the women are singing – is advocating for perfection and concentration, if one is to succeed in life.
“It is called Waigoma, wailasa m’matako nyama’ [you have failed to hit where you should have instantly killed the animal]; hence the talk of concentration and perfection,” says Chana, of the red big headed and fearsome chirombo.
While Gwirize Village is like a museum of culture and hence commercialisation of the spirit dancers may have been an influence in advocating various issues, it is a similar trend in other areas that are not official cultural villages.
About 15 kilometres south-east of Gwirize is Katelera, a place that could also be described as a hub of the Chewa culture, going by their past traditions.
There, at Group Village Head Ngolomi 1’s area, there is a well-known Gulewamkulu base within the Namkuza village.
“Welcome to our culturally rich home, my village heads do not take culture lightly, we are genuine,” GVH Ngolomi says.
Here again, the issue of expression is on the high side. Most of the nyau characters have a special message to deliver.
The modernising of Gulewamkulu has made it to be relevant to the contemporary issues. Most of the characters answer to the names of popular local musicians.
“That one is called ‘Skeffa [Chimoto], you may wonder, it is after the same Skeffa Chimoto, the famous musician,” says Stanford Rabson,” one of the elders of the cult.
And indeed, the dancing antics of ‘Skeffa’ make one wonder why he has not released his own album. The blending of drum beat and the singing corresponds well, what if he could take the same to a proper stage?
“How do these spirits master man’s dance?” jokes one visitor.
And ‘Skeffa’ comes with another puzzle. He takes a notebook from his pocket, starts showing the audience the pages. Visitors wonder what is happening.
He takes a bottle of pure drinking water and pours it on the pages of the exercise book. The exercise book looks dry, just dry. And, as those not in the know keep on wondering, another wonder is showcased: From the dry exercise book comes yellow juice, filling the same bottle that had water; and immediately, someone drinks it. The ovation is great, unbelievable magic.
“That is Katelera for you, the Gulewamkulu is depicting that with determination and respect of the ancestors, one can do the impossible,” says Mavuto Khambadza, a man who was busy shaking the ‘Silamba’ [a tinned bottle filled with marbles that directs the Gulewamkulu characters].
Exit ‘Skeffa’, enters ‘Matafale’.
“Are you wondering which Matafale? It is the same Matafale, the maker of ‘Watsetseleka’. He may be gone and he is living with his ancestors, but we still love his style here at Katelera,” says Richard Sinjani, one of the elders of the cult.
“We are blending the old with the modern, to be in tandem with the times. We are drifting away from old gule wamkulu characters like Mbiyazodooka, maloko, pedegu and others; we are coming up with catchy names, that would excite and earn the praise of the young generation. But, let me stress we are still very traditional, we can’t abandon the tradition and culture of our fore-fathers,” says Sinjani.
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