Tuesday, September 22, 2009

“Nyau- the Heart of Chewa Identity”

“The Nyau is a secret association of dancers” who use “masks and animal structures” it “exists mainly among Chewa.” “It is a dance of grass animals that” are “believed to be” reincarnation “of the dead.” “Nyau is a secret society whose membership is selective and restricted. Originally only men of mature age could be members of the Nyau society*, and the introduction of boys into the Nyau was only a policy to counteract the influence of the mission- schools**.”

I have seen these grass animals carried on the road before but never had a camera to take a picture. It is the kind of sight one would expect when he or she comes to Africa: men dressed in costumes dancing one of their “big dances” (gule wamkulu.) I have also seen men running along the road dressed in sack cloth and a mask over their heads. They are the recruiters and can be dangerous because some of them may carry a panga knife with them. This religion is something that has fascinated me from the first time I ever saw one of these men and their structures.

Last night I had two Malawian couples over for dinner. Among them was Chikalipo, a man who grew up in the central region of Malawi and knew about Nyau. I asked Chikalipo to tell me something about this religion and reluctantly he told me this story.

One day Chikalipo and his friends were going to school. Among his friends was one of his cousins. One of the Nyau runners came up to them and started asking them if they knew anything about his religion. He did this to see if the boys had ever been to one of Nyau initiations. They are looking for boys between the ages of 13 to 15 to teach them about this religion. For in their eyes “A man who does not belong to the Nyau society is ‘like a small child who does not know anything at all’ (ngati mwana wamng’ono wosadziwa chili chose.)” If the boys show that they have no idea of what he is talking about, he grabs them and then drags them off to the meeting against their will. The same thing happened on this particular occasion. The children scattered and the man was able to grab Chikalipo’s cousin and drag him off to dambo, a grass hut in the middle of a graveyard where the meeting is held. The graveyard is something extremely terrifying to Malawian villagers who still believe in spirits. When all of the boys were gathered together they are teased and bullied from one to two weeks and then taught about Nyau ways for another week. After all of this they are released to go back home. This time, however, other children ran back to the village and told the boy’s parents what had happened. The parents grabbed some torches, went to the graveyard, and burned the dambo to get their son back!

There is so much information about Nyau that can be discussed in my blog, but I decided to share this story with you because it is something that actually happened.

* Nyau society- is a part of Malawi traditional religion.
** Mission-schools- the schools that teach with a Christian message.

Exerts are use from “Chewa Traditional Religion” by J.W.M. Van Breugel.

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