Members of the Nyau brotherhood, who dance the famous "Gule Wamkulu," know how to keep their identities hidden. Now the group of initiated Chewa men in Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique is getting a modern makeover.
It is said that the Nyau lead secluded lives and no one really knows who they are. Their group is supposed to embody the cosmology and religion of the Chewa - a Bantu people of central and southern Africa. The Chichewa word "Nyau" means mask.
"This cult has been around for centuries, but the Nyau association is closely related with Chewa and Mag'anja people who came to Malawi, with their origin being the Congo area," Zoe Groves, a lecturer in African history at the University of Cambridge, tells DW.
Reports about the Nyau society existed even in British colonial times. "They have been described as an alternative religion in the mid-19th century," says Laurel Birch Kilgore. The author of 'Inscribing the Mask' tells DW that the Nyau sprung from the indigenous religion that was primarily practiced by the Chewa people.
"Some people outside this religious context see Nyau as a strange, sometimes dangerous and backward cult," the writer adds.
Initiating young men into adulthood
The society represents solidarity among the men of various villages. The Nyau perform the famous "Gule Wamkulu" dance at the end of events initiating young men into adulthood. The dance is also performed at birth ceremonies, funerals or in remembrance of the ancestors.
Dancing the Gule Wamkulu has certain rules. The dancers - initiated Nyau men - wear masks and costumes made of banana leaves. The attire is meant to represent all aspects of humanity, but at the same time hide the dancer's identity.
"There are different, specific mask genres," Birch Kilgore says. "The black mask, for example, is the mask of the chief; it is a respected mask and is most likely to have wrinkles of age and animal fur."
Each kind of mask has a set of rules, a drum beat, a rhythm and a kind of performance associated with it. Every aspect of a mask's shape, coloring and material has a metaphorical, religious meaning.
Dance for socio-political change
The Gule Wamkulu ritual is not only about unusual costumes and terrifying masks. The dance is used to convey a message.
"They are bringing together the human, animal and spirit worlds," Groves explains. "They convey messages about certain practices and issues within village life that are difficult to talk about, like HIV/AIDS or sex. Those topics are tackled through the dance.”
The dancers also have the power to criticize the chief and the government. They use humor and satire to make political statements. They have the strength to do this because, while they are dancing, they are seen as spirits, not humans.
Even political leaders have harnessed power of this traditional cult. Malawi's founding president, Kamuzu Banda - who was himself Chewa - used Nyau performances to intimidate people who were perhaps critical of his regime or just to 'keep people in line.'
"He [Banda] wanted to convey and to present Malawian nationalism as a form of Chewa identity," Groves says.
Adapting to modern times
Co-existing with religions such as Christianity and Islam, the Nyau tradition is also developing and becoming more modern. New masks are being created. The modern masks don't represent spirits or animals, but everyday items such as motorbikes or cars.
"They are constantly creating new characters, new dances and new masks, and they convey different kinds of messages," Groves says. "Some masks even represent political leaders, and I heard that there is even a mask of the musician Madonna, because of her association with Malawi," she added, referring to the American singer's adoption of four Malawian children.
It's certainly not all serious, either. Laurel Birch Kilgore says that the Gule Wamkulu dance is "great fun and entertainment, even hilarious sometimes." Now, thanks in part to its modern makeover, it looks like the Nyau society will be dancing well into the future.