Unmasking the secretive Nyau culture

The feared Nyau dancers

By Norma Tsopo
The Nyau are an enigma. And this Chewa secret society – like the mysterious community they are, have been feasting on the confusion.
Mystic. Misunderstood. Feared. Its secrets have been hidden behind gory masks, cryptic dances and weird costumes.
Often hostile to outsider enquiries, this religious movement has held the world in awe with their lively street dances performances known as Gule Wamkulu.
But they are not always a peaceful affair. Nyau dancers have be known to beat up people, at times to death.
Nyau dancerThis has however not prevented UNESCO from designating the Nyau culture as one of the ‘Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’.
Explained, it can be a fascinating ritualistic dance to observe.
The performances are a representation of Chewa mythology and its beliefs about God, man and creation.
They believe that God, Chauta, came down to Earth with a man, a woman, and animals. All of them supposedly lived happily together until man’s discovery of fire.
All of the animals, except for the people’s livestock and pets, ran away from man in great fear.
Nyau performances try to personify life during this belief of a golden age in which humanity lived in harmony with their god and the animals and their descendants’ discovering of fire disturbed earth’s natural order.
Facial masks primarily represent ancestral spirits, while the zilombo, or wild animals, are large constructions — often made from wood and straw — that cover the entire body and mostly represent animals.
But there is also the representation of bad spirits which will be wearing scary masks and are the ones which beat up people and are often tired up during the performances.

Nyau Dancers
The feared Nyau dancers (Photograph by Burrard Lucas)

Nyau Kampini, or the ‘dangerous’ Nyau and the Nyau Akakairo are the most feared. These can unpredictably attack uninitiated people.
Beyond bringing together the human, animal and spirit worlds through the Gule Wamkulu ritual dances they also convey social, economic and political messages.
Using humour and satire they can criticize traditional leaders, governments and question the social order as well as address issues that may be too sensitive to tackle through dance and mime.
Their case is hugely aided because during their dances they are viewed as possessed and essentially as more of spirits than humans.
The Nyau are believed to have originated in the Congo but established in Malawi among the Chewa before migrating to eastern Zambia, western Mozambique and Zimbabwe during the colonial era through migrant workers.
In Zimbabwe the Nyau are commonly found in mining communities where the Chewa have been the core workforce.
Nyau dancers

The Nyau fiercely guard their identities and their traditions to an extent that family members may not even know what role others play during their ritualistic performances.
Secrets, in this religious cult are carefully kept in line with traditions secretly held together for many hundreds of years.
Initiation into the secret society is limited to those over 10 years with women being part of it well after their childbearing age. It often involves flogging before learning the discipline of being a Nyau cult member.
This has become as much a part of Zimbabwe’s diverse culture. And hidden behind the intimidating masks, costumes, and rituals are ordinary people.