THE Nyau or Gule, popularly known in Zimbabwe as zvigure, are an enigma. Mystic, misunderstood and feared — their secrets have been hidden for centuries behind gory masks, cryptic dances and bizarre costumes.
In some communities, mentioning their names can cause serious discomfort while their sighting or presence will easily send those of a weaker disposition scurrying for cover.
Their “war cries” are adequate to trigger stampedes. Despite their fancy footwork and dazzling waist-wriggling dances — their appearance — a skilfully sculptured caricature of a human being or animal, stir up a lot of curiosity among those who are outside the Nyau community.
The Nyau observe a series of spine chilling rituals. It is a closely guarded Chewa society whose activities are shrouded in secrecy. While a lot has been said about these masked dancers, is there any truth in what many have come to believe?
The Sunday Mail Society went deep into the Nyau/Gule Wamkulu culture in search of answers. The experience was nerve-racking. We had a conversation with a man who has been a Nyau dancer for the past 40 years, religiously observing the society’s tenets. He delved into some of the hidden secrets of the Nyau culture.
“I am scared. I don’t know what will happen to me. But since you insisted, I will tell you,” said Misheck Chipiliro.
It is said divulging the brotherhood’s secrets is punishable by death. Chipiliro, as he preferred to be called, was initiated into the Gule Wamkulu at the tender age of eight, whilst living at a local mine.
“I was inspired by my father and I decided to go to dambwe — the school that initiates young boys into Nyau. From that point onwards, I became a Nyau because it is part of our culture as Chewa,” he said.
His desire was to become a makanja, a Nyau on stilts. However, he could not achieve this as using the pair of poles which takes the user to a high distance above the ground “requires more juju”.
Chipiliro said because of competition between various groups, some resort to sorcery to sabotage their opponents. An initiation ceremony for a new Nyau member usually begins with the initiate living in a cemetery for up to a week – a place feared by most, even during daytime. Chipiliro vividly explained initiation proceedings.
“The initiation process is complex and differs within groups but as for us, senior members had to whip us before asking us to suck blood from live chickens,” he said.
Apart from that, they were also taught how to handle “harmless snakes”. These are usually use during rituals.
Chipiliro said after initiation, they were blind folded with a black cloth.
“After three days, the blinds were removed. The elders then taught us about respecting our parents, not to enter their bedrooms or the kitchen area. After initiation we were also not allowed to open pots and dish our own food, etcetera,” he explained.
Chipiliro also revealed that during the initiation period, boys are circumcised. On their release from camp, they are not allowed to talk to anyone or eat anything for the next two weeks, unless they are given money.
But young girls are also not spared. They go to Chinamwali, where elderly women, referred to as Nyamukungu, teach them how to handle their homes when they eventually get married.
Despite his wife of 18 years being a Christian, Chipiliro claims he has initiated almost 500 members into the Nyau culture. During public holidays, anniversaries and funerals — Nyau members perform a masked dance called Gule Wamkulu (Great Dance) in Chichewa.
Chipiliro said the spirit world is symbolically represented during the Gule Wamkulu dance. During this dance, the Nyau are understood to be possessed by the spirits of the mask — both animal spirits, called nyama and the spirits of the dead or their ancestors, called mizimu.
The Nyau dances involve intricate footwork and flinging dust in the air. Dancers respond to specific drumbeats or songs, depending on their mask type and character. They often incorporate reverse role-playing, proverbs, mimicking and satire in their performances.
The Nyau believe that life exists within their ancestors and those not yet born, as well as the living.
“The Nyau communicate with the spirits or those who are dead, and this act is called pemphero lalikulu (great prayer),” he said.
He also added that the Gule also believe in the presence of God in everyday life, and that God has the universal powers. Senior Chinamwali women also take part in the Gule Wamkulu dance, clapping, singing and chanting. They respond to the song of the masquerades. Their masks are also symbolic.
“The black mask represents bad spirits while those with feathers represent good spirits,” Chipiliro said.
In this culture, identifying someone who is wearing a mask is disrespectful. Yet behind those intimidating masks, costumes and rituals are ordinary people who live normal lives.
“Your brother, your father or even your husband could be Nyau. Perhaps no one in your family will ever know because the Nyau keep their secrets, just as they have for hundreds of years.”
Nyau is a community, a tribe of the Bantu people from Central and Southern Africa. In Zimbabwe, the Nyau are found among Malawian and Zambian immigrant communities.
They are mostly found in Harare’s high density suburbs like Mufakose, Mabvuku, Dzivaresekwa and Mbare, as well as in farming and mining communities.