Chewa people



The Chewa people are matriarchal Bantu-speaking ethnic group living Central, East and Southern Africa. They are found in Malawi (where they are predominant), Mozambique, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The Chewa are closely related to people in surrounding regions such as the Tumbuka and Nsenga. They are historically also related to the Bemba, with whom they share a similar origin in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As with the Nsenga and Tumbuka, a considerable part of Chewa territory came under the influence of the Ngoni, who were of Zulu or Natal/Transvaal origin. An alternative name, often used interchangeably with Chewa, is Nyanja. Their language is called Chichewa. Internationally, the Chewa are mainly known for their masks and their secret societies, called Nyau, as well as their agricultural techniques.

The Chewa (like the Nyanja, Tumbuka, Senga, Nsenga, Mang'anja) are a remnant of the Maravi (Malawi) people or empire.

There are two large Chewa clans, the Phiri and the Banda. The Phiri are associated with the kings and aristocracy, the Banda with healers and mystics.

Geography / Ecology

Chewa are located in Malawi 13° 30' S and 34° 00' E; Zambia 15° 0' S and 30° 0 ' E; Mozambique 18° 15' S and 35 ° 00' E (19). “Lake Malawi, which is located within the Great Rift Valley in south-central Africa (which is where the overwhelming majority of  Chewa individuals traditionally resided), is one of Malawi's most conspicuous topographic features. The southern Lake Malawi area is located within low lying valleys with an altitude ranging from 472 to 914 meters above sea level.

Drainage in the area is  good. Besides the Shire River which drains from Lake Malawi into the Zambezi River, there are many other rivers and numerous streams that rise in the surrounding hills and drain into the lake. The annual rainfall in the area ranges from 820 mm to 1030 mm. Although this amount is less than that of some of the other regions, it is still sufficient for dry farming. The temperature is between 25 and 30 c’ year-round. The vegetation which existed there before the area was heavily cultivated supported a wide variety of wild fauna as confirmed by remains from archaeological sites. However, today wild animals are rarely sighted. However, the rising human population and uncontrolled hunting have reduced these numbers to near extinction.”

Myths (Creation)

Religion among the Chewa starts with the idea of the creator deity Chiuta, who created all living things on the mountain of Kapirintiwa along the borders of Malawi and Mozambique during a thunderstorm. “As a result of the storm, the rains softened the hard surfaces, but as the surface hardened, their footprints became engraved in the actual rocks”



Chewa people speak Chewa, also known as Nyanja. The gender prefix chi- is used for languages, so the language is also known as Chichewa and Chinyanja (spelled Cinyanja in Zambia), and locally Nyasa in Mozambique. Chichewa or Chinyanja is a language of the Bantu family of languages that is widely spoken in parts of East, Central and Southern Africa. It is the most widely-spoken language in Malawi where, from 1968 until the mid-1990s, it was the national language. It is also spoken in Mozambique; Zambia, and Zimbabwe, where it is the third most widely used local language.

More than 65% of Malawi’s population of 11 million have active command of Chichewa, and perhaps as many as 80% have some knowledge of the language. In Mozambique, out of a population of 18 million, approximately 3.3%, mostly in the Tete Province in the lower Zambezi Valley and Niassa Province in the northeast of the country, speak Chinyanja. In Zambia, with a population of 10 million, approximately 16% are native speakers, and they live mostly in the Eastern Province, near the border with Malawi. However, Chinyanja is widely spoken beyond the Eastern Province, and it is estimated that as many as 42% of Zambians have basic communication skills in the language.


Town Nyanja

An urban variety of Nyanja, sometimes called Town Nyanja, is the lingua franca of the Zambian capital Lusaka and is widely spoken as a second language throughout Zambia. This is a distinctive Nyanja dialect with some features of Nsenga, although the language also incorporates large numbers of English-derived words, as well as showing influence from other Zambian languages such as Bemba. Town Nyanja has no official status, and the presence of large numbers of loanwords and colloquial expressions has given rise to the misconception that it is an unstructured mixture of languages or a form of slang.

The fact that the standard Nyanja used in schools differs dramatically from the variety actually spoken in Lusaka has been identified as a barrier to the acquisition of literacy among Zambian children., which develops online educational content in Zambian languages, has begun making 'Lusaka Nyanja' available as a separate language of instruction after finding that schoolchildren in Lusaka do not understand standard Nyanja.

Chinyanja has its origin in the Eastern Province of Zambia from the 15th century to the 18th century. The language remained dominant despite the breakup of the empire and the Nguni invasions and was adopted by Christian missionaries at the beginning of the colonial period.

In Zambia, Chewa is spoken by other peoples like the Ngoni and the Kunda, so a more neutral name, Chinyanja "(language) of the lake" (referring to Lake Malawi), is used instead of Chewa.

The first grammar, A grammar of the Chinyanja language as spoken at Lake Nyasa with Chinyanja–English and English–Chinyanja vocabulary, was written by Alexander in 1880 and partial translations of the Bible were made at the end of 19th century. Further early grammars and vocabularies include A vocabulary of English–Chinyanja and Chinyanja–English: as spoken at Likoma, Lake Nyasa and A grammar of Chinyanja, a language spoken in British Central Africa, on and near the shores of Lake Nyasa, by George Henry (1891). The whole Bible was translated by William Percival Johnson and published as Buku Lopatulika ndilo Mau a Mulungu in 1912.

A strong historical link of the Nyanja, Bemba and Yao people to the Shona Empire, who can point their earlier origins to Mashonaland, proves linguistically evident today. The ancient Shonas who temporarily dwelt in Malambo, a place in the DRC, eventually shifted into northern Zambia, and then south and east into the highlands of Malawi.


Historical Background of the Chewa People

The Chewa people migrated into Malawi  from Zaire now the Democratic Republic of  the Congo in the 16th Century. Some scholars have traced Chewa history to the Sudan while others assert that the Chewa people originated from Egypt. Speaking at the 2007 Kulamba ceremony, Chief Lukwa of Kasungu explained that: 

"The Chewa people have been nomadic throughout history. Their origin can be traced to Sudan before they settled in Zaire. He further explained that Sudan was the first more permanent settlement of Chewa people.

 By this, the chief implied that Chewa history did not necessarily start with Sudan. Dr. Hendrina Mazizwa (15 September 2007), a senior lecturer in History in the University of Malawi, revealed that Chewa people originated from Egypt. The label Chewa was, according to some accounts, one they acquired during a sojourn in Zambia before they pressed on and made their way into Malawi. According to Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda (1974 lecture), the first President of the Republic of Malawi, the title Chewa derives from the word Cheva or Sheva or Seva, which applied to them as a migrating group and contained the meaning of "foreigner." The migrating group apparently adopted the nickname and subsequent phonological changes resulted in the word Chewa, with their language becoming Chichewa.

The leader of the Chewa people from Zaire into Malawi was titled Kalonga. Kalonga founded the Maravi Empire in Malawi, and established his headquarters or seat in a place called Mankhamba near Mtakataka, Dedza. He later decided to extend his influence by acquiring more land for his subjects. In order to achieve this, he dispatched a number of his matrilineal relatives to establish settlements in various parts of the country.
The Maravi Empire later became Malawi. Malawi means “flames of fire.” East of where the Chewa people first settled is the Lake Malawi. History informs us that the reflection of the rising sun on the lake appeared to the Chewa people as flames of fire. The orthographic differences between “Maravi” and “Malawi” seem merely to be a result of academic development.

Historically, the Chewa society used dual leadership, which reflected the two main clans that it comprised – the Banda and the Phiri (Boucher, n.d:2). The Banda leadership (900 – 1400 AD) emphasized ritual authority and was embodied in the title “Mwali.” Mwali was a female medium associated with rainmaking and general fertility. On the other hand, the Phiri leadership (1400 AD onwards) stressed political role of their leaders and gave them the title Kalonga. Kalonga is a Chewa word that means „the one who enthrones or installs subordinate chiefs.‟ In general Chichewa, kalonga means “prince,” “lord” or “king” (Phiri, 1972:5).

Around 1500 AD, the two clans of Banda and Phiri mixed, but the titles of Mwali and Kalonga retained their value and remained the focus of their individual identity. The Phiri king, the Kalonga, played a mystical and spiritual role over the Maravi Empire. The religious belief of the Maravi people made their king the object of entry into the spiritual world and the gift of life and prosperity. In essence, Kalonga was god‟s living representative (Boucher, n.d:4).

The Kalonga was also the custodian of divine fire. For the Maravi/Malawi people, also known as “the people of the fire” (another possible source of the name of the empire), the divine fire symbolized life, health and success. Fire played other significant roles in Chewa culture. "In Phiri ritual, when a king died, people extinguished the royal fire and only the king‟s successor relit the fire." (Boucher, n.d:4)
The kindling of the new fire signified new life and the continuity of the Phiri rule. In addition, Chewa people burn fires at the onset of the dry season. The Chewa believe that the smoke from the fires bring rain and prosperity to the country. The Chewa interpreted such gifts as coming from the high god through their powerful dead kings.

By 1600, Kalonga ruled over a very large territory north of the Zambezi. Although the territory he had direct rule over was much smaller, he entrusted the rest of the territory to his matrilineal nephews who administered the adjacent regions as territorial chiefs. Political rivalries and succession disputes resulted in breakaway and separation of territorial chiefs. "“Malawi” Empire (which) allegedly underwent political fragmentation prior to the beginning of the 19th Century [and] the tendency towards small units, i.e., chiefdoms, [are] symptomatic of a breakdown in political evolution." (Phiri, 1972:5)
As the Chewa people spread throughout the central and southern parts of Malawi, into eastern Zambia and, into parts of Mozambique, and along the Zambezi River, their language spread too. One can also find traces of Chewa culture in Tanzania and Zimbabwe. There are close to 13 million Chewa people scattered in these  neighbouring nations. The supreme chief of the Chewa people lives in Chipata, Zambia. Kalonga Gawa Undi is his title. Gawa means „the one who gives out land‟ and Undi means „the one who protects his subjects.‟ Kalonga presides over all the installations and funerals of senior chiefs in the “Chewa kingdom” in Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique.

The dispersion of Kalonga's relatives and the ensuing Chewa Diaspora resulted in a proliferation of regional varieties of the language. The distinct names that the regional varieties acquired created the impression of the existence of a multiplicity of ethnic groups.  According to Mchombo (unpublished), some of the groups identified themselves by referring to significant features of their habitat. For instance, nearly twenty-percent of 
the land mass of Malawi is covered by Lake Malawi. From the southern tip of this lake flows the Shire River, which runs through southern Malawi into Mozambique where it flows into the Zambezi River. In the early version of the Chewa Diaspora, some of the people settled along the shores of the lake and along the Shire River, while others moved into the Malawi hinterland.

The Chichewa word for lake is nyanja, and the word for tall grass (savannah) is chipeta. The people who settled along the lakeshores and along the banks of the Shire River referred to themselves as Anyanja, the "lake people", and their particular variety of Chichewa became Chinyanja, the language of the lake [people]. Those who moved into the interior, the area of tall grass, were called Achipeta, the dwellers of the savannah grassland. The adoption of these labels, reflecting significant features of their environment, began to obscure the nature of their relationship, except by similarity of their languages. (Mchombo)

The introduction of yet other variations further complicated the situation. According to Mchombo, when the Portuguese began to move into the interior from South-Eastern Africa in the seventeenth century, they came across such ethnic groups as the Xhosa, the Nyika, the Tchangani, etc., who apparently referred to themselves as amaXhosa, amaNyika, amaTchangani, etc. Eventually, when the Portuguese encountered Achewa living in Mozambique, who had already adopted the label of Anyanja, they modelled their terminology on the morphological structure of the names of the other ethnic groups they had encountered and thus referred to them as Amanyanja (Banda, 1974: unpublished). Then, under the influence of Portuguese phonology, the sound ny, a palatal nasal, got nasalized to ng. This gave rise to an ostensibly non-distinct and nonexistent ethnic group of Amang'anja, whose language they called Chimang'anja. This label remained in use and, for many years, contributed to the rather erroneous view that they were a separate ethnic group whose language just happened to be similar to Chinyanja and Chichewa. (Mchombo, unpublished) Amang‟anja people now live in Chikwawa, one of the districts in southern Malawi, and parts of Nsanje.

Meanwhile, the Chewa people who had settled around the southern end of Lake Malawi and spread into the southeast of Malawi to the area surrounding Lake Chilwa and to the Mozambique part of the shores of Lake Malawi encountered another ethnic group, Ayao. The Yao word for lake is nyasa. The Yao referred to these Nyanja people as Anyasa. This original dispersion gave rise to groups identified as Achewa, Achipeta, Amang'anja, Anyanja, and Anyasa. The last designation contributed to British colonialists' eventual naming of the country as Nyasaland {The story goes that the British adventurer who "discovered" the lake happened to have arrived there in a predominantly Yao speaking part of the country. An inquiry into the name of the lake which, unfortunately, took the form, "What do you call that?" elicited the response, "Nyasa," the Yao word for 'lake'. From that, without a hint of irony, the lake got its name of Lake Nyasa and, the country around it got its name of Nyasaland, which it had until independence in 1964, when the name of Malawi, the modern pronunciation of the erstwhile Maravi, was then restored. After independence, the lake became Lake Malawi, at least within Malawi. The neighbouring countries of Tanzania and Mozambique maintain the name Lake Nyasa, obviously for political reasons Mchombo, unpublished)}before it was renamed Malawi after independence.

There are other Chewa dialects in other parts of the country. For example, Phiri (1972:7) reports that Pike divides the “Malawi” peoples into eight groups:

.....Chewa, Nyanja, Ntumba, Mbo, Chipeta, Zimba and Nsenga. The only importance of his eight divisions is that they make the student of Chewa history aware of the extent to which different “Malawi” groups had grown apart by the mid-19th Century.

However, Phiri (1972:7) posits that the logical approach to this complex issue is to divide the Maravi people into two subdivisions: the Chewa sub-division, which encompasses the Chipeta and Nyanja divisions; and the Mang‟anja sub-division." Within the borders of the Malawi nation, only two subdivisions would merit independent study: the Chewa, now predominantly found in the Central region, and the Mang‟anja in the Southern region. Divisions subsumed within these larger groups are often given a separate identity on the basis of the topography of the area they occupy. (Phiri, 1972:7)
Taking Phiri‟s argument into account, the area where this research was conducted is probably occupied by the Chipeta division of the Chewa people. But as Phiri (1972:7) further argues, the Mang‟anja [only] differed from the Chewa in that they possessed a centralised religion of their own, and absorbed influences from other peoples of the greater Zambezi. He thus refers to the Chipeta Chewa as the Northern Chewa “who inhabit the northern half of Malawi‟s central region” (Phiri, 1972:1). Of this division, Phiri (1972:8) adds:"The Northern Chiefdoms of the Chewa division [is] where Chewa influence has been “Malawi” influence in parochial terms.

In the present Malawi, the largest population of the Chewa people live in the Central Region, which has nine districts. There are also pockets of Chewa settlers albeit known by the different labels in more than five of the thirteen districts of the Southern Region. Currently, Malawi has 28 districts and a population of over 13 million. Recent statistics show that over 6 million of Malawi‟s population are of Chewa ethnic background. Chichewa has been Malawi‟s national language since 1968.



The Chewa are an agricultural based society, and farming is the primary income generator. The major crops being corn (maize) and sorghum. Considerable hunting and fishing are done. The village headman or chief determines how much and where the land is dispersed among the people of the village, so the land's ownership is constantly changing. Chewa farmers depend on a single wet season and a single harvest to obtain the bulk of their subsistence needs” and thus the calendar year is divided into six month intervals.

Main carbohydrate staple(s): “The Chewa diet consists mainly of nsima, a thick porridge (but it is not porridge) made from corn flour. It is eaten with a side dish called ndiwo, made from leafy vegetables, beans, and other ingredients.”   Corn, beans, rice and potatoes as well as other agricultural products were also frequently eaten as a staple of the Chewaian’s diet especially when meat was scare.

Main protein-lipid sources: While the Chewaian diet tended/s to consist mainly of agricultural products and wild plants, the preferred dish was in fact meat,however as mentioned above there tended to be a scarcity of meat and often most forms of meat were eaten, these include, fish, insects such as termites and locusts, bats, chickens, mice, antelope and just about any other mammal that could be hunted.


Sexual division of production

Prior to the arrival of Europeans the Chewa can be viewed as having a social life that revolved around a defined sexual division of production that centered on women being largely engaged in agricultural work, the cooking and preparation of food and basic household and child caring activities, whereas the men generally were absent for long periods of times, especially during dry seasons where their efforts were focused on fishing and the hunting of other mammals and in long distance trade, including the slave trade.


Socio-Political organization and interaction

A traditional village had from about 40 to up wards of 200 huts. An average-sized village has about 60 huts and a population of just over 100.  “There is generally no pattern of hut-grouping, but socially most villages comprise sections the spatial limits of which are not clear. These sections are usually a kinship unit, though it may include a few biological families who are not related to the majority of the section inhabitants. The kinship group comprising the core of the section is a matrilineage with a depth of three or four generations, to which are appended the spouses and seminal children of certain members.”

In Chewaian society the interaction between grandparent and grandchild is one of equality. While the grandchild resects their grandparents they do not fear them and refer to them as their affines. For example a grandson would refer to his grandmother as my wife and a granddaughter would refer to her grandfather as my fellow husband. Furthermore, the grandchildren spent the majority of their early years with their maternal grandmother and therefore a joking relationship is prevalent between grandparents and grandchild.

When speaking to individual who is older or superior that person is addressed as the mother of the child’s first name and/or the father of the child’s first name, i.e. the father of Jim, however when speaking to a peer they will address that person by their personal name.



Traditionally the marriage practice was for clan exogamy, since the Chewa society is matrilineal. When a chewa boy and a girl agree to marry. They exchange gifts known as chikole. This is a gift from a boy to a girl in form of clothing, household effects or money given at a time of proposing marriage. The gift may be returnable upon termination of betrothal.

However, it is not essential for the validity of a marriage. After the chikole, they both exchange information regarding the identity of their parents and their maternal uncles. The next step is for the boy to inform his mwini mbumba who eventually seeks the opinion of his nkhoswe wamkulu. Having obtained the approval of his nkhoswe wamkulu, the boy’s mwini mbumba institutes formal negotiations with the girl’s mwini mbumba. A further meeting is arranged for a later date to enable the girl’s mwini mbumba to consult his family elders, and to make private inquiries about the boy’s character and family background.

At the next meeting, if the boy’s proposal is accepted, a convenient date is fixed for the conclusion of the marriage negotiations, namely, the cohabitation between the spouses. Meanwhile, the boy will be encouraged to visit the girl’s home, and will be shown a piece of land on which he is expected to build the matrimonial home. This ends the formal negotiations for the proposed marriage. In some areas, if the marriage proposal has been accepted, a chicken by the boy’s mwini mbumba is offered to the girl’s mwini mbumba. The marriage may be regarded as concluded when the girl is handed over by her marriage guardian to the boy, and the parties begin to cohabit.

When a valid matrilineal customary marriage has been contracted, the husband is expected to go and live with his wife at his wife’s village. This is called chikamwini. Its original intent seems to have been a way of introducing a dependent male labourer into the wife’s family unit.
The residence for the married spouses is matrilocal. The husband is shown a piece of land on which to build the matrimonial home. They also allocate a piece of land to the newly wed couple to be used for cultivation of crops essential for the subsistence of their family. All the rights in respect of such land, are exercisable only with the consent of the wife’s kholo.

 Similarly, land allocated to a wife in her husband’s village is subject to the control and interest of the husband’s kholo. However, residence elsewhere chitengwa may be permitted at a later stage if the parties are agreeable and the arrangement has the consent of the wife’s guardian. Similarly, in the patrilineal system, a husband is obliged to provide his wife with a house.


Religious belief

Chewa people deeply acknowledge the existence of one supreme God, Chiuta. He is understood, among the Chewa people, as the creator of the cosmos. Chiuta emerges as the Creator, the source of life, and the giver of rain and sun, the one who has been in existence before creation. Another central figure to traditional Chewa religion was a serpent spirit known as Thunga, who had the ability to fly through the air to scared pools where rain calling ceremony were taking place. Keeping with the above traditional Chewa religion seems to fall between animism and ancestor worship. There is also Namalenga (the creator of the universe) and Mphambe (the lightning).

Chewa Witchdoctor sits near his “hospital” hut after the spiritual ceremony. Mafilipa village, Tete province.

Ancestral spirits (Midzimu Yamakolo). It is also a common fundamental belief among the Chewa that the existence of a person continues after death; he or she becomes a spiritual being and acquires characteristics of immortality and eternity. According to Scott (1892:415) “the ancestral spirits are the spirits of the departed who were once alive and are now dead. These are known as azimu (spirits). The Chewa believe that the spirits of their dead relatives survive physical death and remain alive. At death, the spirit leaves the body and flies away like wind or air and becomes god-like and goes to live in the spirit world.”

The ancestral spirits not only protect “their people from dangers such as dis ease, droughts, famine and witchcraft; but also they punish people when they break traditional moral norms.” When descendants perform appropriate ritual ceremonies and through them, the Azimu will perpetuate their contacts with the living through dreams, visions or by means of spirit possession of which only the diviner can give an authoritative interpretation. 

Tribal spirits (Midzimu Yamitundu): In order to understand the tribal spirits, one has to know the role of royal (chiefs’) graves in the religious system of the Chewa. According to Amanze (2002:166) “the, for all practical purposes, a ritual figure since his or her ancestral spirits are considered as the supernatural guardians of the land and the village group or territorial group depends, to a large extent, on his good will.” A chief never dies, but continues to rule his people in this world through his successor. The deceased chief, it is believed, becomes even more powerful in the spirit world than when he was on earth. Therefore, when the tribe is facing natural disaster, appeals are brought to this chief as one among many in a long chain or hierarchy of intermediaries whose position is to intercede before God on behalf of the tribe or people (Amanze 2002:1 67).

Spirits (Midzimu).:  Chewa people, believe the spirits always existed, and they are omnipresent, very much a part of the world. People project these spirits into their natural surroundings. These spirits could include nature spirits, spirits under the control of malicious sorcerers and witches, and spirits that come from outside a person’s particular ethnic lineage; sometimes seen as avenging spirits (Mbiti,1969:80). e ancestral spirits exercise control over the living and all life exists under their surveillance.” He observes that “the ancestral spirits are treated with awe, fear, reverence, respect and veneration.” Their influence penetrates almost every sphere of life. Therefore, many spirits are feared, and so people go to diviners or medicine-men (ng’anga) to seek protection from them.

Evil spirits (Midzimu Yoipa):Among the Chewa people, the spirits of witches are supposed never to acquire the status of ancestral spirits since being an ancestral spirit is, in itself, a sign of moral superiority, and witches and sorcerers are believed to be evil persons by nature, hence they become evil spirits (Mizimu yoipa). Witches and sorcerers who die are said to be wandering around homeless and to change into dangerous animals like hyenas (Amanze, 2002:144).Daneel (1971:161) states that hereditary witches have evil spirits in their blood which they cannot get rid of. Such witches cannot live without bewitching others.

Good spirits (Midzimu Yabwino).: Among the Chewa people, good spirits are those which are directly concerned with the welfare of the living. They act as guardian angels, being active in the day to day activities of their people. Mbiti (1969:83) states that good spirits “are guardians of family affairs, traditions, ethics and activities.” It is commonly believed that the good spirits of good people live in the spirit world in which Chauta is King. It is said that the spirits of good people return to the physical world or reincarnate in the form of harmless snakes (Njoka). Geoffrey Parrinder (1967:22) states that the snake has had a fascination for people in every land. It is mysterious, fearful and immortal. It isregarded as immortal, because it sheds its skin, yet it continues to live. Parrinder furtherpoints out that a snake with its tail in its mouth, apparently swallowing itself yet with no beginning or end like a circle and sphere, is symbolic of eternity. This concept of eternity is the basis of Chewa spirituality

Angry spirits (Midzimu Yokwiya): The other spirits among the Chewa people are angry spirits. Crawford (1967:88) describes angry spirits as spirits with a grudge and bent on vengeance. There are four types of angry spirits according to Gelfand (1962:162). These include the spirit of a murdered person; the spirit of a servant who has not been paid for his services or a person from whom something was taken or borrowed and not returned; the spirit of a husband or wife who died in an unhappy state of mind over a matter of deep concern; and finally, the spirit of a parent, especially a mother who was ill-treated by the children. These spirits will seek amends and payments for the injustice from the guilty parties. The Chewa people believe that an angry spirit can cause very serious quarrels within a family, misfortune, and loss of property, wealth or life.

Alien spirits (Midzimu Yachilendo):Alien spirits form another class of spirits found among the Chewa people. They are the spirits of non-members of the lineage such as white people, or even animal spirits. These spirits can confer to their hosts particular skills for divination, hunting etc. They may, however, also be associated with activities such as witchcraft. While they may choose their host, they may also be given to a person by a previous owner or may be inherited from an ancestor.


Passage rituals (birth, death, puberty, seasonal)

The funerary ritual starts with utaya, the burial rite, and is completed by bona, a rite that takes place after the harvest of corn in the subsequent year. The Nyau (a masked men society) carry the body of the deceased on a stretch to the burial site and also perform the burial itself. Bona is performed along with beer brewing.

According to the Chewa, the beer is not only for the people attending the rite, but also for the spirits of the dead. The Chewa believe that if the dead are merely buried, they cannot be born again, being tied to the earth. The role played by the Nyau at the bona ritual is to enable the spirits of the deceased to leave the earth and return to God; as ancestral spirits, they can be reincarnated in the bodies of their descendants.

The Nyau (Nyao: meaning mask) society consists of initiated members of the Chewa and Nyanja people, forming the cosmology or indigenous religion of the people. Initiations are separate for men and for women, with different knowledge learned and with different ritual roles in the society according to gender and seniority. Only initiates are considered to be mature and members of the Nyau. The word Nyau is not only used for the society itself, but also for the indigenous religious beliefs or cosmology of people who form this society, the ritual dance performances, and the masks used for the dances.

Nyau societies operate at the village level, but are part of a wide network of Nyau across the central and part of the southern regions of Malawi, eastern Zambia, western Mozambique and areas where Malawians migrated in Zimbabwe. During performances with the masks women and children often rush into the houses when a Nyau performer threatens, as the masks are worn by only male members of the society and represent male knowledge. At that moment in the performance and rituals, Nyau masked dancers are understood to be spirits of the dead. As spirits the masquerades may act with impunity and there have been attacks and deaths during performances in the past. Increasing westernization has led to a decrease in Nyau.

A cave painting in Zaire depicts Kasiya Maliro, a type of Nyau mask that may date to 992 CE. The Nyau cosmology continued during the time of the Ngoni invasions in the mid-1800s and during the time of early colonists including Portuguese and British. According to local mythologies Nyau came from Malomba, a place in what is now the DRC. Due to heavy punishment for telling secrets to non-initiates about the Nyau cosmology (e.g. who are the men dancing) the origin of Nyau could not be clarified by the first missionaries and colonialists arriving in Maravi. Penalties went as far as the person revealing secrets being killed by members of the society. The arrival of missionaries during the 1920s had a growing influence on Nyau at the village level, which produced open conflict. Though Christian missionaries banned Nyau in Chewa communities, the society and its practice survived under British colonial rule through adaptation that included some aspects of Christianity. Presently, it is still practiced with Chewa members belonging both to a Christian church and the Nyau society. Although some other ethnic groups have developed cultural dances, such as the Ngoni, Yao and Mang'anja, the Nyau' of the Chewa can be considered the most elaborate of the secret societies and dances in areas around Lake Malawi.

The Nyau beliefs include communication with those who are dead, or their spirits, calling this act pemphero lalikulu ("Great Prayer"). Chewa believe in the presence of God in everyday life, and that God is both male (in the sky) and female (in the earth). Words for God include Chiuta, the great bow or rainbow in the sky and Namalango in the earth, like a womb, where seeds germinate and is a source of new life. The spirit world's symbolism is presented at the Gule Wamkulu ("Big Dance"), which incorporates mwambo ("traditions"), masks, song, dance and rules. Nyau incorporates sophisticated reverse role-playing, proverbs, mimicking and satire in performances. Primarily the Nyau perform their masked dances at funerals, memorial services and initiations (for girls: Chinamwali). Each dancer represents a special character relating to the mask or animal structure he wears. The zilombo ("wild animals") are large constructions that cover the entire body and mostly represent animals, and the masks worn over the face are primarily ancestral spirits. The secrecy behind Nyau incorporates coded language, riddles, metaphor, myths and signing. Viewed with suspicion by outsiders, Nyau has been misunderstood and misrepresented by others, including the Christian church.

Initiation of men into the secret society begins with residing in a wooded grove, the place the dead are buried (cemetery) for a week or much longer in the past. Particularly in Zimbabwe, Nyau members that migrated from Malawi and are now part of the Shona Culture still practice Nyau rituals and hold Nyau religious beliefs. They perform dances in the suburbs of Mabvuku, Highfield and Tafara. They attempt to scare away people who wish to interview them saying "Wavekutamba nemoto unotsva" (you are now playing with fire you will get burnt).

Women and children and also some men may rush into the houses when a Nyau performer appears. Nyau is the presence of the dead, an encounter with a spirit and so associated with fear and ritual dread. However, senior women perform in the Gule Wamkulu with intricate clapping, singing, dancing and chanting, responding to the song of the masquerader and are close to the dancers. During the funeral period, women joke with the Nyau in a practice called kasinja whilst brewing beer and while staying awake the night before a funeral. Men and women both enter the graveyard grove burials at the end of the Nyau funeral performance.

Initiated women attend the Nyau performances freely, though they will deny knowledge of the men wearing masks. The men are actual spirits in the ritual, and cannot be spoken of as men even though women will recognize their husbands, fathers, brother and uncles. Identifying the man wearing a mask is disrespectful to the religion, breaking the moment when the masquerade is the spirit of the dead, much as calling Eucharist a biscuit breaks the ritual moment when Christ is near and would be considered disrespectful to Christians.

Uninitiated women and children, and uninitiated men, may be chased by Nyau performers and non-members are discouraged from coming near during funerals. In part this is to avoid outsiders from being disrespectful, not understanding the importance of a 'good' burial and the significance of the presence of teh dead. In Zambian villages, boys may participate in groups called kalumbu who join a group from as young as five or six. However, they must pay a joining fee (often around 2 kwacha in 1993) which they raise by hunting and selling birds, or the fee is paid by their parents. Upon joining the novices are often beaten with branches before learning the discipline. The minimum age of boys or girls joining the Nyau itself is usually around ten years of age.

The variety of masks resembling ancestors is huge and ever growing, unlike the animal structures. Some mask carvers are professionals while others are occasional artisans. Over 400 masks which are associated with the Nyau society and the Gule wamkulu ritual are exhibited at the Chamare Museum in Dedza District, Malawi.



Nyau masks are constructed of wood and straw. and are divided into three types. The first is a feathered net mask, the second is a wooden mask and the third is a large zoomorphic basketry structure that envelops the entire body of the dancer. Wearing the latter, dancers tend to turn around and around in a motion known as Nyau yolemba.

They are representations of a large variety of characters, including wild animals such as antelope, lions and hyenas. With names such as Bwindi, Chibano, and Wakana, the masks portray a variety of traits and types such as the philanderer, a helpless epileptic, lust, greed, foolishness, vanity, infertility, sorcery, and ambition.; even a helicopter. As one Nyau member explains the masks and performance represents all of humanity and all of the spirit world.

There are a variety of mask types, some of which include:

Bwana wokwera pa ndege/pa galimoto (Mister in a plane/in a car) is representing a "white" person. This mask shows how those who already had money and power in their lifetime, will keep this even when they have passed in the ancestral world.

Chabwera kumanda (the one who came back from the grave) is a character who misreads people and resembles an ancestor who hunts people in their dreams in order to get attention and offerings (e.g. beer, meat, etc.). While his dance, Chabwera kumanda chases people around which underlines his evil character.

Kasinja or Kamchacha is the messenger of important ancestors. He sometimes partly plays some kind of moderator and tells which mask or animal is coming next to perform its dance.

Kondola which originated as Msakambewa ("Mouse Hunter"), then changed into To Ndola (a man in a copper mining town), and then changed again, to Chizonono (someone afflicted with gonorrhea), is an example of a mask that has undergone transformation because of changing pressures and societal influences.

Maliya (eventually from Mary) represents a kind hearted female ancestor. This dancer will sing and dance together with the people.

Mfiti (witch) is wearing a very nasty mask and has in general a very demolished and shaggy appearance. The outer shape resembles its evil character, since witches are believed to kill people with their juju.

Simoni (eventually from Saint Peter) wears a red mask, resembling an Englishman with sunburn. Therefore he is further wearing a suit made of rags. This character might be a caricature on the English colonialists.

The initiation ritual for girls is called cinamwali and during this ritual a girl who has reached the age of puberty is secluded in a house for a certain period of time and is taught the manners and accomplishments required of an adult woman. She is also warned not to reveal to men any of the things she will learn in the ceremony. The content of the teachings, presented mostly through songs and dancing, can be classified into two types: instruction in womanly manners and practical instruction in sex and childbearing.



Gulewamkulu festivals take place when there is less agricultural activity so that villagers have adequate time to prepare for and stage the performances. In addition, after harvest the people have enough food for the festival. Some of the harvested maize is used to brew beer for the participants who include invited guests from surrounding villages.The sales of their agricultural products also ensure that the villagers have enough money for sponsoring the nyau activities. Some of the money is used to hire drums, buy additional cloths for masks, and give cash rewards (kusupa) to gulewamkulu dancers.

Gulewamkulu, literally translated as „big dance‟ or „great dance‟, is probably the most popular dance in Malawi. It is a Chewa ritual dance that emanates from boys‟ initiation ceremony. Masked dancers of different types, shapes, and forms dance to drums and hand clapping accompanying songs that are often characterized by words of wisdom, instruction, and storytelling, sometimes using coded language. The gulewamkulu characters are regarded as ancestral spirits (mizimu) that come to join with the world of the living, and in the process leave instructions that will lead to successful co-existence. They are also regarded as beasts or wild animals (vilombo) that would harm anyone who does not take heed of the instructions given. The initiation camps are usually within or very close to a graveyard where these ancestral spirits “live.” In modern Malawi, the gulewamkulu perform at festivals, political rallies, installation ceremonies, and at funerals of Chewa chiefs and members of the gulewamkulu society.

According to Chewa oral tradition, gulewamkulu was initially performed by women in relation to girls‟ initiation into womanhood, and their incorporation into the adult society. (Schechner, 1985:36). Later on, gulewamkulu changed in scope and objectives. It now plays a major role in both male and female initiation. In strict modern gulewamkulu societies all the characters are male. They sometimes depict female behaviour by merely dressing like women. However, in moderate gulewamkulu societies, performers may include both women and men.

The performers wear masks to conceal their identity, and to imitate certain persons and wild animals or beasts. The identity of each character is therefore kept a secret, and the characters are regarded as a reincarnation of dead ancestors that come back to dwell temporarily among the living. Each mask bears the name of the character or personality it portrays. The masks include both carved face masks and basketry (burlap) masks in terms of their physical appearance. Some „masks‟ are merely head covers (chisudzo) made from different types of materials including birds‟ feathers and animal skins depending on the function of the character being portrayed.

Gulewamkulu is a generic name for the performance or the (secret) society, while vilombo (singular, chilombo) or gule (dance) is a generic name for all the mask characters. The society is also referred to as the nyau. Traditionally, the term nyau refers to all basketry masks such as the ng‟ombe (the cow), the njovu (the elephant) or the chilembwe (the “antelope”). In this case, the title chilombo is relegated to the other, bipedal‟ characters. In modern Malawi, the terms nyau and gulewamkulu are used interchangeably. These two terms as well as the term gule are used in this chapter to mean the same thing – the dance, the dancers, or the society/cult.

In conclusion, the term nyau refers to a system of secret society religious worship also nicknamed, Mpingo wa Aroni‟ (Aaron‟s Church – named after the Biblical Aaron the high priest) with its particular rituals and devotion to ancestral spirits. The cult and the dance in nyau are so intertwined that they are hardly separated from each other. However, oral tradition suggests that the dance came first and developed into a cult. (Kuthemba-Mwale, 1977:26).


Other Chewa Dance / music

In Chewa communities, a specific style of drumming may be used for similar or related dances. For instance, the gulewamkulu drums are also performed for them njedza, kazukuta, chisamba, or chinamwali cha mkangali dances since they have several things in common with the gulewamkulu: they function as transitional dances into adulthood or are merely related to adult life, and are performed or monitored only by senior members of the society.

The mnjedza is performed by village heads and chiefs, both male and female, just before a gulewamkulu performance. The dance is a curtain raiser (kalambula bwalo) for the gulewamkulu performance. Chiefs and village heads are custodians of the gulewamkulu tradition, and have the responsibility to announce all gulewamkulu performances on the final day of every festival through the dancing of mnjedza. While all the dancers are community leaders, they are also generally advanced in age.

The kazukuta is a dance of mature men and women. These people are usually family or household heads, whose village roles include being chiefs‟ advisors, medicine men, counsellors, and specialists in such community roles as grave digging, drum making, or music making. This group of elderly men and women meet in various forums to discuss current issues. The meetings can either be formal or informal. One such
informal setting is a beer party.

When these men and women have drunk to their satisfaction, they often dance the kazukuta whose movements are similar to those of the gulewamkulu. These similar dance movements are a reflection of the dancers‟ adulthood achievement through the gulewamkulu and other forms of initiation. It is through the kazukuta that these men and women merge and are free to comment on society‟s sacred issues and perform
together an otherwise ritually prohibitive „dance‟ – the gulewamkulu in disguise.

The chinamwali cha mkangali is the observance of female transition rites. Both men and women folk observe together the passing of girls through this initiation practice with the participation of the gulewamkulu. What is gulewamkulu to the male community is „chinamwali‟ to the female community. Both initiations have their own advisors called the namkungwi. These are responsible for instructing initiates on morality and adult life. Male and female namkungwis usually meet and plan initiation ceremonies for the adolescent boys and girls in a particular year. They then meet the village head for his authorization and input. This collaboration is necessary to prevent a clash of programmes and promote proper coordination of the two initiations.

While the chinamwali is usually the general term for female adolescent initiation, the chisamba is performed as an initiation dance for women who have their first conception. All the female initiation „dances‟ are accompanied by drumming. Men play the same gulewamkulu drums during the closing ceremonies of all the chinamwali events. In addition, every „senior‟ chinamwali ceremony is graced by special gulewamkulu performances. As a revolutionary move, women decided to exclude male and the gulewamkulu involvement in female initiation rites. A similar dance called njelelo was introduced whereby women themselves wear masks and display a kind of „female gulewamkulu‟ performance.

Weddings and inter-village festivals provide another context for the performance of entertainment dances of the chimtali and mganda. In addition, youthful dances such as the gwanyasa are performed during school festivals in the contemporary Chewa setting.



The various gulewamkulu characters play different roles in the dance, and their actions contribute to the overall function of the performance. The gulewamkulu performance has a number of functions including educational, psychological, social, and aesthetic(Kamlongera, 1992:39-0). Educationally, the performance is instructive, thereby making continuous use of the gulewamkulu characters to become symbols of particular human behaviour, whose parallels are obvious to the society. This is achieved through songs that are particularly composed to address current issues.

Psychologically, the performance offers an opportunity to the dancers to express suppressed desires, release emotional tensions, and comment on strained relationships. This is achieved through songs directed at attacking the person or persons against whom the gulewamkulu character bears a grudge. In this way, the gulewamkulu performance offers a structural and socially legitimate means for the expression of such tensions, without resulting into disrupted social relationships within the family members (Kamlongera et al, 1992:40). In addition, the gulewamkulu performance offers the audience an opportunity to meet old friends and make new acquaintances. The creative minds behind the construction of various masks and the fascinating dance steps of the different gulewamkulu characters also become a source of appreciation by the audience.

Gulewamkulu Organization

The aspect of „time‟ in gulewamkulu performances is a critical element. Like in many African dance performances, time in gulewamkulu can be described in three ways –time of the day, i.e., morning, afternoon, or evening; season, i.e., rainy season or dry season; and „function‟, i.e., funeral, installation ceremony, festival or initiation. Some nyau characters can only perform in the night while others do perform both during day and in the night.

Some nyau characters only perform during funerals or installation ceremonies, while others perform during celebrations and Chewa festivals. Except for funerals, the gulewamkulu activities take place in the dry season. The dry season is the „fallow period‟ during which there is little or no work in the fields to keep villagers busy. In addition, the essential nyau construction materials such as maize sheaths, sisal, and dry grass are readily available in the dry season. The gulewamkulu is organized in a hierarchy of the characters. Some characters are bipedal, some are quadrupedal and others are non-pedal. The last two nyau categories form high-level characters according to the gulewamkulu hierarchy. The most senior nyau character is the njovu (elephant). Drumming patterns, drumming mood, and the type of the main drum for each level of the gulewamkulu correspond with the seniority of the characters.

Basketry (burlap) and animal structures of njovu, kasiyamaliro, and chilembwe perform only during functions that are connected with senior community leaders. These leaders include chiefs and gulewamkulu executive members. Nowadays, these performances are extended to presidential rallies and political meetings organised by cabinet ministers. Performance of these senior gulewamkulu characters signifies honour and authority. Traditionally, the njovu, kasiyamaliro, and chilembwe performed during installation ceremonies (kulonga ufumu), women‟s initiation rites (chinamwali cha chingondo/mkangali), at chiefs‟ and gulewamkulu executive members‟ funerals, and during commemorative rites for deceased gulewamkulu members (mpalo).During performances, a number of men often dance and sweep around these „senior‟ gulewamkulu characters, creating a human shield and causing a lot of dust, thereby making it difficult for the curious eye to make out what the „animal‟ looks like.

Since only senior members of the gulewamkulu compose songs for the senior nyau that are suitable for chiefs‟ and other community leaders‟ functions, general rhythmic arrangement of such songs is different from those of the junior gulewamkulu (bipedal characters). Different also is the mood that such songs portray. These songs are composed for specific dance movements of these nyau. The dance movements reflect on the respect and authority as well as status of the people for whom these performances are carried out. In addition, different characters have different dance movements in order to portray different moods: some movements depict sorrow, some depict expression of loss, some depict wisdom of elders, and others depict a sense of authority. These different movements are also necessitated by the physical structure of the different characters and the creation of the necessary mood is supported by the „dampening‟ drum sound.

To ensure compliance of non-society members, the gulewamkulu uses coded language as a way of checking invasion into their society. Use of questions and symbols, all describing nyau characters and practices at different hierarchy levels, is employed to screen out intruders. The gule or their escorts interrogate any suspicious males that they come across using their coded questions or symbols. When the suspect fails to 
answer, he is punished through scourging or forced initiation. Serious impudence towards the nyau society attracts more severe consequences including banishment from the community, or bewitchment by the gulewamkulu society.

The Gulewamkulu Organization Settings

There are three settings for the gulewamkulu organization: the dambwe, the liunde, and the bwalo.

The dambwe is the permanent camp of the gulewamkulu society. It is situated away from the village, often inside a graveyard or in a secluded place such as a forest. Once declared dambwe, the place is safeguarded from ordinary people‟s interference. The Chewa tradition respects graveyards, and allows uncontrolled growth of natural trees and bushes in burial places. For one reason, this is done to preserve trees that are left to dry and later used as firewood during funerals, when need arises. The second reason is that the trees provide shade to grave diggers and mourners during burial ceremonies. The last reason is that the trees and bushes are believed to provide a "resting place‟ (mthunzi – the shade) for the ancestral spirits. This nature preservation  practice provides a ready solution for the establishment and protection of the dambwe.

The following are the functions of the dambwe

The dambwe acts as the boys‟ initiation camp, where the initiates receive instructions about adult life. This process involves instruction on responsible behaviour, respect for elders, hard work, and marriage life. To encourage many boys to admire initiated life, experiences in the dambwe are kept secret. Any initiate revealing gulewamkulu secrets is severely punished. Dambwe life encourages survival of the fittest, as members are trained to endure hardships. Fights and other cruel things are common among nyau members. No one is allowed to stop a fight or report tough dambweexperiences to other members of the community. Instead, initiates are taught to disguise truth by reporting fantasy, such as daily feasts at the dambwe with a beef menu. In fact, the kasiyamaliro is referred to as „meat‟ or „the animal‟ (nyama) which the initiates share during these sumptuous feasts.

In addition, the dambwe acts as a workshop for the construction of the gulewamkulu masks and storage of the nyau structures. Handy individual masks are kept in dancers‟ homes especially in boys dwelling units (mphala) where traditionally women are not allowed to enter. Since gulewamkulu characters are regarded as spirits, any invasion of the dambwe by both women and the uninitiated men would expose the dambwe secrets. Any kind of exposure of the gulewamkulu secrets through both carelessness by members or invasion of the dambwe and watching the dance by male non-members is termed “kufwala gule” and is considered a very serious crime that attracts hefty fines including death. Hence, the place should always be secured. The dambwe also serves as a training camp for the gulewamkulu dance. It is here where members teach each other songs, dance steps, and drumming patterns.
The second gulewamkulu performance setting, the liunde, is a temporary camp, or a resting place. During each performance, the nyau leave the dambwe and camp in a liunde, which is situated close to the dancing arena. When the dancing arena is close to the dambwe, there is usually no need for a liunde. All the dancers go to the liunde in full „regalia,‟ and use the liunde for resting and preparation for the bwalo.

The bwalo is the dancing arena, which is a clearing large enough to hold a few dozens of participants. The arena is situated within the village close to or away from a grave yard. Most bwalos have a big tree nearby that provides shelter for dignitaries during performances. Where natural shade is not available, a temporary v.i.p. structure is constructed. Bwalos are known and named after some distinguishing features such as trees. Our research found out that in the villages of Khuwi and Mpando of T.A. Kalumo in Ntchisi, their bwalos are called „Ku Muula‟ and „Ku Msekese‟ after the muula and msekeke trees that provide shade at their respective dancing arenas. Over time these trees have become symbols of the bwalo.
Performance Context and Administration of the Gulewamkulu.

The common gulewamkulu performances take place during the Chewa annual thanksgiving festivals. These festivals usually run for one week or two weeks in some Chewa communities. The organization of the gulewamkulu for public performances involves the executive, the performers, and the audience. The performers include both the dancers and the drummers, while the audience comprises females of any age, boys of less than ten years, and initiated men. The executive comprises the village head who is the mwinimzinda (patron), the wakunjira, the tsabwalo, and the tsang‟oma.

The patron is the honorary owner of the gulewamkulu cult and is vested with powers of authorizing all performances. The title mwinimzinda literally means “city owner.”Chewa village heads are often elevated to the status of mwinimzinda only from the gulewamkulu view point when they satisfy certain conditions. Some of the conditions include seniority among other neighbouring village heads, having senior men and women who can conduct initiation rites, and showing general interest in initiation activities through material and moral support. One mzinda may consist of several neighbouring villages, each having their village head, but falling under one gulewamkulu patron. Apart from deciding when and where gulewamkulu performances should take place within his area of jurisdiction, the mwinimzinda is also responsible for settling disputes arising during performances.

The wakunjira may be compared to a prime minister and is usually the patron‟s relative, often a nephew. Wakunjira either means “spy” or “monitor” or “supervisor.” He is the likely heir to the throne, and should have hands on training as far as the gulewamkulu administration is concerned. The wakunjira ensures protection of dancers and the performance arena from bewitchment resulting from competition between dancers, and jealousies from other patrons or members of the audience. He also ensures the smooth running of and thorough preparations for the performance. The term tsabwalo means “captain of the arena” or “the owner of the arena” or simply “one who deals with the arena” and, as the name suggests, is responsible for the preparation of the dancing arena. He ensures that the arena (bwalo) is cleared and ready for the performance. He is also responsible for fencing the arena and constructing shelters, if need be. In addition, he liaises with the wakunjira on the position of the liunde.

The last member of the gulewamkulu executive committee is the tsang‟oma. The term stands for one who is responsible for the drums (ng‟oma). His duties include gathering drums for the performance, ensuring good condition of the drums, tuning the drums, and ensuring that the drummers are rewarded and taken care of. He is also entrusted with hiring of extra drums. . Contemporary practices have quite different administrative set ups basically due to the fact that the nyau is a progressive cult and so it easily entertains both evolutionary and revolutionary elements in order to respond to contemporary demands. For example, the contemporary title for the leader of the dambwe, locally referred to as „wamkulu wa kumadzi‟ (This expression means “the head of the water source.” The dambwe is also referred to as a pool or water source (kumadzi) because it is imposed that all the gule are not man-made but they are "fished‟ out of this mysterious pool found at the dambwe) is “pilisipolo” (principal) or “bishopu” (bishop) according to the area where this research was conducted. The nyau patron is no longer always a village head. He may be one of the village elders who is appointed through a defined system of the nyau society, or who inherits this role from a deceased or retired relation – the nyau cult is nowadays regarded as an independent "village.‟ Such nyau patrons are referred to as wamzinda (of the mzinda or responsible for the mzinda) and not the mwinimzinda or mnuwake mzinda (the owner of the mzinda) as was traditionally the case.

Gulewamkulu Drumming

The gulewamkulu dance uses six drums. The dancer needs all the drums, but specifically dances to one drum, which nevertheless depends on the other five drums for the drumming to be complete. Informants reported that there are three basic gulewamkulu drums which may successfully be used in any performance. The remaining three merely help to consolidate or „harmonize‟ the three major drums. The drumming pattern, style, and tempi reflect on the character of a particular mask. Kerr (1998:26) quotes Blackmun and Schoffeleers on the gulewamkulu drumming tempo that corresponds to undesirable characteristics personified by a gulewamkulu mask called tamutamu as follows:

This dancer is accompanied by a slow heavy beat on the drums as he takes long, lurching strides, leaning and bumping into others on his way. This heavy quality is reflected by the artist in his treatment of the mask particularly that of the mouth ….an expression of open-mouthed, drunken stupor."The six drums of the gulewamkulu seem to be symbolic as the number six is also consistently used in the gulewamkulu when interrogating non-initiates. For example, a common gulewamkulu question asks how many spots a guinea fowl has. The answer is six. This number represents the different types of materials used to construct a basketry mask of ng‟ombe (ox), or mkwala, or cholemba. Of course, the initiate is taught what those six types of materials are called in their coded language and we will not present them here for ethical reasons.

The six gulewamkulu drums are mjidiko, kamkumbe, mpanje, gunda, mbalule, and ndewele. The drums are named according to their function in the nyau performance. While basic drumming patterns are maintained for all gulewamkulu performances, different gule dance to different drumming rhythm combinations. Different areas have different names for the six gulewamkulu drums. The differences come basically from rhythmic descriptions of each drum. Alternative names given to each drum are included in the following descriptions, meanings, and functions of the different gulewamkulu drums:

This drum is used to provide the foundational rhythm and set the tempo for the dance. It is played as a lead drum before any other drum joins in. Its name is derived from its function – kujidika (to set the pace). The mjidiko is also known as the mbitembite, mbandambanda, or tiyatiya. The three alternative names are onomatopoeic expressions describing the drum's rhythm.

Kamkumbe. This is a support drum to the mjidiko. Its function is to „echo‟ the lead drum (kupolokozana) in a kind of conversation. Its name comes from its rhythmic nature of „unearthing‟ – kukumba or burrowing – kukolowola; hence its alternative name of mkowolo. This drum unearths a typical Chewa dance rhythm of “chili kumunda nchambewu” or “kali kumunda nkambewu.” It is also known as the miningo (inviting drum/announcing drum).

Mpanje.The basic nyau dance rhythm is punctuated by the mpanje drum. Whereas the mjidiko and the kankumbe are not treated as „drums‟ (ng‟oma) as such, but rather as the, kapelegede‟ (escort or keeping company), the mpanje is the first recognizable „drum‟before the entry of the other „drums.‟ The mpanje rhythms alternate to provide rhythmic variations that are foundational to a particular dance step. This is in contrast with the mjidiko and the kamkumbe static rhythms. Another name for the mpanje is the mtiwiso – a tool used to press a soft surface – probably coming from its careful determination of the nyau „delicate‟ dance steps.

Gunda. The gunda is responsible for keeping a steady beat just as the foot drum in jazz drumming. The steady beat is necessary for the successful functioning of the mpanje whose rhythm keeps changing throughout the performance. The gunda drum is often the same as the one used for the chimtali and mganda performances also known as thephulankhali. It is mostly a round double-headed drum, although a „make shift‟ cylindrical drum may be used as the gunda. The gunda player sits on the drum frame and beats the drum either with bare hands or with a beater (chibulilo). The best description for the gunda is „bass drum‟ (Kwilimbe, 2 July 2008)

Mbalule.The mbalule is the key drum for most gulewamkulu bi-pedal characters. It is the loudest drum whose function is to accompany bi-pedal gulewamkulu singing. Its name comes from the Chichewa word „kuwalula‟ (to shout aloud/to broadcast/to scream, as in uncontrolled singing). The mbalule player screams alongside the drum while playing apparently discordant rhythms that can only be appreciated by an insider. Nevertheless, disregarding the logical progression of the song, the dancer coordinates well with the rather illogical mbalule rhythm. This drum signifies the essence of the gulewamkulu drumming. Due to its „noisy‟ and projected sound, the drum is also  referred to as the songa, meaning „the tip.‟

Ndewele.This is the master drum. Unlike the mbalule, this drum is used for the accompaniment of basketry (burlap) or bestial character (nyau) performances. As senior dancers in the gulewamkulu the nyau characters are specifically accompanied by the authoritativendewele drum. The ndewele is sometimes used in place of or simultaneously with the mpanje. Because most basketry characters do not necessarily dance due to their 
authority status, but merely move or jostle around (ndawala), the ndewele rhythm is rather „dull‟ and monotonous. Our research established that some Chewa areas use the names ndewele and mpanje interchangeably. The term ndewele stands for a hollow or mellow sound while mpanje connotes "drum for elders or the big man.‟