Chewa of Malawi
For the Chewa community in Malawi, a secretive society called Nyau holds a dance and a masquerade to pray or intercede to the ancestors. Called the Gule Wamkulu, or the pemphero lathu lalikulu la mizimu (great prayer to our ancestors) the dance is performed at funerals, initiations and memorial services.
In the dance, masks are designed to look like animals or beasts, which are believed to capture the soul or “spirit of the deceased that brings renewed life.” The masks are also believed to represent all of human life and the spirit world.
Interestingly, the masks are also worn to showcase the kind of person the deceased was in real life. For example, the Chabwera kumanda mask refers to a character who misreads people and often resembles an ancestor known for hunting people in their dreams in order to get attention and offerings. A dance of a similar name, in which the mask wearer chases people around is conducted to underline the deceased’s evil character.
Although some masks remain the same throughout history, others change to reflect certain aspects of the culture. The Msakambewa mask meaning ‘mouse hunter’ changed into To Ndola meaning a man in a copper town and then into Chinono to refer to a man with Gonorrhoea.
The Nyau also have female masks to celebrate a kind-hearted ancestor.