A fearsome apparition
It wasn’t quite the place to be… initiation ceremonies for boys and girls in Malawi's village communities are private matters. Outsiders are not meant to see what happens.
So… when Caroline appeared with her video camera during preparations for an initiation ceremony, the stir it caused was even greater than the ruckus created by the young men in wild beast costumes, rushing up to you – a fearsome apparition.
In this video… You’ll see a scary lion (called a Mkango in Malawi). Nyau dancers, dressed as lions and other wild animals, appear at initiation ceremonies for both boys and girls, and at funerals.
Myth and mystery
Nyau dance rituals, originating in central Africa, are steeped in myth and mystery. Practitioners are accused of all sorts of things, ranging from cannibalism to voodooism.
Before an initiation ceremony, boys who have already been initiated come together in their costumes and dance from evening till morning.
One such young man we met, Lamitoni Masitala, says the Nyau dancers we can see are called Ajere. Normally they dance when initiation ceremonies take place. At other times, tradition demands that the Ajere must not be seen.
For funeral ceremonies the village has Nyau dancers called Amakaka.
Time in the graveyard
After their initiation, girls live together in a simba (house) where they are taught different things, such as respecting elders and taking good care of their bodies.
Boys live in the village graveyard after their initiation, to be with the spirits of the dead. How long they’re there varies according to different tribal traditions.
Lamitoni readily reveals such detail. But as to what happens during an initiation, that remains a carefully guarded secret.
Diverse tribes come together
In this video… Caroline and Joyce describe the different tribes in Malawi – and the tribes from which they originate themselves.
As Lamitoni says, different tribes have different traditions. As in most countries, there is no single culture or group of people in Malawi, but diverse peoples who have settled over the centuries. Over ten different ethnic groups live across Malawi, each tribe with its own history, culture and beliefs.
However, they all belong to the major African group called the Bantu. This ethnic group, speaking a variety of Bantu languages (such as Swahili and Shona), are spread across central and southern Africa and form around one-third of the continent’s population.
The Bantu-speaking Chewa are believed to have travelled from Zaire and arrived in Malawi between 1200 and 1500AD in search of land for their grazing animals. Because of their agricultural knowledge and well-organised system, they soon formed the main group. Chichewa (their language) is therefore widely spoken in Malawi as the unofficial national language. English is the official language.
Examples of Chichewa
Moni – Hello, Good morning
Muli bwanji? – How are you?
Pitani bwino – Go well, Goodbye
It's a fact…
You may notice that the name of each language derives from the tribe’s name, usually with the added prefix of ‘chi’, which means ‘language’.
Other Bantu languages are also common. Chiyao is spoken by the Yao people who live along the southern shore of Lake Malawi, and Chitimbuka is the language of the Timbuka people, based in the north. There is also Chilambya (spoken by the Lambya), Chilomwe (the Lomwe), Chisena (the Sena), Chitonga (the Tonga), Chingoni (the Ngoni) and Kyangonde (spoken by the Ngonde and Nyakyusa tribes).
But although Malawians hail from different groups, they also feel a strong sense of national identity, reflected in the following line of their national anthem: “Join together all our hearts as one.”