I didn’t know what the first word meant, but the second assured me that, whatever it was, it was big. The wife of a chief in a neighbouring village had died and people from the surrounding area were gathering to pay respects.
This was the third funeral I attended, so I figured that I at least had some idea of what to expect. Wrong. I have never seen, and likely never will again, anything like this.
Roughly 1,000 people had assembled in this small village. As my host father, Bauleni, and I arrived, the sound of drums eminated from the centre of the crowd and the cries of wailing women carried over from the home of the deceased. We were led to the cemetery, where a large crowd had already gathered, and sat amongst them on mounds of dirt still remaining from the harvest. Bauleni explained the scene to me but, with my still limited comprehension of the Chichewa language, I only partially understood. The word “njobvu” kept coming up, which I was pretty sure meant elephant, but since there are no elephants in this part of Malawi, I kept second guessing myself.
Then the elephant arrived. Not a real one, but a giant, black float carried by four figures hidden inside the legs. Preceeding the elephant were two men, presumably herders, wielding hatchets and long thin sticks with bits of red cloth tied to the ends. Each wore fluorescent yellow and pink shorts and a black executioner hoods tied around their heads with strips of pink fabric as they dashed around the elephant waving their weapons wildly.
The body of the elephant was enormous. Stuffed with what looked like either grass or cloth, the animal was about twice the height of a man. With a trunk, painted features, and sewn-on ears, it was truly a sight to behold.
Eventually, the “njobvu” arrived at the cemetery where its herders rushed to bar the way. With frantic gesturing of the long sticks, the herders brought the elephant to a halt and instructed it to sit. The burial commenced and, upon completion, the elephant rose and left not to be seen again.
Apparently, the elephant is a sign of great respect at a funeral and only appears when a prominent member of the community passes. The chief makes an offering of money to the elephant who, in turn, escorts the procession and oversees the burial.
With the burial over, it was time for the Gule Wamkulu. In a large clearing in the centre of the village stood a great tree and, next to it, a tall, slender pole resembling a flagpole was firmly planted in the ground. The crowd gathered in a great ring around this clearing with the chiefs and their guests sitting under a thatched awning at one end.
Bauleni and I sat on the ground on one side at first but were soon escorted to a series of benches on the opposite side. As the sole mzungu (white person) in attendance, it was hard to avoid drawing attention.
Then the dancers arrived. Each one of them wore masks, elaborate headdresses and costumes made of cloth and fur. The drummers set up at one end of the circle, wdarming their drum skins over small fires, as the dancers made final preparations. One by one, dancers entered the ring for their performances. Drums thundered through the clearing as each performance set a new standard for what the human body can perform with legs and rhythm. At the end of each performance, people who enjoyed the dance would rise and offer money to the dancers. Nervous does not even come close to describing how I felt with so many eyes watching as I approaches these masked dervishes. But the crowd loved it. Waves, thumbs-up, and laughter welcomed me back to my seat every time I got up to “kusupa.”
The dancers were nothing short of incredible. One, wearing a giant, red, wooden makst, had squirrel pelts sewn together for a cape, and a leopard skin draped around his torso. With each intensive thrust, fur would wrap itself around his body, exaggerating each movement to outrageous proportions.
Periodically, a different kind of dancer would enter the ring at the same time another was dancing. Wearing only a loin cloth and black executioners hood tied at the forehead and neck, these men were coated from head to toe in black mud. Wielding long sticks resembling lances, they would leap into the circle and begin to run and dance wildly, their jet black figures resembling the black riders from the Lord of the Rings. When their dances finished, they would seek out a spot in the crowd and lunge forward with their stick as the crowd dived sideways to avoid these terrifying figures.
All the while, a lone figure with a devilishly grinning satanic mask sat beneath the large pole in the centre of the clearing. When the other dancers had finished he rose to take command of the show.
He started with a strut that was ordinary enough but soon made his way back to the pole and, with a leap, began to ascend it with bare hands and feet. With the agility of a monkey, he worked his way up to the top, pausing briefly only to gesture wildly to the cheering crowd.
He reached the top, paused, then leaned over the top of the pole so that only his stomach touched it. Perched on top like a skewered beetle in a science museum, he began flailing his arms and legs in a motion resembling a freestyle swimming stroke, drawing cries of fear end excitement from the crowd.
Finishing his stroke, he proceeded to flip upside down and, gripping the pole with only his feet, began to descend. The crowd went nuts – myself included. People from all sides rushed forward to throw money as the inverted devil slinked towards the ground.
The entire scene, from start to finish, was a spectacle I will never forget. It was a tremendously rich cultural experience and I learned the meaning of a “Gule Wamkulu” – the great dance of the Chewa tribe.