Culture

Traditional Arts and Crafts

Malawi has a rich and colourful culture, with about more than 10 different ethnic groups, languages and customs that are unique to this small peaceful country.

Whether it’s music, dance, masks or dresses, the cultural mix of Malawi continues to fascinate visitors and provide warm and friendly welcome as tourists continue exploring the definitive Warm Heart of Africa.

Music & Dance

Malawian musical instruments are similar to those found in other parts of East and Southern Africa, with local names and special features.

These include various drums, from the small hand-held ‘Ulimba’, made from a gourd, to ceremonial giants carved from tree-trunks, and the ‘Mambilira’, which is similar to the Western xylophone, but with wooden keys, and is sometimes played over hollow gourds to produce a more resonant sound.

Traditional music and dances in Malawi are performed for many different reasons – for example, as celebration, for healing and as a welcome for an important visitor, beyond entertainment.

In Malawi, there are some traditions that are observed country-wide while others are regional whereby local ethnic groups have their own tunes and dances.

UNESCO has classified and declared Vimbuza and Gule Wamkulu as masterpieces of oral and intangible heritage of humanity. Another dance, Tchopa, has also been proposed for this rare classification.

Vimbuza Healing Dance

Vimbuza is one of Malawi’s best-known dances.

It is a healing dance that is popular among the Tumbuka living in northern Malawi.

This dance, which in the past has been the subject of suppression, remains a key part of traditional rural healthcare.

It is an important manifestation of the ng’oma, a healing tradition found throughout Bantu-speaking Africa.

Ng’oma, meaning “drums of affliction”, carries considerable historical depth The dance is performed by women who form a circle around the patient while men keep up drum rhythms to accompany the song and dance.

Most patients are women who suffer from various forms of mental illness.

They are treated for some weeks or months by renowned healers who run a ’temphiri’ which is a village house where patients are accommodated.

After being diagnosed, patients undergo a healing ritual.

For this purpose, women and children of the village form a circle around the patient, who slowly enters into a trance, and sing songs to call helping spirts.

The only men taking part are those who beat spirit-specific drum rhythms and, in some cases, a male healer.

Singing and drumming combine to create a powerful experience, providing a space for patients to ‘dance their disease’.

The continually expanding repertoire of songs and complex drumming and the virtuosity of the dancing are all part of the rich cultural heritage of the Tumbuka people.

The Vimbuza healing ritual dates back to the md-nineteenth century, when it developed as a means of overcoming traumatic experiences of oppression, and it further developed as a healing dance under British occupation, although it was forbidden by Christian missionaries.

By becoming possessed by Vimbuza spirits, people could express these mental problems in a way that was accepted and understood by the surrounding society.

For the Tumbuka, Vimbuza has artistic value and a therapeutic function that complements other forms of medical treatment. Vimbuza is still practised in rural areas where the Tumbuka live, but it continues to face oppression by Christian churches and modern medicine.

Gule Wamkulu

More mysterious is the Gule Wamkulu (the Great Dance), which is performed by Chewa (secret societies) at the request of the village headman.

The Gule Wamkulu are masked men who dance at male initiation ceremonies, the installation of chiefs, funerals and various celebrations. On these occasions, the Nyau dancers wear costumes and masks made of wood and straw, representing a great variety of characters, such as animals or vehicles like a helicopter.

Each of these figures plays a particular, often evil, character expressing a form of misbehaviour, teaching the audience moral and social values.

These figures perform dances with extraordinary energy, entertaining and scaring the audience as representatives of the world of the spirits and the dead.

The dance is a link between the spiritual past and the present. It is claimed that the dancers live alone, with their identities hidden by masks and their bodies covered in animal skins.

These dancers, at the behest of the chief, are responsible for driving away evil spirits.

Traditionally, Gule Wamkulu was a secret cult, involving a ritual dance practiced among the Chewa in Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique.

It was performed by members of the Nyau brotherhood, a secret society of initiated men.

Within the Chewa’s traditional matrilineal society, where married men played a rather marginal role, the Nyau offered a means to establish a counterweight and solidarity among men of various villages.

Nyau members still are responsible for the initiation of young men into adulthood, and for the performance of the Gule Wamkulu at the end of the initiation procedure, celebrating the young men’s integration into adult society.

Gule Wamkulu dates back to the great Chewa Empire of the seventeenth century.

Despite the efforts of Christian missionaries to ban this practice, it managed to survive under British colonial rule by adopting some aspects of Christianity.

As a consequence, Chewa men tend to be members of a Christian church as well as a Nyau society.

However, Gule Wamkulu performances are gradually losing their original function and meaning by being reduced to entertainment for tourists and for political purpose.

Other Dances

Other dances, such as Malipenga and Chiwoda, were rarely performed outside of political contexts.

The Malipenga is performed to drums by older men, with costumes inspired by the uniforms worn by European soldiers during World War II.

Other dance forms that had in the past been less popular, such as Chilimika, are now experiencing a rebirth.

Literature

Like most countries in Africa, Malawi has a very rich tradition of oral literature.

Since independence, a new school of writers has emerged, although thanks to former president Hastings Banda’s sensitivity to criticism, many were under threat of imprisonment and lived abroad until the mid-1990s.

Oppression, corruption, deceit and the abuse of power are common themes in their writing.

Poetry is very popular.

Steve Chimombo is remembered as one of the leading African writers as his poems received recognition in the form of the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa.

He authored novels including ‘The Basket Girl’ and ‘The Wrath of Napolo’, while his plays include a complex poetic drama, ‘The Rainmaker’ and ‘Wachiona Ndani’. He also wrote the poems ‘Napolo’ and ‘The Python’, as well as the short story ‘The Hyena Wears Darkness’.

Jack Mapanje is a poet whose work highlighted the injustices imposed by Malawi’s post-independence government.

He is remembered as a brave writer who fearlessly criticised the political power of the one-party regime.

Jack Mapanje’s first poetry collection, ‘Of Chameleons and Gods’, was published in 1981 and immediately banned because it criticised the government.

Mapanje was arrested and imprisoned without charge; he was eventually released in 1991.

The publishing industry in Malawi is largely dominated by male writers; however, there are a number of brilliant female writers using their skills to promote the rights of women.

Upile Chisala is one such writer whose creative writing has led to international recognition. In March 2018, as part of ‘Okay Africa’s 100 Women 2018’ project, the 25-year-old appeared among other African women whose work is considered to be making an impact around the globe.

Her belief that African women are the best storytellers is the driving force behind her success.

Now a global figure, Chisala writes poems aimed at empowering and supporting her fellow female compatriots.

She is currently working on a new collection of poems while her published books Nectar (2017) and Soft Magic (2015) are being sold across the world.

Her literary work also aims to preserve Malawian culture and African history as a whole.

Wood Carving

Malawian artists have traditionally favoured the three dimensions of sculpture rather than painting or drawing.

Elaborately carved wooden sculpture is a traditional Malawian form of art.

Carving skills are passed from father to son and the pieces take many forms, from plaques representing Malawian and African scenes to chiefs’ chairs.

These traditionally feature ornate carvings of dances, animals and day-to-day village life.

The carvings are prized by tourists not just for their traditional representations, but also for the relatively rare hardwoods from which they are made.

In Malawi, a number of artists sell their work along the shores of Lake Malawi.

Paintings

In recent years, the appreciation for paintings as well as digital art has been on the rise as the youth have dominated the art scene.

Prehistoric rock paintings represent the earliest form of human creativity and this is no less true than in the case of the art found at Chongoni Rock Forest Reserve, Malawi’s most underrated national treasure.

There are two examples of tribal art found in the 127 drawings discovered so far: red ochre images painted by the Akafula tribe depict scenes of hunting, a common pastime.

Newer, white drawings portray peaceful farming scenes painted by the Chewa people who settled in the area later on.

Despite being a UNESCO World Heritage Site these ancient records have received surprisingly few visitors.

Museums in Malawi

Museum District
The Cultural and Museum Centre Karonga
The Mission Museum Livingstonia, Rumphi
Kungoni Centre Dedza
The Lake Museum Mangochi
The Chichiri Museum Blantyre