Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Malawi – The magic of nguli wankulu

September 24-25

Hello everyone!

This is simply one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen and something that few muzungus (white foreigners) would ever witness.

We were lucky enough to be invited to a friend’s local village for a funeral ceremony, known as nguli wankulu. This ritual can occur when a person dies if they fulfil the following criteria:
  • ·         they are not Christian
  • ·         they have been initiated into the local tribe
  • ·         they can afford a tombstone

Hundreds of people from this village and beyond watched the events

We thus drove about 2 hours (one hour of which was very much off-road) to the village of Kafele. Having left later than planned, we arrived in darkness, the only light coming from our car’s headlights.

I think we were somewhere between the forest reserve and the forest

Soon enough, we went to bed to the sound of shrieks and drum banging in the distance. A troupe of dancers work their way through each section of the village throughout the night, celebrating the life of the departed.

Moonlight in Kafele

We woke up at 4am to observe the night performance. Being pitch black and not being allowed to have light near the ceremony, we had to rely on following the sound. The main noise was the chanting of local women.

Another interesting sound we heard was throaty lolling – it’s hard to describe. To replicate it, try making a high-pitched ‘luh-luh-luh-luh-luh’ noise and hitting your throat on the side with your fingers. Quite haunting when many people are doing it at the same time. I’m not sure why it was done.

Throngs of women were dancing and luh-ing

We huddled in a circle around the faint outline of what seemed to be a tree. As our eyes gradually adjusted to the darkness, it became apparent that there were spinning creatures moving around it. The sky began to lighten slightly and we soon saw what these creatures were.

This was the dragon, one of the final beings to appear

I’m not 100% on the purpose of these African whirling dervishes (or why they are dressed as animals) but what I can say is that it is mightily impressive how they are able to spin quickly and to the rhythm whilst only being able to see through a small slit in their animal wicker basket. Not to mention that they are usually hammered from drinking throughout the night.

The drunken cow, heading home for a well-earned sleep

This was a fascinating ritual to witness. The volume of people was impressive considering the time of day – I guess it reflects the importance of the event.

A bull which was mocked remorselessly by the villagers

We were tired but mentally awake after leaving the event so decided to go to a local tea house for a much-needed energy boost. Tea houses such as this are visible across the country but are very different to what you expect them to look like back home. This was more like a saloon bar, with a rickety bench propped in front of a long, thin table. Tea was boiled out the back, before it filled – and I mean filled, the plastic saucer is there to catch the excess – the large, colourful cup. We poured our own sugar for the protection of our teeth.

A tea room in Kafele - most in Malawi look like this

A gigantic cup of tea with almost as much sugar

We were staying with the parents of our friend Joyce and met many of their extended family. Having one ‘muzungu’ is rare enough here; a car-load of us generates much attention. We spent time playing with and entertaining many delightful young children, all with cheeky attitudes and wide smiles.

The youngsters swinging one another 

Hannah receiving some fashion advice

In the afternoon, the main event of the funeral ceremony took place. A series of individual and small group dances were performed by special acts in remarkable costumes. These people are far from amateurs, often performing regularly on what could be brusquely described as a funeral circuit.

The Rastafarian crew

These dancers are rarely from the village of the deceased; instead, they are invited by letter from nearby villages to participate. They perform their dance to the beat of a drum (which was tuned by holding it over fire – clearly my ukulele tuning skills can be improved) and then get given small change from some of the hundreds in the crowd.

A man dressed like a character from Ghostbusters struts his stuff

There is an element of mystery to the event. The performers are not allowed to show their faces at any point – indeed, only men who have been initiated into the tribe can take part. Apparently men and boys who are yet to be initiated (that process apparently involves aspects such as eating a special chicken dish) are forbidden from watching the performances, though in reality everyone sees them. Well, at least until a ‘security guard’ bearing a metal chain starts threatening to whip the youngsters, making them flee.

Faces couldn't be seen at all

The dances varied wildly in content and quality. It’s best to let the videos do the talking for me here…

A particular highlight was when one of the dance groups got hijacked by a man climbing to the top of a very flimsy tree and starting to scream in order to get people’s attention. Another was when a man dressed like a character from Ghostbusters started fiddling with our friend’s hat.

The risks some dancers take to get attention...

So many amazing things happened this weekend that I don’t have time to express in detail. We also popped into Mozambique for an hour and tried nsima, Malawi’s staple meal, for the first time.

A Mozambican hostel?

Enjoying nsima, Malawi's staple carbohydrate
This is a world away from Lilongwe – probably a world away from anywhere I’ve ever been. From the lack of light to the lack of amenities, it’s a completely different way of life to anything I’ve experienced before. To them, of course, Lilongwe would be a radical change so there is no reason for them to wish for some of the comforts we’re used to in the capital.

Kafele's 'high street'

The whole weekend was eye-opening, humbling and inspiring all at the same time. We were told later that this was the best nguli wankulu that has occurred in years in the village. The ultimate feeling I took away from Kafele was that I’m honoured and lucky to have been invited to such an incredible event.

Love you all


1 comment:

  1. Hi Matt Susan Melitus sent me your video and so I managed to find your blog. Love it that your teaching has taken you to Malawi and I would love to put something on our University of Buckingham social media, would that be ok with you? Would you have a short video of your classroom, pupils(if that is ok) etc that I could post on our twitter, facebook etc. Would be great to do something on former trainees that are now teaching in far flung places!
    Let me know if this is ok with you, Kind Regards Sally Head of Marketing & PR, School of Education, University of Buckingham