Traditional Arts and Crafts in Malawi
Malawi has a rich and colourful culture, with about 11 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 a 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 sometimes played over hollow gourds to produce a more resonant sound.
Traditional music and dance in Malawi are performed for many different reasons – for example, for a celebration, for healing and as a welcome for an important visitor, beyond entertainment. In Malawi, there are some traditions that spread country-wide, as well as regional specialities in which local ethnic groups have their own tunes and dances, and UNESCO has classified and declared Vimbuza and Gule Wamkulu as masterpieces of the 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, a healing dance that is popular among the Tumbuka, this dance, which in the past has been the subject of suppression, remains a key part of traditional rural healthcare. 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.
Vimbuza is a healing dance popular among the Tumbuka people living in northern Malawi. 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 and, despite various attempts over the years to suppress it, remains a fundamental part of indigenous healthcare systems.
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, 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 spirits. 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”. Its 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 goes back to the mid-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.
Reference: UNESCO (https://ich.unesco.org/en/RL/vimbuza-healing-dance-00158)
More mysterious in the Gule Wamkulu (the Great Dance), which is performed by Chewa (secret societies) at the request of the village headman. These are masked men who dance at male initiation ceremonies, the installation of chiefs, funerals and various celebrations. The dance is a link between the spiritual past and the present. It is claimed that the Chewa 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.
Gule Wamkulu was a secret cult, involving a ritual dance practised 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 is performed in the season following the July harvest, but it can also be seen at weddings, funerals, and the installation or the death of a chief. On these occasions, the Nyau dancers wear costumes and masks made of wood and straw, representing a great variety of characters, such as the Honda or the 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.
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, such as Malipenga and Chiwoda, were rarely performed outside of political contexts. The Malipenga is performed to drums by the 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.
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.
Most critics agree that Malawi’s leading novelist is Legoson Kayira, whose autobiography, I Will Try, was on the New York Times bestseller list for 16 weeks after its publication in 1965, and The Looming Shadow earned him acclaim in the 1970s. A later work is The Detainee.
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. A number of artists sell their work along the shores of Lake Malawi. The carvings are prized by tourists not just for their traditional representations, but also for the relatively rare hardwoods from which they are made.
Kungoni Centre of Culture and Art offers a unique insight upon the cultural and artistic inheritance of Malawi; and preserves for Malawians a treasure house of what is distinctive in the cultures of the Chewa, Ngoni and Yao peoples who converge in the Mua area.
Museums in Malawi
- The Cultural and Museum Centre Karonga
- The Chichiri Museum
- The Chamale Museum at Mua in Dedza
- The Lake Museum in Mangochi
- The Postal Museum at Nyungwe
- The Mission Museum at Livingstonia, in Rumphi