An excited anticipation hung in the air over the Sangilo Football pitch. The stage was set, the village heads had arrived and the visitors from the University of Dayton were sat in prime position to view the spectacle that was about to unfold. On the 9th of July a community day was hosted by Determined to Develop to celebrate the vibrant cultural heritage of Malawi. Each year D2D supports this community event, understanding that Malawian culture, tradition and history is still an important part of society and identity. Local groups came to show case their talents and hundreds of community members arrived to revel in their colourful culture. Alongside the chiefs and VIPs of Chilumba sat visitors from the University of Dayton, Ohio: the UD Human Rights Practicum students, Dr Neely and family (the head of political science at UD), Dorothy from UD and Ed, a friend visiting from the USA.
Dancing has great cultural significance in Malawi with each dance being rooted in tradition and often steeped in superstition. After greetings and opening speeches (a tradition in itself in Malawi), the Gule Wamkulu Dancers arise from their metaphorical grave yard before dancing to the centre of the clearing; children run away from the dancers so that they are not caught and initiated into Gule Wamkulu with spells and magic. The dance is comprised of two performers draped in what appears to be long matted hair akin to sheep wool. The hair borders a wooden mask with bulbous eyes and a morbid grimace reminiscent of the sort of monster that used to live under your bed or in your closet. Gule Wamkulu, secretive cult and a ritual dance practiced in the central and southern regions as well as parts of Zambia, is traditionally displayed at important events such as the elevation or funeral of a chief. These figures perform dances and artistic movements with energy and conviction, both entertaining and scaring the audience as representatives of the world of the spirits and the dead.
Next is the Malipenga Dance. A group of 4 males centre the dance, they are dressed in white representing intelligence and purity of the Tonga, they hold short wooden swords that they wave but not brandish at the crowd. With a low almost crouching stance they step carefully and in unison while spinning their swords while the crowd cheers them on. It is clear that this dance is all about discipline and control and it comes as no surprise that this dance originated from military drills. The drums are accompanied by a handmade kazoo that imitates military bugles; the word Malipenga means Trumpet in Chitumbuka, Chitonga and Chinyanja. The drums beat faster, the steps get quicker and the energy of the dance speeds up a notch.
We are then shown a Vimbusa dance traditionally used for spirit possession and healing. We see a lone dancer in the centre of the clearing with small pieces of metal in a bunch around his waist, he shakes his hips and makes a rattling sound. Then he fixes the tent with the village heads and other important people a long mad eyed stair and even points a crooked finger; this is a cultural throw back. It is believed that the dancer becomes possessed and in his delirium is able to look the chiefs in the eye without incurring punishment. After all… the spirits don’t know much about social norms! This gesture is accompanied with laughter from the crowd as it is both antiquated and comical in equal measure, he then finishes and exits the ground breaking into a smile making way for the next act.
Second from last come the D2D Girls club girls flanked with some brave UD and University of Livingstonia girls. They dance to a popular song with smiles on their faces and the crowd sings along in encouragement. The Girls match in white blouses and vivid coloured Chitenjes and beam out to the crowd as they dance along. There are lots young girls’ faces looking on in admiration.
Last but not least the Maji Zuwa Young stars take the floor. Formed of the live-in sponsored youth they dance their own rendition of a Malipenga led by Taleka Nyasulu, the military roots of the dance more visible due to their Khaki outfits. In their left hands they hold branches from trees to representing riding crops from cavalry or the lion’s tail fly whisk that is most commonly associated with the father of the nation Kamuzu Banda- life president of Malawi. In their right hands they hold University of Dayton Flyers Flags, the sports team of UD, a touch of appreciation to D2D’s closest friend.
After the Maji Zuwa young stars dance, D2D staffer Ponelo Kalonga, village heads, chiefs and traditional authority members give closing speeches to the large crowd that has gathered. After a closing prayer, the community day throng dissipated and condensed at Maji Zuwa to continue the party into the night. All the while a mixture of Chitumbuka, Chichewa and English can be heard with accompanying laughter, singing and dancing.
Tawonga chomene (We thank you)!