Nyau is a spiritual society of the Chewa people, who are well known because of their masquerade dances, “Gule Wamkulu” (the “Great Dance). Dances occur during public holidays, anniversaries and funerals and participants dance the night away. They are possessed by the spirits of the mask, called “nyama” (of the animals) and “mizimu” (of the ancestors).
According to Chewa mythology, god Chauta came to Earth with a man, a woman and animals. All of them lived together in happiness, until the man learned how to make a fire. All the animals, except for livestock and pets, ran away from the man in great fear. Thereafter, the Nyau people have personified their ancestors, who lived in harmony with god and animals before man stepped on the path of evolution.
Since 2005, UNESCO has protected the Nyau culture, including it in 90 Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. “Gule Wamkulu” ceremonies are practiced only in the Tete Province (Mozambique), Malawi and Zambia. In Zimbabwe, Nyau can be found among Malawian immigrant communities.
In some Chewa villages Nyau can injure or even kill a person without being prosecuted by the local authorities. Anyone from the community can pay Nyau and send them to murder his enemy, and no one will search for the killer in this secret community.
A Mozambique policeman told me, “How can you put an elephant or a snake in jail? The same is with Nyau”. For him, as for any other Mozambicans, Nyau are bush creatures. But ordinary people are hidden behind the scary masks and costumes. Nyau can be your brother, husband or father, but none of the family will ever know.
Nyau keep their secrets carefully, using a complicated system based on passwords and signs and hidden from the uninitiated. The initiation ceremony usually takes place in abandoned cemeteries, where superstitious villagers fear to come even during the daytime.
The following photographs were taken over several months of living with the Nyau people and taking part in their Great Dance and other traditional ceremonies.
Nyau dancer in Waenera village. Tete Province, Mozambique
Nyau Akakairo on the road near the border between Mozambique and Malawi. Such Nyau walk almost naked with rags on their heads. The villagers are very afraid of them and try not to come face-to-face with this type of Nyau on the road. The local police reported several cases where Nyau Akakairo attacked people, beating them severely
A boy helps Nyau to cover his body with dust in preparation for the spiritual dance, called “Gule Wamkulu”. Machesse village, Tete Province
Initiation ceremony to the Nyau cult. New members are taught Nyau secrets
Nikolau, 25, kisses his Nyau friend, Kaitano, 26, who wears a black carved wooden mask that represents a bad spirit
Initiation ceremony to the Nyau cult, during which the initiated is whipped by Nyau members. Enduring pain will always remind the new member to keep his Nyau membership secret
Two Nyau members in costumes at the cemetery outside of Tete town. Local cemeteries are favourite locations for Nyau secret ceremonies, because uninitiated people avoid going to such places
Members of the secret Nyau community rest after the spiritual dance, “Gule Wamkulu”.
Waenera village, Tete Province
Nyau covers his body with dust in preparation for the spiritual dance
Simon Nkatula, 21, near “chirombo”, a large animal structure that he made for the Great Dance of Nyau.
Manje village, Tete Province
A structure representing a unicorn, "zinyau", made by members of Nyau community during the night dance ceremony.
Chiuta District, Tete Province
Nyau “kampini”, the dangerous Nyau, dance during the night ritual in Matundo neighbourhood of Tete. Chewa people believe that kampini can kill people and do not come close to them when they see them on the road
Dance of the Nyau "azungu" (white Nyau) in Chiuta District, Tete Province
Nyau members drink a home-made alcoholic drink, "pombe", in a house where they rest after the dance, hiding from the uninitiated villagers
Nyau dancers wear spiritual costumes and "mukuta" (masks), made from chicken feathers.
Machesse village, Tete Province
Nyau dancer among the residents of Massano village
Malia (or Maria) is a Nyau member who uses a female mask and who is highly respected among the all members of the Nyau community. She symbolises a mother of the village and the wife of the Nyau's chief. Christian missionaries use the image of Nyau Maria to preach about the Virgin Mary, to convince Chewa people to adopt Christianity
Nyau dancers of Chiuta District, Tete Province, Central Mozambique
Nyau at a funeral ceremony in Massano village
One of the Nyau boys whips Nikolau, 25, who is also member of the cult. Whipping is one of the main rituals in Nyau society. It makes the members remember not to tell the cult’s secrets to uninitiated people
Kaitano, 26, a member of the Nyau cult, tries to walk on new stilts, which he and his friends made to use in the Great Dance. A man on stilts wears a traditional costume and mask and dances during the major holidays. Such Nyau are called “makanja”. They symbolise one of the evil spirits that intimidate villagers
Nyau cult members build “zinyau”, an animal structure that will be used in the following night’s ceremony of the Great Dance
Dance of “zinyau”, an animal structure representing a giraffe made by Nyau members for the “Gule Wamkulu” ceremony in Tete town
Nyau “makanja” dancers on stilts during the evening show in Tete town. “Makanja” symbolises one of the evil spirits that intimidate villagers
Nyau "azungu" (white Nyau) represent Europeans in spiritual dances
Nyau “kampini”, a dangerous Nyau, dances in the Matundo neighbourhood of Tete town
Nyau dancers during a funeral in Massano village, Tete Province
Dance of “zinyau”, an animal structure of unicorn, made by the members of Nyau community
Young members of the Nyau cult wait for the beginning of the Great Dance at the funeral ceremony in Massano village, Central Mozambique
Nyau Kampini passes people in Massano village
A child looks at a Nyau dancer in Massano village
Nyau dance on the sunset near Cambinde market of the town of Tete
Nyau dancer during the night spiritual ceremony.
Matundo neighbourhood, Tete town
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