The Gulewamkulu is a secret cult and ritual dance, literally meaning “Big dance” and is something that’s still alive and thriving in Malawi today. Even though Malawi is a very Christian country, their old beliefs still stand strong with most people, next to Christianity. Unlike Norwegians who threw away most of their old Northern gods in the 12th century, Malawians keep their old beliefs alive. You can find witch doctor medicine at the markets in most towns, and people are still afraid of the traditional masked dancers. Last week, I took a deep dive into Malawian culture, and got initated.
As the bus took off and left me in Ntchisi, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a really shitty idea. After a very successful week long Ethno Music Camp in Ntchisi, it could go downhill from here. I had no idea what to expect, and I only had a backpack with some clothes and a little cash. I had met one of the Gulewamkulu boys, Bernard, a few days before. He was one of the drummers in the local Gulewamkulu community. Bernard knew a few words of English, which made it possible for us to communicate partly in Chichewa, partly in English, and partly with body language. He was my key to coming in contact with the Gulewamkulu. He pitched the suggestion of initiation forward to the chief, which after a while, gave his permission.
One of the men in charge of the music camp, Charles, took me in to his family the first night. In true Malawian spirit and hospitality, he had no problem welcoming me into his home. His lovely wife and kids prepared dinner and his son lent me his bed. The next day we headed off to meet the traditional leader to settle the details. After a long discussion it was settled: I had to buy a goat and some maize, and for the next three days the boys of Gulewamkulu would be in charge of me. After a quick run to the local market, I was all prepared.
The ceremony started in the evening, and we danced and played drums throughought half the night. I could hardly see a thing and I had to locate people by yelling, which was challenging through the sound of the beating drums and the intense singing. The energic raving in the cold mosquito filled night would have put any crowded nightclub to shame. After we got all tired out, I was escorted to the luxurious concrete floor of the chief’s house. I was ready for a good rest, but had somehow forgotten about the purchase I’d made earlier: The goat. It stood happily tied up to a big chair in the corner of the room, just one meter from where I was going to sleep. For him, this was a very welcomed upgrade of sleeping arrangements, and for me, a big downgrade from sleeping next to my girlfriend. My room pretty quickly turned into an outhouse. The smell was something I could handle, but being awakened by someone screaming very nasally from the top of their lungs every 15 minutes, was – to say the least – a very unique experience. I had the same confused interior monologue every time I woke up, trying to figure out what kind of deranged human would scream like that, before realizing it was my organic alarm clock.
I woke up only a few hours later. «Tieni», said the boy in the doorway, meaning «let’s go». I put the blanket in my backpack and rubbed the sleep out of my eyes. We headed out of the house and walked a few minutes down the dirty road. Suddenly he took a hard left and started walking straight into the bushes. There were absolutely no traces of a path, not even a bent branch, but he seemed dead certain that this was the place. We walked for while through dense forest before getting to a secluded graveyard. The tombstones were scribbled with long names and covered in vegetation. We had found the sacred burial place of the old village chiefs. He suddenly stopped for a second and I almost walked into him, completely distracted by my surroundings. He was looking for something or someone. He suddenly screeched in a very particular way, sending an echo through the thick forest; He was signaling our arrival. “Wait” he said, before disappearing into the bush. Minutes passed, and there wasn’t any sign of anyone coming back. He was completely gone.
I unpacked my blanket and sat down under a tree. It was so early even the birds were sleeping. I sat in complete silence with the echo of my breathing as the sun slowly slipped between the branches. I dozed off for a few minutes. I awoke to the same screech from earlier, but this time it was coming from all directions, and a lot more frequently. I stood up and looked around, and soon I was surrounded by a bunch of men in masks in all colors and shapes. The initiation had begun.
The Gulewamkulu are very secretive, and there are some parts of their initiation that should be kept a secret. I can’t disclose all the things I went through, just give a short introduction. I don’t really want any Malawian masked spirits on my neck for the rest of my life, so I’m sticking to the rules. What I can say, is that I experienced traditional dancing, a bond of brotherhood, campfires, graveyards, sleepless nights, something about a goat, some spiritual herbs, and some valuable life-lessons. I think I can say with certainty that I was the first Norwegian ever to be initiated in this very rich tradition and religion. It was a ride.