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A Lively Dance with the Dead

Would you care to dance with the dead? WaterStep volunteer, Jordan Maiden, was invited to witness and photograph an ancient ritual while in Malawi. 

Gule Wamkulu, meaning “The Great Dance” is an ancient practice of the Chewa people in Malawi. The dance traces back to at least 300 A.D. as a way for the village to communicate with their ancestors’ spirits. Dancers are said to “put on” a spirit when they put on a mask and start dancing.

The dance itself is a morality play with often dark and menacing themes. The masks, or spirits, the dancer puts on are the embodiment of the lesson to be learned. These lessons can range from the dangers of drugs, alcohol, laziness or witchcraft to more modern themes such as HIV/AIDS or current political and social issues.

Spirits Speaking Through Dance

The dance moves, combined with women singing and the rhythm of the drums, explain the character of a spirit.

  • A violent spirit will use exaggerated movement and chase people.
  • An egotistical spirit will act aloof and will keep their head elevated.
  • An adulterous spirit will flirt with the women at the event.

While the dances and songs are rehearsed and passed down through generations, women will often improvise to discuss current events. Thus, the dance can serve as a forum to discuss current situations that may be uncomfortable to speak about. Through dance, the community can debate a difficult problem and come to a solution.

Gule Wamkulu is still used as a medium for teaching morality and spiritualism, and spirits still anxiously await their turn to dance.

Children are indoctrinated into the society at an early age through clandestin ceremonies. They must memorize the songs, dances, and codes used by the dancers to identify one another. The women’s role is critical and their song provides the context of the dance.

We are thankful for this inside glimpse of the Gule Wamkulu traditions and rituals in Malawai and for all the people we work with in their beautiful country to bring safe water to those who need it. Thanks for being a part of WaterStep Nation!


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