Friday, 17 July 2020

Malawian Culture: The "Big Dance" and Lake of Stars

Immediately following our trip to Burkina Faso, we head off to Malawi for our first opportunity to work with CARE. Like we did with Burkina Faso last week, we want to explore the unique culture of Malawi. Nicknamed the “Warm Heart of Africa,” Malawi is known for its welcoming, friendly people and colorful, vibrant culture.

Ethnically diverse, Malawi is home to a number of unique cultures. The country’s largest tribe is Chewa, with a number of other related tribes calling Malawi home including the Yao, Tumbuka, Maravi and Nyanja, among others. Most of the tribes in Malawi are Bantu, a broader ethnicity, encompassing peoples who speak Bantu and one of the largest ethnic groups in Central and Southern Africa. Christianity is the most prevalent religion in Malawi, though most inhabitants follow a mix of Christianity and traditional tribal belief systems.

2018’s Lake of Stars Festival kicks off in just a few days on September 28th and will wrap up just as OMPT arrives in the country. Along with musical acts throughout the continent, bands and artists from around the globe perform at the Lake of Stars festival, including this year’s headliner Major Lazer. Other notable acts from this year and years past include:



The Maccabees

Dance is an important element of Malawi culture. Often religious or ceremonial in nature, masks are a common theme in traditional Malawian dance. Gule Wamakulu, translated literally as “The Big Dance,” is the most famous of the traditional Malawian dances. Gule Wamakulu is both a dance and a secret society among Malawian tribes, with the society and the men and women who are a part of the society called Nyau. The dance itself is ritualistic and is only performed during specific events: weddings, the death of a chieftain or installment of a new chieftan, the transition from boyhood to manhood and the funerals of important community leaders. Masks are worn during the dance in the shapes of beasts, believed to capture the spirits of the deceased.


Nyau is a secret society among the Chewa people, Malawi’s largest tribal group, and are responsible for performing the Gule Wamakulu dance. The society was once banned by Christian missionaries though it survived and adapted, with some factions incorporating elements of Christianity into their ceremonies. Both men and women can join the society, though the initiation rights are different between genders, and the roles and rights of the society’s members vary according to gender and seniority. The earliest known evidence of the society, a cave painting of a Nyau mask in Zaire, dates back to 992 B.C., making the society nearly 3,000 years old.

Gule Wamakulu usually takes the form of a morality tale--dancers will perform as malevolent or, at the very least, morally questionable character archetypes representing forms of misbehavior to teach moral and social values. In 2005, UNESCO classified Gule Wamakulu as one of 90 “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity,” a collection of culturally, historically or artistically significant, non-material components of culture recognized for their importance in an attempt to preserve them for future generations.

Another important part of Malawi culture is music, with most Malawian tribes have their own songs and dances. Commonly used instruments in tribal music include drums, mambrilira (similar to a xylophone) and a variety of rattles.

Along with the value placed on traditional, tribal music, Malawi also hosts a thriving, more modern music scene. Most notably, Malawi is home to the annual Lake of Stars Festival, one of the largest music festivals in Africa. Started in 2004 and held on the shores of Lake Malawi, Africa’s third largest lake, the festival averages 4,000 attendees with music acts from across Africa and Europe. Often considered one of Africa’s most important festivals, with CNN referring to it as one of the top seven festivals on the continent and being named one of the “World’s Best” in the Fest300 awards, the Lake of Stars Festival has exposed hundreds of millions of people from throughout the world to Malawi, its music and its culture.

As this is OMPT’s first time traveling to Malawi, we look forward to experiencing the diversity, uniqueness and friendliness of the Warm Heart of Africa firsthand.

•culled from

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