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The Dying Nyau Masquerades of Malawi

Nyau is a secret society of the Chewa, an ethnic tribe of the Bantu.
The Nyau consist of initiates that are regarded as mature members of the society. The Nyau society is made up of people from the Chewa and Nyanja people.


Whenever the Nyau performs with the mask, women and children run away into their houses because they are considered fierce representing male knowledge.
There are men that wear the masks and are considered as the spirits of the dead. And understandably as spirits, the masquerades may act with impunity and allegedly there have been attacks and deaths during performances in the past. But due to westernization, the activities of the Nyau has reduced.

Chewa mask Malawi. Photo-Wikipedia

This Nyau tradition is very old and dates as far back as the 17th century and their belief includes communication with the dead. And they also believe that God is present in every life form. They believe that God is both male and female. The male god is in the sky and the female is on earth.

The initiation of men into the secret society starts with the men living in a wooded grove where dead people have been buried in the past. They scare people who try to interview them by saying in their native tongue ‘you are now playing with fire you will get burnt’.

Typically, the Nyau perform their masked dances during burial ceremonies, memorials or during their initiations.
Girls are also initiated into this society, for them, it is called Chinamwali
During the dance, each person represents the mask of the animals which they wear. There is a hierarchy in the different forms of structures worn and the wilder the animal the fiercer their performance.

In this article:
Nyau Masquerades of Malawi
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