Friday, January 26, 2007

Return to the native land

By Kondwani Kamiyala, first published in The Nation on Sunday newspaper. A thought for town mongers, and those in the diaspora.

At first, it was Edgar and Davis’s song Musamabwere Kumudzi that compelled me to make the visit to my native land in Dowa. The last time I went there was in 1989, when I was just a Standard Four pupil, so that piece of music made me agree: it is not a wise thing to return to your roots as a corpse.

They said the road to Dowa is not smooth. Yet, I enjoyed it. The dusty road which branches from the M1 at Dowa Turn-off to the district headquarters is paracetamol-coaxing but, as a matter of fact, the dust road from the turn-off to Dowa central was smooth for me, considering that earlier on, I had traveled from Blantyre to Balaka for 12 hours. It was all thanks to a Shire Buslines night rider that broke down twice—for some five hours near the Kamuzu Stadium in Blantyre and for another two hours somewhere between Zomba and Liwonde. Travelling from seven in the evening to seven in the morning on a journey that normally takes two hours is tiresome and boring.

Thank God we were saved when we boarded a new bus at Balaka, and we safely arrived in Lilongwe where I connected to Dowa turn-off.

Once at the turn-off, it was clear to me what I would envisage during my stay in Dowa. On disembarking the minibus from the capital, I went into one of the grocery shops there, and while sipping a rather hot bottle of Coke, I heard the familiar cries of a gulewamkulu. I said to myself: welcome home my boy.

The woman who served me the Coke closed the door, when the four kapoli appeared on the road. Smeared in mud, the kapoli carried clubs called nthonga and were running all over the place. They threatened to beat people with nthonga and women and children were scampering in all directions, mostly to the safety of their houses. A three-tonne truck that was packing passengers making for the Boma sped off.

“Don’t go outside. They will catch you and force you to the dambwe where they will forcibly initiate you to the nyau sect,” the woman told me, when I tried to open the door to have a better glimpse of the kapoli.

All of a sudden, there appeared a more fearful sight. Another nyau called mfitimsana appeared. The face was smeared with some red stuff that appeared like blood. The hair was like a wig, the hands were smeared with the same ruby stuff and in those scarlet hands were two panga knives.

“They are looking for someone who spoke ill of the nyau tradition and culture,” the woman told me.

When the nyau vanished, I dashed into a Land Rover ten-seater christened Zofera Sowe (Dying for nothing), which transported my fearful self from the turn-off to the Boma.

Along the dusty road, we encountered more kapoli making their way towards the Dzaleka Refugee Camp, which is a community for refugees who fled wars in various countries, including Burundi.

Arriving at the village, not far from the Dowa District Hospital where I was born, the intermittent beating of drums and nyau yells and cries at a graveyard down the valley pricked my attention.

“You are here in lucky time. There will be a tombstone unveiling for a member of a gulewamkulu sect who died sometime back. We will go and watch the ceremony,” a cousin told me.

I fell for it. I have watched gulewamkulu for a long time. But I have always known there is more to this than the big dance: it is a culture, a religion for that matter.

While at the ceremony, we encountered more and more nyau, including kapoli, alende (which normally move only in the night), nyolonyo and others. Encountering gulewamkulu in their natural setting caused my heart to leap into my mouth because of fear. My worst fear was that they would grab me and force me to be initiated into the realms of gulewamkulu.

Get me right, gulewamkulu does not like soft spots. The soft-hearted can’t encounter these spirits.

“Be courageous, fear is not a manly character. If you are forced into the dambwe, just tell them you were already admitted into the sect elsewhere,” the cousin says, after he gave some nyolonyo a few coins.

To the people of Dowa, nyau is more than just a culture, it is a great religion.

“If a member of the nyau sect died the same day a member of another religion died here, I bet you there will be more people at the nyau funeral,” said Boniface Chunga, one of the men at the ceremony.

At Gawamadzi Village, I met another man, who had had enough kachasu to drink. The man was answering to the name Matikiti Zandege, who said he saw no better life than the one he lived in the village.

“You town people know how to dress, yet you have no money in the pockets, while those of us in the village care less for what we wear while we have so much money. You have no granaries in towns, yet you people have food on your tables, we have granaries, but we have nothing to eat,” Zandege said.

Whatever that meant!

But not everything about Dowa is primitive. Satelite dishes are evident on the roofs of a few houses here, and you can also watch DSTv at some drinking places. At one drinking joint, you would find patrons glued to the screen watching Lucius Banda’s Survivors DVD.

The day I was leaving Dowa, there was a coronation of one chief, and it promised to be another day of nyau and more nyau.

“There will be plenty of nyau, including the famous chilembwe,” Chunga told me.

I raised an eyebrow. The people here must be really thoughtful to the extent of naming one of their nyau after Malawi’s national hero in the fight for our independence.

“No, this nyau has nothing to do with Reverend John Chilembwe. It is named after a certain type of animal that is still found at Nkhota Kota Game Reserve,” explained Chunga.

When I asked Chunga if it was proper to tell this story, he was cryptic: “Nyau ndimakoko, bvuto n’kuulura gule.”

Whatever the case, now I listen with better appetite Edgar and Davis’ Musamabwere Kumudzi song where the artists point out that town dwellers should not only go to their home villages when they are dead. Obviously, you may not know, for one, how you would be buried.

Gulewamkulu: The big dance, literally. The masked secret society of Malawi. Also known as nyau or zilombo (animals)
Kapoli, nyolonyo, mfitimsana, alende: types of nyau
District administration headquarters
Dambwe: Where gulewamkulu or nyau are prepared, usually a graveyard
Kachasu: Locally distilled spirit
Nyau ndi makoko, bvuto n’kuulura gule: The nyau is created by hands, what is wrong is to reveal who is behind the mask

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