Thursday, July 27, 2006

Today's Cultural Lesson

Athough there are several others, the main historical tribal groupings in Malawi are the Chewa, Ngoni, Tumbuka and Yao, with the largest by far being the Chewa. The prefex 'chi' means language, so Chi-chewa means "language of the Chewa" and is one of the national languages of Malawi. (Of course, if you go up north and try to speak Chichewa they'll look at you funny because most people there speak Chi-Tumbuka. Sigh.)

Anyway, the Chewa people have many interesting cultural practices. For example, the Nyau is a secret society of dancers using masks and animal structures to reinforce cultural beliefs, ceremonies and taboos. They are usually initiated as young boys and remain Nyau for their entire lifetimes. The big dance, gule wamkulu, is usually done to commemorate funerals. According to this book I was given "Chewa Traditional Religion" by J.MW. Van Bruegel,

"The Nyau dance can take place any time of the year at the occasion of a funeral or a chief or a member of the Nyau association...The really big dance (gule wamkulu)...[takes place] at the commemoration of a the period after harvesting and before the start of the rains, that is especially from August to November."

Meaning, I have seen these dancers walking in pairs on the side of the road. It's pretty cool to be driving along and see two masked warriors-cum-spirits scaring the bejeesus out of everyone they pass. Back to the book...

"The Chewa consider all mysterious powers in terms of "hot" or "cool". Something that is "hot" must not be brought in contact with something that is "cool". The mysterious powers would destroy one another. Once such mysterious power is the power to give life. Sexual activity makes a person "hot". A menstruating woman is also "hot"...

This leads to a lot of interesting sexual taboos, rules and regulations on when, where and how, one can have sexual relations (either with a wife or someone else). If you don't follow these rules, you run the risk of causing mdulo (death/disaster) to yourself or those you love. Mdulo taboos are always related to sexual activity.

"The symptoms of mdulo are said to be swelling of the cheeks and of the legs... pain in the chest and vomiting of blood...Medical officers examining a person said to be suffering from mdulo almost invariaby diagnosed anemia...and chronic malnutrition. [...] The Chewa firmly believe in their explanation of the disease and do not easily accept European explanations or their medicies in the case of a mdulo patient...When we speak of mdulo we do not speak in terms of modern medical diagnoses, but of a complex cultural diagnoses: this child has mdulo - therefore its father must have committed adultry - the father has to confess his fault - the proper medicines have to be obtained from the medicine man and the proper way of applying them has to be followed strictly."

Let me preface the above by saying I have not met a single Malawian who actually doesn't believe in modern medicine (this book is well over thirty years old). However, that's not to say the spirit world is disregarded either (note the Nyau sightings mentioned above).

Anyway, that's not the best part of the book. A person can cause mdulo in a number of ways because there are a great many sexual taboos. During the waits for the rain, the chief cannot have sex for up to six months, for example (he must stay "cool" to attract rains). Sexual activity is also seen to destroy creative activity. Therefore, the other moments in which a man and a woman are (historically) required not to have sexual relations are:

  • when one of the chickens begins to lay eggs
  • when a goat or a pig has young
  • when they plant or harvest
  • when the wife or her sisters are brewing beer
  • when the husband goes fishing or hunting
  • when the wife is making earthenware pots
  • when the husband melts iron ore in a furnace
  • when the husband is making a drum
  • when she is preparing native salt (salt is very "hot")
  • when the village is being moved to a new place until the chief has a new house built.

Whew! I'm surprised they were able to reproduce at all! To be fair, in this book dated 1975 it does say: "These taboos are no longer observed by most of the Chewa. Some older people may still observe them."

But anyway, food for thought next time you're making a drum!

M is for Mdulo,



Rose Connors said...

Thanks for the great culture lesson. I can't help comparing the hot/cold to far eastern thought. I spent 2 months in Kenya in 1995 and have loved Africa ever since. I'm enjoying your experiences vicariously.


Mtanga said...

Cool! Thanks for leaving a comment. (Also, thanks for the "places I have visited" link from your blog...pretty neat!)