Just as it is in other continents, in Africa, dance binds itself to human life, accompanying people throughout life, especially those moments of happiness, harvest and birth. In certain cultures, people dance in times of sadness; commemorating a death, for example. However, some dances are characterized by mystifying traditions and purity of spirit, which safeguard the dances' cultural preservation. Nyau, a dance common to Mozambique's Tete province and some parts of Zambia and Malawi, is no exception. In addition to Nyau dancers hiding their faces with elaborate masks, this "masquerade dance" itself is considered by Mozambicans to be something of charm and bewitchment.
In an African context, in the past our ancestors who believed in the existence of godly beings sought ways to ensure that future generations would worship these idols eternally. In fact, the demonstration of respect for these invisible deities included the sacrifice of animals, a celebration in their honor and traditional dance.
In this article, @Verdade talks about a dance practiced in Mozambique, as well as in some neighboring countries: Nyau. Several interpretations of Nyau exist. Some associate its emergence to the formation of the Undi State, around the 17th century, when it is thought to have been adopted as a form of manifested Undi power over those they conquered.
However, Damião Gerente Coelho, born in Tete province, lives with strong memories of Nyau and claims this dance is originally from the regions of Angónia, Chiúta, Maravia and Zumbo. Later, it spread to other regions with the same ideal: to honor the gods. Nyau has deep roots in Mozambican history, but has also shared cultural significance in neighboring countries of Zambia and Malawi. Yet, in these two countries where it is also known as a "dance of mysteries", it is marked by different habits and practices. One of Nyau's primary characteristics is that it's dancers are chiefly male.
In this regard, Coelho argues that: "[it was believed that] women and children cannot observe this dance, because it needs to be something kept secret from women and children who are considered naive beings. It is feared that they would denounce the practices of the dancers.
Furthermore, children who participate in rehearsals of Nyau are, conventionally, denied the right to attend secular education. They become confused, because in the 'sanctuary' of rehearsals, they are exposed to practices that mislead the minds of children."
Nyau movements are marked by fast paced and aggressive rhythms from ominous drumming. An Nyau dancer, after dressing in costume - including large masks and gloves that are roped over their palms - becomes Gule Wankulo, an authoritative species of the Nyau dance. Gule Wankulo, also interpreted at the action of the dance itself, means “the great dance”.
It is imperative that the dancers cover their faces with chicken feathers or animal furs. Some dancers wear fabrics made with pieces of rags, bags, tree fibers, eagle or ostrich feathers, forming a mixture of colors. Others remained masked, with their naked body painted with ash and red or white clay.
On their legs they have rattles that also boast several colors, contributing to the beautiful sound that characterizes the dance.
However, apart from their outfits, when the Nyau dancers are on stage they move in a way that no one will recognize them by always kicking up dust around them to match the accelerating drum beats.
*"In the bush or in the graveyard, they smoke everyting..."*
Excessive consumption of narcotic drugs, according to Coelho, is a common practice in the preparation of the Nyau dancing: "they smoke anything, even drugs. No one will reveal the secret, because it's mouth inside and not mouth outside. "
However, in addition to the herbs smoked (considered by Coelho to be the daily bread of Gule Wankulo), before going into action the dancers are visited by witchdoctors.
Coelho assures us that the dancers are fully connected to acts of black magic. After the dance is over, many of them, if not all of them, are espoused by the team of witchdoctors or mentors with the hopes of them passing on the torch to the younger generations.
The difficult mission of a Gule Wankulo
"Although the initiation rituals are similar, it is better to be a police officer than to be a Gule Wankulo", says Damião Coelho, commenting about the mission that surrounds the Nyau dancers. After a person makes themselves available to become a Gule Wankulo, the witchdoctors instruct him to face many difficulties, such as, keeping a secret. In addition, he also makes the test of courage.
"When the person wants to be a Wankulo Gule, first, he is taken to the woods where he answers to the question: 'If you see a snake or a lion will you have the courage to face it?'"
Depending on the given answer, the witchdoctor uses black magic to cause a monster to appear. The monster has a heart-shaped package inside of its mouth. The aspiring Gule Wankulo is instructed to take the organ from the mouth of the beast without fear. In this context, a big fight could ensue, as obviously, the beast is likely to not allow the man to peacefully take it. So not everyone can fulfill this mission — which causes some to go mad. It it a very dangerous experience.
Nyau is best known for its secrecy. Over the years, this dance has not attracted many aspiring members outside of other Tete province, Zambia and Malawi. According to Coelho, this is due to the mystery that surrounds the dance.
"For many years, as a rule, Nyau was practiced at the cemetery or in the deserts and almost never in the city. However, even among a family of dancers, no member should know which relative was a member of a group of that cultural movement. The ‘dance of mysteries' is feared. Just by suspecting that someone from your community is a Gule Wankulo they are immediately no longer respected and are considered to be a witchdoctor".
When asked a why the cemetery was the chosen location exhibit the Nyau dance, Coelho explains that it is about illusion: "They danced at the cemetery for [the effect of] fantasy. They danced to please their ancestors".
In present times, this dance can be presented in any place and at any time, but it is still rehearsed in the cemetery during three time periods: at sunset, at dawn and at sunrise: "They can perform anywhere.
There are times during the rehearsals when they sacrifice animals, like a male sheep. It is never a female. Must be a young male that has not reached adolescence, much less the stages of reproduction.”
Another aspect, according to Coelho, is that "Nyau songs are the same ones sung by witchdoctors. They are not pleasant. Their lyrics have to do with affairs of witchcraft. They invoke the gods with phrases, often inaudible and imperfect".