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A look at the Chewa people of Malawi and their secret cult of dancers

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by NOVIEKU BABATUNDE ADEOLA 

The Chewa, a Bantu people of central and southern Africa and the largest ethnic group in Malawi, are a matrilineal society with over 1.5 million people spread across two clans – the Phiri and the Band. The Phiri are associated with the kings and aristocracy, while the Bandas are healers and mystics.

The Chewa are known for some fascinating cultural practices, including their masks and famous dance called Nyau. To others, Nyau is a secret society group with magical powers. The masked men of Nyau, who are highly revered, do communicate with the spirits, or those who are dead, and the Chewa call this act pemphero lalikulu, or the ‘great prayer’, according to accounts.

Also seen as a religious group, the Nyau display usually during funerals, birth ceremonies or presidential rallies, wearing masks and costumes made of banana leaves.

The Chewa originally migrated from Nigeria and Cameroon and settled in Zaire (present-day Democratic Republic of Congo). They later moved to Malawi and Zambia. Today, the Chewa in Malawi can be found in “compact villages” in the districts of Kasungu, Nkhotakota, Dedza, Dowa, Salima, Ntcheu, Mchinji and Lilongwe in the central region of Malawi. They practice agriculture but sometimes engage in hunting and fishing.

Here are other interesting cultural facts and traditions about the Chewa people of Malawi you should know

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