Officially the Republic of Malawi, this landlocked country in South-East Africa was populated by Bantu peoples who established the state of Maravi in the 16th century. The area was colonized by the British in the 19th century who administered it as a protectorate called Nyasaland. In 1964, with independence, the country was renamed Malawi (after Maravi) and was ruled by independence activist Hastings Banda until 1993 when multi-party democracy was instituted.

Oral traditions collected by J.B. Soko (1977) tell the legend of the first “puppet” in Malawi. A childless old man was distraught because of his lack of an heir. He withdrew to the forest to carve two wooden statues of children and resolved to treat them as his own. That night he returned home and the statues magically came to life as a real boy and girl. But the joy of the old man and his wife was short-lived. The little girl, sent to the river to fetch water, accidentally broke the water vessel, and, returning home empty-handed, her mother became excessively angry. The girl’s sorrow infected her brother, and the two children transformed again into statues. Their mother, inconsolable, threw herself from a tree and died. Her body transformed into fruit so bitter that none can eat it.

Gule Wamkulu (“great dance”) is a performance of the area which was recognized as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2005 (one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity) and is both a secret cult and ritual dance practised among the Chewa people living in Malawi (though it can also be found in areas of Zambia and Mozambique where Chewa have gone). It is performed by members of the Nyau brotherhood, a secret society of initiated Chewa men. Though missionaries opposed the practice in the early 20th century, current performers find Nyau and their Christian faith complementary. Members are responsible for the veneration of ancestors and for keeping the social order. They perform for initiation ceremonies, weddings, funerals, and installation or death of a chief. Nyau members construct models of wild animals (zilombo) as large body puppets and create images of ancestors whose spirits protect and intercede for benefits. Images are made out of leaves, straw, wood and fabrics. They are used at night and after the performance the images are destroyed.

The sight of this great dance is generally considered forbidden to women, children and the uninitiated. The association of the cult with funerals and the dead continues to instill awe and fear. Performances of animals mimic their living counterpart and they are hunted as part of the performance. The illusion is reinforced by presenting them outdoors in a secluded location to duplicate the natural environment of the creatures. In addition to the graceful antelope (who is believed to capture the spirit or soul of the deceased), there is the elephant, which is generally manned by four performers who must move “with one heart”. The figure represents the power of the chief and is an important figure that may appear only rarely – customarily at the funeral of a great chief. Ndondo (the snake) is manipulated by up to twelve men and appears at the funeral of Nyau society members. Mkango (the lion) represents the threatening aspect of the ancestors. The “puppet” attacks onlookers and is said to even kill on occasion. Other actors may take the role of hunters. Other masks represent figures such as a white person in a helicopter and Simoni (St Peter) who is a red-faced colonial caricature. Masks of witches, gonorrhea sufferers and other representations of a large variety of characters – the masks and performance represent all of humanity and all of the spirit world – elaborately play, mime, dance to song and music. These animal figures are hunted and attacked, but simultaneously celebrated and affirmed in this ceremony that constitutes the essence of the festival. The festivities end with a bonfire where all effigies of animals are consumed by flames.

Despite their traditional character, the secret societies are not static. Thus, nyau choreographers have integrated HIV/AIDS awareness dances into their repertoire.

Aside from nyau, puppets may be used by NGOs (non-governmental organizations) to promote health or educate in other ways. Figures are sometimes part of theatre for development or cultural exchange projects and may be part of missionary programmes.


  • Blackmun, Barbara, and Matthew Schoffeleers. “Masks of Malawi”. African Arts. Vol. 5, No. 4, 1972.
  • Curran, Douglas (Autumn, 1999). “Nyau Masks and Ritual”. African Arts. Vol. 68, No. 3, pp. 68-77.
  • Darkowska-Nidzgorski, Olenka, and Denis Nidzgorski. Marionnettes et Masques au coeur du théâtre africain [Puppets and Masks at the Heart of African Theatre]. Saint-Maur: Institut international de la marionnette/Éditions Sépia, 1998.
  • De Aguilar, Laurel Birch. Inscribing the Mask: Nyau Ritual and Performance among the Chewa of Central Malawi. St. Augustin and Freiburg, Germany: Anthropos Institute [Study 47] and Univ. of Freiburg Press, 1996.
  • Morgan, Gary. “The Great Dance”. Accessed 27 June 2013.
  • Soko, B.J. Autour du feu au Malawi [Around the Fire in Malawi]. Zombia: Université de Malawi, 1977.