Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Culture (and the Nyau)

The Opening Day Parade

These photos were taken on the opening day of the Zobue District Cultural Festival.  The festivities-- dances, songs, and readings-- took place on the soccer field of the elementary school and continued for three consecutive afternoons.  The event kicked off with an Opening Day Parade, wherein each participating district made a small demonstration of their talent and skill. After the parade, the Zobue Gymnastics team took the stage to perform a synchronized "Children's Dance."

Children's Dance

After the Children's Dance, each of the districts brought forth their Nyau dancers to make a presentation.

Nyau Cultural Dance

The festivities continued well past sunset, and the crowd continued to grow.  Zobue was swimming in culture, music, and alcohol from Thursday night until the Pentacost.

At the end of the day

The most fascinating part of the festival was the arrival of the Nyau.  We'd seen the dancers before, a few times, but this was the first time that I had been able to photograph them.  You see, in the Chewa culture, it is obligatory to flee in the presence of a masked dancer.

We first heard about the Nyau from the Zobue site visitors in November.  When the girls returned from their site visit, they gave us a full report of their trip to Zobue.  Amongst their descriptions was an account of the Nyau.

"It was crazy!"  They said.  "There were these drunk guys outside my window at five o'clock in the morning, covered in mud and banging on drums."

I saw my first masked dancer two months later, while teaching an afternoon class in January.  Abruptly and without warning, my students stood up and slammed all of the windows closed.  I turned from the board, prepared to scold someone, when I saw that nearly all of my students were hiding under their desks.  Outside the window, a masked man was peering in.  He ran his machete along the length of the windows and disappeared.  With a collective squeal, my students all ran to the front of the room and braced the door shut.  It was exceedingly difficult to maintain order after that, and my kids were terrified.  I just wished that I had my camera.

From then on, the Nyau were glimpsed only occasionally, in moments of mass confusion.  Once, when walking down the path on the way to the market, Dan and I heard a rumble approaching from behind.  We sidestepped from the path just in time to avoid a crush of villagers, fleeing from the approaching Nyau.  Somebody grabbed my hand and led me into a neighbor's house, where we watched from the safety of the mud-brick doorframe.  The Nyau, it seems, are not to be trifled with.

So who are the Nyau?

The Nyau (Chichewa:  mask, or inititation) is a secret society of the Chewa culture.  While most aspects of the Chewa culture have disappeared or been altered by the arrival of western missionaries, the society of the Nyau has survived intact for hundreds of years.

The word "Nyau" actually refers to a variety of things, including the society itself, the religious beliefs of the society, the dances performed at ritual ceremonies, and the masks used to perform.  Because the society is actually a "secret" one, the belief system of the Nyau is confusing and rather shrouded in mystery.  People in Zobue don't seem to talk about the Nyau very often, usually referring to them as "bichos" (Portuguese:  bugs, or beasts).  Whenever the Nyau are spotted on the street, everyone will drop what they are doing and run away in terror.  It seems that the Nyau, who are considered to be animated representation of the spirit world, are not responsible for their actions while in character.  This means that, while in costume, they may act violently and with impunity.  Failure to respect the Nyau is considered a crime.

The Nyau have two main costumes.  There is the elaborate festival costume, made of rags and feathers.  These costumes represent evil characters (vices), whose misbehavior is meant to teach social values to the audience.  Characters include wild animals, spirits of the dead, slave traders, and even modern inventions, like the helicopter. In Zobue, we have even seen a few "white men" characters, with a chubby faces, black hair, and dark sunglasses. The other costume is a costume of mud paint, topped with a few feathers, a wooden mask, and a machete.  These particular Nyau, I have found, are what really scare the people of Zobue.  Liable to pop out of any bush at any time (but generally on holidays or after a funeral), these are the beasts that chased me into a neighbor's house and frightened all of my eighth graders.

In theory, there is a third type of Nyau costume-- the animal costume.  These elaborate costumes are woven  out of basket fibers and often require two or more performers.  The elephant character, for instance, requires four dancers and only appears at important funerals.

Women and children, who are excluded from the secret society, are told that the masked men are dead people who have been revived and that the animal Nyau (the Nyau yolemba) are real wild animals.  It is disrespectful for a woman or child to refer to a Nyau dancer as a human being.  Instead, dancers are referred to as "nyama," or animals.

Dancing on the part of the Nyau requires a great deal of talent and athleticism.  In addition to extensive costumes and elaborate headdresses, the ritual dances involve intricate footwork and a lot of running, kicking, and spinning.  Their performance at the District Cultural Festival was the first instance of Nyau dancing that I have seen, and my first real opportunity to take pictures.

Our district won the festival, by the way, so our dancers will be making an appearance at the National Cultural Festival in Nampula in mid-July.  Some of our neighbors think that we will win the entire competition, and that Zobue will be crowned the "capital of national culture in Mozambique."  It has been a source of great pride for the entire community.

Google Image Search:  Nyau

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