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A Day of Unity in a Diverse World

Open Day at Kungoni Centre of Culture and Art, 2022

The Chameleon has been blessed with eyes which provide 360-degree vision allowing a clear view of the journey taken and the movement forward. It is also much admired for its ability to adapt to its present milieu. It is this animal that God used in the Chewa myth of creation to announce the Good News that there is life after death although it was out paced by the swifter lizard who provided a contradicting message.

In Kungoni we have chosen the chameleon as our mascot. We too want to help people, especially Malawians, to learn from the journey of all the generations who have preceded us. We believe that this wealth of knowledge can provide a much clearer vision for our future. We are not beginners on our journey but hold within us a reservoir of history and thought. It is this storehouse which we want people to tap into.

The chameleon is also our inspiration because we are all called to adapt to our present environment. This is even more pertinent for missionaries sent to different cultures and contexts. Just as the chameleon merges into its surroundings so too we are called to immerse ourselves in the context we are sent to serve. Through our efforts to learn the language and understand local culture and ritual we can also begin to understand the world from a different perspective. It is this knowledge which allows us as missionaries to share the Good News in a meaningful way which can have an impact on people’s lives. Facilitating such experiences has been the mission of Kungoni Cultural Centre since its establishment in 1976 under the guidance of Fr. Claude Boucher Chisale. 

As Missionaries of Africa, we have been commended in our desire to adapt to our milieu. Adaption is only possible with knowledge – knowledge is only possible with encounter. It is this experience which inspired our 2022 Open Day. Originally, this day was inspired by Fr. Champmartin (known locally as Chamare) who was one of the long standing members of the Missionaries of Africa community in Mua. This day is one of the highlights of our calendar as an annual event, with an open invitation to all.

For our team here in Kungoni, the preparations began long before the day arrived. Key to all the discussions was the need for inclusivity, recognising the richness that can be found in diversity. Such a desire dovetailed very easily with recent discussion at our 2022 General Chapter. In Rome we were reminded of the importance of encounter as a means of fulfilling our mission. We all acknowledged that the fruits we produce as missionaries can only taste good if they are rooted in the lives and culture of the people we are called to serve. It was for this reason that we at Kungoni felt it was only right that we should begin our day with an inter-religious prayer service.

The first step in preparing such a service was not ritual and rubrics but rather a knock on a door and a heartfelt greeting. And what a welcome we received. It was as if these church leaders had been waiting for this moment. The C.C.A.P. Pastor even arranged that we pray together on the following Sunday in his church. It is always a moment of enlightenment and an important moment of recognition that nobody can claim to have a monopoly on how we understand the human relationship with God. It would seem a natural inclination to realise that we have so much to learn from each other in our understanding of something that is beyond our comprehension – that something being God. 

And so the encounters continued with phone calls and visits to the homes of the Muslim, Anglican and Traditional authorities. What we lacked in experience, we gained in enthusiasm. Nobody missed a meeting or practice. We struggled with meanings and symbols. How could we, after asking for forgiveness, express our desire to be reconciled in a post-Covid era which prohibits the shaking of hands. Somebody suggested planting a tree together as a sign of sowing the seeds of new life. We discussed about carrying the Koran during a procession and sharing the word of God in Arabic. Everyone agreed that we should all be free to express ourselves in a respectful and meaningful manner. As all our prayers were calling for greater unity and understanding, we wondered if we could not express this desire in a way which would be meaningful in our local culture. We shared about how unity and solidarity is expressed during the grief of a funeral or the joy experienced during a wedding. We noticed that during a funeral grandchildren of the deceased carry flags made from identical cloth. Women also choose a cloth to signify the friendship of their group which they wear at various gatherings such as weddings and funerals. Such cloth is called “kalala” and upon seeing it one instinctively knows that it is a sign of familial or group unity. So we too adopted this approach by choosing one design which would become the sign of our common heritage in faith and culture. Each participant was given this cloth to tie around a central pole (mzati) that we carried together into the arena. It is the “mzati” which provides the central support for the traditional round house. This symbolism of unity continued throughout the day as more “kalala” were added by the various groups who came to perform, recognising that we all share a common home, Malawi.

The reaction to our prayer service has been overwhelmingly positive. As a group we have subsequently met and hope to have similar services linked with national events like the National Day of Prayer for the Sick. More importantly we have encouraged visiting and getting to know each other better. 

The upcoming documents of the Chapter once more remind us that encounter and dialogue are by no means the preserve of specialists. For many of us as M.Afr, this is already a reality as we meet different faith beliefs in our work through funerals, development projects, and other community events. However, the General Chapter 2022 calls for a proactive approach encouraging us to seek out this encounter as part of our charism as Missionaries of Africa.

The second part of our Open Day aimed to provide a platform for various groups to present their performances in line with our theme; “Let Us Reconcile So As To Build The Central Pillar Of Malawi. Remember Culture Is Our Backbone.” It is our belief that song, dance, poetry and drama have incredible influence on the human psyche.These forms of cultural expression have evolved over generations and are embedded in the DNA of our human nature.

Before the advent of mass media, song, dance, poetry and drama had already developed to become one of the most effective means of teaching the next generation. It is also through these expressions that we can understand how our ancestors were able to negotiate issues of grief and joy, and the expectations of growing up in a community. It is imperative that young people understand the power of these cultural expressions to present a message. It is this format that we used during our Open Day to help people reflect on the power of having a unified voice in our efforts to make Malawi a better country.

We also wanted to continue the efforts for inclusivity at all levels. Therefore, our groups were varying in age, gender and capacity. We invited the children from the local School for the Deaf to prepare a performance of their skills. These children astounded us in their ability to formulate and coordinate three dance performances. One of their performances included highlighting the value of education and avoiding activities that confuse young people. The very fact that the whole auditorium waved their hands rather than clapped to show appreciation was already a learning lesson. 

Other performances called for greater respect for our environment and more efforts to appreciate our differences. Overall, everyone contributed their part in showcasing the incredible wealth of knowledge and skills we have here in Malawi.

The forthcoming Chapter documents will reiterate that encounter is at the heart of our mission and invites us to dialogue with all cultures and religions. It has been an integral part of our congregation from the very beginning. Our founder, Cardinal Lavigerie was indeed a man ahead of his time. With the limited knowledge and exposure of that time, the first missionaries immersed themselves in a world very different from their own and sought out encounter as a means of understanding this new reality. These men have been our inspiration ever sense and have provided us with the blueprint for what we now call “The daily dialogue of life and faith.” We are now fully aware of the diversity that exists in our world and its potential to build or destroy. We can be at the forefront in harnessing this wealth to present the Gospel message in a more dynamic and inclusive manner. However, nothing can replace the beauty of an encounter and a desire to know the other. It is such a desire that promises to make us true Missionaries of Lavigerie.

By Fr. Brendan O’Shea (M.Afr)

2018 Kungoni Cultural Festival

Kungoni_Open_Day_2018By Robert Kalindiza

As Malawi prepares to conduct a tripartite election, Father Claude Boucher Chisale decided to pass the message of elections in this year’s cultural performances.

Before different dances, there was a traditional Mass. The preacher was Bishop Montfort Sitima of Mangochi diocese. Over six priests accompanied Father Boucher including Father Michel Sanou as the official representative of the Missionaries of Africa in Malawi. Many people from different parts of the world were also in attendance.

Over thirty dances were showcased.

Big celebration in Mua, Malawi.

15 BBy Landry Busagara, stagiaire in Mua.

Saturday on the 23rd September, Mua Parish was celebrating its 115 years of existence. Mua mission was established by three Missionaries of Africa in September 1902 and has since grown to have 25 churches and about 25 000 Christians. Moreover, it was the golden jubilee of priesthood of Father Claude Boucher who has been living in Mua for more than 40 years. The parish was also celebrating 25 years of service of one of its catechists: Abambo Simoni Panyani.

Many people came from different places to congratulate and share our joy. We were honoured by the presence of the Vice President of the Republic of Malawi, the Ambassador of Germany in Malawi, the Provincial of Southern Africa, the MPs, Chiefs, Priests, Sisters, brothers and parishioners who came in large numbers for the event.

The Eucharist was presided by the Bishop of Dedza Diocese, Bishop Emmanuele Kanyama. Time was given to present the amazing journey of Father Boucher Chisale, the founder of the Kungoni Centre of Culture and Art. It was a celebration to remember all the missionaries who contributed to the life of the Christian community over so many years. “Following that example of the bounty of God, said the Bishop, we are called to do the same, we need to love one another, to forget our ego and live together as brothers and sisters without conflicts and quarrels, and to be thankful to God and to the missionaries.

21 ABeing in Malawi for so long, Father Boucher, as he said, became a Malawian and happy to be so. His regret is to see how people are becoming careless about the environment and the culture. As a matter of fact, Father Claude, now 75 years old, has been working and doing research in anthropology and the local culture all his life. He wrote many books and received many awards for his tremendous achievement. He asked the Lord to grant him some more days to continue working in his vineyard.

Father Felix Phiri, our Provincial, expressed his joy and congratulated everyone. In his view, it is rare to see Missionaries of Africa celebrating 115 years of presence in the same parish. Usually, they start a parish and, after some time, move elsewhere. Father Claude Boucher should be a good example for all missionaries for his closeness to the people and his care for the nature and preserving the local culture.

The Vice President Saulos Chilima was also very happy to be present and thankful for the invitation. “We should not forget our beautiful culture in exchange with foreign ones. We were not supposed to wait for missionaries to teach us how to preserve our culture and traditions. We need to keep our identity. Nowadays, he continued, people are more aggressive towards the environment. We are more zealous in destroying than in building. The way we cut trees, the way we use water… and we do not realise that what we are doing will cause us problems in the future.” He also talked about demography in Malawi. If we do not pay attention on how we make children, it will be very hard in the years to come. We should give birth to children that we are capable of raising up.

Before the final blessing, the Bishop congratulated Father Claude Boucher who has sacrificed his whole life for others, caring for the nature, the culture, being one of the people. He asked us to take into consideration that good example.

Link: Mua Parish Celebration in Dedza diocese, Malawi.

Honorary Doctorate Degree in Culture and Social Anthropology awarded to Father Claude Boucher, M.Afr

Philip MerabaGreat Works Attract Great Admiration and Recognition.

By Philip Meraba, M.Afr.

Our Confrere, Fr. Claude Boucher, founder of the popular Kungoni Centre for Culture and Arts under Mua Mission in Malawi, was awarded an Honorary Doctorate Degree in Culture and Social Anthropology by the Malawi Campus of the United Kingdom based Share-World University in 2014 during a colourful graduation ceremony.

Mzuzu a dHistory repeated itself this year when on the 24th of March 2017, Fr. Claude Boucher, M.Afr, received his 2nd Honorary Doctorate Degree in the same discipline by the University of Mzuzu at Bingu International Convention Centre in Lilongwe, Malawi. The 18th Congregation (graduation ceremony) of the Mzuzu University that lasted for four hours drew thousands of people from various part of the country. 851 graduated with Diplomas, first Degrees, Masters and P. HD in different fields.

Fr. Claude Boucher was honoured alongside two other hardworking and exemplary Malawians; Mr. Napoleon Dzombe with Doctorate in Entrepreneurship (Honoris Causa) and Mr. Felix Mlusu with Doctorate in Business Leadership (Honoris Causa).

Mzuzu 3b

The enriching heroic profile of our confrere about 40 years of intensive research in the Malawian Culture and languages attracted a lot of applause from the crowds and feeling of amazement and curiosity at the same time as the whole hall stood up to catch the glimpse of this unique cultural Priest not confined   in the sacristy. Mrs. Mercy Kaunda Chinula who read out the biography and presented him afterwards to the Vice-Chancellor of the Mzuzu University, Dr. Robert G. Ridley to confer on our confrere the award stressed that Fr. Claude Boucher well deserved the merit because of his love and respect for Malawi, her citizens, culture and languages, combined with the tireless research on blending culture with religion. This was an encouragement and a challenge to the newly graduates not to excel only in academics but to prove efficient in the field, putting into best the knowledge acquired during long years of intellectual formation and contribute their quota for the growth of the Nation. ‘‘Hard work pays, therefore, graduates of today, work hard and the society shall admire, recognize and honour you like Fr. Dr. Claude Boucher’’, said one of the organizers.

The ceremony was climaxed by interviews on different topics patterning to culture with the new Doctor of Culture and Anthropology. Fr. Claude recurred and narrated to his confrere who represented the White Fathers at the function when many years back he was requested by his Superiors to pursue further a Doctorate Degree in Culture and Social Anthropology after obtaining his M.A. and his reply was, he shall do the Doctorate in the field. This is a dream come true, with two Doctorates in the field. Big congrats Dr. Dr. or Dr² Claude!

September 2016 Kungoni Newsletter

kungoni-art-work-2016-03-blogFather Claude Boucher Chisale celebrated his 75th birthday on August 2, 2016. A week later, the Chamare festival commemorated the 40th anniversary of Kungoni Centre of Culture and Art. Various media houses such as TVM, Times newspaper, Zodiak radio, Luntha TV, Luso TV, were present. The theme of this year festival was the one proclaimed by Pope Francis for this year of mercy. A play was performed to emphasise that wealth is not the only value which one has to cherish. Malawi is very rich in spirituality that stress the importance of our common humanity. An incluturated Mass was celebrated where the homily was delivered by Father Kanyike, a Ugandan Comboni missionary. Other celebrants were Jos Kuppens, Claude Boucher, Kadzilawa and four diocesan priests from Dedza diocese.

See the September 2016 Kungoni Newsletter (Vol. 6, no 1) (12.3 Mo) for more news including Kungoni Artworks such as carvings for the South African embassy in Lilongwe, new fresco at Makakola retreat bar, Masanje paintings on canvas, Hippo view lodge commission carvings of Tchopa dancers. A special tribute is given too to Thomas Mpira, one of the most prominent artist of Kungoni.

“Accumulating wealth is not the only purpose worth to live for”

KULEMERA SIKUFIKA, KACHIRAMBE ANAOMBOLA MALAWI, CHIKHALIDWE CHATHU CHIBWERERE = “Accumulating wealth is not the only purpose worth to live for”.

Malawi is not to be considered as a poor beggar who keeps stretching the hand but is very rich of spirituality that can be shared with the rest of the world especially with regard to our common humanity.

The play browse over a Bantu and Yao tale that feature a redeemer in the person of Kachirambe.

The story developed the theme of the land and its people that has been swallowed by a nasty monster in the form of a giant pumpkin. All except a young girl and her mother who escaped and lived hidden in the forest.

As the monster moves from village to village, it keeps getting bigger and stronger by swallowing people’s good behaviour and devouring the best of the people’s life and traditions. It destroys people’s humanity and change them into greedy creatures deprived of mercy, humanity and freedom. As the story unfolds, Malawi becomes the prey to corruption, greed, injustices, famine and even the murder as it is recently the case of albinos.

Albinos in MalawiChiefs are corrupt; they are bribed and cases are not resolved fairly. They are selling land to rich investors while the custodians of the land are left with little or no land to cultivate. Hospital staff are irresponsible and lack commitment; patients are not given much attention and are asked to pay money to be assisted. ADMARC staff are corrupt and greedy; if people don’t have money to bribe the officials, they are denied access to food supply  while the government deny of famine and proclaim that there is plenty of maize available. The most horrifying is the killing of people with albinism, apparently for money in exchange for their bones. Poverty grows daily and those who are poor are denied rights of speech and are prevented to access to the legal system in order to claim their rights. Greed has gripped Malawi. People’s humanity have been swallowed by the monster pumpkin.

The only survivors in our tale are a young girl called “Ndasiyidwa” (meaning; I was spared) and her mother called “Ndapulumuka” (meaning; I have survived). Ndasiyidwa was expecting a child. One day while Ndasiyidwa was busy collecting mushrooms in the forest, she took by accident a hyena’s egg and brought it home. The mother of Ndasiyidwa destroyed the egg by throwing it in the fire. The next day when the girl was collecting wild vegetables, she encountered the hyena for the first time and it asked who took its egg. Ndasiyidwa acknowledged that she was the one took the egg and that her mother had destroyed it in the fire. The hyena threatened that it will eat her. Ndasiyidwa told the hyena that she was expecting a baby soon and that it should eat the child instead of her. The hyena complied. Ndasiyidwa delivered her child, fully grown and equipped with weapons of a hunter. Her grandmother called him Kachirambe Mlera khungwa (meaning; the guardian of the people). Ndasiyidwa informed the hyena on her first trip to the forest that she had conceived her child, but that the child was so clever that the hyena could not come to term with it and that the hyena would fail to eat him. The hyena tried again and again to grab Kachirambe but failed. Instead Kachirambe killed the hyena and delivered his mother and grandmother from their common enemy.

One day as Kachirambe was chatting with his mother, he asked her what had happened to his dad. Ndasiyidwa told him that his father was devoured by the monster pumpkin called Mgalika mwambo (meaning; the swallower of tradition). Kachirambe swore that he will get rid of the monster pumpkin as he did with the hyena and enquired where the monster was hiding. Ndasiyidwa told him that it was hiding in the lake. The hero over the hyena Kachirambe, went for it and fought it with all his strength. He weakened it with his arrows and in the end he cut it open with his father’s dagger and freed all those who had been swallowed. His father on behalf of all the other victims, acknowledged that he had been greedy and selfish. He promised that he would return to the tradition and become more human. He would take seriously the advice of his ancestors. Money does not ultimately fulfil all of human aspirations.

The play ends with the great mother of the Chewa “Kasiya maliro” who condemns those who have gone astray through greed and lost their humanity and their own tradition. One has to live from his own values and not imitating the behaviour of others. Kachirambe portrays the power of Malawian culture over and against other influences that can disrupt Malawian culture and tradition if one is not deeply rooted into his own. Once Malawi has lost her own humanity, it has also lost the privilege of being called Malawian.

kachirambe_JPEGAccumulating wealth is not the only purpose worth to live for

Coming Up – Open Day – 13th August 2016

Open Day 2008 28The proposed date for the Open Day at Mua, Malawi, is Saturday 13th August 2016.

The Open Day (also known as Chamare Day) is an annual celebration of the work of Kungoni Centre, which features the Kungoni Dance Troupe, dances contributed by people around the Mua area and a lot of Gule Wamkulu.

The culmination of the Open Day is a play, which this year will be inspired by the story of Kachirambe, who liberated his people by slaying the Pumpkin Monster.

Proceedings should start with an inculturated Mass at 8.30 a.m. and conclude mid-afternoon. 2016 is the fortieth anniversary of Kungoni Centre, so the Open Day will be especially memorable.

Report – Africa Day – 2016 – Kungoni Centre of Culture and Art, Mua Mission, MALAWI

June 21, 2016. On 20th May MultiChoice Malawi brought journalists from across Malawi to Kungoni Centre to celebrate Africa Day.

Father-ChisaleAlso in the Nation on 24th May: Thoughts from a retreat. By Yvonnie Sundu, May 24, 2016.

Claude Boucher Chisale, Visual Artist

Sam Banda JnrBy Sam Banda Jnr

It is on a Friday, MultiChoice Malawi has organised yet another annual trip for journalists to celebrate Africa Day which falls on May 25 every year. This is the annual commemoration on May 25, 1963 of the founding of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). On this day, leaders of 30 of the 32 independent African states a founding charter in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

However, the trip has been organised much earlier on May 20 to give a chance to journalists to sensitise people about Africa Day. Just as MultiChoice has done every year, they have not told the journalists where they are taking them to having departed early in the morning in Blantyre. It turns out to be a long trip which takes us close to three hours and finally we arrive at Mua in Dedza. Such a quiet place and one would be compelled to think it a dull area.

Welcome to Mua Mission which also houses Kungoni Arts Centre of Culture and Art. The road to the place is not tarmac. But wait a minute, we are journalists from Blantyre and so as we arrived, we met fellow journalists from Lilongwe, what an exciting outing this is going to be.

We greet each other before being taken through the programme. What a trip, we are going to meet artist Claude Boucher Chisale, who founded Kungoni Centre in 1976.

There is a lot to learn here and Chisale tells us that there is so much but since this was a day’s trip, they would try as much to tell us more on the history of Kungoni which is built on the grounds of Mua Mission. Chisale speaks Chichewa fluently having come to Malawi in 1967 from Canada. He loves Africa and loves Malawi which is now his home and he is proud of it. When he was speaking, we all stayed quiet as he moved us with his story and that of Kungoni, telling us the beauty of Malawi and the beauty of preserving “our culture.”

And while many of us prefer going for holidays outside the country, there is a lot we are missing out and I would recommend many of you to take time out and visit Mua. It is a place that offers visitors a unique insight upon the cultural and artistic inheritance of Malawi and preserves for Malawians a treasure house of what is distinctive in the cultures of the Chewa, Ngoni and Yao people, who converge in the Mua area.

Back to A Chisale as he is fondly called, a lot has been said about him but for those of you who do not know his story, he was born in Canada in 1941. He followed in the steps of his maternal aunt to come to Malawi as a priest of the Missionaries of Africa (the White Fathers) in 1967.

Apart from brief periods of study in Uganda and London, he has remained in Malawi ever since.

“I love Malawi, this is my home. I am proud to be here,” said Chisale, when asked whether he does not have ambitions of going back to Canada. Chisale’s life work has been at Mua Mission, where he founded Kungoni.

According to him, the centre started as a cooperative for wood carvers and that over the years, it has grown to encompass the Chamare Museum (which holds important ethnographic collections on the Chewa, Yao and Ngoni peoples of Malawi). The centre also [comprises] the Kafufuku research library, Namalikhate lodge and Ku Mbewu (a women’s cooperative).

He said Kungoni has decorated churches throughout Malawi and elsewhere, as far afield as Kenya and Germany; and that example of its work, both religious and secular, are to be found in collections which include the Vatican Museums.

The priest, artist and anthropologist, took the name Chisale when he became one of the few non-Chewa to be initiated into Nyau, the secret society which is responsible for Gule Wamkulu.

He has sought over the 40 years of his work at Mua Mission to create dialogue and understanding where before there was hostility and suspicion. As a result, he has been granted unparalleled access to Chewa traditional access to Chewa traditional custom; and Chewa participants in Gule Wamkulu no longer feel themselves excluded from the life of the church.

“Religion and culture go together and this is why when I came I made sure I associated with the people who were deep rooted into culture. First you must understand that as people we have culture and then with it there is also religion,” he said with a little smile.

He has written several books and one of his extensive accounts of his life and work is his book When Animals Sing and Spirits Dance. This year Kungoni Arts is celebrating its 41st anniversary while Chisale is celebrating his 75th birthday.

“This country was given to us by our parents and so let’s preserve it, let’s treasure our culture and extract from it important elements which will help develop our country,” he said.

Chisale observes that many Malawians do not value their culture and that other wishes they were not born here. ‘We can do better, we have to thank God that we were born in Malawi and Africa. Africa is not poor and Malawi is not poor as others always put it. This is a rich nation with so much to treasure,” he said.

In his book When Animals Sing and Spirits Dance, Chisale tells us more about his 40 years encounter with Gule Wamkulu, the Great dance of the Chewa people of Malawi. Gule Wamkulu is an extraordinarily rich tradition, which United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) recognised as constituting part of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2005.

Chisale said he understands it as the vehicle by which the ancestors return to the village to offer social commentary and advice to the living. Gule Wamkulu has a vast plethora of characters, both masked and concealed with structures, which we appreciated in the museum. He said Gule Wamkulu is an indispensable part of initiation and funeral rites and of ceremonies to commemorate the dead and that nowadays it is performed during cultural events and political gatherings.

Through the Kungoni Dance Troupe, journalists appreciated traditional dances from the Ngoni and Chewa which were held at a place known as Matako Apekesana. Throughout all the traditional dances which included Ngoma from the Ngoni and Gule Wamkulu, Chisale explained in detail why these traditional dances were performed as well as the different regalia’s worn.

“I am happy that MultiChoice thought of bringing journalists here as we look ahead to celebrating Africa Day. We have so much to share here and apart from that we also teach cultural courses and even art,” he said.

This was surely a good encounter with A Chisale, a man who has always valued culture and so why can’t we do the same?

Welcome to KUNGONI Online, the portal for Kungoni Centre’s three websites and the Kungoni weblog!

Welcome to KUNGONI OnlineWelcome to KUNGONI Online, the portal for Kungoni Centre’s three websites and the Kungoni weblog!

Book Review: Boucher, Claude (Chisale). When Animals Sing and Spirits Dance Gule Wamkulu: The Great Dance of the Chewa People of Malawi.

Journal of Retracing AfricaClaude Boucher’s When Animals Sing and Spirits Dance Gule Wamkulu: The Great Dance of the Chewa People of Malawi, with additional text from Gary J. Morgan, Director of Museum Studies at Michigan State University, and photographs by Arjen van de Merwe, offers a refreshing, insightful, and brilliant interlink between what could be regarded as artistic compendium and the fundamental spiritual cultural heritage of an African community, the Chewa people of Malawi, in the dynamic context of everyday paradigms of holistic life experiences. Through a drama-laced strategy, the book masterfully employs symbolic characters depicted in masks and woven structures in an analytical syringe of songs and dances to “play out” the realities of cultural philosophical values and communal expectations of the Chewa people.

The crux of the book is revealed in two major sections. The first is the introduction written by Gary Morgan. Here the reader is exposed to the historical background of Malawi in general, the historical origin of gule wamkulu, and the religion of the Chewa people. It also introduces the reader to the role, as well as the form of gule wamkulu characters. The history of the origin of the symbolic and ritual evolution and the eventual transition of the gule wamkulu characters are also extensively discussed. With the introduction, the reader is prepared for the subsequent intriguing and illuminating details to follow in the main section of the book.

The second presents the kernel of the book in seven major themes as “dramatized” through the performances of the gule wamkulu dancers. The themes vividly capture the Chewa people’s worldview on moral codes. The holistic nature of the themes is compelling. They strategically cover the existential instructions for the citizens of the community, such as history and politics; community, authority and ancestors; sexuality, fertility and marriage; childbirth and parenthood; health, food and death; witchcraft and medicines; and personal attributes. The author brilliantly portrays the interpretations and dramatic uses of these themes in ways that vividly represent the authentic voices of the local people that may be impossible to achieve in any other format. Perhaps more importantly, the Chewa people’s heritage of the spiritual linkage to the ancestral world, in which the ancestors continue to impact their living descendants as agents of societal moral standard, is substantially highlighted. This without any doubt constitutes a significant representation of the fundamental religious worldview of Africans on the circular nature of human existence and the “never ending” reciprocal obligations and privileges between the living and the living dead, i.e. the earthly and the spiritual domains.

I find the intellectual and communicative strengths of this book enormous. It is comprehensively researched and the author admirably subsumes his subjective considerations of the themes discussed and allows the voices of the Chewa people to be heard in their “undiluted” forms. The colorful illustration employed throughout the book definitely enhances the reader’s imaginative and empirical understanding. The images are compelling and make the reading of the book engaging and less cumbersome. Also, both the mask name and the theme indexes at the end of the book provide the much-needed information on the locations of prominent words and ideas. In addition, the glossary of Chichewa terms and the interpretations of the songs in Chichewa and English afford the reader, who may not speak the Chichewa language, the basic understanding of the contents.

Surprisingly, with the author having a background as a Catholic priest, I did not find an interfaith discourse that I believe would have positively linked the moral codes of instructions of the Chewa thematic worldviews with the Christian (Catholic) moral expectations in the inculturalization spirit of Vatican II. This I believe would have raised the profile of the book as a doctrinal literature in the promotion of African Christianity (perhaps I was looking for too much) given the focus, objectives, and scope of the book. Notwithstanding this critique, the book presents a formidable resource as a “hypothesis” ready for further scholarly research for those interested in the rich African spiritual heritage in the context of existential humanity. In this regard, the book attests to the 2005 UNESCO description of gule wamkulu as “a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity.” On the whole, Boucher deserves to be applauded for his scholarly endeavor in writing this book.

Ibigbolade Aderibigbe, Associate Professor of Religion and African Studies, University of Georgia, Athens, GA


Journal of Retracing Africa web page

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