“Odi! Odi! Odi!!”
Someone was outside my house, repeating the Chichewa word for “knock knock.” I rolled my eyes and sauntered grudgingly towards the door, expecting to find an eager group of children wishing to chat with me who I didn’t feel like entertaining. (They can be quite demanding and persistent!) As I approached the door, the voice became louder and seemingly more distressed. When I turned the handle, a wide-eyed agogo (grandmother) plowed past me and quickly fumbled to shut the door. I had no idea what was going on. Was this little old lady a security threat? I could probably take her, I thought, although it looks like she’d put up a good fight. Malawian women are unbelievably strong. Hmm.
While this inner dialogue transpired, the woman grabbed my arm. Standing a full foot shorter than me, she looked up and with great fear in her eyes, whispered, “Zeeee-lommm-bo.”
Yup. Still nothing. What was happening?
The agogo then peered out my window and pointed down the road. “Uku,” she whispered. I craned my neck and descried that indeed, something unusual and ominous was advancing. It was the Gule Wamkulu. Two figures dressed in raggy outfits, donning grotesque masks and yielding machetes were walking in our direction. They were shouting things in Chichewa, swinging the machetes and clearly instilling fear in those around them. I tried to ask a question but the woman pressed her index finger to her lips to signal silence and pulled me away from the window.
As I had learned in Pre-Service Training, the Gule Wamkulu is a prominent, immemorial feature of the Chewa culture. While in the past, they were dangerous and certainly to be avoided, they are now mainly a form of entertainment. The Gule is comprised of men that have undergone a highly secretive initiation and that is not even shared with family members. They participate in dances at important events such as funerals, holidays, special meetings, etc. The identities of the Gule members are never revealed; instead of actual people, they are thought to be “spirits” that emerge from the forest.
When the two Gule were out of sight that day, the woman thanked me for providing a safe place to hide and went on her way. Naturally, my curiosity was stimulated. I wanted to see more. I crossed the street to a friend’s house to discuss what I had just witnessed and discovered that she was just as frightened as the old woman. After much protestation, however, she agreed to escort me to where the Gule were performing.
The surrounding area was buzzing with excitement. We walked past countless clusters of congregated community members, zealously discussing the nearby Gule Wamkulu. At one point, a shriek announced the spotting of a “spirit” wandering through the trees. The clusters of gossipers instantly broke up and scattered like a exploding fireworks, sending everyone back into their houses. My friend frantically searched for the closest home and pushed me inside. Again, I waited in silence until my fellow neighbors deemed it was safe to leave. This act became a pattern, repeating itself multiple times. As we finally approached the dance, I could sense my friend’s perturbation. She sheepishly handed me over to a slightly braver woman who tenderly took my hand. Still, the woman’s hands were shaking and her expression exuded seriousness. Her fear was palpable. It seemed, however, that most of this fear was derived from the burden of bringing me, the azungu, so close to the Gule Wamkulu. It made me feel so incredibly fortunate that this lady, a complete stranger, cared so much about my safety. She was truly troubled, as if she were leading me to certain death.
Finally, after all the hype, we arrived at the dance. And I was permitted to stay for a grand total of two minutes. The other amayis were apparently too concerned with my presence, fearing the Gule would grab me- and so I was whisked away.
I wasn’t able to enjoy the dancing that day, but I certainly had fun running around the village. While I know the Malawians did not take the presence of the Gule lightly, it brought me back to the days of playing Manhunt with my neighbors as a child. I felt lucky to be able to have an authentic experience with Chewa culture and fortunate that my neighbors care so much about my well-being. I’m sure I’ll see many more “zilombo” or Gule Wamkulu, but will never forget my first encounter.
If you’re interested in reading more about the Gule, click here.
Other random happenings from this week:
If you were concerned about me not having enough to eat, don’t be! My neighbors just told me how happy they were to see that I was getting fat. (Here in Malawi it’s a sign of wealth). Meanwhile, I didn’t even noticed that I had gained weight.
I made my counterpart cake for his birthday! Baking over the fire for the first time was a struggle, but I was so proud of my unburnt, delicious goodie. However, when I gave it to my counterpart, he one-upped me and returned the container full of French fries and a (cold!) soda, saying, “Here is my birthday present to you! Hope you like it!” So much for my wonderful cake…
I am getting a bedframe! No more sleeping on the floor with the mice.
That’s all. Catch you on the flip side.
How I baked the cake (coals on top and below the pot):