Last Year, I visited the British museum, especially the Sainsbury sponsored lower part of the Museum where I was surprised by the shear number of people staring at unusual display of a certain African collectable item.
I too was attracted with this object especially the fact that it was sparking interest from many visitors. When I moved closer, I soon discovered that it was a mammal like four legged mask imported from Njombwa
Village, Kasungu in Malawi and they call it KASIYAMALIRO.
I felt connected back home.Perhaps a bit of folk telling here may help those that are not familiar with the NYAU thing.One of the long held traditional symbols of the Chewa people is a dance called Nyau. It is more commonly referred to as Gule wankulu (The big dance) although in Mozambique, they call it VIGURE.
In reality, the Nyau is more than a dance. It is a way of life. It has rules that go beyond dancing to cover how people belonging to the Chewa tribe relate to each other and to life around them. In performance, dancers wear masks or make-up. These dancers are referred to as Zinyau.
Strictly speaking, it is offensive to call the dancers Zinyau. Rather, they are referred to as Zirombo (Animals).In fact this reminds me of a story I heard about the cult.
Around Kamphata area/ Nkhoma turn off on the Blantyre Lilongwe road, these mask dancers more often in summer or Easter, tend to roam along the road Seeking arms by performing dances or kidnapping non members and demand ransom fines. Some times it also occur to them to ask arms from passing motorists on Malawi's busiest road.
It is said that one day, a truck full of German back parkers was passing by on their way to Blantyre from a German sponsored Museum in Karonga and when they made a stop at Kamphata to relieve themselves, they saw some people running away as if their lives were in danger.
No sooner than latter, their Truck was surrounded by Nyau escorters. Minutes latter a towering four legged Nyau emerged and started performing some dancing rituals.
The tourists were amazed with this bizarre creature which was seemingly violent to women than men. They couldn't figure out the connections between the vigilantes and the beast.
A debate ensued amongst themselves. Was it a real beast or a ghost? If it was a beast, why then were women the only target. Since they were coming from Karonga Museum where it is alleged that fossils of a dinosaur were found, some clever chaps were quick to declare it a ground breaking discovery of a
" LIVE LIVING DINOSAUR"
In no time others started taking some notes whilst observing the beast’s
unique features .Other notes were reading thus: "ground breaking discovery of Africa’s
remaining living dinosaur, it has a small head with sisal like skin and human feet. Can respond to human drum beatings”
It seems they seriously took this to be a life time discovery. The excitement further increased when upon enquiry, the on lookers told them that it was Chirombo[animal]
To the Chewa people, animals belong to the world of the irrational and spirits. As I said earlier, the dance is done through, and very often in animal masks. When a dance wears such a mask, he becomes the irrational animal his mask depicts.
In this state, much as the songs the dancer sings might have significant messages for those who come to witness the dance-drama, the songs and antics of the dancer are understood by all as coming from an animal within its irrational world. In other words, all present on the occasion "suspend disbelief" only during the performance of the dance.
When these German tourists crossed checked the term (CHIROMBO) with their Chiche-English dictionary, the discovery morale grew even bigger for the dictionary confirmed that chirombo was indeed" ANIMAL."
At which point serious plans were being drawn trying to map out the way forward. They imagined themselves making headline news in major European papers.
"We are sitting on ground breaking history they thought”
On the other side, vigilantes and the Chirombo were banking on a big pay day. For sure, there is going to be some big monies after this performance possibly in excess of K40.00.
Unknown to them was that these German tourists were in fact drawing big-big time plans as to how they could smuggle the beast out of the country without seeking permission from the authorities.
A number of options were suggested but they needed a quick one before the scene becomes a venue of curious glances.
They settled at killing the beast, and skin it off so that its parts are then dried and packed into their hiking bags in attempt to sale them in major European universities and Museum.
Suddenly this idea gathered pace. The driver had a hunting gun and he volunteered to kill the beast. The vigilantes stood in awe when they suddenly saw a Big Time paying opportunity turning into a murderous event. They fled, by this time other women were already sobbing. The Gun man charged his gun and took position as he started aiming at the beast.
The beast was left alone. It peeped through the drilled face like holes only to see a white gun man aiming at it. The inside guy realized the aiming object as a gun and knew this was now a matter of life and death, judgment day was night.
The man in the animal mask had only himself to save. As the gun man drew closer, the man in the animal mask started panicking and just as he was about to pull a trigger,
the animal shouted for help in a usual soft first tenor voice thus:
“SORRY I AM A PEOPLE"