Gule Wamkulu

Inscribed in 2008 (3.COM) on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (originally proclaimed in 2005)

Country(ies): Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia



Gule Wamkulu was a secret cult, involving a ritual dance practiced among the Chewa in Malawi, Zambia, and Mozambique. It was performed by members of the Nyau brotherhood, a secret society of initiated men.Within the Chewa’s traditional matrilineal society, where married men played a rather marginal role, the Nyau offered a means to establish a counterweight and solidarity among men of various villages. Nyau members still are responsible for the initiation of young men into adulthood, and for the performance of the Gule Wamkulu at the end of the initiation procedure, celebrating the young men’s integration into adult society.

Gule Wamkulu is performed in the season following the July harvest, but it can also be seen at weddings, funerals, and the installation or the death of a chief. On these occasions, the Nyau dancers wear costumes and masks made of wood and straw, representing a great variety of characters, such as wild animals, spirits of the dead, slave traders as well as more recent figures such as the honda or the helicopter. Each of these figures plays a particular, often evil, character expressing a form of misbehavior, teaching the audience moral and social values. These figures perform dances with extraordinary energy, entertaining and scaring the audience as representatives of the world of the spirits and the dead.

Gule Wamkulu dates back to the great Chewa Empire of the seventeenth century. Despite the efforts of Christian missionaries to ban this practice, it managed to survive under British colonial rule by adopting some aspects of Christianity. As a consequence, Chewa men tend to be members of a Christian church as well as a Nyau society. However, Gule Wamkulu performances are gradually losing their original function and meaning by being reduced to entertainment for tourists and for political purpose.


These videos (and many more) can also be consulted through the UNESCO Archives Multimedia website

Safeguarding project (11-2006/12-2009)

Performed by the Chewa people of Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia, the Gule Wamkulu is a dance that accompanies initiation ceremonies, weddings, funerals and the installation of chiefs. Male dancers wear full costumes and masks made of wood and straw, expressing a great variety of spiritual and secular characters.

This multinational project, coordinated by the Malawian National Commission for UNESCO, includes, among others, the following safeguarding activities:

  • capacity building among master practitioners (training of trainers) and training workshops for young initiates through exchange programmes and the distribution of educational materials;
  • awareness raising effort through inter-village, national and multinational festivals and joint radio and TV programmes;
  • support to Malawian, Zambian and Mozambican staff for research, documentation and the creation of an inventory on Gule Wamkulu, collating resources of all three countries;
  • encouragement of legal protection of intangible cultural heritage.

For monitoring and continuous exchange among three countries, a multinational safeguarding committee composed of tradition bearers, Chewa authorities, and the respective national implementation agencies in each country has been created.