Vimbuza Healing Dance

Vimbuza, a healing dance popular among the Tumbuka people living in northern Malawi, is an important manifestation of the institution of ng’oma, a healing complex found throughout Bantu-speaking Africa. Ng’oma (meaning “drums of affliction”) carries considerable historical depth and, despite various attempts over the years to suppress it, continues to be a functional part of indigenous healthcare systems.


Most patients are women who suffer from various forms of mental illness. They are treated for some weeks or months by renowned healers who run a temphiri, a village house where patients are accommodated. After the concrete diagnosis has been made, patients undergo a specific healing ritual. To this purpose, women and children of the village where the temphiri is located form a circle around the patient who is slowly getting into trance and sing particular songs in which helping spirits are called. The only men taking part are those who beat spirit-specific drum rhythms accompanying the songs and, in some cases, the male healer.

Singing and drumming cohere into powerful musical experiences, providing a space for patients to “dance their disease” (kuvina nthenda). Although Vimbuza has changed over the years, musical practice has remained fairly consistent.

The Vimbuza healing ritual goes back to the mid-19th century when it developed as a means of overcoming traumatic experiences of oppression, and it further developed as a healing dance under British occupation, although it was forbidden by Christian missionaries. By becoming possessed by Vimbuza spirits, people who had experienced mental harm could express this in a way that was accepted and understood by the surrounding society. For the Tumbuka, vimbuza is both artistic production and therapeutic approach and is regarded as a useful complement in cases where other forms of medical treatment do not prove successful. Its continually expanding repertoire of songs, complex drumming tradition and the virtuosity of the dancing are all part of the rich cultural heritage of the Tumbuka.

Vimbuza is still practised in rural areas where the Tumbuku live but faces severe opposition by Christian churches and missionaries as well as, sometimes, doctors propagating modern psychiatric treatment. Environmental degradation is another problem since healers find it more difficult to find the necessary plants used in their traditional medicine in the Vimbuza healing ritual. Many people who are not conscious of the medical benefits of Vimbuza reduce it to a form of entertainment without recognizing its spiritual character and effects.