Here in America and in most of Canada, we have funeral traditions that have stood the test of time for decades, even centuries.
But our traditions are vastly different from those in other countries and cultures.
This article looks at Malawi Chewa funeral traditions and is part of a series that highlights how different cultures care for their dead. Other parts of the series are about Día de los Muertos and Uzbek funeral traditions, among others.
Note, these traditions may vary depending on the individual and their own beliefs.
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Malawi Chewa People
The Malawi Chewa people are the largest ethnic group in Malawi, Africa. They’re a matrilineal society, meaning that everyone identifies as their mother’s lineage. A matrilineal society also has property and titles inherited through the mother.
Christianity is the most common religion in Malawi, with Islam coming in second. Some people also identify with traditional religious beliefs.
Many Malawi Chewa believe that most deaths aren’t natural and are caused by witchcraft. They also believe that their ancestors live on after death.
Malawi Chewa Funeral Customs
A Malawi Chewa funeral and mourning period can last several days. The whole village attends the funeral since mostly everyone is family. It’s a time of mourning, but it’s also an opportunity to socialize with new people, eat, and drink.
The Gule Wamkulu is a secret society of people with magical powers and the name of a ceremonial dance performed at significant events like funerals. They also perform the dance when one of their members dies. For the dance, they wear animal skins and masks inspired by animals, such as antelopes, crocodiles, lions, or even sometimes inspired by ancestral spirits. They believe that performing this dance helps them connect with their ancestors.
While wearing the masks, they’re considered to be in an animal state. People both respect and fear them while they’re in this state. If they hear the performers coming, people either kneel, hide, or put money on the ground.