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by Menno Welling (Published in The Lamp, February 2015)


When the Catholic University of Malawi was opened in 2006 I started teaching cultural anthropology, a discipline never offered at the University of Malawi. Most students had never heard of it so I had to explain it was the study of culture. But what is culture actually? I would ask my students if they could define the term culture for me. What does it mean according to them? Most would say, culture are cultural practices such as “tribal” dances and initiation ceremonies. This, as such, was interesting. If one were to ask the same question to random people in a European town, one would likely hear culture is art, meaning music, painting, literature, theatre etc. While from a linguistic point of view both answers are valid –people can give their own meaning to words; so there is no such thing as a wrong answer here-, anthropologists have a much wider understanding of culture. For anthropologists, culture is all that we do, make and think that is not innate, that is to say, all that is not defined by birth. Culture opposes nature. Culture are all the things we learn and do as people in society during our lives. The things we make are material culture.


The anthropological definition of culture is thus much wider than people would usually have it. In Malawi, it is not just “traditional” practices. It further includes the ambitions of the urban middle class, the way civil servants and politicians go about doing their job and how the minibus system operates, to give some odd examples. The latter happens to be the subject of an anthropological Master thesis a few years ago. What is considered modern, recent and/or western is often not thought of as culture in daily language. At those occasions, one mostly refers to what are perceived to be traditional beliefs and practices. This much smaller component of wider culture I prefer calling intangible cultural heritage.


Many urban Malawians approach so-called traditional beliefs and practices with a certain skepticism or suspicion. They are often seen in conflict with development, church teachings and/or human rights. While we cannot deny that occasionally there is some of that –but far less than people would have it-, it is time to look at these elements more positively. The term intangible cultural heritage reflects that change in perception. Heritage are those elements of culture that have been passed on from previous generations that we value, and that still serve a purpose today. Because the elements referred to are immaterial (learned behaviour and beliefs) we call them intangible, as opposed to archaeological heritage or built heritage for instance.


Beliefs about Napolo and Mbona, and dances like gule wamkulu, vimbuza and tchopa are far from backward and outdated. They serve great purposes in present-day society. They may, according to some, counter a strict scientific or Christian understanding of the world, but that is not the point. They are extremely rich expressions of profound symbolic cosmologies which bring people to gather and give them guidance on how to relate to each other and their surroundings. To the participants they are socially important, and morally as they are used to impart values to members of the community, both young and old. Of course, some aspects of elements of intangible cultural heritage need to be amended in line with contemporary society, and to a great extent that has already happened, or is happening: e.g. there are now only few reported incidents on violence in connection with gule wamkulu and people have been looking for alternatives for ritual intercourse in light of the HIV-AIDS pandemic.


Their social and moral relevance makes these rituals important even to those who no longer subscribe to the underlying beliefs or cosmologies. The same goes for their psychological impact. Ceremonies can bring comfort and relief to those involved. But even to those who do not directly partake intangible cultural heritage should be of great psychological value. They are conspicuous markers for our cultural identity. As Malawians we need to start appreciating our cultural assets. Rather then to keep dwelling on past and present misfortunes, be it slavery, colonialism, illness or poverty, we need to gain strength from our achievements: The iron implements and cotton cloth produced here in pre-colonial times were traded far beyond our borders for their excellent quality. Dr. Livingstone commented that the Malawi iron was better than the best European iron at the time. The Maravi kingdoms this country is named after, were revered by the Portuguese and Monomotapa elite alike. The Mbona cult in Nsanje goes back 400 years and has no equal. These things should make us proud. They should give us a sense of accomplishment. They should give us the confidence we need in whatever we undertake today. How can we expect to achieve today if when we look back all we choose to see is misery and failure? Defeatism would abound, making for self-fulfilling prophecies.

We should look at the bigger picture. We need to appreciate what makes us Malawian. We are on the right track. The various heritage associations and foundations in the country have growing support. We just need to start appreciating beyond our own ethnic boundaries. These are fuzzy anyway.  Chamare day at Kungoni Centre of Culture and Art in Mua are a great example of a multi-ethnic celebration of intangible cultural heritage. Moreover, what we domestically see as ethnically specific intangible cultural heritage, such as gule wamkulu as Chewa and vimbuza as Tumbuka, is internationally seen as Malawian.


Around the world, the importance of intangible cultural heritage is recognized. Heritage has been described as a human right and culture (in the narrow sense of the word) as a basic need. Unesco, the UN body in charge of culture, has enshrined its global importance in a separate convention in 2003, entitled: Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. It highlights the value of intangible cultural heritage to local participants, but also to humanity as a whole. It aims to recognize and document the great diversity of cultural elements across the world. Just as there is the UNESCO World Heritage list for places of natural or cultural outstanding universal value, the Convention established a Representative List for intangible cultural heritage. It also calls in existence an Urgent Safeguarding List, for intangible cultural heritage which is close to disappearing, threatened by globalization, cultural domination or other forces.

The first to make it onto the Representative List from Malawi was gule wamkulu. Next was vimbuza. Due to the hard work of the Museums of Malawi and the Malawi National Commission for UNESCO,  Malawi has been in the forefront in Africa in implementing the Intangible Cultural Heritage Convention. Last December Tchopa was also added to the list. Malawi’s heritage is hereby gaining a world audience.


In addition to this listing, the Convention requires extensive inventories of the intangible cultural heritage in the countries that are signatories to it. Internationally, Malawi led the way in this regard. In 2010 a community-based inventory pilot project was successfully conducted in Chiradzulu, Mulanje and Thyolo. Community members were identified and trained who had to list and describe the elements of intangible cultural heritage they thought important. Since then inventories have been held in other parts of the country with the help of the Norwegian Embassy Culture Fund. There is still a long way to go, but we are heading in the right direction. Next steps are the extensive documentation of the identified elements by experts and the establishment of an online national intangible cultural heritage database for the world to see and appreciate. Then of course we need to ensure that these elements continue to flourish. I hope my former students can play a part in this.






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