Feared, Masked Gure Dancers in Zimbabwe Seek to Attract, not Repel
HARARE, ZIMBABWE — Drums erupt on the street as a young man pours water on the dusty ground, an act that cues Gure dancers to begin their performance.
On this Sunday afternoon, the Tagwirizana Gure Club is putting on a dance performance in Mbare, a suburb of Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital city. The performance is held as a memorial for one of the club’s members, who passed away in 2014.
The Gure dancers, also known as Gule, command attention. Yellow, red and green appear to be the theme colors of their creatively sewn costumes, with the Zimbabwean flag stitched onto some of them. A Gure dancer in motion is compared to a fish out of water, with no sense of direction, even though he follows choreographed steps. Their faces masked, they follow the beat of the drum into the dance area, then move away from one another and back again. The dancers utter words in Chichewa, the language of the Chewa people, and a group of women sings in response.
Three things typically occur when Gure dancers perform: People run away, they watch from a distance, or they remain glued to their seats, in awe of the dance.
Fear of Gure dancers is common in Zimbabwe. Parents even threaten their children, says Sasha Mbendela, who was once a Gure dancer himself. “[Parents say,] ‘If you misbehave, I will call a Gure dancer on you,’” Mbendela says.
The performance, formally known as Gule Wamkulu, is the masked dance of the Chewa people, who originated primarily in Malawi and later came to Zimbabwe.
Gule Wamkulu means “the great dance,” and the word “Gure” means “dance” in Chichewa.
Myths about the dance abound.
The masks are a particular source of fear, says Marylyn Midzi, a sociology student.
“They have this funny dress that I can’t even explain, and they use some mysterious things related to bad omen,” she says. “They are scary and apply mud on their faces. I heard that if they see you in their territory, if they chase you and you fall down, the wound will never heal.”
The dancers who perform in and around Harare aim to demystify Gure culture, says Kennedy Kachuruka, the executive director and president of the Zimbabwe National Traditional Dancers Association.
“It is a crowd-pulling dance,” he says. “It is a very fascinating dance, whether you understand it or not, you would still want to be there, watching what is happening there.”
The dance itself can be thought of as any other dance, he says.
“Hip-hop is Gure; any kind of dance is Gure,” Kachuruka says.
But the dance is also part of the deeper Gure culture. It’s part of a secret religion among the Chewa people, according to UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural arm. The dance is performed by members of the Nyau group within the Chewa people.
Gure men take the role of dancers, and women become singers. Some Gure practices are similar to other cultural practices in Zimbabwe, but Gure customs also involve initiates who undergo rituals, some of which take place in rural grass huts, Kachuruka says.
Dance is important to Zimbabwean culture in general, says Cathrine Mthombeni, a spokeswoman for the National Arts Council of Zimbabwe. The country’s traditional dances in particular are important to maintain, she says.
“Traditional dance, it’s important to us as Zimbabweans because it reflects who we are and what we do in our everyday lives; people identify us with what we do,” she says.
In some cases, traditional dance is stigmatized because of a trend of “people adopting foreign dances and elevating them so that they look glamorous, while shunning our own traditional Zimbabwean dances,” she says.
Tshila Ndhela, a radio host who researches African culture, says the Gure culture’s strength is in its secrecy. If everyone knew Gure secrets, they would lose their power.
“What do you think would happen if everyone was given the power to part the sea like Moses?” he asks, using a biblical metaphor. “This is why the Gure members carry out their costume changes and rituals away from home and in the forests. The knowledge they have is power, and if that power falls into the wrong hands, it’s chaos.”
Mbendela was initiated into Gure culture in 1996, when he was in the third grade. He followed the tradition of his Malawian parents, who migrated to Zimbabwe.
Before children are initiated into the culture, they undergo training in Malawian manners to honor its origins.
The Gure masks garner particular interest among Zimbabweans for what is seen as their fearsome appearance.
“We call them the facial expression,” Kachuruka says. “The expressions have different meanings. The one with feathers on the head is called aKapori. The one that has got the face of a lady, we call that aMaria. In English, that’s Mary. The one that has got the face of a white man, we call that aSimoni. In English, that’s Simon. And the great grandfather with a black face, we call that Chadzunda.”
The dancers can help anxious children, he says.
“When that child is carried by a Nyau dancer, that’s the last horror a kid can associate with: The fright comes in the face; they open their mouth, and the moment that child discovers that nothing has happened to me, they breathe a sigh of relief, and that child will never fear anything,” Kachuruka says.
Some Zimbabweans warn that Gure culture should be avoided.
Daniel Machipisa, a pastor, says the Gure practice a “secret cult.”
“Gure culture and Christianity are worlds apart; the Gure are so spiritually powerful, they do not want people to mess with them,” he says.
Despite skepticism and fear of Gure culture, Gure dancers continue to be popular at dance competitions. Several Gure dance groups are scheduled to appear at the Nyau Gule Wamkulu in November.
“Being a member of the Nyau is like a tattoo,” Kachuruka says. “You can’t remove it, whether you at a later stage go to join a church, you are still a member of Nyau until death. It’s with you. It lives in your heart.”