In April last year, Dinah Katonda visited Mua Mission, a cultural center in Dedza district in Malawi. She shares her experiences with Makewana’s Daughters, in particular, Mua’s connections with Malawi’s history and culture.
Makewana’s Daughters (MD): How did you end up going to Mua?
Dinah Katonda (DK): There is a history course that I teach in Third Year at Chancellor College. In that course, we focus on pre-colonial kingdoms in Malawi. According to history, the Maravi settled close to Mua, near the Mankhambera area. Mua, which was set up by Father
Claude Boucher Chisale, has tried to preserve historical aspects of the period through the depictions of the cultures of three tribes; Chewa, Yao and Ngoni. What we saw was evidence of the results of the interactions between the pre-colonial kingdoms and the immigrants.
MD: What did you learn about in particular?
DK: We learnt about the cultural and economic aspects as well as the political organisation in the 19th Century. When you go to Mua, you see a lot of nyau masks. We learnt that each mask symbolizes something; even the costume may describe something about a person’s nature that you wouldn’t know without being told by an expert.
We learned about how there were, and still are, nyau which only come out during the installation of a chief, or during a funeral. Then there are other masked dancers who would only come out to interact with community.
We also saw a sculpture of a woman with very long hair. The hair was in beautiful locks. We learnt that this was a depiction of a rainmaker, as rainmaking was something that was a part of the culture in the past. This sculpture could either be Makewana or her successor; Mangazi.
MD: Did you take any photos?
DK: No, we weren’t allowed to. The masks, carvings and sculptures portray people’s cultures, and to show them anyhow would be to trivialize certain beliefs that are respected in those cultures.
MD: You described very long hair. Was there any significance to this?
DK: Yes. In the past, it was believed that the hair symbolized the dark rain clouds. Cutting the hair was tantamount to clearing clouds that would form rain. If anything, anything at all happened and the rains did not come, the rainmaker would be blamed. This is why she had to ensure that no blame fell upon her. She would actually perform a special dance called mgwetsa, which was said to make the rain fall.
MD: How would you describe Mua?
DK: It’s a place that is well looked after. You would think that with all those artifacts it might be musty, but no, that was not the case. It is neat, and located at on a mission.
MD: Might one not see a conflict of Christian and Traditional African values, considering where Mua is located?
DK: This is a question that I asked as well, and the response I got was profound. As Boucher Chisale pointed out, sometimes, when we look at tradition, we immediately jump to the conclusion that it is all about something that is heathen. And yet there is harmony between some of the values that one may learn in tradition, such as not stealing, honoring your parents, which one also learns about in Christianity.
What Mua tries to do is emphasize that even Christianity was not in a vacuum, but within an African context. This is why although Mua has what we might describe as a conventional church, there is also a shrine where once in a while mass is held. This place is a fenced area; the fence is made of bamboo. The floor is not made of cement, but clay, and broken pieces of clay pots are used instead of silverware. It is a reminder of Christianity in an African setting. When mass is celebrated at the shrine, it is referred to as Africa Synod.
MD: What was your impression of Mua?
It is a wonderful testament to the work that Boucher has done. It is currently run by the mission. Many Malawians have benefited from the center, and Government also needs to preserve the center. I think we all need to be aware of just how important Mua is to Malawian culture.