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Kungoni Centre of Culture & Art


This is a shame, as Malawi has traditional cultures that are complex, colourful and artistically creative, and that
include one of the world’s cultural treasures.

About 60 kms south of Salima along the M5 highway is a small cultural gem. Mua is a Catholic parish, established as Mua Mission in 1902. In 1976, the Kungoni Art and Craft Centre was initiated there by Father Claude Boucher, who remains director of Kungoni today, assisted by his confrere, Fr Serge St - Arneault, and about 30 local staff members. Kungoni is now a fully fledged not-for-profit cultural centre with a variety of programmes that explore and explain the traditional cultures of central Malawi.

For the traveller, Kungoni is both easily accessible, being about two hours drive on bitumen from Lilongwe and three from Blantyre, and redolent with things to see and do. Kungoni sits a little above the lake plain, with views to the lake in one direction and the African Rift Valley escarpment in the other. The site is landscaped and planted as a botanic garden with a variety of tropical trees and shrubs.

Always green and cool, at times it explodes into a kaleidoscope of colour from the flamboyants, jacarandas and frangipanis in bloom. The gardens alone make Mua a pleasant stopover on the drive north or south along the M5. Sheltered picnic tables can be used by anyone.

Within the Kungoni grounds is the Chamare Museum. This provides the visitor with an introduction to the richness of the Chewa, Ngoni and Yao cultures of central and southern Malawi, as well as a little on the Batwa people, the original and now vanished inhabitants of Malawi. The three rooms of the museum are an information storehouse in photographs and text panels, together with dramatic displays of objects from the three cultures. There is also some coverage of the early history of missions in the Mua area. The display of Gule wamkulu masks and structures is incomparable. Gule wamkulu is the ‘great dance’ of the Nyau secret societies of the Chewa people. Gule wamkulu was declared a ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ by UNESCO in 2005. Kungoni provides the best place in Malawi, indeed the world, to learn some of the stories of Gule wamkulu, in all of its artistic and pedagogical dimensions. The museum galleries also provide detailed information on the rituals and rights of passage for people in the three cultural groups. If anything, the displays are a little too rich in text, and most visitors cannot absorb more than a small part of the information. Having a guided tour is thus seen as essential. Museum entry costs 900Mk (half price for national Malawians) including the guided tour. The outer walls of the museum are an educational work of art, with a series of frescoes documenting the early history of Malawi.

There is a small research library at Kungoni. The Kafukufuku Research Centre holds a valuable collection of resource materials (books, videos, pho-tographs) on ethnography, anthropology and traditional religion. The library is available to the visitor, student and researcher.

Recently, Kungoni has been digitising its collections of images and data for archival safety and to develop a range of new books and CDs for wider audiences. (This archival project has been sponsored under the US Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Pre-servation, though the US Embassy in Malawi.)

Kungoni holds cultural courses for groups that can be booked as required. These 3-4 day courses offer a gateway to the traditional beliefs and practices of central Malawi peoples, with a particular focus on the Chewa. The courses are proving popular with NGOs, aid agencies and diplomatic missions, but individuals can join them if booked in advance. As well, Kungoni operates its own cultural dance troupe, comprised of people from the local villages, who perform dances from all over Malawi. Unlike many cultural performances elsewhere in Africa, each dance and song is interpreted to give their origins and meanings and their relevance to Malawians today.

Kungoni began as an art and craft centre and it is still one of the best places in Malawi to buy carvings and other artworks. Over 100 local carvers earn a livelihood from sales of their works at the centre. The Kungoni style of wood carving has established for itself a world-wide reputation. Examples of Kungoni carvings are held in churches, private collections and museums around the world including the Vatican Museums in Rome. In an open workshop close by the Chamare Museum, carvers can be seen at work on most days.

For those wanting to stay a little longer or attend a cultural course, there is accommodation at Kungoni. The Pa Ntondo pa Namalikhate hostel offers ensuite twin rooms, each decorated uniquely in a Gule wamkulu theme. Namalikhate nestles above the Nadzipokwe River, and from the dining area, guests can observe local women and children washing their clothes in the rocky ‘washing pots’ (Namalikhate means ‘the washing pots’, where ancestral spirits were reputed to do their washing). There is also a simple camping ground in the botanic garden.

From its inception, Kungoni has attempted to bridge the gap between cultures and foster understanding. It aims to be a place where visitors to Malawi can learn something of the cultures of this small but vibrant country, but also where Malawians can rediscover their roots and take pride in the creativity and diversity of their art and heritage. Mua was once a centre of conflict between the mission and the local beliefs, especially the Nyau and Gule wamkulu. Today, it gives the best opportunity in Malawi to learn about this, and other, unique cultural expressions of what it means to be Malawian.

Kungoni has opened a unique Art Gallery where carvings, paintings and other art crafts made by women at the new Family Development Centre are displayed. Some carvings and crafts can be purchased. Kungoni Centre and Mua are located just 1.5 kms off the M5, 60 kms south of Salima and 100kms north of Balaka. The turnoff is signposted.

For more information, contact: Gary Morgan, Heritage Advisor Australian Volunteers International or 0999 511 884/ 0999 294 320 / 01 262 706,

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