Vimbuza healing dance
Inscribed in 2008 (3.COM) on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (originally proclaimed in 2005)
Vimbuza is a healing dance popular among the Tumbuka people living in northern Malawi. It is an important manifestation of the ng’oma, a healing tradition found throughout Bantu-speaking Africa. Ng’oma, meaning “drums of affliction”, carries considerable historical depth and, despite various attempts over the years to suppress it, remains a fundamental part of indigenous healthcare systems.
Most patients are women who suffer from various forms of mental illness. They are treated for some weeks or months by renowned healers who run a temphiri, a village house where patients are accommodated. After being diagnosed, patients undergo a healing ritual. For this purpose, women and children of the village form a circle around the patient, who slowly enters into a trance, and sing songs to call helping spirits. The only men taking part are those who beat spirit-specific drum rhythms and, in some cases, a male healer. Singing and drumming combine to create a powerful experience, providing a space for patients to “dance their disease”. Its continually expanding repertoire of songs and complex drumming, and the virtuosity of the dancing are all part of the rich cultural heritage of the Tumbuka people.
The Vimbuza healing ritual goes back to the mid-nineteenth century, when it developed as a means of overcoming traumatic experiences of oppression, and it further developed as a healing dance under British occupation, although it was forbidden by Christian missionaries. By becoming possessed by Vimbuza spirits, people could express these mental problems in a way that was accepted and understood by the surrounding society. For the Tumbuka,Vimbuza has artistic value and a therapeutic function that complements other forms of medical treatment. Vimbuza is still practised in rural areas where the Tumbuku live, but it continues to face oppression by Christian churches and modern medicine.