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Observations placeholder

Friedson, Steven M - Dancing the disease; music and trance in Tumbuku healing – Part 01



Type of Spiritual Experience


The Tumbuka are a Bantu-speaking people who live in the northern region of Malawi. They are, for the most part, subsistence farmers, living in extended family compounds of patrilineally related kin. The north is often referred to by Malawians as the 'dead north' because of its lack of economic development since independence in 1964. Most Tumbuka struggle to make ends meet, usually selling what little surplus they grow to pay for such things as school fees and store-bought staples. In a country that has one of the lowest per capita incomes in Africa, the Tumbuka are some of the poorest amongst the poor.

As in all African countries, the Tumbuka have access to both Western and traditional health care. Government hospitals and clinics, complemented by , private system supported by various Christian groups, deliver Western-style health care with varying degrees of success. ………..

A description of the experience

Steven M. Friedson – Dancing the disease; music and trance in Tumbuku healing

The women with small children ran out of the temple first. It was about one o'clock in the morning and Mseka had unexpectedly become possessed by nkharamu, the lion. When this spirit comes in a fierce way, as it had that night, it may attack people, especially small children, and, true to its nature, wants to eat them. Though it was highly unlikely that things would actually turn cannibalistic, mothers, nevertheless, were not about to take any chances.

The night had begun in typical fashion: drums were tuned over the fire and brought into the thempli (temple), and Christian prayers and hymns were invoked. The Free Church of Scotland had done its work well. Virtually all Tumbuka are professed Christians, including the most traditional of healers. Nchimi healers, in fact, see themselves in a direct line from the Old Testament prophets. After the hymns and prayers, the drums began to sound the rhythmic mode of the lion.

This wasn't the first time Mseka had lost control of his divinatory trance, nor was he the only nchimi (lit. 'prophet') who had experienced nkharamlz in this way. Nevertheless, it was still a fairly rare occurrence.

Usually, when the lion comes, Mseka divines the cause of illness and misfortune in those who seek his help. But what had started as a divination session - why the mothers were there in the first place - quickly turned into the possibility of a situation spinning out of control.

Mseka struggled with nkharamu that night but, in the end, the lion decided to dance - a decidedly human thing to do - and through the dance was tamed.

The source of the experience

African tribal

Concepts, symbols and science items


Science Items

Activities and commonsteps


Music therapy