It is said that the Nyau lead secluded lives and no one really knows who they are. Their group is supposed to embody the cosmology and religion of the Chewa - a Bantu people of central and southern Africa. The Chichewa word "Nyau" means mask. This cult has been around for centuries, but the Nyau association is closely related with Chewa and Mag'anja people who came to Malawi, with their origin being the Congo area. Reports about the Nyau society existed even in British colonial times.
Some people outside this religious context see Nyau as a strange, sometimes dangerous and backward cult. The society represents solidarity among the men of various villages. The Nyau perform the famous "D" dance at the end of events initiating young men into adulthood. The dance is also performed at birth ceremonies, funerals or in remembrance of the ancestors. Dancing the Gule Wamkulu has certain rules. The dancers initiated Nyau men - wear masks and costumes made of banana leaves. The attire is meant to represent all aspects of humanity, but at the same time hide the dancer's identity.
The Gule Wamkulu dancers are revered within the Chewa ethnic group. There are different, specific mask genres. The black mask, for example, is the mask of the chief; it is a respected mask and is most likely to have wrinkles of age and animal fur.Each kind of mask has a set of rules, a drum beat, a rhythm and a kind of performance associated with it. Every aspect of a mask's shape, coloring and material has a metaphorical, religious meaning.