'The day I infiltrated an African cult'

By Daisy Carrington, for CNN

Updated 1010 GMT (1810 HKT) November 20, 2015
Nyau Mozambique Vlad Sokhin 5Nyau Mozambique Vlad Sokhin 5
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In 2010, photographer Vlad Sokhin gained rare access to the rituals and practices of the Nyau brotherhood, a secret society of the Chewa people that exists in communities in Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia. He reveals how he managed to infiltrate, and ultimately join, this secret group. Photographs by Vlad Sokhin. Vlad Sokhin
Vlad Sokhin: "From 2010-2011, I lived in Mozambique's Tete province, where I was doing different jobs. One of them was for a coal exploration company. One day they asked me to photograph the opening ceremony for a new camp. While I was waiting for the ceremony to start, I saw someone pop out of the bush wearing feathers and a mask. Locals started screaming, 'Nyau,' and started to run." Vlad Sokhin
"I had no idea what Nyau was, so I started to do some research," said Sokhin.
"I learned it was a secret society within the Chewa culture. Chewa people live in Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique. I found out that many locals, and even policemen, were afraid of the Nyau and considered them dangerous. One type of Nyau, known as Nyau 'kampini,' or 'dangerous Nyau,' (pictured) walk around with machetes and have a reputation for attacking people."
Vlad Sokhin
"One policeman told me they are never prosecuted. 'How can you put an elephant or snake in jail? The same is with Nyau,' he said. In spite of the rumors, I never heard of any accident involving a Nyau while I was there." Vlad Sokhin
"The performance I witnessed was the Gule Wamkulu, a secret cult and ritual practiced by the Nyau brotherhood during the harvest, as well as important ceremonies, like weddings and funerals. Gule Wamkulu means 'The Great Dance' in the Chewa language. It is performed by the Nyau, who wear masks and costumes that represent the spirits of animals, called 'nyama,' and of their ancestors, called 'mizimu.' The ritual has had UNESCO protection since 2005, when it was included as one of 90 Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity." Vlad Sokhin
"After my first encounter with the Nyau, I spent a year in Mozambique looking for more dances, and trying to find members, so I could photograph them. This proved difficult, since everything about the Nyau is kept secret. If you're part of the Nyau cult, you're not supposed to tell anyone." Vlad Sokhin
"Nyau keep both their rituals and their identity a closely-guarded secret. I later learned that during a ritual, the dancers will rotate so no one can tell their identity.
"If you see a whole family watching a dance, maybe the husband will leave for a bit then go to a secret place to change and dance, then come back so his mother, sister or wife won't know he's a member. If one dancer falls down and injures himself and starts limping, all members of the Nyau will start limping so no one can identify the injured dancer. "
Vlad Sokhin
"One day I met a teacher from Zimbabwe named Ofis, who started to ask me why I was so interested in the Nyau. We ultimately became friends, and he confessed that he was a member. I started to learn about the cult from him, but he said if I wanted to know more, I'd have to join." Vlad Sokhin
"Ofis talked to the chiefs, and they agreed I could be a spectator at first, but nothing more. I started to go every week and take pictures of the dances, but I wanted to see more. I wanted to go inside and see how they made their masks.
"First, I had to be accepted as a member of the Nyau. One day, they said they were willing to accept me, but I would have to go through a ceremony."
Vlad Sokhin
"First, I had to learn their password system, which involved secret hand signs. If you pass a Nyau on the road and use the hand sign, nothing bad will happen to you; they'll understand you're one of them." Vlad Sokhin
"Afterward, I had to kill a chicken with the other new members, so we could take the feathers and add them to our costumes later. Later, I was brought to a nearby village, where I was covered in a fabric and flowers, and the Nyau came out, already in costume." Vlad Sokhin
"This photograph is of the initiation. When I was initiated, they hit me a little bit with a stick -- hitting is an important part of the ceremony as it serves as a warning not to reveal the secrets of the Nyau.

"They removed the fabric and started dancing and I danced with them. We danced the whole night, then they took me to their hidden place -- the cemetery. They told me, 'Now, you're Nyau.' They gave me my own mask and costume and started to teach me how to dance."
Vlad Sokhin
"The next time I met them, I brought my camera. They then told me, 'You're a part of this cult, but you can't take pictures.' It took me another couple of months in the cult before they let me take pictures." Vlad Sokhin