Material Culture and Religious beliefs: Notes from home.

I think it is important for me to understand my cultural heritage, even some practices no longer appeal to my family and I. This will help me understand what it meant for my parents generation to bridge the gap between uninterrupted Shona lifestyle and Western influenced Zimbabwe.

When I was home in Zimbabwe over Winter break, I found a couple of excellent sources that have to do with my cultural heritage and Shona beliefs. One is the Material Culture of Zimbabwe, by E. Ellert and the other is Shona Religion, With Special Reference to the Makorekore by Michael Gelfand.

A lot of the information I received from them was actually new to me since I did not grow up practicing these traditions. I found myself wondering what it means to be Zimbabwean or Shona today?

In terms of material culture, Ellert discusses how the Ndoro or trading shells  were percieved as important among some sub ethnic groups of the Shona. There is even a legend about how a the founder of the Monomotapa Kingdom had been threatened by Kuruva, someone who wanted to steal his power. Hence the founder held up one of these shells in front of him and this caused Kuruva to become confused and was later defeated.

The ndoro was also along with Hakata, which is something I found very interesting. More info about it is below from the Met Museum:

Divination Dice (Hakata)

Before each casting, the diviner directs specific questions to the hakata. When the dice are cast, the ones that fall face up form a configuration through which affirmative or negative responses are articulated. There are sixteen possible throws, each of which has a name and a range of interpretations.8 Many highly skilled diviners throw four or eight sets of dice at a time in order to achieve a more complex and nuanced interpretation of a situation.9

ets of dice (hakata) are the quintessential Shona instruments used to divine the source of illness or personal misfortune. These consist of a series of four miniature tablets, made of wood, ivory, or bone, each with a distinct design motif inscribed on one side. According to Shona conceptions of experience, personal difficulties—ranging from unemployment or poor grades in school to the death of one’s livestock—may all be attributed to some spiritual agency.Consequently, a distinction is made between medical treatment of certain ailments and a diviner’s probing analysis and diagnosis of the ultimate cause of a client’s problems.1

To arrive at these insights, Shona diviners use one of two divination methods. The first involves spirit possession. Diviners who rely on this method to direct their inquiries enter into a trance at the beginning of a session. Any pronouncements they make while they are in this state are attributed to the spirits that they host.2 The same spirits that communicate to diviners in trance may also reveal knowledge about a client’s welfare through the medium of thehakata. The divining dice are regarded as the physical embodiments of these insights, presented through the configuration in which they arrange themselves after being cast onto a surface by the diviner.3 In order to operate effectively and sharpen their visionary potential, dice must periodically be ritually purified or “medicated” by a diviner.4 Although dice sets are most commonly used for this form of divination, diviners may also employ collections of shells, seeds, or bones.5 This practice is also found among neighboring Venda, Tsonga, and Batoka peoples.

Family heads have their own set ofhakata, used mostly for inquiries into matters that concern the family’s interest and well-being.6 However, for investigations of more serious problems caused by sorcery, a professional diviner(nganga; plural, banganga) must be consulted. Although diviners are expected to be able to diagnose a client’s problem without any advance knowledge of his or her case history, some of them experience revelatory dreams before the consultation takes place.7

I also learnt about how smoking was a part of material culture, particularly for the Tonga people who I know very little about. For them smoking was a sign of coming of age, after which they would have their teeth removed. The Tonga would use gourds with long protrusions as pipes. They would insert tobacco and a small cylinders on top for water to create steam. (Similar concept to the hookah.)


Having played the marimba thoughout highschool, I knew about some of the traditional musical instruments involved in the Zimbabwean heritage. They include, mbira (thumb instrument), ngoma (drum), marimba, hosho (rattles) and chigufe (Horn).

The religious traditions were the most surprising to me. Having grown up Christian, I was never exposed to some of the things that I read about it. For instance, I learnt about the spiritual  horizontal hierarchy in Shona belief.  One of the main spirits or gods is the Mhondoro which is a protecting spirit. He is associated with Nzivira who is less powerful protective spirit. Nzivira speaks through mediums called Svikiro. He/she does so by possessing a human being during particular ceremonies. This  spirit is approached for advice regarding seasons of drought,  or for permission to kill goats, hyenas and lions.  Even greater than the Mhondoro or Nzivira is Zunzungara, however he is not the greatest. Dzivaguru is even greater than him and is omnipotent. Whenever he manifests pregnant women or people with physical disabilities should not be in his presence.

In early times, chiefs were chosen by spirit mediums and would have to be tested by throwing items in the river.

The ceremonies that I read about were very interesting. Marenje is a ceremony especially held for Zunzungara. It’s main purpose is to ask for rain through divine intervention. All people of all ages have a part to play in it, and beer is brewed everyone. One of the most fascinating parts of the ceremony is called Mafuwe.  This appealed to me because only women can participate in it.  I am curious to know what effect that had on women. Did it bring them together, give them a sense of self worth or belonging?  While some of the male elders enter a shrine, the women stay outside and dance in semi-circle.

I haven’t found any videos on line. But here are some other dance videos that I might use in video mashup for some of my projects:-

In Zimbabwe, people used to/ and some still believe that when elderly people die they become guardian spirits for the remaining family members. These spirits are called Vadzimu. Vadzimu are spirits that belong to deceased people that typically go back a couple of generations. They don’t encompass spirits from centuries ago. For Vadzimu to have power, they must have grandchildren. When Vadzimu are are grieved, they can manifest as Ngozi. They are typically grieved when children do not honor parents  or when a murder is committed. Vadzimu can possess a nephew . When they possess a human being, they are called Shave. When a person dies, the family is supposed to hold a ceremony called kuRova Guwa. (Literal translation is to hit then grave). I don’t really know too much about it, but I know that an animal is supposed to be sacrificed, beer is brewed and the whole family is involved.  There are many people in Zimbabwe who still uphold this practice. Many find themselves in internal conflict because it challenges their Christian beliefs.

Based on information I heard during my childhood, sometimes a Ngozi might demand that a girl  remain unmarried, or might manifest in the form of great trouble. Some of the stories that I have heard about appeasing these spirits are a little disturbing. It’s good to know that this practice is no longer common.

Other points  I found interesting:

  • Elderly people are  honored and are a part of everyday life.
  • It is taboo to insult your mother
  • hand clapping is important
  • snuff was traditionally something handled by women
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