A Walk in Shonaland

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by Geoffrey Clarfield (October 2010)

I wake up early in the morning, still suffering from jet lag. I hear the hoopoe bird and the roosters calling from the distance as the light slowly comes through the windows, a typical morning in highland southern Africa. African mornings are a dawn chorus of birds, domestic animals and in the rural areas, the sounds of mothers making tea for the family before they go to town or out onto their farms.
 
I am a guest of a missionary hospital that has been working among the Shona for almost a century. It was established by missionaries from England and North America. As you walk around the hospital compound you see Africans in the usual modern dress of second hand shoes and short sleeve shirts and women with long dresses. Every few minutes you will see an African or expatriate in hospital uniform efficiently going about their duties. They do exude a certain authority and respect and there is no harassment in the compound. Foreigners are guests and single women are safe and secure.
 
I was introduced to an 85 year old Shona, one of the oldest evangelists from the hospital. He spoke with that pre WWII, preindustrial deliberation which marks him from another time and place. He told me that when he was a boy, his favorite activity was taking care of his father’s cattle, taking them out to graze and having time to himself and with his other herdsboy friends. He said that some rivers had pools large enough to swim in and that swimming was one of the great joys of his youth.
 
Now he said the youth have cell phones, TV, computers. “Boys want girls and girls want boys” he now complains. There are many new things around, things like AIDS which was not there in the past. He said aspects of life were better now but times were very very hard. Life he said, was expensive and the cost of living so very high.
 
Then he tells me that in the old days in order to go to school children would bring grass to thatch the roof of the school or a pumpkin “maybe for the teachers.” He remembered seeing his first airplane as a boy in the 1930s and said that he and his friends marveled at its size but, they noted it was much noisier than any bird. He spoke of his fascination with trains and coal powered engines and the first films he saw in Salisbury (now Harare), British films with lots of fighting. He sat and used his arm like a sword jabbing back and forth, laughing as he did imitations from the Swashbuckler films of the nineteen forties.
 
He said that in the past the Shona worshipped their ancestors and that special people would be possessed by spirits. Others would ask that spirit for blessings, rain, food, health. He said that most Shona are now Christian. When I asked him if there are still communities who follow the old ways, he raised his arm and said “Yes, out there, a bit far away.”
 
We parted when a young Shona nursing assistant in his early thirties came to pick us up. We were set to walk two hours from the hospital up into some rock shelters where he told us there was bushman art. The bushman lived and hunted in what is now Zimbabwe until a few centuries ago when the Bantu ancestors of the Shona and Ndebele migrated into the highlands with their iron, cows and exploding demographic surge taking the land, killing off the wild animals, raiding the Bushman and as the nurse said “killing the men and taking the beautiful Bushman women and children.” Later he would show us where the Bushman would hide their women and children up in the rock shelter. It would appear that the Bushman with their low population density were as vulnerable as once were the Canadian Indians soon after the white man arrived with his guns, germs and steel.
 
The nurse led me and my visiting colleagues and two young female medical volunteers from Canada out of the hospital compound. As we walked we saw ant hills on the left and right of the dirt road and the occasionally ficus sycamorus or African fig tree that produces edible fruit. The tree and the ant hills are Shona signs that there is probably gold beneath the trees and the ant hills, as the pre colonial Shona were gold miners. The plateau of Shona land is littered with what the British called “ancient mines” some one hundred feet deep and which produced the gold that was traded with the Swahili and then later the Portuguese on the coast and from which it is thought Great Zimbabwe drew its revenues and surplus.
 
Just up the road we passed by a secondary school, a beautiful new compound with its farm, small herd of cattle, immaculately kept lawns and classrooms. The students were on holiday as it was the Xmas season. We met the headmaster and his accountant a young female graduate. Over one hundred of their students are AIDs orphans who have been incorporated into their extended African families, to be raised by elderly aunts and grandmas who have avoided infection and live to take on the burden of doubled family size in communities whose numbers are dwindling.
 
A Canadian NGO recently placed volunteer teachers there. Think of their role as “enrichment” teachers. It is an enriching experience for the volunteer and for the children who experience a short taste of teaching without the rote learning and authoritarian style that is the mainstay of modern African schools. Before we left the headmaster led us in prayer for the blessings of the day. Despite the violence that permeates much of Africa, life is still sacred in some rural areas.
 
We passed a rock which had “Bus Stop” painted on it boldly in white.
A country bus passed us by. It kicked up a load of dust. A young man was riding on top of the bus where the baggage had been secured and the bus was full of farmers and townspeople each one of them intent on reaching his or her journey’s goal or end.
 
On either side of the road there were large plains divided up into plots of farm land with the beehived and thatched huts of the Shona placed here and there. On the horizon were the hills and kopjes littered with enormous rocks and boulders that looked as if ancient Greek titans had willy nilly thrown them from the heavens. Some of them had enormous boulders which seemed precariously balanced on a small platform of rock. It was as if they were ready to tip over if you just gave them a slight push. As they were hundreds of tons the likelihood of this was low. Nevertheless, off to the left we could see dark clouds and signs of rain embedded in lighter and whiter clusters of cumulars that rose close to the heavens. The enormous boulders that clustered on the top of the hills reminded me of Salvador Dali paintings with all the human characters erased. If Dali’s landscapes were dreamlike these were mythic and archaic.
 
Finally we came to one of these rocky outcrops. We climbed up half way and saw the homesteads stretching miles across the plain until the horizon. Later on the way back black clouds framed a rainbow that started at the roof of a house and stopped half way in the sky like an uncompleted bridge.
 
We snaked around the steepest part of the rock face and then we saw it. It was a surface no more than three by three feet. The surface was dotted with shapes of animals, men, women and men dressed as animals. Two figures embraced in what looked like a wrestling match while a giraffe appeared to stand in the distance. As I stared at the cliff face I imagined San (bushman) painters with ground ochre in their hands blowing the pigment on to the wall, remembering a hunt or depicting a shaman’s vision or trance in search of animals to hunt or disease to heal.
 
These painting were probably done in the 1800s just before the British penetrated the Shona highlands of what was soon to become Rhodesia. For the next two centuries the story of Zimbabwe would be one of conquest, conversion and the final revolt of the Bantus in the 1970s. The Bushman are an echo of a time when Zimbabwe was not historical but prehistorical.
 
The Bushman are no longer to be found in Zimbabwe. A few hundred years ago they were either killed off, assimilated or driven south. Perhaps some went to the Cape or most likely the Kalahari where the last of the Bushman lived a traditional hunter gatherer life until well into the nineteen sixties. After that they were caught between the Namibian and South African independence fighters and the last European authorities in the Cape. Now they have lost most of their land and they have been resettled in camps by the Botswana government.
 
In the nineteen sixties a group of young North American Marxist inspired anthropologists did a comprehensive study of the last Bushman of the Kalahari. The volumes make fascinating reading and make the rock art come alive. Their research was first rate but marred by the Marxist tendency to under interpret the interpersonal and inter group violence of preindustrial peoples. One of them taught me anthropology at University.
 
During the nineteen seventies these rocky hilltops and their caves were the redound of the nationalists who were fighting the Rhodesians for black rule and independence. They would hide in the hills while the Rhodesians combed the plains looking for rebels. The rebels did not take Christianity as their mandate for revolt. They did not model themselves on the persecuted children of Israel as have so many missionized peoples fighting colonial authorities.
 
Instead their traditional spirit ancestors and oracles threw themselves full heartedly behind the rebels and so much of the spiritual support and the belief system of the fighters was based on a return to tribal religion with its glorification of warfare, manly virtues and the piety of following the dictates of ancestors and their oracles. It was in essence a nationalist, tribal revolt against European domination that drew on centuries of ancestor worship and the whole panoply of pre colonial religious beliefs. The same beliefs that had failed to rally the Shona against the British in the 19th century succeeded to do so in the twentieth, since the British no longer believed in empire, the settlers did not really believe in muscular Christianity and the rebels had the same guns as did the Rhodesians.
 
It was almost the same set of beliefs which fueled the Bantu when they fought off the Portuguese in the 17th century and during the time where they failed to beat back the British colonialists and their armies supported by Cecil Rhodes, the creator of Rhodesia.
 
Now that independence has been won the ruling elite have justified their power in terms of an anti imperialist ideology, inspired by Pan Africanism and Marxism. They call each other comrade. Support for the traditional religion by the elite has dried up now that the war has been won. Rural Zimbabwe is left to its traditional lifestyle; farming, children, ancestor worship mixed with Christianity, anxiety over drought and harvest, fear of AIDs and the love and kindness of close family and kin. Inflation may no longer be an issue now that they have adopted the American dollar but people are still very poor.

Our guide told us a story of what life was like during the recent period of hyperinflation. A woman sold her car for 28 million Zimbabwean dollars and invested in a maize crop. After harvest she had only made a profit of 6 million due to the inflation during the growing season. By the time she used the money it was almost without value.

 
We then circled around the top of the Kopje to a bat infested rock hanging where the Bushman once hid from the Shona. There were signs of a fire and our guide told us that now Pentecostalists came here for special prayers. It would seem that since prehistoric times men and women have looked at rocky outcrops on plains as places of numinous power as expressed in the famous Old Testament phrase that the “lord is my rock and provider.”
 
Slowly we made our way down the Kopje and saw eagles roosting at the top of the rocks as we walked back towards the hospital. Eagles are a symbol of Great Zimbabwe a mysterious ruin in southern Zimbabwe which is the largest traditional stone structure to be found south of the Sahara and the inspiration for the novel, King Solomon’s Mines.
 
Retracing our steps through country roads we visited our guide’s mother in her beehive hut. She had just come in from working the fields and we sat in the coolness of her abode. The inner edges were benched so we could sit. Five logs fanned into the fire place. A rack of enameled mugs, plates and bowls were stacked on one wall while iron cooking pots were arrayed on the floor below the benched area. We rested and then took our leave.
 
On our way back we stopped at the trading centre. It was late afternoon and it was alive with people. The Bottle Shops were blasting loud reggae music, Lucky Dube, who although known as a South African is really an Ndebele from Zimbabwe (he was later murdered in his home in South Africa). I was in the company of three nubile young Canadian women and they were honey to the bees that were young Shona men in their twenties and thirties. They had been drinking and had that semi staggering insouciance of confident inebriated young men.
 
Two of them sat down very close to my colleagues. They asked them “How is Zimbabwe?” They answered “The climate is beautiful.” They continued their intense banter, looks of sexual desire permeating every movement and word. I could see that in their eyes these women were something out of a Hollywood film, foreign, exotic and maybe touchable. My colleagues had absolutely no intention of taking this situation any further, When the men asked “I want to visit you at the clinic,” and one of the doctors replied, “I would be no good for you,” I felt like I was in a foreign based version of Charlie’s Angels.

 
There was a rough chaos to town, lots of drunkenness, usually male, but with women of all ages buying various things, the ubiquitous coffin shops, people milling around “loitering” unemployed, listening to the wail of Reggae whose main message is “tiny elites” grab wealth and deny a simple man justice. If Reggae is the opiate of the masses in modern Africa than the government has been smart enough to import a Jamaican Reggae show which is aired prominently once a week on prime time.
 
We came back to the compound and there was a power outage. We had made an appointment to meet John. He is a young man who is the person who pushes Jack’s wheel chair. Jack is the crippled but active manager of the Hospital’s old fashioned plug in switchboard. We walked over to Jack’s thatched house with an open roof 15-20 feet high and listened as John sang and played the Mbira, the thumb piano which is at the heart of Shona song and dance.
 
He played a number of pieces in different rhythms. Largely pentatonic. One was for learners of the Mbira which repeated the words Ngome, Mbuzi Donkgey-cow, goat, sheep. Another said “the big fish moves this way” referring to big men in local politics. Another described a wife’s love of peanuts and peanut butter. Another was the song of an ancestral heroine who in the fifties spoke through spirit mediums. One was a Christian song that paraphrased Jesus “my work is done here” implying he could go to heaven. Throughout Jack’s niece sang along and pretended to play the rattles called Osho.
 
Jack laughed when he heard that I had heard Shona mbira music as a young man and had always imagined it in the context of the typical landscape surrounding the hospital but with the sun out and heat enough to create small optical illusions as if the hills were moving ever so slightly in the distance as if they were viewed through a mild prism. Jack played for over an hour and listening to the polyrhythm of the mbira and the simplicity of the songs, the power of the metaphors transported me to a typical Shona village, before the AIDs, before the war, before colonialism to a time of patriarchs’ homesteads and a life lived without knowledge of the modern world.
 
He told me that he really liked rock and roll, Bruce Springsteen, the Beegees and Elton John. He said that now that there is legislation that 90% of Zimbabwe supports Zimbabwean music, “It is too much, we need variety here.”
 
Zimbabwe is in a time warp. The ruling elite act like the new nationalists of independent Africa did in the early 1960s and seventies. They cannot manage an economy. They are oversensitive to criticism, they have closed the country to NGOs and serious development assistance. They are selectively dispossessing the white citizens of their country. The world is passing them by. They do not mind changing colonial masters substituting the British and South Africans for the Libyans and Chinese. Who shall be crueler patrons? Time will tell.
 
Meanwhile amidst great poverty and inequality they are quietly watching 2500 people a week die of AIDs. It is not an active cruelty but a passive one. Meanwhile the long suffering Bantus of Zimbabwe do their best to make ends meet. They pray to God, Jesus and the ancestors. The eat, sleep, make children, enjoy each other’s company and have faith in whatever God they pray to that he will bring them better times.
 

Geoffrey Clarfield is an Anthropologist at large.


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