A Walk in Shonaland

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.
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.
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.
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.

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.

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.

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.

Geoffrey Clarfield is an Anthropologist at large.

To comment on this essay, please click


If you have enjoyed this article and would like to read more by Geoffrey Clarfield, please click here.