‘Mwana wevhu’ is a shona term that loosey translates to “Son of the soil.”(It can also be translated as “Daughter of the soil.”) There is something about that phrase that has always resonated strongly with me even though I have not always understood it entirely. All I knew is that it spoke of and to my heritage. How exactly? I wasn’t too sure, but I did know it was significant. It was a rallying cry to my often docile patriotism. There was a romanticism and pan Africanism that it stirred in me. I am not even sure when I first heard it either. But it feels like I have heard it all my life. And maybe I have, because after all I am Zimbabwean and amongst Zimbabweans “ Mwana wevhu’, son of the soil is a very revolutionary and nationalistic label. This label is an honorary label that can be used to refer to any indigenous Zimbabwean person. And that probably explains why I have heard it most of my life.
The term “Mwana wevhu” was commonly used in all the three phases of the Chimurenga and flourished in the third Chimurenga which was the last repossession of the land from the minority settler population. Chimurenga is a term that is used to describe the fight for liberation and independence of indigenous black Zimbabweans from white minority rule. The fight for the land was a key feature in all the three Chimurenga’s. The land issue singularly continues to define Zimbabwe’s past, present and future. The way in which Zimbabweans have handled the land issue in the past and present continues to define the social, political and economic character of the nation. Shona’s who make up the majority of the population are naturally an agrarian people. The land has therefore been an important part of the Shona economy. That much is obvious. What is less obvious is the link between the land and Shona spirituality and culture. And this link is best personified by that phrase “Mwana wevhu,” a son of the soil.
In this post I do not seek to look at the land issue in a political or economic context. As part of my journey to dissect my own indigenous culture I will instead on the social and cultural significance of the land issue. Similar to most African cultures the land in Zimbabwe’s ancestral ideology is considered a sacred and non commercial communal entity. Traditionally, the Shona people did not have a concept of personal land ownership. Among Shona land belonged to the community collectively. Land for cultivation was distributed by a village chief or headman to each family unit based on the size of the family, the number of wives in the family, and the availability of labour to make effective use of the land. Grazing land for cattle, sheep and goats was “owned” and used collectively. This was all in line with the guiding principles of hunhu/ubuntu.
In the first Chimurenga the spirit mediums of Mbuya Nehanda and Sekuru Kaguvi spread the message that their god, Mwari, called upon the people to resist the European invaders, who through their invasion spiritually desecrated the land. This chapter of history further adds to the narrative of the interconnectedness of the land and Shona spirituality. The first resistance against the occupation of the land by white settlers was not based on economic reasons. It had its foundation in the importance of the land to Shona spirituality.
Mbuya Nehanda and Sekuru Kaguvi’s warning to the people highlights the spiritual significance of land. The spiritual desecration of the land they warned, if left unchecked would result in increased suffering among the Shona peoples. So important were the spirit mediums to the first Chimurenga, that the resistance was not ended until the spirit mediums were arrested and hanged by the authorities.
The land is also the terrestrial link that connects the ancestral, present and future generations. On it the ancestors were buried, the present generation lives upon it and the future generations will be born to play and thrive upon it. This whole idea is highlighted by a traditional ritual known as “Kuchera Rukuvhute”, which loosely translates to “burying the umbilical cord.”According to this ritual when a child is born tradition requires that part of their umbilical cord which falls of must be interred into the earth to connect the child to their ancestors. The symbolism of this ritual lies in the biological parallel in which the umbilical cord is vital connection between the child and its mother in the same spiritual way the interring of the same into the earth provides that ancestral link.
“Chinoziva ivhu kuti mwana wembeva anorwara” is a Shona proverb which translates: It is the soil/earth that knows when the offspring of the mice is sick. “ This is a proverb that illustrates the intimacy and proximity between the land and life? In this proverb the land is alive and in conscious relationship with life. This is very common in ancient Shona anthropology as is revealed by Shona folklore.
Looking at the history of the relationship of land to the Shona people’s culture and spirituality I feel I am in a better position to understand and fully embrace the whole ideology of being a son of the soil. It now makes sense why it has always resonated so strongly. The revolutionary and nationalistic undertones aside it makes for a beautiful and even poetic summation of Shona spirituality and culture. We are all sons and daughters of the soil. The land connects us to our past and it is our home now and when we pass on as well.