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Totems And The Art of Shona Praise Poetry – The Lost Language Of Our Ancestors

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Monkeys are amazing creatures, swinging our way with messages of intelligence, intensity and involvement. They are as playful as they are entertaining. Monkeys also have a strong capacity for compassion, understanding and bonding. Monkeys are also one of the many totem animals among the Shona people of Zimbabwe.

A bit of background…

In Shona culture, totems (mutupo) are usually names of animals which the individual is likened to in terms of character and personality. A totem originates from one individual (the ancestor) and is passed on to the descendants of the individual. Totems are often used to praise a person for their good deeds, to seek the favour from someone who is at higher position or to address kings and chiefs.

According to Alec J.C. Pongweni author of Shona Praise Poetry As Role Negotiation:

Shona praise poetry has its origins in the totemic system. In the totemic system a clan associates itself with an animal, for example, Shumba – Lion, Soko – Monkey, Mhofu – Beast, etc. This animal is chosen because of certain admirable characteristics of appearance, demeanour and hunting tactics or the manner in which it feeds.

The members of the clan are supposed to emulate these traits.

The praise poem (detembo) is derived from the characteristics of the totem animal as well as those presented by the clan. These could be their famous victories, failures which cast them to the ground, their struggles for recognition, their idiosyncrasies, favourite food, and many other traits.

The praise poem (detembo) is basically a song of flattery recited as a reward for socially commendable acts. Praise poems (detembo) serve to build confidence and self esteem for the individuals being praised, creating a sense of worth and identity in a person.

Totems and praise poems are two different things. A totem (mutupo)  is used to address its bearer. A praise poem (detembo) is used to thank the bearer of the totem. According to Pongweni, young children are not supposed to be thanked by their praise poems; they are thanked by their totems only. Praise poems are for grownups, especially those who are married. Girls are never thanked by their fathers praise poems; they are thanked only by their totems. If they grow up they will be thanked by their husbands praise poems, if they are married. The boys also will be thanked by their praise poems if they marry a wife.

Learning the praise poetry for my totem…

For the better part of this year I have been trying to get members of my extended family to teach me how to recite the Shona praise poetry (detembo) for my totem Soko, the monkey. Finding someone to teach me this detembo proved to be more difficult than I had initially anticipated.  For starters many members of my family are spread not only across Zimbabwe, but across the world. And despite the ubiquity of technology in our lives which has made it easier to stay in touch with my aunts and uncles both in the rural areas and in Diaspora I was still unable to make any headway. No one seemed to know the proper detembo for our totem Soko.

When I had initially taken my parents to task as part of the research for my book they confessed to only having a vague idea on how to recite the praise poetry for my totem Soko (the monkey). My parents and everyone else I asked kept referring to my late great aunt (my paternal grandfather’s sister) who from all accounts was a renowned reciter of the praise poetry of our clan. However, in a complete betray of the oral traditions that are deeply ingrained in our Shona culture no one I had access to had learned this most fascinating form of verbal artistry from her. This didn’t sit well with me. And the more I thought about this the more obsessed I became with learning the detembo for Soko, if only for posterity’s sake.  Surely someone in our clan who I might not be immediately related to would know. They had to.

To be fair, I did learn a thing or two that I hadn’t known before. One uncle shared with me an anecdote about how our totem, the monkey taught the white men how to sit on chairs. The white men he said to me, learned how to sit on chairs by watching and copying how the monkeys sat on branches. Because of this people who had the monkey as their totem were revered for their ingenuity amongst other traits. However, he couldn’t quite remember whether this anecdote was actually part of the detembo or if it was just a story he had been told when he was younger.

 

All this happened at the top of the year and between then and as recently as this past weekend I hardly made any further progress in my quest. In fact I had put the whole thing at the back of my mind.

That was until I finally caught a break from the most unlikely of sources, the ordination ceremony of a Catholic priest. My mother, a staunch catholic attended the ordination ceremony of a priest from our local parish. To those unfamiliar with ordination ceremonies (like I was), they are basically the Priesthoods equivalent of a marriage ceremony. In this case the priest is marrying the ‘church’. Anyway as part of the celebrations the parish women decided to recite the detembo for the priest in question. And as luck would have it this particular priest was a Soko.

Things got even better when the Priests father, in effort to make sure that the detembo was recited accurately gave each the women (my mother included) printed copies of the detembo to recite. And that is how I came to be in possession of a written copy of the detembo for my totem Soko.

But wait, it gets better …

There is more…

According to Shona oral traditions, the adoption of totemism is associated with the earliest known ancestor of the Shona people, Mambiri . He chose the Soko (Monkey) totem to guard against incestuous behaviour and also for the social identity of his followers. This took place in a mythical place called Guruuswa, which was located somewhere north of the Zambezi River in southern Tanganyika. As the early Shona grew in number and marriage became difficulty, due to the fact that they practiced the custom of exogamy (marrying only outside one’s clan), there was need to adopt a second totem. The Shava/Mhofu (Eland) totem was therefore adopted so as to enable intermarriage between members of the two totems to take place. In contemporary Shona society there are at least 25 identifiable totems (mitupo).

By that account, that actually makes my totem Soko, the monkey one of the originals.

This is also something that is detailed in the praise poetry for my totem which I have  shared below in both its original Shona form as well as an accompanying English version.

 

Soko

Ewoi Soko,

Vhudzijena, Mukanya

Hekanhi Mbereka

Makwiramiti, mahomu-homu

Vanopona nekuba

Vanamushamba negore

Makumbo mana muswe weshanu

Hekani Soko yangu yiyi

Vakaera mutupo umwe nashe

Vana VaPfumojena

Vakabva Guruuswa

Soko Mbire yaSvosve

Vanobva Hwedza

Vapfuri vemhangura

VekuMatonjeni vanaisi vemvura

Zvaitwa matarira vari mumabwe

Mhanimani tonodya, svosve tichobovera

Maita zvenyu rudzi rukuru

Matangakugara

Vakawana ushe neuchenjeri

Vakufamba hujeukidza kwandabva

Pagerwe rinongova jemedzanwa

Kugara hukwenya-kwenya

Vari mawere maramba kurimba

Vamazvikongonyadza kufamba hukanyaira

Zvibwezvitedza, zvinotedzera vari kure

Asi vari padyo vachitamba nazvo

Zvaitwa mukanya rudzi rusina chiramwa

Maita vari Makoromokwa, Mugarandaguta

Aiwa zvaonekwa Vhudzijena

 

Translated into English

Thank you Soko

White-hair, The Pompous one

Thank you Bearer of Children

The Tree-climber, one-who-always-barks

Those who survive by stealing

Those who bath only once in a year

Those who have four legs, the tail being the fifth

Thank you very much my dear Soko

Those who have the same totem as the chief

The descendants of Pfumojena

Those who came from Guruuswa

Soko Mbire of Svosve

Those who come from Hwedza

The iron-smelters

The rain-makers of Matojeni

A good service has been done the alert one, those in the rocks

We eat centipedes, we throw ants into our mouths

Thank you for the good service, great lineage

The original inhabitants

Those who obtained chieftainship through shrewdness and diplomacy

The one who constantly looks back when moving

Wherever they settle there is quarreling and crying

When seated you are constantly scratching your body

Those always on the cliffs, who refused to till the land

The pompous one who walks proudly

The Slippery-rocks that are slippery to those come from afar

But is friendly to those in the vicinity

It has been done, a lineage that does not refuse to perform a task no matter how it is treated

Those on the steep rocks and cliffs, one-who-rests-only-when-he-is-full

Indeed your kindness has been seen, White-hair

 

From the English version of the poem, the praises “White hair”, “Bearer of children”, “Those who have four legs, the tail being the fifth”, for instance, makes reference to the behaviour of the animal totem. However, praises like “Those who have the same totem as the chief”, “Those who come from Guruuswa”, “The descendants of Pfumojena”, “The rain-makers of Matonjeni”, “Those who come from Hwedza”, “The Iron-smelters”, refer to the history and the professions of the long departed ancestors of the clan.

And there you have it, I finally know the praise poetry for my totem. In the process I have learned a little bit more about the history of my ancestors. Something I am sure was always part of the motivation behind the use of praise poetry.

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Posted by on July 30, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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A Son Of The Soil

‘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.

Mbuya Nehand and Sekuru Kaguvi ... As  the spiritual leaders of the Shona, they provided inspiration the revolt against the British South Africa Company's colonisation of Mashonaland and Matabeleland (now Zimbabwe). Nehanda and her ally Kaguvi were eventually captured and executed by the British

1898 Sekuru Kaguvi and Mbuya Nehanda … As the spiritual leaders of the Shona, they provided inspiration the revolt against the British South Africa Company’s colonisation of Mashonaland and Matabeleland (now Zimbabwe). Nehanda and her ally Kaguvi were eventually captured and executed by the British

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.

 
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Posted by on April 11, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Cultural Catholic

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I was raised in a very conservative Roman Catholic and African family. Catholicism has been a significant part of my family’s culture alongside my indigenous Shona culture. My family’s culture lies somewhere on the intersection of Shona culture and Catholicism. The Shona, like most Africans are very spiritual people. This I believe is the reason that even in the present day many of us have taken to religion and adopted Christianity in particular with such aplomb. Being naturally spiritual people we need to feed our souls. And Christianity has been the table we have chosen to sit at and feed our souls from. It is all most of us know when it comes to spirituality. Our colonisers made sure of that.

Our forefathers after being made to feel inferior were coerced into abandoning their own spirituality. Focusing on bad spirits and witchcraft they were told that their own traditional African religions were evil. They ignored the presence of good spirits that the Shona believed inspired individual talents associated with healing, music, or artistic ability. Christianity was all good and the practice of traditional religions was evil. Those were the only two options they were presented with in the newly introduced formal education system which was closely linked to the new Christian religion. The more people converted to Christianity often in pursuit of a formal education the more they neglected their own traditional religions.

My late great grandfather was one of the early African converts to Christianity from his clan. He eagerly took to Christianity playing a big role in building the first Catholic Church in our rural village. In honour of his role in building that church it has since been named after him and is known as St Edmund’s Parish. This church also happens to be one of the oldest Catholic churches in Zimbabwe. My great grandfather’s conversion to Christianity marked the first significant shift in our family culture into what is today, a fusion of both Catholicism and elements of traditional Shona culture such as Hunhu. It is under the influence of that hybrid culture that I was raised. Although if I am being entirely honest Catholicism played a much bigger part in my upbringing to the extent that until only recently I not in tune with most elements of my Shona culture.

As a child all the way into my early teens I was an Altar boy. Every Sunday I helped the Priest to serve Mass. For my high school I attended an all boys Catholic boarding school. Catholicism was further indoctrinated into me and all the while no conscious efforts were made by myself or anyone else to educate or enlighten me on Shona culture. When it came to my Shona heritage I was an ignoramus. By the time I left for university and began the quest to define myself for myself the influence of the Catholic Church on my individual culture fizzled. For a period of five years in my twenties I did not see the inside of a catholic church or any church for that matter. Like with anything that you inherit or grow up when you gain some independence you start question its role and influence in your life. And when I asked myself those questions I struggled to accept or agree with the doctrines I was supposed to follow.

During that period you would think that I would have made a greater effort to reconnect and educate myself on my Shona culture and try to see if it was more in line with the individual culture I was subconsciously building, but I didn’t. Instead I took to assimilating many other different cultures. It was the period in which my inner culture vulture was born. In fairness though for the majority of my twenties I was living an environment that I wasn’t exposed to Shona culture or even Catholicism. So it might be understandable that either’s influence faded quickly. Still, I considered myself a cultural Catholic if not a practising one. I understood and was familiar with catholic dogma and routine even though it didn’t influence my life as much. It was however a big part of my childhood and provided some cultural conectivedness with my family.

Catholicism for better or worse is ingrained in my culture. I can’t say the same for my own Shona culture. Unfortunately I was never indoctrinated in the ways of the Shona as much as I was the ways of the Roman Catholics. And that is what this part of my life is about. To indoctrinate myself in the ways of my ancestors so that I can also proudly call myself ‘Mwana wevhu” ,a son of the soil. The whole idea of being a son of the soil is something I will explore in my next post, in which I will look at how the land is so deeply associated with Shona spirituality. At the end of the day I am trying to decolonise my own individual culture and be true to the culture vulture in me. In the same way I don’t agree with all aspects of Catholic doctrine I am sure I might not agree with all aspects of Shona Culture. What I want to have though is a better understanding of it. In that way I will be able to incorporate it more consciously into my own life.

 
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Posted by on April 9, 2014 in Culture Vulture

 

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Shona Sculpture

Zimbabwean "Shona Sculpture' on display at Altantla airport in the USA

Zimbabwean “Shona Sculpture’ on display at Altantla airport in the USA

 

Though Shona Sculpture is sometimes compared to the work of Picasso, Brancusi, Modigliani or other Western masters, we knew the Shona of the mountain highlands had never seen their work. Isolated from the West by geography and politics, the Shona looked winthin for inspiration – within their own land, within their own spiritual legacy.”Anthony and Laura Ponter , Spirits of Stone

Stone sculpture from Zimbabwe is often called Shona sculpture, named after Shona people, the largest tribe engaged in sculpting. Zimbabwe derived from the Shona word dzimbadzamabwe (which means ‘house of stone’), is the only country on the African continent that has large deposits of stone suitable for sculpting.

Shona sculpture has its roots firmly implanted within Shona tradition and spirituality. Shona sculpture is a spontaneous expression of Shona spirituality. Ancestral spirits (midzimu) play a big part in traditional Shona culture and they are believed to have a great influence on how the sculptures turn out. Shona Sculptors believe that every rock contains the spirit essence and each sculpture is shaped by the will of the spirit in the rock. They believe that during the sculpting, it is the spirit not the artist that transforms the stone. In the words of Bernard Matemera, one of the more world renowned Shona sculptors: “The spirits are everywhere in the air, in the rocks. A rock is like a fruit – like an orange or a banana. You don’t eat them without peeling them first. It needs to be opened to be eaten. I open the rocks. The fruit is inside.”

The artist ‘works’ together with his stone and it is believed that ‘nothing which exists naturally is inanimate’- it has a spirit and life of its own. One is always aware of the stone’s contribution in the finished sculpture. The subject matter can be seen as continuing a rich cultural heritage that had previously been mainly oral (folklore) and ritual. The various spirit guises, animal metamorphoses, and spirit mediums are all represented.

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Contemporary Shona Sculptors draw extensively for inspiration on traditional culture: the mythology, folklore, rituals and beliefs in ancestral spirits that remain strong strands even in contemporary, urban Zimbabwean life. Women are also a significant source of inspiration: the nude torso, the dancing girl, mother and child are depicted in a myriad of ways. The natural world and man’s relationship with nature is another important theme. The sculptures they produce speaks of fundamental human experiences such as grief, elation, humour, anxiety and spiritual search.

 

Stone carving has been part of the Zimbabwean culture since 1200 AD when Great Zimbabwe, an archeological masterpiece of their early ancestors, was built. In ancient times stone was used extensively for building and for decorative purposes. The Great Zimbabwe settlement, now a World Heritage Site, is testimony to the skill and artistry of the ancestors of today’s sculptors. Built between the 11th and 15th centuries, at a time when Europe was just emerging from the Dark Ages, these accomplished stone masons used hand-hewn granite blocks to painstakingly and precisely build ornate towers and enclosures – all free of mortar. Parts of the settlement combine natural rock formation and dry stone construction – the two blending aesthetically and functionally. The stone birds of Great Zimbabwe produced some four centuries ago are earliest known pieces of Shona sculpture.

Centuries later, in the late 1950s, Frank McEwen, the founding curator of the National Gallery of what was then Southern Rhodesia(now Zimbabwe), recognizing the Shona peoples’ affinity with stone, and their innate creativity, established a sculpture workshop at the Gallery and invited the participation of aspiring stone sculptors. There was no attempt to instruct. Those who were interested were simply given the tools and the stone. As McEwen described it, their work revealed “the images they bore in their souls”. No technical training was given. The sculptors learned from one another and taught one another. This mentoring tradition continues today. Aspiring artists learn by watching the masters, by observing the stone and finally by picking up the tools and applying themselves to the stone.

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It is only after this period that Shona sculpture enjoyed a bit of a renaissance and eventually gained worldwide prominence. Ever since Shona sculpture earned itself a secure niche in the art galleries and markets of the developed world and is collected on a large scale, exported by the tonne by galleries and private dealers, exhibited in universities, museums, galleries and parks in the West.

The extraordinary success of ‘Shona sculpture’ both as a commodity and as an aesthetic object derives in large part, although not entirely, from its authenticity, its rooted connection with African modes of thought, and in its African aesthetic. The artists’ lack of training and models and their natural, untutored, authentic skill also adds to the allure of Shona sculpture.

 
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Posted by on April 8, 2014 in Culture Vulture

 

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Mbira: The Music Of Zimbabwe

Religion, language and music are some of the key ingredients that make up most cultures in the world. It is easy for us to associate or identify cultures with any of these markers. A language can give you a window into the speaker’s culture in the same way that the music of the culture serves to market the culture to the rest of the world. Shona music was and is so much more than what Westerners associate with “music”. The “traditional” music of Zimbabwe reveals our forefather’s spiritual beliefs, their modes of expression, patterns of communication and forms of entertainment, in as much as present day contemporary music reveals a lot about our present lives and past experiences. For example, traditional Shona songs were a medium of instruction through which young boys and girls were taught the values and expectations of adulthood. All social relationships were sealed, bonded and regulated through songs. Through songs, a daughter-in-law would express her bitterness against a horrible mother-in-law, a bitter wife against a greedy husband, and the whole community would protest against an unjust chief, hence there is a tradition of Shona protest songs. There were songs to praise, urge, ridicule and reprimand. Most means of communication in the pre-literate and oral African societies were musical in one way or another.

When it comes to traditional Shona culture, the music most associated with the culture is Mbira music. Mbira music has been contemporarised by artists such Ambuya Stella Chiweshe and the late Chiwoniso Maraire. Both artists have travelled and toured the world playing the Mbira. Traditionally only men played the Mbira in Shona society. Women were not allowed to play the Mbira. It is a testament to the dynamic nature of culture then two of the more well known Mbira artists today are women. Some Zimbabwean electric bands also infuse the Mbira into their music. Today the Mbira is a positive symbol of cultural identity for most Zimbabweans.

Mbira refers to the name of both the instrument and the music. The Mbira instrument is a hand held piano like instrument with the keys being made of metal. Mbira the genre is mystical music which has been played for over a thousand years by certain tribes of the Shona people. The Shona form the vast majority of the population of Zimbabwe. Mbira pervades all aspects of Shona culture, both sacred and secular. Its most important function is as a “telephone to the spirits”, used to contact both deceased ancestors and tribal guardians, at all-night bira (pl. mapira) ceremonies. At these ceremonies, vadzimu, including midzimu (spirits of family ancestors), mhondoro (spirits of deceased chiefs) and makombwe (the most powerful guardian spirits of the Shona), give guidance on family and community matters and exert power over weather and health.

Mbira

The Mbira is a positive symbol of cultural identity for most Zimbabweans.

Mbira is required to bring rain during drought, stop rain during floods, and bring clouds when crops are burned by the sun. Mbira is used to chase away harmful spirits, and to cure illnesses with or without a n’anga (traditional diviner/herbalist). Mbira is included in celebrations of all kinds, including weddings, installation of new chiefs, and, more recently, government events such as independence day and international conferences.
Mbira is also required at death ceremonies, and is played for a week following a chief’s death before the community is informed of his passing. At the guva ceremony, approximately one year after a person’s physical death, mbira is used to welcome that individual’s spirit back to the community.
In previous centuries, court musicians played mbira for Shona kings and their diviners. Although the mbira was originally used in a limited number of Shona areas, today it is popular throughout Zimbabwe. Mbira is desired for the general qualities it imparts: peaceful mind and strong life force.

You can listen to Chiwoniso Maraire’s ‘Ancient Voices’ to understand what i am talking about  here  

During the colonial era the traditional role of music as a medium of instruction was replaced by the introduction of a formal education system which was closely linked to the new Christian religion. The introduction of the Christian religion on the other hand changed the people’s religious songs and ritual music. Recognising the close relationship between the people’s religion and music, Christian missionaries, ensured a fast decline in traditional culture and religion. Missionaries castigated the use of the Mbira instrument in church ceremonies and dismissed it as unholy and heathen. Christian converts were usually forbidden to play traditional musical instruments. The Mbira and the drum which had carried the tradition of the Shona people’s music for a long time were dismissed as unholy.

It is fitting then that in the fight for independence (known as the Chimurenga) music played an important part in the struggle. Popular and traditional songs with hidden meaning; helped galvanize mass opinion; spirit mediums were leaders in the war against white privilege. After decades of denigration by some Africans who had lost faith in traditional culture, The mbira becomes a positive symbol of cultural identity. And today it is enjoying a new lease of life at the forefront of Shona music and culture.

 

I will sign off with some beautiful words from Zimbababwean Mbira Queen  Ambuya Stella Chiweshe as she plays the Mbira and shares her insights on the spirituality and materialism of the Shona in 21st century. Enjoy.

 

 
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Posted by on April 7, 2014 in Culture Vulture

 

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Huhnu (Ubuntu): The African Way Of Life

In my previous post I shared some of my thoughts on what culture is and what it means to me. I confessed to being a culture vulture that has voraciously incorporated many elements of different cultures into my own individual culture. By the end of that post I had come to the sad conclusion that even though I was open to other ‘alien’ cultures I hadn’t made a reasonable enough effort to acquaint myself with my own indigenous Shona culture. In this post I want to discuss what is the blueprint of my own Shona culture and that of most culture in Sub-Saharan Africa which is known as ubuntu/hunhu.

The word ubuntu comes from Zulu and Xhosa languages. Loosely translated it means ‘humanity towards others’. Its thrust is on ‘the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity’. In the Shona ubuntu is the same as hunhu. The concept of ubuntu in Zimbabwe is similar to that of other African cultures. Because I am Zimbabwean and Shona I will be using the shone term hunhu to explain the philosophy that is also known by my brothers and sisters across the Limpopo as Ubuntu.

Hunhu refers to a person’s character, spirituality, disposition and sense of responsibility. One’s hunhu determines how one is regarded in society—a person with hunhu is respected, one without hunhu is an outcast. Hunhu is best summarised by the statement ‘munhu munhu nekuda kwevanhu’, a person is a person through other people.

After independence in 1980, Stanlake Samkange (1922–1988), a Zimbabwean historiographer, educator and African nationalist, attempted to systematise an African epistemology in Hunhuism or Ubuntuism. Stanlake Samkange highlights the three maxims of Hunhuism or Ubuntuism that shape this philosophy:

Hunhuism, Ubuntuism logos

 

The first maxim asserts that

To be human is to affirm one’s humanity by recognizing the humanity of others and, on that basis, establish respectful human relations with them.’

And the second maxim means that

if and when one is faced with a decisive choice between wealth and the preservation of the life of another human being, then one should opt for the preservation of life’.

The third ‘maxim’ as a

if and when one is faced with a decisive choice between wealth and the preservation of the life of another human being, then one should opt for the preservation of life’.

While sharing is incorporated within hunhu, it is only one of the many virtues of hunhu. In the hunhu domain, visitors do not need to burden themselves with carrying provisions – all they need is to dress properly and be on the road. All visitors are provided for and protected in every home they pass through without payment being expected. In fact, every individual should try his or her best to make visitors comfortable – and this applies to everyone who is aware of the presence of a visitor within a locality. This aspect of hunhu is still somewhat present in Shona culture. If you enter any Shona home today your host will almost always offer you something to eat or drink.

Other manifestations of hunhu are that it is taboo to call elderly people by their given names; instead they are called by their surnames. You will never find Shona children calling their parents or aunts and uncles by their first names. It is considered disrespectful. Because of this the individual identity is replaced with the larger societal identity within the individual. Each individual is an ambassador of their family and where they come from. Thus, families are reflected in the individual and this phenomenon is extended to villages, districts, provinces and regions being portrayed in the individual. This places high demands on the individual to behave in the highest standards and to portray the highest possible virtues that society strives for. Hunhu embodies all the invaluable virtues that society strives for towards maintaining harmony and the spirit of sharing among its members.

A key concept associated with hunhu is how we behave and interact in our various social roles, e.g., daughters-in-law traditionally kneel down when greeting their parents-in-law and serve them food as a sign of respect and maintain the highest standards of behaviour that will be extended or reflected to her family and all the women raised in that family. The daughter-in-law does this as part of the ambassadorial function that she plays and assumes at all times. However, this does not apply only to daughters-in-law but to all women in general, even among friends and equals such as brother and sister, and this does not imply that the woman is subordinate to the man, or sister to brother. It is all essentially considered to be a characteristic of having hunhu and a social interaction within the context of hunhu. The demands imposed upon men within the context of hunhu are more physically demanding than that placed upon the woman.

Under hunhu children are never orphans since the roles of mother and father are by definition not vested in a single individual with respect to a single child. Furthermore, a man or a woman with hunhu will never allow any child around them to be an orphan. Under hunhu it literally takes a village to raise a child.

A leader who has hunhu is selfless and consults widely and listens to subjects. Such a person does not adopt a lifestyle that is different from the subjects and lives among them and shares property. A leader who has hunhu does not lead, but allows the people to lead themselves and cannot impose his will on his people, which is incompatible with hunhu.

Hunhu at its core puts the community first and everything we do is in relation to and a reflection of that community. Hunhu teaches us that humanity is a quality we owe to each other. We create each other and need to sustain this otherness creation. And if we belong to each other, we participate in our creations: we are because you are, and since you are, definitely ‘I am’. If we follow the concept of hunhu as our ancestors intended us then it means each and every individual is an ambassador of not only the community they come from but their culture as a whole.

After researching the concept of hunhu I am left with the understanding that at its heart is a conscious sense of humanity and community. There is a sincere warmth with which people treat both strangers and members of the community. This overt display of warmth is not merely aesthetic but enables formation of spontaneous communities (co-operatives if you will). The resultant collaborative work within these spontaneous communities transcends the aesthetic and gives functional significance to the value of warmth. How else are you to ask for sugar from your neighbour? Warmth is not the sine qua non of community formation but guards against instrumentalist relationships. Unfortunately, sincere warmth may leave one vulnerable to those with ulterior motives.

When I look at the current state of Shona culture I realise that most of us no longer hold ourselves accountable to some of the key elements of Hunhu. Ours is now a culture of individualism. Urbanisation has meant that the extended family has become a dysfunctional unit and most of us now live in the cities where we sometimes do not even know or acknowledge our neighbours. Even fewer of us visit our traditional rural homes or a part of larger representative community. What does this mean for our culture? Does this mean we have lost our humanity? That we no longer have hunhu?

All I know is that one of the strategies that the colonisers employed was that of “divide and conquer”. Looking at the way we relate to each now you can see that they succeeded in dividing us as people. Even our own leaders no longer extol the values of hunhu only seeking to enrich themselves. So even though we are “free” from colonialist oppression and rule they definitely managed to conquer our culture. And now we are all culture vultures feeding off the scraps of others cultures and neglecting our own.

They are still winning. We are far from free.

 
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Posted by on April 4, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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A (Yellow) Bone To Pick

I’ve got a (yellow) bone to pick.

Of late there has been resurgence in the availability and use of skin lightening creams and pills amongst Zimbabweans and many other Africans as well. Skin bleaching is predominantly done by women by women but more and more evidence suggests that even men are jumping onto the bandwagon as well. It seems everyone wants to be light skinned. Why? Well, because they all want to be ‘Yellow Bones’, every black men and women’s supposedly most sought after skin tone. Yellow bone is a colloquial term that is popular amongst people of African descent. The term Yellow bone refers to the lightest skinned black woman. They sometimes have a mixed race gene somewhere in their family tree and their skin tone appears golden yellow. An example of a Yellow bone in popular culture is Beyonce’. She is the definition of Yellow bone in all its aspirational glory. To put her Yellow bone credentials in context, her former band mate from the girl group Destiny’s Child Kelly Rowland is considered dark skinned. They are both black, but they are for lack of a better term different shades of black. One is a yellow bone and the other is not.

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The reason for the resurgence of these skin lightening creams is partly a result of the pedestal that most black men and women usually put those regarded as Yellow bones. Yellows bones are to black people what blonds are too white people. The general consensus is that yellow bones by virtue of having a lighter skin tone are more attractive and appealing. As such the Lupita Nyong’os and Kelly Rowland’s who make up team dark skinned are unfortunately resorting to applying these creams in a bid to become lighter and by default be regarded as more attractive. They try to cosmetically become Yellow bones. Further evidence of this yellow bone bias is found in this qualifying statement given to dark skinned girls, ‘She is beautiful for a dark skinned girl’. The inference being that by being darker she is already at a disadvantage in the beauty stakes. I don’t know if I necessarily agree with this thinking. It is an overgeneralisation to assume that all light skinned black women are more attractive than their darker counterparts. Beauty is more subjective than that and definitely not limited to ones skin tone. The unfortunate reality though is that most black men and women don’t see it this way and hence the skin bleaching.

"I got teased and taunted about my skin. My one prayer to God was that I would wake up lighter skinned. The morning would come and I would be so excited about seeing my new skin that I would refuse to look down at myself until I was in front of the mirror because I wanted to see my face first. Every day I would feel the disappointment of being just as dark as the day before…" - oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o

“I got teased and taunted about my skin. My one prayer to God was that I would wake up lighter skinned. The morning would come and I would be so excited about seeing my new skin that I would refuse to look down at myself until I was in front of the mirror because I wanted to see my face first. Every day I would feel the disappointment of being just as dark as the day before…” – Best Supporting Actress Oscar Winner 2014 Lupita Nyong’o

To further compound matters these skin lightening creams and pills are not only harmful but illegal in Zimbabwe. Researchers have indicated that most of the products that are currently being sold on the market contain a cocktail of compounds like hydroquinone and tretinoin, which if used for a long time can lead to skin cancer, permanent pigmentation of the skin, liver damage and mercury poisoning. The creams are illegal because they contain harmful substances and are not authorised by the Medicines Control Council of Zimbabwe, the body responsible for regulating medicines in Zimbabwe. The creams are classified under the country’s Dangerous Drugs and Substances Act, and the Drug Control Council of Zimbabwe banned the creams in 1980.

So why are many women and some men willing to risk their health and possible incarceration when they buy and apply these creams and pills? The answer to that is that they want to be beneficiaries of what I like to call yellow bone privilege. Yellow bone privilege is similar but not exactly the same as it’s more pervasive big brother white privilege. White privilege is not to be confused with racism. Those are two different things. White privilege is assuming the best intentions when it comes to a white person than when it comes to a black person given precisely the same circumstances. Taking my lead from that description of white privilege a case can be made that yellow bone privilege assumes default attractiveness when it comes to a yellow bone than when it comes to a member of team dark skinned given precisely the same physical attributes such as height, weight etc.

Personally I have always gravitated towards natural yellow bones. And so do most of my male African friends. I could argue that it’s just my type, the same way someone can argue that blondes are his type. That being said I do not limit myself to dating yellow bones, but just admitting to myself that I me and most of my friends seem more drawn to yellow bones I start to understand the motivations behind some people resort to skin lightening. They are the same motivations that make people undergo cosmetic procedures like Botox and breast implants. They are aspiring to meet what they perceive to be the societal standards of beauty.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a yellow bone but I am aware that I am lighter skinned than the average black person. So I have experienced and have been a beneficiary of yellow bone privilege. When people have referred to my skin tone it has always been in a complimentary manner or enviously. This thinking isn’t just unique to my generation but it goes way back. My paternal grandmother was considered the most beautiful girl in her village. And yes , she was a yellow bone. Even to this day her reputation has outlived her. Those who knew her when she was in her prime still talk about how beautiful she was. And this often goes something like ‘Mbuya wako wanga vari tsvarakadenda chaiyo, kutsvuka kwavo,waitoti vaigezi nemukaka chete.’, Your grandmother was very pretty, she was so light skinned you’d think she bathed in milk. Yellow bone’s have clearly been a thing for some time now.

The more I think about the more ingrained I realise this bias is in our culture. Dark skinned people are often referred in sometimes derogatory terms by other black people. In my native Shona language darker skinned people are often described as ‘akasviba’ which loosely translates in English to ‘they are dirty’. This is because some black people misguidedly believe that being dark skinned is a result of a lack of hygiene. Often you will hear people saying ‘haagezi’, he/she doesn’t bathe. No wonder naturally dark skinned people are resorting to skin lightening albeit with disastrous consequences.

I believe yellow bone privilege has its roots firmly implanted in colonialism. It was drilled into our forefathers that white was better, and naturally the closer you were to white the better you were assumed to be. This is obviously not true and it is unfortunate that many years after the dismantling of colonialism yellow bone privilege is even a thing. There could be a more sinister element to the skin beaching as well, that some people want to purposefully erase what defines their ethnicity because they hate their own skin colour. As black people we need to free ourselves from this kind of iternalised oppression. We need to decolonise our minds.

Fixing internalised oppression is never easy but not impossible to accomplish. It takes time and effort from citizens to assimilate and change the way they think and act towards race. If writers, the media, and teachers continue to inform us about the effects of internalised oppression that we are confronting, then our society will be more educated about it, and they will know how to handle the situation better. It is in your hands to work with others as a community to eliminate internalised oppression so we can all be free to look, dress, act, and think in our own positive ways. All it takes is time to see a change in our community. But everything depends on you to take action and eliminate internalised oppression. I know it’s going to be tough, but I know that together we can make a change.

 
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Posted by on March 28, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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