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

Rhesus_Macaque_Monkey_Sitting_On_A_Tree_600

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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Dambudzo Marechera – His Life and Work (In His Own Words)

Dambudzo

There’s an intimacy, a familiarity with writers and their readers unlike any other relationship. They allow us access to their lives. And not just their peripheral existences, but their deepest fears, their most uncomfortable memories, their subconscious motivations, their haven’t-yet-showered morning mirror reflections. They allow us to know them without us actually knowing them. They give us their lives. We give them our attention.

And, when a writer dies, they leave behind a dichotomous legacy that’s equal parts surreal and…tender. You mourn their death while appreciating the fact that their work — the thing that made them so vibrant, so kinetic, so alive — is immortal.

One of Zimbabwe’s and Africa’s greatest literary minds Dambudzo Marechera would have been 62 today. Dambudzo Marechera might have died years ago. But Dambudzo Marechera will always be here. He will continue to teach. He will continue to challenge. He will continue to inspire. He will continue to be. His legacy lives on.

Dambudzo Marechera, Cemetery of Mind. (In his own writing here.)

Dambudzo Marechera, Cemetery of Mind. (In his own writing here.)

 

According to information gathered from a series of audio interviews conducted in Marechera’s flat at 8 Sloane Court, Harare, Zimbabwe, by Alle Lansu in February 1986:

‘Dambudzo Marechera was born on June 4 1952 in Rusape, Zimbabwe and baptised Charles William Marechera. His father, Isaac, was a trucker and mortuary attendant, and his mother, Masvotwa Venezia was a nanny. However, Dambudzo won scholarships to St Augustine’s Secondary School, to the University of Zimbabwe and to New College, Oxford. He has the distinction of having been expelled from all three.

After his expulsion from Oxford, Marechera hitchhiked to London, and claimed to have lived in a riverside tent there while he wrote ‘The House of Hunger’ – a novella and some short stories. With a theme that questioned what had happened to his generation–that of the first politically conscious, educated Africans–the book caused a literary stir and won several impressive reviews when it was published by the esteemed Heinemann publishing house in 1978. It was championed by well-known writers, and earned the Guardian newspaper’s prize for debut fiction the following year.

House of Hunger was followed by four other novels, ‘Black Sunlight’ (1980),’The Black Insider’ (1990) and ‘Mindblast’ (1884). His poetry, collected together in ‘Cemetery of Mind’, was published posthumously in 1992.

After his departure from Oxford, he lived and wrote in London until his return to Zimbabwe in 1982. Dambudzo died an untimely and tragic death on August 18 1987, in Harare.

Marechera’s work, his ideas and his defiance, live on in Zimbabwe, particularly amongst the youth, who find inspiration in his willingness to be the lone outsider, challenging conventional and authoritarian views.’

Dambudzo Marechera; His Life and Work an Interview by Alle Lansu

Childhood

Here he offers some insight into what it was like growing up in Vengere Township in Rusape , in the then Rhodesia ( now Zimbabwe). He talks about how he got his first books from a rubbish dump in the white part of town.

You can listen to this part of the interview below

 

Escaping the House of Hunger

‘Getting out of the House of Hunger is easy if you know that there is a way out. It’s about education and ignoring the poverty around you. It’s very selfish. Reading is what taught me that there was another world out there and I wanted to break into it’.

He goes on to speak on how he became the first black African student to score 20 points (Straight A’s) for his A’ Level exams and that is how he won a full scholarship to study any university in the world. He chose the University of Zimbabwe because he ‘wanted to experience what it was like going at our highest education institution. I wanted to become part of our national struggle’. He was expelled from the University of Zimbabwe in 1973 and went on to attend Oxford University in the UK.

You can listen to this part of the interview below

 

Oxford and London

He talks about his bookish knowledge of the UK which he had picked from the authors he read and how the reality of being on British soil was so disappointing. He points out that by being a scholar at Oxford he became a member of the aristocracy by default. He couldn’t drink with other black people because they considered him other and he didn’t really fit in the student pubs either. ‘All the time I was in Oxford I didn’t belong anywhere. So I just read and drank and listened to my classical music. This showed him the ‘irrelevancy of being part of Oxford University.’ He goes on to say this experience ‘radicalized my mind in an international way’

You can listen to this part of the interview below

Back In Zimbabwe 

 

Here discusses his homelessness and run ins with the authorities upon his return to his homeland after his return to Zimbabwe in 1982. He also discusses his relationship with a German expatriate teacher who taught in Mutoko who would feed him and book a hotel room for both them when she was in Harare for weekends. During the week he would sleep in the streets. This was the period in which he wrote Mindblast. In is own words ‘I was having a normal life by installments. Each Sunday morning I would wake up and we would know that she is going back to school to teach and I am going back to the streets.’

 

On the Future of Zimbabwean Literature

‘If every writer is actually helped to not only discover his vision and talent but also to fashion it out in such a way that he re-evaluates himself and at the same time achieves both national and international recognition then there is a tremendous future for Zimbabwean literature.’

You can listen to this part of the interview below

 

His Vision for African Literature

In this part of the interview he shares his thoughts on traditional and modern African Literature as well as his views on the works of Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka , Ngugi wa Thiong’o etc as well as the concept of negritude. His speaks of Wole Soyinka and Ngugi wa Thiong’o as the African writers who had the biggest influence on him as a writer. Ngugi wa Thiong’o ‘Weep Not Child’ was the first book by an African writer that he read. Up to this point he had never thought that blacks could be writers. In his own words he thought to himself ‘If another African can do it then I am going to do it.’

You can listen to this part of the interview below

 

Let Me Write and Drink My Beer

‘There is a disconnection between my profession as a writer and the needs of a developing country like Zimbabwe. People considered my writing as an indulgence. There is no tradition in Zimbabwe of writing as a profession. People thought of me as unemployed and merely as a vagabond who refusing to do any constructive … Just live me alone to write and drink my beer.’

You can listen to this part of the interview below

 

Thank you Dambduzo. For the words. And the inspiration.

 
 

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Wise Words From A Decent Man: ‘Africa Rising: Africa telling her story’

Earlier this week Zimbabwean media mogul, the Chairman of Alpha Media Holdings, Trevor Ncube gave a speech at the launch of the company’s new media venture The Mail and Guardian Africa in Nairobi, Kenya. In his speech he discussed Africa’s economic growth and development prospects, the role and importance of Africans in dictating the African narrative and the myriad of challenges that the continent faces. He also shared his views on the ‘Africa Rising’ mantra. He encouraged us (Africans) to look back at Africa’s history particularly the wave of optimism (Uhuru) that was omnipresent in newly independent African countries in the 60’s as he said this would be instructive as to how the Africa Rising narrative might pan out. In drawing parallels between Uhuru and Africa Rising he was highlighting the fact this is not the first time that Africa has been engulfed by a collective sense of optimism about its future.

Africa_Rising620

As a young African, who is deeply passionate about the continent this particular speech resonated. In his speech Trevor Ncube made quite a few salient points which I would like to highlight below.

• The danger of talking about Africa as it if were one uniform entity, with the same risks and rewards. There will never be a single African story, just like there will never be a single European story. But when the African continent is aligned in the same way that Europe is aligned in terms of economic integration, seamless borders and having a connected infrastructure it is possible for it to speak with one voice.

• Entrepreneurs across the continent are laying the foundation for a truly irreversible economic turnaround for the continent particularly in the fields of telecoms, technology,agriculture,infrastructure, tourism, media, education and healthcare.( Africa’s growth and it’s prosperity is not limited to it exploiting its abundant natural resources)

• The importance of Africans telling the African story to the rest of the world. By telling our own stories we will bring dynamism to the African narrative so that it is not reduced to binaries, torn between those who truly believe that Africa indeed is rising and those who perceive this as fanciful thinking.

You can read the full transcript of speech below

Africa Rising: Africa telling her story

Colleagues and dear friends, I think you’ll all agree with me that there is a palpable excitement about Africa, about the economic opportunities the continent presents, perhaps more than at any other time.No wonder the catch-all phrase — Africa Rising — has struck such a deep chord. But perhaps it is important to glance back on Africa’s history and realise that in the early 1960s there was similar optimism.Then it was about the arrival of freedom, Uhuru, heralding the birth of the world’s newest nations. And it is instructive to look at what became of that wave of optimism. Because it has important lessons for how the “Africa Rising” narrative may pan out.

I think even the most hardened Uhuru optimist would agree that for most Africans, the returns on political optimism in the 60s was dismal. Even as new flags were gracing the renamed capitals, wars, coups and dictatorship quickly became the norm.The freedom dividend went to a tiny political elite and for the vast majority of the continent’s citizens, life was unbearably hard. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that total despair was replaced by flickering hope with the first defeat of liberation parties in elections starting with Zambia.The lesson for us from how quickly hope turned to despair is that it was the behaviour of Africa’s new rulers that dashed the hopes of millions.

Similarly, those of us who are genuinely excited about the opportunities that we see across a number of economic and social fronts must realise that it is how we respond and act on these opportunities that will determine the outcome.But I think that given the emergence of private sector investors who are independent of political leaders, there is a sense that Africa is going to seize the new opportunities and translate them into tangible returns for millions of its citizens.

Which brings me back to Africa Rising. Clearly, there are those who believe that Africa Rising is just one new sexy phrase about the continent, and that it bears little resemblance to reality. While I disagree with them, I think they do raise an important point, and one that is particularly important for organisations like ours. I think their main point is that it is dangerous to talk about Africa as if it is one uniform entity, with the same risks and the same rewards. And looking at the heartbreaking scenes playing out in the Central African Republic, South Sudan and other places, it is impossible to ignore their cautionary note.

But it is also true that there is a significant shift in economic fundamentals that goes beyond mere rhetoric. As I have travelled across the continent, from South Africa to Ethiopia, Rwanda, Kenya, Ghana and Zimbabwe, I have realised first hand that entrepreneurs are laying the foundation for a truly irreversible economic turn-around for our continent.
Jobs are being created in new sectors, and innovation and hard-nosed business acumen are combining to give credence to the overwhelming sense of optimism.
It is, of course, also interesting that this time around, the excitement about the economic prospects of our continent is not limited to natural resources, important as these still are.

Telecoms, technology, agriculture, infrastructure, tourism, media, fashion, education and healthcare are some of the sectors that are receiving attention.
Let me go through some of the most compelling indicators; these numbers underline the fact that ours is indeed a continent on the rise.

The sheer growth in the number of verifiably super rich Africans, Africa’s dollar billionaires who now number close to 60 far more than previously thought.

The incredible number of African professionals who have returned home from places like New York, London or Paris with key skills and capital in their pockets underlines the new opportunities back home.

Over the past decade, China has been the world’s economic powerhouse, but as its economic growth slows down, it is no accident that China’s key focus has been Africa. This surely says something about the economic prospects of our continent.

Given dismal growth elsewhere in the world, the International Monetary Fund and other bodies have identified sub-Saharan Africa’s growth at nearly 5% over the last six years — by comparison, the growth rate in the developed nations has been at a paltry 0,5% per year.

Investors are setting up offices across the continent and foreign investment is flowing into infrastructure projects, private equity players are rushing to stake their claim.
Africa’s richest entrepreneur, Nigeria’s Aliko Dangote — with a fortune of over $20,2 billion — is now one of the world’s richest individuals and the source of all his wealth is from Africa.

Urbanisation in Africa has resulted in huge opportunities in the retail and infrastructure sectors. Sadly, transport still lags behind, but I have no doubt entrepreneurs will seize these opportunities as well.

There has been a significant growth in philanthropy by wealthy Africans, with Dangote, donating more than $100m in one year to education, health and disaster relief in Nigeria.
Other entrepreneurs are South Africa’s Patrice Motsepe who donated a significant portion of his wealth to charity and Zimbabwe’s Strive Masiyiwa who donates significantly towards education and training.

Given all the optimism, the rosy indicators, and the widespread euphoria about the continent’s prospects, what then are some of the things that need to happen to make this sustainable?

Well, I strongly believe that the new generation of African leaders, be they entrepreneurs, technocrats, civil society or politicians have an important role to play.
Each of us has a responsibility to act boldly, but in ways that do not ignore the key social issues such as joblessness, poverty, poor education and neglected infrastructure.
I know it’s a big ask, but unless we think seriously about these problems, the vast majority of Africans will watch from the sidelines, condemned to poverty and despair. I think there is a greater chance of accountability right now because we live in a significantly more transparent world.

Where in the past the elite could act with impunity knowing they were accountable only to themselves, I think the new generation of Africans have little patience for leaders who are a law unto themselves.

But above all, I do think that a new breed of African leaders is rising to the challenge of redefining this continent that has for so long remained inexplicably poor and underdeveloped.
There is a rise in public sector and private sector partnerships, telecoms innovation has lowered the costs of banking, and Africa’s entrepreneurs are increasingly venturing beyond political borders to establish a new economic frontier. This can only bode well for government to government co-operation, showing that business and politics need not be at loggerheads.

But perhaps most importantly, as Africans we have to tell our own story.
I think nothing is more emblematic of how little influence Africa has wielded in world affairs than the fact that even Africans themselves rely on non-African media to know what is going on in their own backyard.

Even the Africa Rising Narrative is usually referenced using two cover stories by the Economist, one in 2003 and the other one in 2013. If you go to the lobbies of Africa’s best hotels, chances are the TV is tuned to CNN, the BBC or Sky. This is clearly untenable for a continent with serious ambitions.

So I do think that as we become masters of our own destiny as a continent, we have to invest in media that is independent, credible, visible and globally influential. In the past, government media was simply a mouthpiece for incumbent politicians, with little credibility.
Now we all know that there are, of course, significant investments required to operate at the level of Al Jazeera, but without it, Africa will continue to consume rather than produce the narrative that defines it.

I am encouraged to see the emergence of globally respected Africans across so many fronts, such as architect David Adjaye, novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, entrepreneurs like Dangote who can all become the backbone of a compelling narrative about the new Africa.

Many of the continent’s best stories are still told by foreigners and overseas and I think it is time that Africa became the home of its best stories.
This is vitally important also because it will lead to a much more dynamic telling of Africa’s story, so that it is not reduced to binaries, torn between those who believe that this continent is set for an irreversible boom, and those who think this is pie-in-the-sky.

There will never be a single Africa, just like there is no single Europe, but when the continent is aligned in the way that Europe is
aligned, with economic integration, seamless borders and a connected infrastructure, it is possible to speak with one voice. I would like to leave you with two thoughts on the power of framing. Instead of us Africans proving how smart we are by talking about Africa’s Narrative, the real test perhaps lies in how we grab the opportunities the new optimism presents us.

The real measure of how Africa has risen won’t be found in conference halls, but will be reflected in hard socio-economic achievements bedded down during this period.

We are launching M&GAfrica.com because we have faith in the continent’s future and we believe we have a role to play in Africa telling her own story.
Second, we believe that nobody, but us as Africans can tell our story better. Expecting foreigners to tell the African story is expecting too much as it has clearly not happened over the past 100 years.

Foreign media tell the African story with one agenda in mind mainly — to satisfy the prejudices and curiosities of their audiences in London, New York, New Delhi, Beijing etc.
We don’t change the African narrative by pleading with the Western media to stop the African stereotypes, but by behaving differently and telling our own stories. These are stories of how we live and not how we die. These are stories of how we triumph against all odds. These are stories that share the good and bad in Africa. Stories of hope and despair and stories that celebrate the tremendous strides that we are making as a people.

Thank you
Trevor Ncube’s speech in Nairobi at the launch of M&G Africa on Tuesday May 20 2014

 
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Posted by on May 23, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Finding My Way Home

home

During my run this morning it dawned on me (see what I did there?) that I have been home for eighteen months now. That is the longest I have lived in Zimbabwe since I was nineteen. Before that I lived in Cape Town for a little over two years, and before Cape Town I called Australia home for seven years. That means I have lived all but the last year of my twenties outside of Zimbabwe’s borders. That is a long time to be away from your family and the place that you grew up. A place you have called home for most of your life. Because of this the museum of my life’s memories is divided into two main sections. My childhood can be found under the Zimbabwe section, and my adult life would almost entirely fall under the Diaspora section. Who I am as an adult at times feels so far removed from who I was as a kid. I often wonder how different of a person I would have turned out to be if I had never left Zimbabwe. I imagine that I would probably be married and have a kid or two by now just like nearly all my friends who stayed behind.

My childhood memories are exclusively Zimbabwean and that is the Zimbabwe I have held onto even in adulthood when it was a land far far way. But that is not the Zimbabwe that I returned to. The Zimbabwe I returned to was a completely different place from that of my childhood. I wasn’t so naive as to expect not to see changes given that I had been away for long. And maybe I should have been naive because on my return the infrastructure looked either the same or in a worse state that I remembered. During my hiatus from the Motherland it seems to have stagnated. On my return I remember experiencing a mild culture shock. The people had changed. Not just they were older but it was the change in their attitude and general outlook on life that struck me. Their natural optimism had been drained out of them and most seemed resigned to accepting that as a nation we were going nowhere fast. This was not the Zimbabwe I remembered. The Zimbabwe of my childhood. All this made it difficult for me to not only find my way home but also to feel like I belonged there. I felt like an outsider, a stranger in my own country. And that I wasn’t prepared for.

About a year ago I wrote about how even though I am a Zimbabwean, I still call Australia home. This was my attempt to try and confront and deal with my culture shock as well as an attempt to redefine what home meant to me. In that blog I sort to deconstruct my own preconceived and limited understanding of what home was to me. I accepted that I belong and understand many worlds, that home for me at the time was more of a transient concept. I decided that ‘home’ for me would be me being comfortable in my own skin. So wherever I was as long I was assured of who I was as a person I was ‘home’. Once I decided that I began to study myself by looking back at all the experiences I have been privileged enough to have. And during that time I have tried to reflect that in my writing in the hope that it would provide a map for anyone else who might be trying to find their way home.

As often happens during my runs whilst chasing the rising sun I slipped into a reflective trance again this morning. This is what happens on the days I am not running with my muse. It’s just me, my thoughts and the open road. Pure bliss. I have only ever found such serenity and clarity of thought between the margins of the blank page. This morning I found myself reminiscing over the last eighteen months. The highlights of the last eighteen months are that I got to exercise my democratic right to vote for the very first time in my life, I also managed to tick bungee jumping off the Victoria Falls bridge of my bucket list and I more recently I had a fulfilling HIFA week which stands as one of the best festivals I have ever attended. All this has gone a long way in making me see a different side of Zimbabwe that I never got to experience as a kid. I finally have some adult memories in the Zimbabwe section of my memories museum!

This past December we had a family reunion. This was the first time my extended family was together in the same place in over a decade. With people dotted all over the globe chasing a myriad of hopes and dreams it has been next to impossible to bring us all together in one. Whilst we have seen each other intermittently over the years we have not been all in the same place at once. People have wed and some have passed on and still we could not all be brought together by these events. So it was a blessing that everyone made an effort to pitch up this December. And boy was it a special and memorable experience. We laughed, danced, ate, drank and we got to know each other again. I feel like we now understand and accept each other for who we really are now and not the people we were ten years ago. We have all had different experience over the last year but despite that bond that we have as a family seems as strong as it’s ever been. And our family at large is better for the collective experiences we have had. And that is a beautiful thing.
After eighteen months I feel I have a more nuanced understanding of what life in Zimbabwe is like in the present day. I have taken off my nostalgia goggles that made me look at Zimbabwe with an idealised romanticism that was so far removed from the realities of present day Zimbabwe. When I lived abroad I remembered only the Zimbabwe of the late 80’s and the 90’s. And because of that I have had to learn to love Zimbabwe again as an adult for different reasons than I did as a kid. I now view it through the eyes of a man who has seen a bit more of the world. I appreciate its unique beauty and I see its great potential. Zimbabwe is a nation that is flawed but stitched together with good intentions. We are nation of survivors and the most innovative of entrepreneurs. Despite all our challenges we are a proud nation but more importantly we are still a happy nation.

Being Zimbabwean has always been and will always be my heritage. My roots will always be here. No matter how far beyond its borders I venture out again it will always be home. It will always welcome me, one of its many ‘prodigal sons’ back no matter how long I have been gone for. After eighteen months back home I no longer feel the need to validate my Zimbabweaness to myself or anyone else for that matter. I am Zimbabwean. I will always be Zimbabwean. No one can ever take that away from me. I used to feel what I call ‘Diaspora guilt’. That because I wasn’t there when Zimbabwe experienced its most trying times I was less Zimbabwean. That my Zimbabwean experience wasn’t as authentic as that of those who stayed behind and kept this country going. That was foolish of me.

I am just as Zimbabwean as those who stayed behind. Whether I was in Melbourne or Cape Town I was representing you. I was offering up a more positive narrative than that which the world had come to associate Zimbabwe with. And for that I am just as ‘authentically’ Zimbabwean as you are. Wherever I go in the world I will always be that Zim guy, and that makes me proud. Already to many of the friends I have made from all over the world I will be one of the first few things they think of whenever Zimbabwe pops up on their radar. And I am proud of that because in my own small way I have put my country on the map. That has been my contribution to this great nation so far. In conversation with so many others who have lived in the Diaspora I have picked up a very encouraging trend. All of us want to use our Diasporan experience as a springboard for us to make this country a better than it ever was. For my part over the next couple of blogs I intend to share some of the lessons I have picked from living abroad for so long in the hope that sharing my experiences will encourage all of us at home and abroad to contribute to this great country in our own different ways.

 
 

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The Great Circumcision Debate

In the last couple of months Zimbabwean men have been inundated left, right and centre with calls to undergo voluntary medical circumcision. Every time you turn on the TV/radio your ears assaulted by the pro circumcision jingles that are reminiscent of the ‘Hondo yeminda’/ ‘Our land is our prosperity’ jingles that were the soundtrack to the early days of the Zimbabwean land reform in early 2000’s. Every time you but the papers you are confronted by full spread ads encouraging men to become “smart champions” by getting circumcised. According to statistics currently only 10% of Zimbabweans get circumcised at birth. This particular circumcision drive however is directed at adult men.

It is an unusually direct and candid campaign for a country with a culture that has always leaned to the conservative side when discussing issues of sex and sexual health. Kudos to them for that. It is about time we exercised some liberalism when it comes to discussing sexual health. We have been silent for too long. We choose to pretend that we are not getting our freak on between the sheets, or as the shona term for sexual issues will have you believe, (Nyaya dezepabonde) on our mats. Since last year, more than 200,000 Zimbabwean males have been circumcised. Officials are hopeful their goal of 1.3 million circumcised men can be achieved.

Popular musicians such as Winky D, Jah Prayzah, Suluman Chimbetu and Albert Nyathi have all been recruited as brand ambassadors for this circumcision drive. (They are all being paid to be brand ambassadors)The drive is being spearheaded by Population Services International (PSI) and the Ministry of Health and Child Welfare. These ‘smart champions’ as the brand ambassadors are known all recently got circumcised in the last few months including Albert Nyathi who is at the very least is in his late forties. They are clearly not targeting just young men but even our fathers. The point is all these guys mostly in their all got circumcised as adults. This, when taken with the statistic that only 10% of Zimbabweans are circumcised serves to only highlight that circumcision has never been a big part of either traditional or contemporary Zimbabwean culture. So why the sudden drive to get Zimbabweans men to get circumcised all of a sudden? What is the motivation behind the drive?

Before I continue and in the interest of full disclosure let me state for the record that I am not circumcised. It is not something that has really been on my radar before and therefore I have never thought about it twice. Before this intensive media campaign as far as I knew neither my culture nor my religion encouraged this. As an adult in university I learned that nearly all my Muslim friends had been circumcised at birth on religious grounds. They also didn’t drink alcohol. Each to their own. That was my attitude. I was never inclined to investigate the process or form an opinion. I was happy being uncircumcised.

When I lived in Cape Town I also learned that most of my Xhosa friends where circumcised as teenagers. It was part of their initiation ceremony in which they went from boys to men. The whole process lasted a few weeks in which they retreated to the mountains as boys and came down as men. Their circumcision was on cultural and traditional grounds. You are not considered a man amongst the Xhosa until you get circumcised. This I admired and respected but I wasn’t Xhosa and neither did I want to be so again I never gave it much thought. I quietly envied the cultural significance of the process and not the actual process itself.

Fast forward to the present day.

I am finding it harder and harder to not give the whole idea of circumcision a second thought. The campaign has clearly got my attention. I find myself wanting to take an informed stand on the whole idea of voluntary medical male circumcision. From some of the things I have picked up from the debates in the local media it is a controversial and polarising issue. People in either the pro or anti circumcision camp often seem to show nothing but contempt for the other. There hardly seems to be any middle ground. The issue of circumcision is as controversial as it ever has been. But why now? From what I have picked up from the media campaign, one of the main arguments being put forward is that circumcision reduces the risk of HIV infection by 60%. Another is also reduces the chances of other sexually transmitted diseases as well also reduce the risk of your partner getting cervical cancer. It is also supposedly more hygienic, hence the “smart champions” moniker.

Whilst there are well-known religious, social, and medical reasons to recommend circumcision; however, most major medical societies have taken an “impartial” view of the procedure, neither recommending nor renouncing the practice. On a personal level I don’t find myself compelled by the pros of circumcision. And no it’s not because I am not afraid of getting cut. I just like my penis the way it is. I have also done my own reading on the subject and I haven’t been swayed either way.The issue of cervical cancer was probably the most compelling but I failed to find literature that actually backs up this argument convincingly so the jury is still out on that one. A 60% reduced risk of HIV is not even a motivator. 40% is still huge and they are more efficient ways of reducing the risk of HIV in my opinion.

I remember reading some time ago that most circumcised Zimbabwean soldiers are now reportedly having more and more unprotected sex because of the belief that you won’t get HIV if you are circumcised. It’s a gross and worrying misinterpretation of the facts if you ask me.
And then there is the hygiene angle. As an owner of an intact penis, I can confidently say that my cleaning habits are as good as anyone else and are more than sufficient to get the apparatus as clean as a whistle. If the goal is to remove people’s folds of protective, functional skin to prevent the possible accumulation of secretions then we should also go after the girls with a scalpel. I didn’t think so.

After doing my own research I am choosing to stay uncircumcised. I don’t judge those who chose, in the same way I don’t expect them to judge me for having an intact penis, which is the default. I am choosing to be pro choice when it comes to this debate. I think every man has the right to choose whether to be circumcised or not without being pressurised by anyone.

Below is some of the information available on the “Internets” on circumcision that I found helpful.

Circumcision: medical pros and cons facts

• Inability to retract the foreskin fully at birth is not a medical reason for acircumcision.
• Circumcision prevents phimosis (the inability to retract the foreskin at an age when it should normally be retractable), paraphimosis (the painful inability to return the foreskin to its original location), and balanoposthitis (inflammation of the glans and foreskin).
• Circumcision increases the chance of meatitis (inflammation of the opening of the penis).
• Circumcision may result in a decreased incidence of urinary tract infections (UTI’s)
• Circumcision may result in a lower incidence of sexually transmitted disease and may reduce HIVtransmission.
• Circumcision may lower the risk for cancer of the cervix in sexual partners.
• Circumcision may decrease the risk for cancer of the penis
• There is still no absolute medical indication for routine circumcision of the newborn.

There are some caveats though
“Touch sensitivity tests have identified the most sensitive regions of the male genitalia; in intact participants, these are all on the foreskin. Circumcision removes approximately 50% of the nerve endings on the penis, among these, fine touch nerve receptors called the Meissner Corpuscles. We all have Meissner Corpuscles in our fingertips; in the penis, they are only present on the foreskin. These are unique nerve endings which provide very nuanced feedback. Partners of intact men report that they have a better ability to pace themselves and greater control than do circumcised men, and this is almost certainly due in part to the presence of Meissner Corpuscles.”

There is a reduction in the likelihood of UTIs and penile cancer such that your risk drops from already-infinitesimal to slightly-less-than-infinitesimal. If we’re going to employ that line of reasoning, then there are a number of body parts that we must preemptively strike down before we rid ourselves of foreskins. Risk of penile cancer: 1 in 1000. Risk of breast cancer: 1 in 8. And yet I hear no one advocating for the forced removal of breast buds in children who have the abnormal genes that indicate a very high risk of breast cancer.”

 
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Posted by on April 13, 2014 in Culture Vulture

 

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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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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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