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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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Reflections Of A Struggling Culture Vulture

TheCultureVulture_120318_0836_26

I am deeply fascinated by different cultures and their influences on our individual identities. Culture is defined as the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society. Some of the key identifiers of the different cultures are language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music and arts. Whenever I have visited or lived in places with cultures alien to my own I have always tried to immerse myself into those cultures. I try to learn about and understand them. In some instances I have found myself assimilating certain elements of these cultures into my own individual culture. I am what you may call a culture vulture.

I consider myself lucky to have lived in different parts of the world. And all of my favourite places have one thing in common; they are cultural melting pots. These places all have a vast array of rich and vibrant cultures. They are microcosms of the global village and they satisfyingly cater to the struggling culture vulture in me.
My exposure to different cultures has not just been limited to the places I have called home. The mainstream media and the internet have also proved to be big influencers in my cultural explorations. The media promotes the narrative that popular Western culture is the default culture and project certain values as more desirable. I have admittedly been gullible enough to allow it to shape my perception of culture. But it is also through these platforms that I have been able to indulge in the writing, arts, music and even dress style and mannerisms of cultures I have not been physically exposed to.

When it comes to my own indigenous Shona culture I haven’t always embraced it or educated myself enough about its intricacies. I haven’t devoured it with the same hunger I have other cultures. I have taken it for granted and at times even looked at certain elements of Shona culture with disdain. For the longest time the defining characteristic of my Shona culture that I was familiar with was my mother tongue Shona. But even my relationship with Shona has been a complicated one. I have always been more comfortable expressing myself in English and it has been at the expense of my proficiency in Shona. It’s a big indictment of my (Shona) cultural ineptitude that I would struggle to write and complete this post in Shona.

I am not alone in this regard though. Even though the Shona language is probably the most significant remaining element of the culture most of my generation share my struggle. The majority of us are more fluent in English than in our Shona language. In fact you can sometimes be regarded as backward, barbaric and uncivilised (by fellow Shona’s) if you are not fluent in English, even if you are fluent in Shona. Some Shona people actually wear their inability to converse in the mother tongue as a badge of honour and their command of the English Language becomes a status thing.

When I think that outside of the Shona language most of my generation (myself included) would be hard pressed to clearly define what Shona or even Zimbabwean culture is I feel slightly embarrassed. If Zimbabwean culture is comprised of the things that make you accept me as a Zimbabwean then I would argue that ours is primarily an aspirational culture. Because that is the predominant narrative amongst Zimbabweans of which the Shona people are the majority. We are all so eager to embrace other cultures and hardly export or extol the virtues of our culture. As such our own culture suffocates under the weight of our collective inferiority complex. Where does this inferiority complex come from that makes us rubbish our own culture but then are so quick to embrace other cultures?

A big part of the blame for that lies with legacy of coloniasm. Ignorant and racist settlers scorned African culture and so many local people came to doubt the ways of their ancestors. When I look at the influence of colonialism on my Shona culture I realise that it not only diversified it but also heavily diluted it. With colonialism there was no cultural exchange. We were made to feel inferior and then encouraged by the colonisers to abandon most of our cultural values for the ‘more civilised’ ways of the west. Even though this legacy is shared by most African countries it seems Zimbabweans have experienced some of the more severe cultural erosion as compared to their African counterparts. Why this is I am not sure I completely understand but I do know that Zimbabwe is one of a few African countries for example that does not have a national dress.

Something I have picked up in some of the cultural melting pots I have fed from is that while it is beautiful thing to learn and even master other cultures it is also important to master your own culture first. That way you can contribute meaningfully and a cultural exchange occurs. Whenever I have made friends from other cultures or taken part in different cultural exchange events this is one area I know I have always come up short. It is an area I know most Zimbabweans would come up short, not because we don’t have our own culture but most of us haven’t embraced it enough.

I believe that a big reason for our cultural erosion is that most Zimbabweans even in the post colonial era confuse advancement and mordenisation for culture. There is a vast difference between advancement and culture. You can be advanced and modern without losing your culture. A good example is that of the mainstream Indian and Chinese communities that you will find in almost any part of the world. They have embraced globalisation but they hardly do so at the expense of their own indigenous cultures. As such in most of the major metropolitans of the world you will most likely find a China Town or an Indian restaurant. Even though they have assimilated into the global popular culture they have held onto certain elements of their culture that make them distinguishable in the global village.

Culture is not stagnant. It is as dynamic as it is intangible. However it’s dynamism should have its roots firmly implanted in individuals or communities being able to hold on to their core values. The values that define them. We should be flexible enough to incorporate values that help us grown and become better global citizens. I don’t believe that any one culture is better than the other but we can all learn something from each other’s cultures that will make us better human beings.

Culture might be intangible but it goes to the very core of our identity as individuals and communities. Our culture is supposed to provide a blueprint for the way we live and treat each other. For it to do that though we must be in a position to understand it and appreciate it. And that is a journey I intend to embark in the next couple of blogs I will write.

In my next post I am going to explore hunhu/ubuntu which is a common cultural theme not only in Zimbabwe, but throughout most of Southern Africa. Hunhu is about how we are expected to relate to and treat each other. As Shonas it is from hunhu that we are expected to find the blueprint from which to grow and maintain our culture from. I intend to further explore and understand the concept as well as share what I will learn in my next post.

 
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Posted by on April 3, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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