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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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Lobola 101: It’s A Family Thing

Lobola-it-s-a-family-thing-article-header

Lobola is a traditional African custom that is practised in at least seven southern African countries and some parts of East Africa. Lobola is a dowry/ bride price that a groom pays to the bride’s family for the right or privilege to marry their daughter. The negotiation and payment of Lobola is an integral part of Shona culture and tradition. In Shona society, the payment of Lobola – the main part of which is called roora – is the basis of marriage and family obligations. There is general consensus on what Lobola entails in Zimbabwe and in other African countries.

The purpose of Lobola according to Shona culture is for ‘Kuwaka hukama” which loosely translates to ‘building relations’. Lobola is meant to facilitate the creation of a bond the two families – that of the bride and grooms. Before a price is set, family members from each side sit down to agree on a suitable price. A strong emphasis on the family unit is shown in the negotiation process, because it requires so many family members from both sides to sit in on the discussions. After several meetings the two sets of relatives leave with a sense of familiarity of the people they will soon call family.

Lobola is actually a process – not a one-off thing. Our elders used to say, mukuwasha muonde, hauperi kukohwewa, ‘the son in law is like a fig tree, you keep harvesting.’ Traditionally it was therefore considered a sign of disrespect for the groom to pay it all off at once. In fact he was never supposed to finish paying thus ensuring he always had cause to continue interacting with his new in laws. And that was our ancestors fail safe mechanism to ensure that a bond remained between the two families.

The payment of Lobola is also supposed to be a form of tribute paid to the parents of the girl for raising a bride for the groom as well as for the sons and daughters she will bear for him. In fact, a storyline is usually built into it to make it exciting. The story goes like this: “the man scouted and stole the girl from the unsuspecting parents. The parents have since found out and are fuming. They will let their daughter go, since she likes her captor, but the man has to pay, quite literally. The man obliges and pays for his sin. A big party is then thrown, and they all live happily ever after as one family.” It’s actually a beautiful thing.
In some interpretations of Lobola it is also used as a sort of litmus test by the bride’s family to ascertain the future husband’s ability to financially support his bride-to-be.

In pre colonial times, long before the white man came, Lobola, was paid by use of a hoe made from iron smelted in the Hwedza mountains by the Mbire people. That was long before Zimbabwe was colonised by the British. In those days, people from all over the country moved from one place to the other, trading in gold, copper, iron ore and other minerals. Smelted iron was used to make hoes, axes and spears. When a man failed to present a hoe, or badza, as lobola in marriage, he asked for kutema ugariri, meaning he would stay and work for his bride until the father-in-law was satisfied with his labour.

There is a school of thought that argues that Lobola became somewhat commercialised during the colonial era. That after colonialism the method of payment evolved into cattle which had already been a sign of wealth amongst many indigenous African communities. The same cattle would serve as Lobola when the bride’s brothers and cousins got married, following the system of chipanda. It was an exchange of cows in marriage from one family to the other, back and forth, depending on the number of daughters and sons. That way, wealth was nicely redistributed in the community.

Nowadays most Lobola payments are made in the form of cash, groceries and clothes for the bride’s family. Although in a throwback to the days when cattle were the preferred payment method some innovative techies in Zimbabwe have set up a Remote Livestock Marketing System (RLMS),a start-up that allows trade of livestock online. The website offers a platform for them to pay their Lobola cattle via RLMS. It offers a selection of cattle on display on the site, from which a prospective groom can choose. Also, If there is no space in the in-laws’ residence for the cattle, not to worry. Each animal you choose and buy can be ear tagged, branded, entered into a national database, kept at one of their partner farms, looked after. It’s a perfect union of the old and the new ways.

Unfortunately the concept of Lobola is often misconstrued by those alien to the cultural nuances as the process of ‘purchasing’ a wife. But even when Lobola has been negotiated and is paid for the bride’s family still have a say in how their daughter is treated by their in-law. They can in times of serious marital problems intervene and make decisions. So purchasing doesn’t really apply because the groom does not gain ownership of the bride as he is still accountable to his in laws.

In conclusion, there is nothing wrong with the concept of Lobola. It’s of the very few aspects our Shona culture that most of us still hold on to. It’s part of our identity as a people. The practice only becomes bad when it is abused for commercial purposes or when men treat women badly because Lobola was paid for them.

 
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Posted by on March 27, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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My Experience As A First Time Voter In Zimbabwe

Yesterday, for the first time in my life I queued up with thousands of other citizens of across the many corners of  Zimbabwe to exercise my democratic and constitutional right to vote. At the crack of dawn I found myself braving the chilly and drizzly weather so that I could do my part and have my say in the future and direction this country will take in the next 5 years. Yesterday I voted in Zimbabwe’s harmonized elections to choose it’s  President, Members of Parliament and Local Councilors as well as bring an end to the coalition government that had been running the country since the disputed and violence marred elections of 2008.

When I arrived at the polling station at Baring Primary school in Mutare just after 6am I was inspired and encouraged to see quite a number of mostly young Zimbabweans already queued up. Some had been at the polling station since as early 4am. Despite the cold weather the enthusiasm and optimism amongst the waiting electorate made me feel warm and fuzzy. The general atmosphere in the queue was vibrant, cordial and ironically apolitical.

 I was also lucky enough to be standing just a few metres away from a man who was to be our entertainer in chief for the day. Throughout the whole time I was waiting for my turn to cast my vote he was regaling everyone around him with hilarious stories and anecdotes about the perils of philandering, witchcraft and a host of other subjects. Behind me I couldn’t help but overhear a group of young men debate whether it was worth spending US$70 on Converse all star sneaker ‘s when you could get a cheaper knockoff for about US$7. That was as antagonistic as the atmosphere got. Not once did the conversations I was privy to turn political. Neither did I witness or hear of any violence, intimidation or attempts to influence voting during the almost 3 hours that I had to wait to cast my vote. This seemed a far cry from the atmosphere of fear and the stories of intimidation and violence I had read and heard about during the last chaotic vote of 2008. This had resulted in the withdrawal of the main opposition candidate from the second round of elections. All these factors contributed to the whole election process being discredited and necessitated the formation of the coalition government that has been running the country since.

As someone who has lived outside Zimbabwe ever since I was old enough to vote yesterday was a particularly important day for me in my growth as a person. Also having recently returned to my Motherland it was a symbolic and gratifying experience. It was not just the first time at the age of 29 that I got to vote but also the first I got to have a say and be on the ground and not just be an observer in the collective process of determining the destiny of my country. For the first time I was not sitting behind a computer in a foreign land incessantly checking news and social media websites for the often gloomy and disparaging reports about the electoral process and general state of affairs in my beloved Zimbabwe. I was there to witness first hand and participate. I have never felt more Zimbabwean than I felt yesterday in voting booth.  It is also my wish that in the next 5 years God willing I will have started my own family. So it wasn’t just my future that was at stake but I was thinking about the kind of Zimbabwe I would like to settle down and raise my family in.

As a first time voter I tried as best as I practically could to keep an open mind about how I was going to vote. From my personal experience I have learned that politics is an emotive issue. That even the most intellectual and critical thinker’s are prone to being subjective in their political opinions. Objectivity is a rare quality in politics. With that in mind I was determined to make up my own mind and not let anyone not matter how much I respected or loved them  influence my vote. To that end I made it my core business to familiarise myself with the election campaigns of the two main political parties (ZANU (PF) and MDC-T) than had a realistic chance of governing this beautiful country. During this process I found the local media both private and state controlled media reporting sensationalized and extremely partisan. The international media was no different with the exception of Al Jazeera English which I found to be highly professional, balanced and objective in their coverage of the election campaigns and the election itself. CNN, BBC and other international news broadcasters I found to be just as partisan as the local state controlled broadcaster ZBC.

What was encouraging from my own following  of the election campaign though was the repeated and sincere calls from all sides of the political divide to citizens and candidates alike to campaign peaceful and shun the  violence that characterized and marred the last election. A call I felt was heeded across the board which was testament to our growth and levels of political maturity and tolerance as a nation.

It’s the morning after the election.  Whilst I had to wait for 3hours to cast my vote the actual voting process took less than 5 minutes with no glitches. I feel I was given a fair chance to have my say. This seems to have the case from most people I have been in contact with. I have however read of instances were some people were turned away for not being on the voter’s roll or turning up at the wrong polling station. Still I believe the dark cloud of the 2008 has gone and this makes me so proud to be a Zimbabwean.

Both main candidates have said this is the most important election since 1980 when Zimbabwe got it’s independence. For me it is the most important election because I actually played my part and got to have my say. It is also encouraging that the main African Union election observer group has declared the election environment free and fair.  I realise that as voter’s we can’t help but be intrinsically selfish in what we expect to be the outcome. Every voter would like the candidate or party they voted to be the candidate who ends up winning and governing. Unfortunately that is not what happens. The best you can hope for is that the majority voted the same as you. What I hope though is that whatever the outcome whether the candidate I voted for wins or not the wishes of the majority of the people of Zimbabwe are accepted and respected. Because that is how a democracy works.

 

 
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Posted by on August 1, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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You Know You Are Zimbabwean If

1. You only buy soft drinks when you have visitors.

2. You think BORED means annoyed, frustrated or disappointed (as in
waakundibhowa manje)

3. You cannot count up to ten in your own language and are proud of it

4. You think plastic bag and paper bag is the same thing.

5. You think perfume and deodorant is the same thing.

6. You know what “the Epilogue” on the T.V is.

7. You think that Coca-cola is the generic name for all soft drinks, Cobra for all floor polish, Surf for all washing powder & Colgate for all toothpaste

8. You only have 3 spices- salt, mhiri phiri and Royco usavi mix.

9. You believe in recycling- old tyres make good shoes, old stockings
are great for shining the floor, newspaper makes good toilet paper and
old cars make good chicken coops.

10. You know there are two classes of people- maSALAD and maSRB but are
not sure where you belong.

11. You bad-mouth the government but never vote.

12. You hear the word WEDDING and immediately think of STEPS.

13. You know what DAMAGES are, in relation to marriage.

14. Your idea of eating out is going to Chicken Inn.

15. You have seen the inside of a blair toilet.

16. For you Christmas means new clothes, and Christmas dinner is rice
and chicken.

17. You have ever named your dog after animals that are not remotely
related to dogs. e.g. Tiger and Spider.

18. Your fridge usually has 2litre Mazoe containers filled with water only

19. You visit a relative without prior notice and will try to stay for
as long as possible (nekuti pane chikafu…)

20. You’ve never been to Victoria Falls, Kariba or Eastern Highlands but have
been to Joburg, Dubai etc several times (madhiri…!)

 
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Posted by on May 31, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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