Dr Sekai Nzenza on Wednesday
It was full moon on Saturday last week when we danced to mbira music in the village. Among the guests dancing with us were Mbuya Gambiza and Mbuya Chizanga, the sisters whose ages must be around 86 or close to 90. These two elders lost their husbands many years ago. Five of Mbuya
Chizanga’s six children have since died, while Mbuya Gambiza never had any children of her own. For the past two years, these two have shared the same village hut.
Mbuya Gambiza used to be our neighbour. She told us that she was a child bride at the age of 10 or 12. Her father married her off to Sabhuku, the village head, who was a widower and already quite old when he paid several cows in bride price or lobola.
When I was born, Mbuya Gambiza was the midwife who delivered my mother. She was the first person to hold me, kundigashira, and announce that I was a girl. That was many years ago, when the whole extended family lived in the big village homestead by Chinyika River.
After my mother died three years ago, Mbuya Gambiza’s health seemed to get worse. She could no longer walk the one kilometre or more to our homestead to share sweet tea with corn bread or eat dried meat in peanut sauce with her best friend.
Mbuya Gambiza was lonely and cataracts were causing her to go blind. Her brother’s grand children living in South Africa and other relatives contributed some money for her cataracts removal in Mutare. After she regained her eye sight, Mbuya Gambiza left our village and moved in with her sister, Mbuya Chizanga. For the past year, these two old ladies have become inseparable, in their old age.
For as long as I remember, Mbuya Gambiza and my mother were close friends. In those days, the elders grew plenty of mhunga, rapoko and mapfunde. In the dry season, the women brewed beer and held ceremonies to honour our ancestors.
I recall the dances to mbira music. As children we used to join in and dance, learning the rhythms from the elders and stomping our feet in unison with everyone. Rhythm seemed be so effortless.
Back then, we listened to poetry through song when the gwenyambira or, the mbira players gathered together. They played dandanda, the heavy drum and a smaller one called mhito, the lead drum and the other one to support it, rekutsinhira, playing the interlocking part. All these instruments were accompanied by the rattle or hosho.
Mbira was not just music. It was a communal means of communicating with the ancestral spirits. It was also played to help bring rain during drought, stop rain when the Save River flooded for weeks, cure or chase away bad spirits, mashavi and assist the traditional healer in his divination and healing practices. Alongside drums or without any drums, mbira was played at funerals, the installation of chiefs and during rituals to quench the thirst of our ancestors, nyota yemadzitateguru.
During kurova guva or the ritual to bring back the spirits of the dead to the fold, there was a certain mbira beat played at the beginning of the ceremony and also at the end. The singing was very much in harmony with the drum and hosho.
Sometimes we danced to mbira just for entertainment and we would perfect our rhythms that way.
Then our ability to dance to mbira was gradually killed by Christian conversion in boarding school. In the Methodist church we were taught to sing the soprano, alto, tenor and bass accompanied by the piano. No stomping of feet or spirit possession was allowed.
The missionaries said mbira had a telephonic line to the ancestors, haunting and invoking the call to the spirit world that was so alien to the Christian world. Mbira belonged to primitive devil worship because it made people go into a trance and connect with dead ancestors. At the mission school, there was no drum, no mbira, no hosho or anything that resembled traditional African musical instruments. Other Shona instruments like chipendani, chigufe or the hwamanda were not allowed either.
During the liberation war, the Rhodesian colonial authorities said mbira was a dangerous instrument because it provided zeal and ancestral courage to the fighters. Anyone seen playing mbira during the war was quickly arrested and thrown into prison.
Over the years, the sound of mbira gradually disappeared from our ears. I saw mbira as an African piece of art, something that you buy, take back to the Diaspora where I used to live and display somewhere visible for people to see and acknowledge my African heritage. The mbira instrument stayed on top of the bookshelf or on the mantel piece. My European guests and other African friends picked and played with my mbira. They fingered the keys for a while, made a comment and then put it back on the shelf, treating it the way you would do to any other piece of exotic African artefact.
At that time, I dreamt of buying a piano so I could put it right in the corner of the dining room even though I never owned a house big enough to carry a grand piano. I hoped that one day, I would entertain guests and among them, someone will play the piano, the way I had seen it being done in old English style movies showing the lives of the civilised upper class.
But the piano has not made its way into my house. Instead, I have acquired a few mbira instruments, treasured and stored nicely in my mother’s granary back in the village.
I have since learnt that mbira was a sacred instrument central to Zimbabwean Shona culture. This little Zimbabwean instrument has been around for more than a thousand years. The original mbira consists of 22 metal keys but nowadays mbira players have added a few more to 28 keys fixed on a small wooden board made from the mbubvamaropa, special healing tree.
By shunning mbira, I had lost the musical genre that defined our origins. It has taken some time, since Dhumisani Maraire took mbira to the United States for mbira to be recognised. The late Chiwoniso Maraire, Stella Chiweshe, Mbira DzeNharira, Hope Masike, Albert Chimedza and many others continue to revive the music and uphold mbira on the national platform where it belongs.
Last Saturday, over Easter, my brother Sidney, cousin Piri and I went to Mbuya Gambiza’s maiden home to collect her and her sister, Mbuya Chizanga.
We drove to their village which is only 20 kilometres away along the Save River valley on the road to Dorowa. When we came back to our village homestead, a goat and a big turkey were killed. Piri smoked the turkey over the fire for 24 hours because you should never eat a turkey when it’s still fresh. Haridi kudyiwa richiri nyoro.
The two elders sat in the village courtyard, exactly where my mother used to sit. They ate, slept, walked, talked and laughed. Several neighbours and relatives came to welcome Mbuya Gambiza and her sister.
On Saturday night, under the moonlight, we played mbira music for them. Mbuya Gambiza and Mbuya Chizanga danced slowly in perfect rhythm. We all joined them in the dancing. As the women danced and sang melodious old tunes, we felt the power of mbira.
Mbira is still an instrument symbolising who we are and where we came from. It is authentically Zimbabwean, beautiful and sophisticated. It is a historical genre of music the church did not want to recognise. Surely, the era when mbira was seen as demonic and primitive is gone.
Hopefully, the mbira instrument will one day enter the church because it is part of Shona culture. This sophisticated musical instrument is both sacred and secular. It is an important part of who we were and who we are. It connects us back to our spiritual past and brings us close in rhythms to the joyous footsteps of our elders.
- Dr Sekai Nzenza is a writer and cultural critic.