Reclaiming the clay pots of our memory

The art of Zimbabwe, as expressed in the clay pots of our mothers and grandmothers, is under assault by new religious movements

The art of Zimbabwe, as expressed in the clay pots of our mothers and grandmothers, is under assault by new religious movements

Sekai Nzenza On Wednesday
On New Year’s Day, some women from around here woke up very early to smash their traditional household clay pots. “I no longer want to be associated with you because I am a new creature in Christ!” each woman shouted as she threw small and big clay pots onto the rocks, breaking the pots

into pieces.

Over the years, these pots had been bought from various pottery makers and also inherited from the women’s aunts and other close female relatives.

We discovered this massive destruction of clay pots towards sunset, when my cousin Piri, cousin Reuben from Australia and I were taking a New Year’s Day stroll to the big rocks, kuruware, for a nice sunset drink.

Piri carried the cooler box with a block of ice, a few beers and a bottle of wine on her head.

We were still in the festive mood.

Reuben, as usual, was busy taking pictures of everything with his big lens camera and IPhone.

Then we saw several clay pots smashed to pieces right on the side of the anthill near the Mutsamvi tree where a new group of Apostolic people gather to worship.

I picked up the pieces of a broken mhirimo, or the big clay pot.

I recognised the faded red chevron patterns as those done by my mother, many years before, when she sold these pots to raise money for our school fees.

I started gathering the broken pieces while Piri looked on, bemused.

“Leave the pieces of clay pots. They have been condemned by God. Clay pots belong to the Devil,” Piri said, laughing with sarcasm, like this was yet another funny episode she had witnessed in the village this Christmas and holiday period.

“What is so funny about beautiful art work that has been broken into smithereens?” I asked.

Reuben adjusted his camera and started taking pictures of me and the broken clay pots.

“Ah, why should I not laugh?” asked Piri.

“If women are gullible to take orders from so-called prophets and prophetesses who tell them, ‘Destroy everything that links you your ancestors! Destroy any possessions that are associated with women only!’ It’s a big joke, Bhudhi Reuben.”

Piri placed the heavy box of drinks and ice on the sandy footpath.

She pulled out a beer, sat on the box and started drinking.

“Hari idzi dzemadzimai dzinoyera ka Sis?” Reuben asked me, meaning, these pots are scared to the women, are they not?

I nodded and started laying the pieces on the ground.

I wondered if there would be any sense in gluing them all together.

Then I just stood there, staring at the massive pile up of broken pots.

I recalled that there were some beautiful stacked clay pots in Mbuya VaMandirowesa and my mother’s kitchen hut when I was growing up in the village homestead.

The traditional kitchen represented the artwork of elaborate shelves made of polished clay.

The kitchen hut was the heart and the centre of everything that happened in the homestead.

Children were born there, food cooked there, ceremonies held there.

When people died, which was rare in those days, their bodies were kept in the hut overnight because Mbuya said the kitchen hut was where we started and where we were all expected to spend our last night on this earth.

The decoration of kitchens was made colourful and beautiful by the use of clay pots nicely polished and oiled with peanut butter oil.

Women were the pottery makers and main decorators of kitchens and other household rooms.

Making pottery was an art.

The clay was collected from particular layers in the subsoils by the river.

Dry clay was ground into fine powder on flat grinding stone.

Then sifted with a winnowing basket and the dry powder left behind was mixed with water and prepared for making pottery.

Then a circular platform was created and used as a base for the pot which was built up meticulously in a series of coils.

Still standing there, under the Mutsamvi tree, I recalled how my mother used a wooden shaping tool to shape the pot into the size that she wanted.

She then drew chevron patterns with a pointed stick that looked like a pencil.

She left the pot to dry in a cool place for two or maybe three days before smoothing it with a hurungudo, the rounded river stone.

A day or more later, she placed the pots in a hallow or a furnace, ready for high heat firing.

My mother made big pots, mhirimo, for large quantities of beer, for storing grain, pfuko, the small clay pot for beer, water or any other drink, hadyana, for cooking tasty dishes.

Each clay pot had a name and a type of decorations.

Her style or ruoko rwavo, was known around here and beyond the river Save, all the way to Hwedza Mountains.

In those days, when I was growing up here, a woman’s kitchen and her clay pots were sacred.

When a woman died, all her clay pots, hari dzake and belongings, returned to her maternal home, because tampering with what belonged to her would bring ngozi or bad luck.

That was the tradition.

Men were always careful never to break the village clay pots.

Reuben found a stone and sat on it.

Then he started googling something about clay pots from his iPhone.

He said pottery and the making of clay pots were Zimbabwe’s historical tradition that dated back several thousand of years ago.

Clay pots were an essential part of our culture and evidence of broken pots could be found at various archaeological sites.

Pots were used in various occasions and purposes to hold grains, water, and for preparation of food, brewing of beer or non-alcoholic drinks.

Fresh milk was left in a pot until it was ready to be made into sour milk with plenty of yellow cream on top, hodzeko.

As Reuben googled on the Internet, Piri kept on nodding her head, saying nothing because all this talk in English often bored her.

But Reuben did not stop.

He said there was a WordPress website on the Internet with an article on Zimbabwean pottery and the background to when it was started.

He handed the article to me.

It stated that Zimbabwe’s archaeology includes many pottery objects, “which assist in the reconstruction of linguistic and cultural groupings within what is here termed Shona. The pottery indicates that the people of the late Iron Age were settled agriculturists and they have been categorized as forming groups such as the Harare culture and the Leopard’s Kopje culture: the latter established in 980 AD ……This group moved to Mapungubwe….”

I realised that early missionaries condemned the destruction of anything they regarded as anti-Christian, especially wooden carvings and masks.

Many years later, as we continue to celebrate our independence from colonial rule and other mental bondages, we find a different kind of African Christianity rearing its head in the villages, telling people that clay pots belong to the Devil because they can be used to store beer or other such witchcraft objects kept privately by women.

The art of Zimbabwe, as expressed in the clay pots of our mothers and grandmothers, is under assault by new religious movements.

In rejecting our clay pots, we throw away the memory and the power of women bestowed on us by our grandmothers and all the generations of women whose history we do not know because it was not written. Some of that history lies in the broken clay pots.

The clay pots are innocent.

They are part of our identity. Let us save the clay pots of our memory.

  • Dr Sekai Nzenza is a writer and cultural critic.
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