Unravelling umbuyiso: Part 2

The value of umbuyiso is losing value due to various world views. Christianity equally and more forcefully preached a different worldview which ran counter to the tenets of African Spirituality.

The value of umbuyiso is losing value due to various world views. Christianity equally and more forcefully preached a different worldview which ran counter to the tenets of African Spirituality.

Pathisa Nyathi Review Correspondent
The last article on umbuyiso/kurova guva had some loose ends that were left hanging. Today we continue with some aspects that were not adequately covered. At the same time, we seek to give due emphasis to the fact that umbuyiso/kurova guva lies at the heart of the continuity of African Spirituality (AS). When umbuyiso/kurova guva falls into disuse for whatever reasons, it is African Spirituality that suffers and ultimately faces extinction with related consequences.

In order to destroy a people’s cultural practices the best approach is to attack their worldview, their thought and philosophy. We have, in the past, emphasised the link between cultural practices and their cosmological underpinnings as providing the motive force and staying power for their continued meaning, relevance and practice.

When a new and different worldview is introduced the old is abandoned as the pillars of support crumble. Things begin to fall apart, for the spiritual or cosmological centre can no longer hold.

Conquest and colonisation introduced new worldviews from Western society which was the coloniser. A system of education was introduced with its own perceptions of the world and the cosmos, human beings and the critical relations between humans and their wider environment which embrace the material and spiritual elements.

Christianity equally and more forcefully preached a different worldview which ran counter to the tenets of African Spirituality.

I was raised in the Salvation Army, attended and taught in Salvation Army schools both in Matabeleland and Mashonaland. One of the songs in the SiNdebele hymn book went as follows; “Lahl’ idlozi, lahl’ inyoka. Lahla amanyala wonke. Woza kuMsindisi manje.”

The words implored Salvationists to discard belief in the living or active dead, to get rid of all manner of evil and come to the Saviour. The Salvationists, who arrived in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) following the occupation of Mashonaland and settled on Pearson Farm in Mazowe, had done their home work.

Veneration of the living or active dead lies at the heart of African Spirituality. Death is not the end but the beginning of immortal spiritual life.

The remaining flesh is interred and, for some time, the spirit soars into the unfathomable depths awaiting its bringing back during umbuyiso/kurova guva ceremony. The word “buya” in SiNdebele means “come back”. You only say “buya lapha” (come back here) to a person who was with you. To one who was not with you, you say “woza lapha”. Of course, in everyday parlance speakers confuse the words “buya” and “woza” or “iza”.

We refer to the words in order to bring out the meaning behind the umbuyiso ritual. What is being brought back is a spirit that used to be in our company although at the time it occupied human flesh, their union constituting a human being.

Death separates the two who however continue to maintain some relationship. This is why the grave may still be visited by the living progeny for various reasons. Some graves are provided with shade by planting certain trees next to the grave. The spirit is believed from time to time to revisit its separated former component.

If the departed spirit is not summoned back the continued existence of African Spirituality is seriously threatened. If it does exist it will do so at a very subdued level. For example, among the Afro-Americans who were shipped to the United States to power their agricultural industries as slaves, the phenomenon manifested itself in emotional singing and charismatic preaching. Pentecostalism as a spiritual experience embraced some of the elements of African Spirituality in particular healing and prophesy.

African Spirituality was functional. The living or active dead were chastised when they failed in their duty. They were not summoned in the first instance to come on all expenses paid holiday.

African Spirituality relies on symbolic manipulation to effect certain actions. In the case of umbuyiso, for example, the grave of the deceased is visited by close relatives. One of the relatives assumes the role of spiritual officer. A goat is dragged to the grave where consecrated beer is poured on the back of the goat by the spiritual officer.

Meanwhile, the spiritual officer would be addressing the spirit of the departed ancestor. The ancestor is called by his/her first name. The purpose of her summoning is spelt out in very clear and unequivocal terms.

“Pathisa, sithi woz’ ekhaya uzegcina usapho lwakho!” Essentially, the message is that Pathisa is being summoned to come back home for the sole purpose of looking after his progeny.

An izinyanya song is sung as the party is led home with the spirit-in-goat being held and led home. All the members of the party join in the solemn singing which calls upon the deceased by name. The goat symbolises the spirit and the march home is symbolic of the coming back home of the spirit.

In one such ritual where I took part, actually holding the symbolic goat with my father as spiritual officer, the proceedings took place in the evening.

The goat was then slaughtered and its meat placed at the back part of one hut. The back part, umsamo, is regarded as sacred and it is where consecrated beer and meat are placed overnight. In fact, umsamo or chikuva in Shona is a place where no one is allowed to sit at any time. Only the spiritual officer who speaks on behalf of the family is allowed to enter the holy of holies and speak to the living or active dead.

The spirit being summoned will, during the night, visit the sacrificed meat and beer and spiritually partake of both.

The following day is open to the general public who take part in the dances in celebration of the ancestral spirit who has finally been brought home.

The hut he used to live in is destroyed completely. Of course these days there is some mere symbolic destruction as some huts are modern and would be difficult and expensive to replace. What is the fate of the spirit returnee?

A returned spirit may be installed in some beast such as a black bull. Such a bull may be referred to as ubabamkhulu, grandfather. Such an animal is exempted from dipping. It is generally well respected and revered. From time to time it may be visited early in the morning before sunrise for ancestral propitiation. The animal will rise when addressed and urinate as signs that requests presented to the ancestor residing in it have been acknowledged.

Some patriarchal African societies had their men controlling this aspect of African Spirituality.

The cattle byre was beyond reach of women folk. Everything to do with cattle was in the hands of men – from milking, herding and dressing. Women were not allowed to pass through a herd of cattle as this was thought to diminish or nullify the potency of cattle medicine, umthuso, applied on the herds.

In essence these were cultural designs by men who sought to control both wealth in the form of cattle and spirituality that was tied to the cattle.

One author correctly observed that cattle were to the Zulu or Ndebele what the Temple was to the Jews.

Some spirits take possession of the living and become amadlozi/midzimu of various statuses. The mediums of such spirits are from time to time approached on various spiritual matters. Some may become diviners, healers and rain doctors among several specialities. It was this functionality of African Spirituality which lay behind umbuyiso/kurova guva.

We do observe that the Catholics have embraced what they call enculturation. Essentially, this programme has sought to indigenise some aspects of worship. There was a time when even mass was said in Latin as if God did not understand Shona, Ndebele or any of the African languages.

In due course African drums were embraced together with traditional African hand rattles-iwoso/hosho.

Regalia for the priests displayed some common African decorative motifs such as circles and chevrons. The cross already expressed what the chevron design was expressing – immortality of the spirit.

Dancing has also found its way into several Christian churches, including the Catholic Church. Spirit sways the body rhythmically and I love it when my own Salvation Army Church adherents sway their bodies in response to a song – worship surely indeginised in Zimbabwean parlance!

  • Pathisa Nyathi is an Arts and Culture expert specialising in African Thought. The author of more than 30 books on history and Zimbabwean culture founded Amagugu International Heritage Centre in Matobo District and is one of the organisers of My Beautiful Home-Comba Indlu Ngobuciko Project in Matobo District. Feedback: [email protected]
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