Sekai Nzenza On Wednesday—-
In colonial days, they called this river Sabi. But its real name is Save. During the past few days, Save has been very quiet. When she is like this, you must not go near her because she is in floods and cannot breathe. She appears calm as water flows slowly downstream. But if you try to cross it, you will be carried away within seconds. There is a strong ferocious current inside Save when it is in flood.
It is raining a lot in Zimbabwe now. It’s been like this for some days. “Makeys edenga akapihwa benzi,” I overheard someone say this at Hwedza Growth Point on Saturday. By this he meant, that the keys to the skies where the rain is coming from must have been given to a mad person who has now unlocked the water source and cannot find the key to lock the rain inside again.
The people hiding from the rain standing on the verandah said such a statement about keys being given to a mad man should never be uttered.
They said we want rain, even if it rains for weeks on end. We want Save River to be in flood for a long time.
The pool of the mermaids or dziva renjuzu on Save River cannot be seen at all when the river is in flood as it is now. When I was growing up here in the village, my grandmother, Mbuya VaMandirowesa, said Save was a sacred river. It was managed and controlled by the ancestors.
These ancestors have their emissaries or messengers called njuzu or mermaids. Njuzu, according to Mbuya, are not black like us. No. They are European women who dwell in big dark pools within the river. This is how we are related to white people in the ancestral, spiritual world. Njuzu can possess a person and give him or her the knowledge of herbal medicines and the ability to tell the future. Such a person is known to have Shavi renjuzu.
There was a traditional healer, or n’anga in our village, called VaMasenda. Mbuya said his ability to heal and also to tell events that will happen in future came from experience gained when he lived under water with njuzu.
As a young man, Masenda was fishing on the banks of the river Save one day. Then he slipped and fell into dziva renjuzu. Those who saw him fall came home and said Masenda had drowned. The elders said that was not drowning at all. Masenda had been summoned to the land of the mermaids by the ancestors.
They should not cry and believe Masenda to be dead. Instead, the people should wait until a spirit medium tells them to brew beer, go to the dziva renjuzu, and play drums, asking Masenda to come back. When two or more seasons passed by, Masenda came back at dawn. Beer was brewed and a ceremony to celebrate his new extraordinary skill to heal and tell the future took place.
From that time onwards, Masenda became the chief traditional healer. He could cure many diseases and people came from far and wide within Zimbabwe and some came from Mozambique.
When the war for independence came, Masenda went to live in a cave, not far from the Save River. People said it was Masenda who saved the liberation war hero called Mashiripiti, when the Rhodesian army and Selous Scouts came looking for the guy they called “the wounded terrorist.” Masenda and the mermaids helped Mashiripiti cross the Save when it was in flood. Mbuya used to tell us that if you followed the river downstream for a very long time, you will come across a bridge made of steel only. This bridge was built by a white man after he had asked the ancestors and the owners of the river if he could help unite the people who lived across the big river from each other.
The ancestors agreed and a big bridge was built many years ago. The white man then promised the people that when he dies, he would be buried on the bridge, because the mermaids in Save River had asked him to live with them.
Years later, I know that some of the stories Mbuya told us about the Save River were partly true but others were possibly just myths. Mbuya may not have known that the Save River is Zimbabwe’s second largest river, after the Zambezi.
The Save River stretches for 400 kilometres flowing through Zimbabwe and Mozambique. The source of the river is in Zimbabwe, about 80km or more, south of Harare. It flows south and then east, meeting Odzi River along the way. Then it turns south, dropping over the Chiviravira Falls, and continues down along the western side of the Eastern Highlands, creating a dry river valley before it is joined by Runde River on the Mozambican border. Soon after making a spectacular confluence at Mahenya, it crosses Mozambique and flows into the Indian Ocean.
The Save River flows through a conservancy full of various flora and fauna. In the past there were more lions, buffalo, leopard, elephant, and other game, including black rhinos and white rhinos along the Save Valley. In the mid Sabi, further down south, the Save River provides canal irrigation for sugar cane, citrus, cotton, rice and wheat.
Before the river goes all the way to the Indian Ocean, the people from our village and those from across the river, have celebrated Save as a source of sustenance over decades. Our village is only a few kilometres from the river along the Hwedza and Mbire mountains. There are red and black fertile soils on its banks and people also catch large quantities of fish. As children, we did not swim in this river for fear of crocodiles.
Few weeks ago, when the first rains came, the Save River quickly filled up and I saw it in flood when I crossed Birchenough Bridge. This was the bridge made of steel that Mbuya used to talk about. It was built in Rhodesia by Sir Henry Birchnough. Did the people really ask the ancestors if a white man could build this bridge? I do not know. But, if you go down south, way past Mutare and drive towards Chiadzwa diamond fields, you will suddenly see a most imposing and massive steel construction dominating the whole landscape.
The bridge was funded by money generated from the Beit Trust when Sir Henry Birchenough was the chairman at the time. The same engineer who built the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia came here and replicated a similar version. Colonised countries have plenty in common.
After his death, Sir Birchenbough’s body was burnt and his ashes were carried back to Zimbabwe ( then Rhodesia) and buried beneath the structures of the bridge. Then his wife also died and her ashes were buried there with him. Burning dead bodies is a practice in Western culture that is different from ours. We do not burn the dead. We bury them so their flesh returns to the soil and the spirit returns to dwell among us.
Today, at Birchnough Bridge, on the mighty Save River, you will find these words written : “Within these walls repose the ashes of Sir Henry Birchenough and of Mabel his wife. They wished to be laid to rest in the country they had served among the people they had loved, Rhodesia will hold them forever in fond and grateful memory. E’en in our ashes live, their wonted fires — AD1937.”
Back here in the village, on Saturday night last week, I listened to the rain falling on the new grass roof softly. Behind the mountains, the Save River flowed in angry silence. When the river subsides, the spirit mediums will take white cloths and throw them into the Save River in order to celebrate the role of mermaids. Mermaids like to wear white.
Even though the mermaids may not exist in Save River, we still want to believe that they do. A beautiful river like Save must keep the mermaids swimming and maintain its sacred powers to feed the people. As long as Save continues to fill up with water, there are promises of a good harvest.
Dr Sekai Nzenza is a writer and cultural critic.