and the dignity of the human being, munhu ane hunhu.
In simple English terms, hunhu meant a philosophy or belief in the individual being part of a collective of people.
A bad person was referred to as a human being who lacked humanness, haana hunhu. This person was of bad character. He had no ethics or morals. He was not ashamed of behaving badly. Either this person was a thief, a wife beater, a liar or just someone really bad. Like this guy called Panichi in our village.
Panichi was just bad. He used to milk other people’s cows in the valley when he was meant to be herding them. More than once, he used the village spring well as his toilet and contaminated it. The village women had to empty all the water and wait for clean water to seep out. One day a cat ate his smoked rabbit and he hung it by the tail until someone rescued it.
As a boy, Panichi did not have the spirit of humanness in him no matter how much his parents tried to discipline him. He was just naturally bad. Aive asina hunhu.
When we moved from the village to the city and to the Diaspora, our values of hunhu got challenged.
We confronted acts that lacked hunhu very often. Most times, we subconsciously lacked hunhu ourselves or we were so far gone the other way that we lost the cultural meaning of the word. We witnessed this lack of hunhu at Mbare market the other day.
Last Sunday, my cousin Piri and Reuben, the one visiting from Australia, were on our way to the village.
We decided to pass though Mbare market so Piri could buy madora, the dry, tasty black mopane worms from the trees of Matabeleland.
We did not shop around. Piri just picked a tin for US$10. The lady who sold them to her said they were the best madora around, recently arrived and picked just last week. They looked big and healthy.
When we got to the car, Piri transferred the madora into another bag, only to find out that underneath, the rest of the madora were broken bits and pieces and mostly heads, pieces of grass and soil.
She hissed under her breath and said, “That woman who sold me madora has no hunhu. I will go back and tell her what I think of her.”
Reuben and I followed behind Piri as she hurriedly dodged people through the market, back to the place near the farmers market where a whole line of people were selling their dried fish, peanuts, maize meal, cooking oil, spices and everything else imaginable.
“I am back Mama. Give me back my money. What you just did to me lacks hunhu. You sold me rubbish madora,” Piri said. She poured the madora on her wraparound cloth and placed it in front of the seller. The woman faked surprise and said, “Ah, I did not sell you this type. This is not the type I sell here. My friends, help me, is this what I normally sell?”
The other sellers pretended not to hear her at all. Piri stepped back, placed her hands on her hips and raised her voice, “Iii! Do no start games with me. You can cheat others but not me. Ndiri Chihera akakwana.” When Piri refers to our totem like that, then I always know things could get nasty. I stayed back.
Meanwhile people started to stop and listen.
“Normally, I buy my madora from reputable market people. I do not do random buys like I did today. But you are not getting away with this. Give me my money back now.” The madora lady picked at her pile of madora grumbling something. Piri said, “I do not have time. You have cheated me. You make your money from stealing. You left hunhu back in the village. Do not think you can cheat me because I am not related to you or because you will never see me again. That is not right. We are people and should treat each other as people. Ngatibatanei nehunhu sevanhu vakabva kuvanhu.”
The other people standing around said Piri was right. There was so much cheating and lying to one another these days. Money was not everything. Someone said this loss of hunhu was everywhere. People no longer have compassion for one another. They asked what should be done to bring more heart, more empathy into people’s hearts.
Reuben clapped and with sudden excitement, he said, “Well said Sis Piri. We are people who came from people and should treat one another as people.” Then he started filming with his iPhone. “A little drama at Mbare market folks, right in the middle of election campaigns!” he shouted. I grabbed the iPhone and put it under my armpit, right inside where it was unlikely to be grabbed by anyone. “Are you crazy? You think you can stand in the middle of Mbare and flash an iPhone like that? There is no hunhu when it comes to iPhones brother,’ I said. He wanted to argue but other people standing by told him to thank me for being so sensible and careful. Wanting to be useful, Reuben then crouched near the madora lady and said, ‘Mama, just give her back her money and this will be over in no time. We do not want a bigger scene than this.” The lady looked at Reuben and pulled him closer. She whispered something to him and shook his hand. Reuben thanked her and dragged Piri away. I followed.
Once we were out of the madora lady’s sight Piri laughed and said, “Reuben, give me my money. I do not waste time with people without hunhu.” Reuben pulled out the $10 note and told us that the lady gave him the money during the hand shake. She had said to him, “Tell your sister to go away. Here is the money. I do not want to lose customers.”
We drove towards Hwedza. Along the way, we saw people going to worship. Others were already sitting in the open valley dressed in white and praying. Elsewhere, some of the church goers wore various uniforms, “Why don’t you go to church Sis Piri?” Reuben asked. Piri said, “Handina zvinondinesta,” meaning she had no problems within her so there really was no need to go to church.
Reuben said we all need God at times. He was not a church goer himself but he just wanted to stir up Piri. Piri sat up and pushed her head between the two front seats and said, “To be highly educated, does not make you a good person. To go to church every day and pray all night does not make you a good person. What makes a good person is the goodness within you. Hunhu hwako chete chete,” Piri said.
When we arrived in the village, Reuben walked around the village homestead with his iPad, taking pictures. He went down to the ruins of the village compound where we were born, taking pictures of the graves of everyone and of all the people who died in his absence. In the evening, he sat on the kitchen bench near the door to avoid the kitchen smoke. Then he started showing us the pictures of the ruins and also of the cemetery on his Ipad.
He pointed to one fresh grave and commended that it was really sad that one of our cousins, Givemore, had died so soon without going on HIV treatment.
We agreed and talked about stigma and denial and how it was still killing people. “Givemore’s wife must have been pleased to see you,” I said. “She is on treatment now.” Rueben said he really did not want to go and see Givemore’s wife.
“Actually, I took the longer way around the granite rocks to avoid passing by her house. It’s all a bit much, you know. Besides, once you start doing the village rounds paying your condolences, you have to dish out money. Ten dollars here, twenty over there and by the time you are done, you have no money left. I still have to leave money for thatching my own house you know,” Reuben said, closing his iPad.
“A bit much for whom? Who said you always have to pay money when you shake hands doing condolences. Is it all about money? ” Piri asked.
“Well, people expect money. I actually do not think they give a damn about me. They want money,” Reuben said and reached out for a beer in the cooler box. Piri took a deep breath. Then she suspended her cooking stick in the sadza pot and turned to me, my brother Sidney, Samanyika, who now lives with us, and his wife. “Vanhuwe, people, did you hear what I just heard? This brother of mine here lives overseas. Now that he is finally here, few months after Givemore died, what does he do? He hides from Givemore’s wife and does not pay his condolences. But he goes to the cemetery to take pictures of Givemore’s mound of earth so he can show his friends in Australia about how we are dying. Tell me, what kind of behavior is that? Hunhu hwerudzii ihoho?”
Reuben looked at each one of us, as if asking for support. Samanyika said he had not come across such bad hunhu in all his life. Sidney then told Reuben that he cannot simply walk back into the village, take pictures and leave the next day. He was one of the people. He had to do what is right by the people. We all nodded. Reuben apologised and said he had not thought about it that way.
“Point taken. I was thinking about my own pain regarding Givemore’s death. I did not think of his wife. I am sorry.”
He then went outside to watch the stars or perhaps to do some reflection of his own. When he came back he announced that at sunrise, he was not only going to pay his condolences to Givemore’s wife, but he would do the same to the families of at least two people who had died in the neighbouring villages.
Early the next morning, he went around to pay condolences, kubata maoko, to the close family of the deceased. He gave them between US$10 and US$20 each.
After that, he spent some time at our family cemetery again. When he finished his second cemetery visit, we saw him go up the hill, to our family Catholic Church, built by my uncle Sylvester. Reuben was up the hill for a while. Then he came back and sat under the mango tree for a while, not looking at his phones or his Ipad. We left him alone.
Piri and I sat on the log, next to where my mother used to sit.
That Sunday was the anniversary of her death. We missed her but we were not sad, or anything like that. We just accepted that it was the way life is.
Later on, Reuben came to join us, walking slowly. We sensed something heavy around him. Piri quietly disappeared into the kitchen to fry her tough village chicken. Reuben turned to me and with a measured, slow deep voice and said, “Sis, I grew up here as a person with hunhu. Where we live overseas, it is not easy to maintain hunhu. We get confused. Where is the moral benchmark? Who is the judge of character? The law?
It does not matter how many bars or night clubs I can go to in Los Angeles, Melbourne, Rome or London, my umbilical cord is here. I am an African. I am 100 percent Zimbo and shall always be. I am a person brought up with hunhu. Sis, you hear what I am saying?” I said I did. I knew fully well what he was talking about. Had I not travelled that road before myself?
Hunhu was an age old tradition of thought in our culture that we are all struggling to grasp and keep. Hunhu was based on the philosophy of humanism that linked us to a collective sense of hukama or relationships. But it is being eroded. In its place is something else, a confused morality. And yet, hunhu was not just a concept among Zimbabweans only.
In the Xhosa language, there is a phrase that says, Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu, meaning, a person can be regarded as a human being only if he or she is connected to others. Hunhu was the African foundation of our value systems, our intense humanness, caring, sharing, respect and compassion.
It was a philosophy guiding our relationships with the ancestors, with one another and with God, Mwari. Hunhu was, and still is, our African way of life.
Dr Sekai Nzenza is a writer and cultural critic. She holds a PhD in International Relations and works as a development consultant.